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.


Thoughts on Fieldwork

Over the last century or so, the debate in the field and in University departments about the tenets of anthropology has changed a lot. It has reflected how a discipline labelled “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences” is a rich and complex domain, precisely because it focuses on the human condition as practiced in the here and now. However, for me, the most poignant discussions are about the conduct of fieldwork and how we transcribe human experiences and perception.

I recently enjoyed read the 4th edition of Adam Kuper’s book, Anthropology and Anthropologists – an ethnographic study of British Social Anthropology of the twentieth century. I particularly liked the little stories inferred from written biographies and departmental tales of covetous and tribal behaviours present among the founders and early practitioners of anthropology, and especially their discussions about what field research should entail.

A ‘Malinowskian’ understanding of good ethnography is based on intensive, long term participant observation where the fieldworker is concerned with all aspects of the everyday life of her subjects and locality. The idea is that only through the process of immersion can one access insights into how individuals adapt to a particular system and find meaning and purpose even under a regime of custom that may seem absolute:

The immobility of custom, I believe, is largely the effect of distance. Look more closely and you will see perpetual modification in process; and, if the underlying dynamic be partly due to physical and quasi-physical causes, such as changes in climate, movements of people following the consequent variations in the food-supply, and so forth, yet, most fundamental condition of all, there is likewise at work throughout the will to live, manifesting itself through individuals as they partly compete and partly cooperate with the other. (R.R. Marett in Kuper’s book)

Such research was previously regarded as essential in order to grasp and convey the ‘native’s point of view’. However, then and now, varying methods of fieldwork research exist. A century ago, Rivers distinguished two styles of ethnography: survey and intensive fieldwork. The former was about sketching out local vernaculars, traditions, crafts and so on, while the latter required more time and a detailed understanding of people acquired through living among them and conversing in native languages. He contended that survey field research produces incomplete and sometimes a misleading characterisation of those we study. In a similar vain, Seligman (in Kuper’s book) opined that people don’t always make the best informants as they quickly learn what the researcher is after and may decide to simulate it:

The Nilgala headman sends word when strangers are expected, then the Veddas repair to their very striking hut on the rock dome and often post a look-out on a big rock about half way up…These folk, who when we saw them wore their Vedda loin cloths and were smeared with ashes, are reported to wear ordinary Sinhalese clothes when not in their professional pose….Indeed it appeared that not only have members of this community learnt to play the part of professional primitive man, but there has even been specialisation, for as far as we could learn, the men we met at the look-out hut are those who always receive visitors or come to Bibile when sent for, while the others whom we did not see do not pose as wild Veddas.

Further talk with these people showed that it was impossible to obtain reliable information from them, they had been utterly spoilt as the result of being frequently interviewed by travellers.

Anthropological theory, knowledge and locality have indeed expanded since those early days of ‘exotic’ places and people; so too have the modes of ethnographic inquiry enabled by social technologies that may complement, test and deepen the traditional fieldwork. In my next post, I want to share how, in the context of post-conflict Bosnia, I enriched my understanding and generated empirical knowledge that would otherwise be imperceptible to me, by using mixed methods of online community study with traditional fieldwork.