1- Defining Ethnographic Writing

Chapter 1 provides a basic definition of ethnography in order to situate an overview of the reasons for assigning, benefits for conducting, and characteristics of ethnographic writing.

So, you’ve just been told that you are going to have to write an ethnographic essay. Great. Fine. But, you’re thinking: What the heck is that? I never heard that word before? What does it mean?

Take a look at the word and think about how it may have been constructed, whether it seems at all familiar to you. Ethnography is one of those words that we have basically invented by combining two Greek words: ethno+graphy. Ethno, as you may have guessed, has to do with ethnic or ethnicity. Technically, the root ethno means culture. Defining culture is a sticky, complicated business. Culture can be part of what we do; it may be understood as a “total way of life.” However, even more complicated than the definition of culture is how we handle the implications of such a complex definition.  That is, if we’re in the business of producing textual representation of that culture, then the mode of such production, the writing and the ethical and representation components of that writing, become of utmost concern to us. The second half of the word ethnography may remind you of the word geography, so you may have thought about countries or maps. Or you might assume that it means the “study of,” and while, this is a great assumption, it isn’t exactly on the mark. Actually, graphy has to do with graph, and might make more sense if you think: graphic or even graffiti. Yep, it means writing.

Ethnography, then, quite literally, means writing culture. Here are the nuts and bolts of how this would work, how one would write culture. A researcher chooses a site, a place or a location to study. The focus here is the culture of the people in this site. Anthropologists are the folks who developed this methodology, initially researching cultures unlike their own, in faraway places, in order to learn more about the world. While at the site ”in the field” the researcher (ethnographer) observes and participates in the culture. They write down what they observe in fieldnotes and will often interview individuals and find themselves an informant who helps them better understand what they may see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. The researcher may be in the field for years, constantly writing up fieldnotes, participating and observing until they feel as though they have some understanding of the culture at hand. The fieldnotes are primary data and are then explored and examined for repeated patterns, for relationships that allow the ethnographer to begin to understand how the culture works. The patterns often reveal belief systems and power structures, two of the key ways humans organize themselves into/as cultures. When a pattern is identified, it is then turned into an argument, a thesis as you might understand it, and the primary data is used as examples to support the assertion made about the culture. Secondary research, the writings of other academics, is consulted and used as the researcher (ethnographer) then in effect, translates what they have seen and done into an argument, a line of logic: an essay. A culture is then, in effect, literally written (down). An  ethnography, a writing of culture, has been composed.

Engaging Communities breaks this process down into steps so that you can get somewhere in the few weeks that you likely have (not the months or years an ethnographer has) to go from choosing and entering a site, to writing fieldnotes, to conducting academic research, to translating your observations into an ethnographic essay. No matter where you are in the process, ethics are of utmost importance. The act of writing culture is not only one way. It isn’t only that the culture in question will be revealed. This text recognizes that whenever an individual writes about culture, their own personal assumptions and beliefs are inherent in the research and writing process. That is, ethnographic writing is never fully objective and never completely neutral. We must try to be ethical and honorable, working as hard as possible to truly represent the culture we’re studying with as much accuracy as possible. We need to be committed to thinking about the issues and potential conflicts that may arise when someone observes and writes about the lived lives of others. All of these aspects of ethnographic writing make it more challenging, but also more exciting, and often seemingly more relevant as the process of writing culture will likely reveal to you your own cultural perspectives, as much as it allows you to translate those of others.

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2- Framing Eth­ical Research

Chapter 2 provides an overview of what it means to conduct ethical research, what sorts of issues one needs to keep in mind before selecting a research site, before entering the site as a participant-observer. Ethics matter in the research and the writing of ethnographic essays. Framing your work through an ethical lens from the outset will help ensure respectful, meaningful, legitimate work in the end.

Conducting Human/Humane Research

The minute you choose a site for your research is the second you begin to make the lives and beliefs and actions of others the focus of your attention. As a result, you need to think about the ethics, standards regarding rights, such as the right to life, privacy, freedom from injury, etc.and how the idea of rights might impact what it means to observe and research a culture, a group of human beings. This chapter takes ethics as the main focus and creates a frame for this aspect of your work. Specifically, the goal is to provide a scaffold for your inquiry that is not only academic and sound, but ethical as well.

From the moment you choose a research site, you enter into a relationship with that place, with that space and those people.  Even before you visit it with your note pad and paper, before you write even one word, you are engaged in rhetorical construction. That is, the mere act of thinking about your site, of having an opinion, presumes ethical responsibility on your part. When you think of this site, do you judge it? Are you looking to “use” your research for some sort of gain?  Where do you locate the power in the relationship — in you or your informants? What do you see as the cultural value of this place?

Often, the student researcher overlooks the idea that in this sort of relationship, a relationship that actually involves human beings, people with ideas, opinions, feelings and beliefs needs to be conscious and purposeful. This is reasonable and understandable because, for the most part, your research may have not involved actual human interaction. Your research has most likely been limited to internet or library research where the author, the persona speaking, is without human form. Because most of you reading this work will have been educated in the United States, with a Western sensibility, you will have been taught to believe that if you found the quotation, it is yours to use, and that ideas and words are discovered, and that knowledge is something to be possessed by you. Our grammar and syntax reflects such ownership: These are now my favorite quotations; this is my bibliographical list of sources.

This tendency to possess a topic or idea often makes it difficult to recognize that your words are always in relationship to the words of others, that if there is idea and opinion, there is human interaction, and if there is human interaction, and if the relationship is to be ethical, it must also be humane.

One of the principle reasons that ethnographic research is so gratifying is that when students actually come face to face, (or even if the interaction is online, text to text), with other human beings, the implicit relationship in research becomes tangible. Once you are able to understand that regardless of whether you’re speaking directly with a person, or talking about opinions expressed through statistics, or using the quotations of another in your work, there is always, at root, a human relationship being negotiated. It is never just you; it is never just your ideas. You are in a dynamic with all of the others out there, visible or not, who have participated in the construction of the idea, the reality, the knowledge, the conversation which you have chosen, at this instance, to enter.

This is not to say that you must choose a site with which you have ultimate familiarity or that in doing so you will guarantee humane research and respect for your informants and the site. In fact, there are dangers of knowing too much about a site, of making assumptions about why folks are doing what they do, and saying what they say. But, for first-year writing students in classes that focus on teaching the research process, not ethnographic methods in particular, it’s better to err on the side of believing that you know a site as an insider, than trying to break into, learn about, gain trust and write about a site from the perspective of an outsider.

In other words, there is a difference between becoming an anthropologist and employing ethnographic methodologies and using ethnographic methods as an undergraduate student. And yet the American Anthropological Association code of ethics for ethnographic research provides a basis for this discussion of ethics and a starting point for thinking about ethics on the whole. While the code is somewhat long and involved, in essence, there are four principles you need to keep in mind as a student researcher using ethnographic methods:

Show respect for the people you are researching at all times, both during the data collection process and the writing process.

One of the most important elements in coming to understand the importance in human research being humane research is the notion of respect. If your ethnographic research needs to be conducted in a short span of time, you should choose a site with which you already feel a connection because, in most cases, this connection will ensure a certain amount of respect on your part for the location and culture, and reduce the amount of time it will take to become a trusted, viable cultural participant. It becomes problematic when a student says, “I want to research a gay bar,” or “I want to try and figure out why people will/will not enter an abortion clinic,” or something to that effect when they have no specific personal connection with these spaces. There is a significantly increased possibility that without personal connection, the site becomes so foreign to the student that it becomes “othered;  it becomes seen as freakish, or odd, something to be plundered for information.

Wanting to know about something you don’t know about is absolutely fine; it is a part of human nature. But, we also know, given human cognitive patterning, that as one is challenged with new and different belief structures, the tendency is to depend upon what you know, what you have been taught, and what you already believe to make sense of what is different. The respect you will illustrate is respect for yourself and your own ideas, not because you are thoughtless, or inconsiderate, but because you are human and your own humanity will begin with your own reality and move outward from there.

Make sure that your research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people you are working with

Most every academic institution where academics conduct research using human subjects has what is referred to as an Institutional Research Board or IRB, for short.  This board, usually comprised of researchers and a few administrators from across the institution, has the ultimate responsibility of assessing institutional research projects with respect to their ethics, to make sure that all research is respectful and humane, that the work done by professors, graduate students and undergraduates does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people involved in the research project.

Institutions with IRBs require researchers to submit an application and alert the school before they engage in any research. The board then approves or denies the application. If an application is denied, often the applicant is provided feedback for revision and invited to reapply.  If an applicant is approved they may, at that time, commence their research, based upon the strict following of protocols provided by the applicant.

Because the timeline for IRB application may or may not coincide with the schedule and brevity of a single college class, and applications from first-year courses could impede the process for other researchers, most institutions do not mandate that undergraduate students submit IRB applications for their course work. At some institutions, undergraduates are waived from this process because the faculty member ultimately stands responsible for the ethical tenor of the work in the class. There are some institutions where a program would be required to report that, for example, all second-semester composition courses will require the collection of primary data through human interaction and then the program will apply, but again, the individual student need not participate in this process.

Inform the people you are working with of your project and what it entails. Ask for consent to from community to conduct your research and determine in advance whether or not people want to remain anonymous or receive recognition.

Regardless of whether your institution requires IRB approval, we believe that you should be aware of this process and that, if there is specific and direct interviewing, if there is direct interaction with other informants, that you follow the suggested guidelines for ethical research, including the notification of participants and the obtaining of permission for representation of their words. Understand that, whether or not you are institutionally required to obtain permissions from informants or apply to an IRB, you are ethically obligated to let the people you are studying know what you are doing when you begin. If you are going to a site to collect data, you must represent your mission as such. This is not undercover or hidden-camera work. If you fear letting people at your site know what you are doing and why you are doing it, simply stated, choose another site.

Plan to share your writing and representation of the community with its members.

In an age of reality TV and surprise, tell-all talk shows, we find that there are always some students that are excited about the possibilities of “not telling” or of using the information they uncover to pit people against each other, to conduct some muckraking sort of research, to get inside the heads of others and write a tell all piece. Be clear: you may not set people up, or manipulate the scene in any way when you’re conducting research. As a participant-observer, the idea is for you to participate as you normally would, as you usually do, another clear reason why we advocate for choosing something you know about, a site with which you’re familiar, to research. Remember that respect means recognizing that all of your behaviors will have an impact on these other people, on their space. You really can’t be a fly on the wall. You’e much bigger than a fly and, from the moment you enter a scene and start asking questions, you have the potential to impact that scene.

Now that you have these ethical guidelines, it is up to you to make sure to notify informants of your project. Most consent for your ethnographic project can and will be oral, e.g., Hey, is it okay if I use our film club for my ethnographic research? Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about why you like to be here? This is for a project I am doing in English class. Permission can also be granted by the group as a whole and does not necessarily require you to ask every individual for permission, but you should still make sure to alert people to the point of your conversation, to be clear about the reason for your presence. If you plan to record (video or tape) specific conversations, in most states you need permission in writing to do so.

Overall, the issues of ethics come back to respect for the people and cultures at your site. You need the kind of access within the site in order to collect enough data in order to have something smart and relevant to say. You need to obtain permission from individuals and/or the community because you need to critically assess whether your interaction will affect the safety and well-being of the group. You need to put systems in place so that you don’t inadvertently reveal something about this group that may adversely affect them. There really are countless ways your research can have an impact on another person, another group, and your goal needs to be to never purposefully inflict damage or pain or humiliation on anyone or any group.

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3- Proposing the Ethnographic Research Project

Chapter 3 provides basic information regarding the writing of a proposal for an ethnographic research project.

Ask the average college student where they usually conduct research and chances are the answers will be the internet and, maybe, the library.  Research understood this way is usually going to be secondary research, research that results in the gathering, summarizing and assessing of data that already exists.  It is most likely that most of the research you have conducted to date would be classified as secondary.  But, it’s also possible that you have some experience with primary research. Have you ever conducted an interview?  Have you ever designed and/or administered a survey? These sorts of actions are categorized as primary research, research that involves direct collection of data from real world interactions.

An ethnographic writing project is one that requires the melding of both primary and secondary research.  And, while secondary research is of definite importance, it is the primary research that serves to classify the kinds of projects discussed in this text as ethnographic in character.  In the case of an ethnographic research project, primary research will take place at a specific research site, one of your own choosing.  This chapter focuses on primary research by assisting you in choosing a research site, a first step in this process.  Chapter 4 focuses on the process of creating primary data—of converting observations made into fieldnotes.  Your fieldnotes will, in time, be analyzed and examined for patterns of meaning and behavior, patterns that may be the focus of a larger ethnographic essay. Chapter 5 outlines the process of collecting secondary resources in order to help you better understand and analyze your primary research data.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  In order to begin primary research, you must first select a research site.  But, even before you choose a research site, it’s a good idea for you to consider the primary object of focus for ethnographic research—the cultural text.


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