Fear and Loathing in Ethnography

We’re into the second week of fieldwork with the field school. I’ve been meeting with research teams and talking about their progress I find that students have two major obstacles to overcome. The  first is moving into the field. The second is setting up and completing interviews

Moving Into the Field

The first week of fieldwork, students are out in research community observing, meeting people and getting a feel for the parameters of the project. When I’m teaching a fieldschool, I generally send students out in groups of 2-4 and ask them to do their initial observations together. This is good for safety (no one should be in a study community alone, no matter where it is), but also to develop comaraderie.  The first few times out I generally find out who the most outgoing students are, who’s most likely to hang back, and who is likely to be a natural. Students often report the first week in the field is the hardest. They have to practice ethnography and use every opportunity to engage the research community.

While the initial contact can be difficult, it’s not the biggest obstacle. Even the most reserved student can become an expert observer of a social scene.  The next step-engagement and oral history-can also be a challenge.

The Oral History

Much as been written about the ethnographic interview; some researchers mistake the interview as ethnography itself, a major oversight. Ethnographic interviews are most reliable in a larger context of participant-observation research. They provide the necessary depth, allow informants to explain their social milieu, and provide the unseen aspects of ethnographic collection, allowing the researcher to see how the past has influenced the present.

Last week students were asked to dedicate their time to setting up and completing their oral history interviews. Some had immediate success; others had to ask for my help to make the connection to get informants so they could complete this part of the project. In all cases students came back from their interviews with a new understanding of their field site and the people with whom they are working.

The final hurdle is the public presentation, which will take place on June 19 at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation (2 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA).  Ethnography is a form of public scholarship. It requires the collaboration of a community and the results are belong to that community. I pleased with the work the students have completed this summer and I look forward to their public presentations and the feedback we’ll all receive at the public forum.

 

 

 

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