Yes, ethnography matters … but what kind?

As ethnographic research and methods have spread outside academia and more people claim to use them, I have noticed that whilst there is greater awareness of ethnography entails, there seems to be a lack of awareness about how it actually works. This is especially true in corporate ethnography, which is a growing and valuable area of enquiry, but one where rigour and depth are no less important.

So here are some snippets of my own experience doing traditional long-term ethnographic research.

As a so-called ‘native anthropologist’ conducting an ethnographic study in Bosnia, I had some obvious advantages such as language, familiarity with culture, landscape and so on, but also a major disadvantage: being treated as “one of us” can impact on what kind of data one collects and make a researcher invisible. In my particular case, I have no family in Bosnia nor a home there, which at times, made my interlocutors perceive me as a somewhat “enigmatic creature”. By contrast, foreign scholars and media are often perceived as “naši prijatelji” (our friends): those who will tell the world of our plight, which means they are given the conventional, oft-repeated version of the story.

Invisibility suited me perfectly for two reasons: first, on a personal level I don’t feel comfortable being the centre of attention; second, I do not claim expertise or special status on the basis of my personal experiences in Bosnia. More importantly, this opened up a space for my observation of all kinds of interactions among local NGO campaigners, foreign scholars and human rights practitioners, which provided much needed nuance, and at times a testing ground for identifying my own biases during the fieldwork.

We are taught that participant observation is at the core of ethnographic methods, and although the two terms are arguably contradictory, we need to navigate these different roles in the real world. But what does this mean in practice when we know human interactions are never straight forward?

Doing ethnography has its fair share of challenges: ethical, in some cases emotional for the native researcher but also for those who “go native,” and also a series of practical challenges. As an ethnographer, navigating a complex social web and managing your own emotional overload can be quite hard, not to mention the influences that your own emotional responses to people might have on the writing process.

In any case, in my experience, key insights are achievable through observation and interaction, but not all of us possess the right level of observational skills, nor ethics for that matter. It might come naturally to some, whilst others might need to work at it. Empathy is important, but also personal maturity.

Another challenge is how a researcher can immerse herself within everyday life without interfering in the social or personal experience of the community or group that she is trying to understand. In Physics, the Observer Effect is well understood – in other words, the act of measuring something also changes it – and in ethnography we must always be aware of this. To observe human behaviour and social life as it unfurls means to look at what people do, not just what they say they do. In my case, one very useful way of being present and involved whilst observing from the sidelines was through online communities. Because the community had a high degree of intimacy and trust in their own online community, for certain topics or debates, online discussion was more honest and fruitful than physical meetings, which gave me great insights into the dynamics of the group and how they think and talk to each other. So, listening skills are also very important, but traditional interviews can be much less valuable than ‘being present’ – both physically and online – as people go about their daily life.

But is listening and observing enough to understand deeper dynamics?

What we observe has to be understood within a particular context, and more often than not we need to be aware of the historical trajectory behind beliefs and actions, whether personal or communal, as well as diverse individual and groups goals or interests. How can this be understood?

Let me illustrate this question with an example from my own experience. In 2007, I attended a workshop in Malta where a group of Bosnians were invited to participate in a discussion about building a memorial to the victims of the Omarska camp. To cut a long story short, the organiser treated all Bosnian participants as survivors of the camp, although there were in fact just two Omarska survivors, along with NGO representatives from different ethnic backgrounds and myself. We were treated as though we just walked out of the camp, despite the fact the workshop was happening 15 years later. The setup of the event and the way we were treated were all clearly intended to portray us as a deeply traumatised victim group that needed a mediator (the conference organiser) to help us express our desire for a memorial to the present owner of the Omarska mine site, the multi-national corporation Mittal Steel.

Some of our group acted as they were expected to, partly out of politeness or a sense of obligation. Others did not, but kept their concerns to themselves, not wanting to seem ungrateful that the organiser had paid for the trip and had good intentions. Even our accommodation – a modest house away from the other participants’ luxury hotel – and our allocated corner of the conference room seemed designed to separate us as performers rather than participants. It was a hugely valuable experience for me to see the performative role expected of survivors, and provided a useful insight into how mediators, facilitators and interviewers can subconsciously shape the story being told by participants, and subtly guide them towards a role that is expected of them, rather than just treat them as equals and listen to what they have to say.


Reflection on storytelling in Anthropology

With the deadline for my book fast approaching, it is nice to be reminded of the importance of storytelling in anthropological writing and analysis:

thick description is narrative. It involves characters, a plot, a storyline, a form, a goal. In thinking about the place of interpretation within anthropology today, it has in some ways been folded almost seamlessly into ethnography. Interpretation is now unmarked, assumed, expected, and is often narrative in form. This has become so true that experimental ethnography is now that which is non-narrative; the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. As a vehicle for theoretical argument, narrative provides both form and content. As Hayden White might say, theoretical storytelling is content and it is form; it is both.

Plus, a useful reminder for those in the field who approach human subjects as objects or “data” to extract, rather than equal partners in knowledge production :

What is defective is how we miss the power of stories and storytellers even as we tell them. We tell stories to get to the point, to make our points. We miss that the stories are the point. They are the getting, and they are the there.

Changing Mindsets in Post-war Bosnia Through Economic Development


I recently returned from a trip to Bosnia to research successful examples of sustainable economic development for my forthcoming book, provisionally titled: “Remaking Kozarac: agency, reconciliation and contested return in postwar Bosnia.”

After so much time focusing on the challenges of postwar contested return, it was quite uplifting to learn more about how ambitious and innovative some returnee-led businesses have become. But most of all, it demonstrated the importance of promjena svijesti (changing mindsets) as a vehicle for the kind of social and political transformation that is needed to create modern institutions and a functioning state in the long-term.

In Bosnia, systemic corruption is the norm, which is not surprising given centuries of colonial Ottoman rule followed by communism, war and then a post-war dependence on aid and international institutions. The old communist nomenclatura system of party patronage and state monopolies has passed into the hands of agents of a modern form of corruption: nationalist political elites, their family relatives and war comrades. Both systems tend to put state resources in the hands of political elites that see themselves as the embodiment of national destiny, resulting in a blurring of lines between personal and official interests, and supported by reference to the perceived dangers posed by internal and external enemies, which is reinforced by control of the media and education system.

Curbing corruption that is deeply ingrained in all aspects of social structures rather than just being an exception (individual cases) is a slow and challenging process. As North points out in his Nobel Prize talk, rules may be changed overnight, but the informal norms usually only change gradually – and thee, not rules, are what governs behaviour. There is also the classic game theory problem – if everyone assumes others are corrupt, they are less likely to behave correctly themselves, as to do so would be to lose out without any prospect of changing the norm.

Two decades of a postwar “transition” in which billions of dollars were poured in to build democratic, liberal governing institutions have not contributed much to social and political transformation. One of the reasons is that international donors have helped to keep the predatory elite in power by cooperating with them even in instances where they are attempting to fight widespread corruption, oblivious to the fact that the state’s politicians are in fact the crux of the matter. As Mungiu-Pippidi notes, the problem is that international organisations fail to take into consideration a particularist political culture and underestimate the extent to which corruption, in post communist countries at least, is inherently political:

corruption actually means “particularism”—a mode of social organization characterized by the regular distribution of public goods on a nonuniversalistic basis that mirrors the vicious distribution of power within such societies.

…their [people’s] treatment depends on their status or position in society, and people do not even expect to be treated fairly by the state; what they expect is similar treatment to everybody with the same status.

This phenomenon is problematic, but in a situation of contested return such as Kozarac, its impact can be even greater because the authorities are broadly hostile to the returnee minority and ready to use official Republic Srpska institutions against them. Therefore joining in with local corruption presents risks, but so too can any attempt to resist it and refuse to ‘play along’.

One of the defining characteristics of the Kozarac return story has been the need for self-reliance. In the early years, this was played out in fighting for return, re-establishing the local community and standing up for political rights and memorialisation. Increasingly today, the priority is economic self-reliance if the community is to reverse the slow drift of young people away from the area in pursuit of a future for themselves and their families.

On my recent trip, I visited two local businesses that are remarkable both for their ambition to create internationally-competitive products, but also for the way that they handle the ever-present challenge of corruption, quality standards and other aspects of the prevailing ‘mindset’ that they believe needs to change.

These two firms, Arifagic Investment and Austronet, are both led by members of the returnee community who are motivated to create a sustainable local legacy, rather than just to create short-term profits. Their work employs a curious mix of path dependence – knowledge of how and why things are the way they are – and also new thinking in the Bosnian context. They are aware that history matters, and here I do not mean only recent war losses and terrible experiences, but a long intergenerational heritage of economic models that created the country’s political culture. And yet, their life experiences and exile exposed them to new forms of learning and knowledge necessary to combat a “stuck” society such as Bosnia. They also draw upon their experience of doing business in Norway and Austria respectively to inform their belief that only by upholding the highest standards of quality and ethics can they avoid being dragged down by local norms. They not only refuse to take part in customary corrupt practices, they also understand that to do so requires them to be scrupulously ‘clean’ as any compromise on this point would leave them vulnerable. Therefore, although it is not perhaps their primary goal, both firms are pioneers that are changing the local mindset and demonstrating that even in Bosnia, and specifically in Republika Srspka, it is possible to create internationally-successful businesses.

In some way, these firms represent a much needed philosophy of abandoning what we know and embracing new learning practices and behaviours in the pursuit of radical change of a value system that influences both formal and informal institutions. The cornerstone of this is building a culture that goes beyond the self-interest of a leader. But how to articulate let alone achieve this in a community that often sees personal success as a threat or assumes it derives from some form of corrupt behaviour? Social trust is in short supply regardless which ethnic or social group one may belong to.

Jusuf Arifagic returned to Bosnia from Norway a few years ago with a significant personal investment and several hundred Norwegian cows of a special breed. He bought a plot of land in Trnopolje not far from the site of the camp where he and his family were interned during the war, and established Arifagic Investment as an agricultural business with visionary and innovative strategies for the future of Bosnian farming, meat production and biogas generation. He also planned to improve the education and training of young people through plans to build a secondary school with Norwegian standards of education, which could also provide additional training in Norway.

I met Jusuf last week and was impressed by his humility and vision, and his realisation that he needs to lead by example as a way to influence his workers and the local community. He employs young professionals who despite being smart are not above working in the stables, and needless to say, ethnicity doesn’t count here – just a willingness to work hard, an eagerness to learn and strong personal ethics. For example, one young returnee, a law graduate, could not find a job despite being a star pupil in RS, so he became a shepherd to support his old parents. Upon reading about him in the newspaper, Jusuf called him and after a ten minute interview, gave him a job.

During myDSC_0131 visit, I observed a young team of Vets enthusiastically getting on with their daily work, and it all seemed rather too professional and organised to be found in the middle of the Bosnian countryside. The cows enjoy the most up-to-date luxury accommodation, air quality is digitally controlled, and they are massaged and entertained with music to keep them relaxed. Jusuf is well aware that building an organisation so alien to local practice will take time to be accepted, but he is clear about the long-term benefits:

I returned to create something larger than my life, to leave it behind for my children and the coming generations to work on. I can only create the right conditions for the new ways of thinking to emerge, and work ethics, so that the society may focus on a better future devoid of corruption and wars.

While I was at the farm, an inspector arrived. He instructed his young lawyer to show him around, explaining to me that he receives many visits by various inspectors but does not want to deal with them personally, as many expect a bribe. He mentions in passing that regional politicians have tried to lure him into politics to bring him ‘on side’, but he is adamant he will not be joining them.

DSC_0147The other business I visited, Austronet, is a subsidiary of an Austrian company that manufactures modern, versatile fabrics that can be used in various ways including marketing banners, nets and wraps. It’s CEO, Enes Kahrimanovic, returned from Austria to set up the factory in 2007, and like Arifagic, has a very clear focus on bringing a more reliable and ethical way of working to the Kozarac region, explaining that this is the only way to respond to the apparatchiks of old and new corruption. To illustrate his point, he told me the story of a recent fire inspection:

He asked me if I have installed the fire sprinkler system with pipes’ at least 8mm in diameter around my warehouses. I said, if the regulations require it, then, yes. He then said: “oh don’t worry most people install pipes of 6mm, because the 8mm versions are very expensive. So I am sure you have not installed the 8mm one…but do not worry.“ I assured him that if the law requires 8mm pipes, then that is what we have, and told him he can view our technical drawings.

Kahrimanovic then remembered that there was a place in the building where the pipes are visible, so he measured them. They turned out to be 10mm wide. The point of this story was to illustrate how inspections are often performed informally, as though an inspector is doing you a favour and you ought to compensate him because it is expected behaviour to bend the rules.

The entrenched belief system that “everybody is corrupt, so why shouldn’t I or you be” is difficult to change in a political culture that has no incentive to tackle it. Mutual expectations that everyone is going to cheat eventually are particularly hard to grapple with in a postwar context. But as part of building a better future for the re-established community in Kozarac, these two businesses are examples of why it matters to do things differently.

Informal, personal modes of exchange that grant access to familial, socially or politically related individuals rather than universal, impersonal access based on merit is the dominant approach in Bosnia today. But to create sustainable businesses and institutions requires a more impersonal approach based on equality under the law, and in the absence of a healthy state that can create such an environment, perhaps it comes down to determined individuals such as Arifagic and Kahrimanovic to show another way is possible. A society and a state based only on small group trust (rather than wider social trust) and the Bosnian notion of who is and who is not naš (ours) cannot produce the kinds of modern institutions needed to thrive in the Twenty-First Century.