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On having ethnographic sensibility

One of the most interesting elements of ethnography as a research method is that for many scholars, it’s a technique and a way of living. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom (Virginia Commonwealth University), a sociologist whom I consider a friend and whom I trust a lot, told me on Twitter something that makes complete sense: being able to feel physical pain when doing fieldwork in communities where very vulnerable populations reside DOES make a difference in the work.

I do really love undertaking applied research. I care deeply for the communities in which I am embedded. I study people who lack access to toilets and examine public policy strategies to enhance access to them. I analyze the interactions between informal waste recyclers and their city governments, and have undertaken fieldwork in 13 cities in 8 countries observing their behavioural patterns. I have explored questions of water accessibility where bottled water was what sustained very poor and vulnerable individuals in marginalized communities. I use multiple methods, but have made ethnography my bread-and-butter for the past decade or so. That said, I am NOT a trained anthropologist, so I can’t claim to know more about ethnography than do those for whom ethnography IS who they are and what they do. Dr. Carole McGranahan, for example, IS an ethnographer. Her work on self-immolations in Tibet is extraordinary, and I am sure engaging in fieldwork is also painful to her.

For me, the value of doing ethnography lies well beyond the actual methodological, analytical and theoretical insights. Being an ethnographer situates me within contexts where my work can actually make a difference and affect policy change. I am sensitive, as a human being. I’m very empathetic (and empathic, some would say). Thus, my ethnographic sensibility is a feature of my personality. In a way, I feel like was born FOR ethnography as my main method of research. I have always felt like I’m a born ethnographer. I have been lucky and able to gain access and earn the trust of individuals in very marginalised communities, and have learned a lot from them.

However, as Dr. Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado, Boulder) has written, you *can* teach ethnographic sensibility, even without fieldwork (read her excellent article What is Ethnography? Teaching Ethnographic Sensibilities without Fieldwork). People like me, like my coauthor and friend Dr. Kate Parizeau (who has done ethnographic work with informal waste pickers in Buenos Aires, Argentina), like Dr. Joseph Henderson (who did a “three-year institutional ethnography of an elite private school in the northeastern United States”), like Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom who has used ethnography as pedagogical process and product) have shown in our work that ethnographic sensibility is part and parcel of engaging with the communities we study.

I loved how Hayley Henderson put it in her article in the Australian Planner, and I quote:

Adopting an ethnographic sensibility in urban research offers a platform to better understand actors’ reasoning and actions based on what they say and do, as well as in relation to the cultural, historical and other social con- ditions in which they operate. The term sensibility implies flexibility around the type of immersion in research and a broad view of ethnography that goes beyond on-site data collection processes and pays particular attention to the perspectives of the people being studied (Shatz 2009). It creates opportunities to under- stand values and meanings in urban planning based on what is said and done. In terms of analysis and interpretation of data, an ethnographic sensibility is attuned to the social relations and interactions between people that produce meaning in everyday practices.

(Henderson, Hayley. 2016. “Toward an Ethnographic Sensibility in Urban Research.” Australian Planner 53(1): 28–36. Quote from page 30)

Waste pickers

Paying particular attention to your subjects is precisely part and parcel of the process of developing ethnographic sensibilities. To me, the only way to do this is precisely to engage in fieldwork (particularly participant observation). I very much share Van Maanen’s view that fieldwork and ethnography go hand in hand, and while I agree that it is possible to teach ethnographic sensibility even without fieldwork as posited by Dr. Carole McGranahan, the work becomes much richer once one as a researcher is right in the midst of the field, in the thick of things.

Ethnographic sensibility also means being able to be reflexive. To go in and out of the field and subject of study and maintain an ability to question what we learned from being immersed in the field and how our fieldwork relates to the lived experiences of our subjects and our own. As Whittemore (2005, p. 25) says, “It is this capacity to move from the strange to the familiar and back again, as well as to count on your own adaptability derived from that capacity, that lies at the core of the sensibility we aspire to share with our students.” (Whittemore, Robert D. 2005. “Fieldnotes, Student Writing and Ethnographic Sensibility.” Anthropology News 46(3): 25–26).

Reflexivity (which I see as part-and-parcel of ethnographic sensibility) also means maintaining an ethical stance about your research subjects, and engaging in critical self-reflection. As Dr. Farhana Sultana (Syracuse University) indicates in her 2007 paper, “[r]eflexivity in research involves reflection on self, process, and representation, and critically examining power relations and politics in the research process, and researcher accountability in data collection and interpretation“. (Sultana 2007, p. 376 – full citation – Sultana, Farhana. 2007. “Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographers 6(3): 374–85). We can’t just simply parachute into a field, a community (particularly a vulnerable one) and pretend that we have engaged in reflexive, reflective, critical ethnography. As a result, we might actually have not developed an ethnographic sensibility.

This topic fascinates me as I continue to engage with more methodological work (I just submitted a coauthored piece on research methods, and I have another one in the works). And I look forward to hearing comments about what I see as ethnographic sensibility, particularly those readers of my blog who are engaged in actual ethnographic work.

Posted in academia, research methods.

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