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A Critical Ethnographic Exercise

Your Street, a Playground, or a Traffic Intersection

5 pages

Note: Late papers will lose points

This assignment calls for some participant observation research. Select one of the three sites from the title. Go to the site for 30 minutes. No more, no less. In advance of your fieldwork, carefully read through “the anthropology dozen” and reflect on hidden dimensions of the setting that you might want to uncover. There are three ways to approach this assignment:

You may choose to be as open minded as possible, just letting your mind and attention drift to whatever you see, hear and touch, describing what you see and hear, with no pre-ordained “bias.”
On the other hand, you may already have a working hypothesis about what you might expect to discover and proceed to explore these issues more thoroughly.
Some combination of the above two approaches.
[Read the attached material on Ethnographic fieldwork and the Anthropology Dozen, pasted below and on the module.]

Take fieldnotes of the setting/context. Speak with one person in the setting if you so choose. They could be announced (i.e. I’m doing an anthropology assignment and could I ask you a few questions?). Alternately you could “interview” in the manner of a matter of fact remark about some object in the mutual setting (ex. at a salad bar a remark about the food guard, as a “breaking the ice” technique for a brief exchange). It is not necessary to speak with someone for this assignment and it will not affeect your grade. Later on, when you are removed from the site, devote increased critical reflection on the issues, dialogues, and cultural artifacts that you have experienced. Write freely in a red pen, as much as you can remember. Jottings, scribbles, half-thoughts and free associations are good. You are encouraged to capture you own feelings as well. Then convert your fieldnotes into a five-page essay. Attach a page of your fieldnotes. In your essay, you MUST include:

A brief description of the setting
Briefly describe how people moved through the setting and any action.
Were you surprised by anything in the setting? What?

Supplement from the Syllabus

Ethnographic Research & Participant Observation

“You can see a lot by observing” Yogi Berra

“If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things?”

Eric Wolf, Anthropologist

Ethnographers engage in participant observation in order to gain insight into cultural practices and phenomena. These insights develop over time and through repeated analysis of many aspects of our fieldsites. Participant Observation is a method to discover truth by naturalistic involvement and observation. Reality consists of multiple constructed realities that can be understood to some extent but cannot be predicated or controlled.

Fieldnotes: To facilitate this process, ethnographers must learn how to take useful and reliable notes regarding the details of life in their research contexts. These fieldnotes will constitute a major part of the data on which later conclusions will be based.

The Ethnographic Approach

Field studies in natural settings
Gain entry to site
Account for yourself – your thoughts, emotions attitudes
Develop working hypotheses (either before entry to site, or during visit)
Describe settings, activities and practices (particularly in relation to your developing concerns. Be prepared to change focus abruptly). Look for telling details.
Briefly interview some participants. Get natives’ points-of-view, be non-judgmental
Think holistically. How does the knowledge gained at the fieldsite spur you on to want to investigate other areas (in the literature or other sources)? This includes historical and cultural knowledge.
After one leaves a fieldsite:
Free-write to capture ideas and memories that you did not have time to record while at the site
Review your fieldnotes and add new information (in another color pen) to the notes that you may have forgotten. Record new insights and free associations that your fieldnotes trigger in you.
Interpret your notes/experience and begin to craft out a 5-page essay.
Include selections from your fieldnotes in your ethnographic report.

Dimensions of Participant Observations

What to Observe

The setting

The human, social environment – could include, but not necessarily be limited to, the following:
* Characteristics of the subjects (e.g., gender,ethnicity, approximate age grouping, style of dress)
* Patterns, frequency, direction of interaction and communication
* Decision making behaviors – who initiates it, who ultimately makes the decision and type/manner of communication regarding the decision
* Power and class dynamics

Activities and behaviors
* What objects are people moving, lifting, and looking at?

* Are participants emotive, glum, distracted, upset?

Informal interactions and unplanned activities – the richest and most revealing things can be the ‘surprises!’
* Explicit impromptu questioning/probing:

* Simply listening and observing “on the sidelines,”

The language of participants – Each field, as we know, has its own ‘jargon,’ both formal and informal. It is important for you, as the participant observer, to be as familiar with such ‘jargon’ beforehand as possible. This is so that “when you hear it, you’ll know what they mean by it.”

Non-verbal communication – Body language, facial expressions, how people choose to arrange themselves, customary and accepted ways of greeting one another – all contribute to your accurately and completely documenting the “true lived experience.”

Unobtrusive measures – For example, at an art exhibit you might notice that the rug is particularly worn in front of certain paintings or exhibits. Such “archival traces” may reveal valuable clues as to underlying patterns, behaviors, choices, etc. even if the subjects themselves are not there when you gather these observations.

Documents – Examples include newspapers, advertisements, policy manuals, training materials, minutes of meetings, memoranda, computerized data files, etc.

Observing what does not happen & other surprise findings – Ah, what a goldmine of information! As pointed out with regard to # 4, above, it’s the ‘surprises’ that can be most rich and revealing!

The Anthropology Dozen

Tools for Applied Work

Brian McKenna, Ph.D.

Holism: the bane of specialization! How does everything connect, or not? Pursue interdisciplinary views – how do politics, science, folklore, economics, religion, medicine and so on apply? (e.g. Can we understand cars merely from an engineering perspective? Are medical doctors adept at preventive health?) Interpreting historical contexts. What forces serve to undermine holistic interpretations/actions?

Culture: What’s behind what’s behind? How does political economy relate to ideology and everyday life? (e.g. What is the relationship between Neoliberal capitalist culture and your object of inquiry? Where does your culture fit on a continuum from authoritarian to democratic?)

Cross Cultural juxtaposition: How do alternate cultures offer multiple solutions to a given problem. (e.g. food, environmental and medical practices). This can also apply to “subcultures” within a given macro culture. How and why does the culture under investigation privilege one practice as opposed to another?

What’s Taken for Granted? The importance of key informants in norm identification. Consider active norm breaking to reveal this social dimension. (e.g. what is the normal speaking distance between two people in a given culture? Or, on a more complex level: the anthropology of knowledge – Chart the creation, use and distribution of knowledge, especially critical knowledge in your setting. For example, Why doesn’t local news translate national environmental research findings for the local scene? How do weathermen employ environmental knowledge, or not? To what degree are citizens alienated from their local environments?

Fieldwork: Experiential knowledge conjoined with critical reflection. Become a “walking fieldnote,” absorbing the values, opinions, practices and ideologies of the groups under investigation. Fieldwork includes geographies but also other knowledge domains. Interviews, participant observations and fieldnotes (e.g. write thick descriptions for later analysis).
Getting the Native’s Point(s) of view. Who are the “natives”? How can we best elicit the views of the subaltern? What are the ways in which the “native points of view” are ignored, omitted or suppressed?
Contradictions & Ideologies: Do people say one thing and do another? Are there inherent tensions in the terrain of inquiry? Capitalism, for example, has a contradiction between owners and workers that is both necessary for and in opposition to its reproduction. What are the dominant ideologies and practices in a locale and how do they reinforce, or not, existing power?

Origins and History: Human Origins, the origin of the state, the origin of a nation, the origin of a given institution, the origin of a name, the origin of a place. How have things transformed since the origin? What are the chief motive forces behind this transformation?

Epistemological Critique: How do you know anything? Consider three epistemologies: 1) positivism, 2) interpretivism and 3) critical theory. Begin with a “rectification of names” in your analysis. Do names accurately capture the idea/object represented? Analyze slogans humor. Decipher consensus viewpoints – are their hidden interests behind these discourses?

Conformity/Resistance: Are there habits and viewpoints that people adopt reluctantly, just to go along with the crowd? What are the modes and methods of resistance that the less powerful employ in advancing their interests? In your view, are groups/classes aware of their interests?

Privilege the Most Powerless: Identify the race, gender and class components to your objects of inquiry. Who are the most disempowered/exploited groups/people? How are their views represented, or not, in the issue under investigation? Work as a social justice practitioner to advance the interests of these groups/classes (in the manner to which you feel most comfortable/ready). Become a public pedagogue.

Analyze Social Change: What are the tensions within your object of inquiry? Are they apparent or not? Pay close attention to the dynamics and seek to critically understand them. Share your analysis with those who seek democratic solutions.

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