What does it mean to be an ethnographer? What is ethnography? One way to define it is the construction of ‘insightful narrative about social and organizational culture,’ as Cathy Kaufman (2008) describes in the introduction to her article ‘Cultural Portraits for Beginning Ethnographers.’ It is an active getting-to-know the culture you’re studying in order to produce a work that accurately reflects the character and nature of said culture. It is incredibly complex, as it raises questions of researcher bias and positionality, self-reflexivity and preconceived notions, and methodological and reporting ethics, to name only a few. It is qualitative research that invariably requires experience to do well – yet experience is only gained by starting off in the field not knowing what you’re doing.
In a sense, we are all ethnographers. When we enter into new situations – especially unfamiliar locations or cultures – we use our senses and any knowledge we can find to properly assess the situation. Usually subconsciously, we are continually working out how we fit into this new scenario and what our relation is to those people and things around us. We can do this in familiar settings as well; in fact, a higher level of cognizance is always beneficial regardless of the level of familiarity. As an exchange student, I am extremely aware of my position as an outsider in many instances, yet also the multiple places I have found a home in here on campus and in the city. When I first arrived, I exhausted my resources learning about this new place – and also finding the proper resources from which to learn! The excuse of being an international student, and thus expected to be unaware of certain social norms, was a cushion on which I was not willing to rest for long, but one that I was admittedly very grateful for, especially at first.
Of course, being an ethnographer in its traditional, research-based sense seems to have heavier connotations than simply being an exchange student. If ethnographic research is undertaken for the purpose of publishing and teaching, then certain expectations and regulations apply; as they should, for this helps us as researchers maintain professionalism and transparency in our work. Kaufman admonishes beginning ethnographers to carefully consider their own work – she says ‘in the initial stages of the learning process, it is a matter of getting a basic feel for this type of inquiry and its application of conceptual constructs and terminology in a manner that distinguishes useful research narratives from interesting journalism‘ (my emphasis).
Though there is much to pick apart in this statement, what intrigues me most is the distinction between ‘useful research narratives’ and ‘interesting journalism.’ I love stories – I love reading them, hearing them, creating them, living them, and most definitely telling them. Narratives are essential to cultural formation and thus are powerful tools in the hands of a researcher seeking to understand a culture. Acknowledging the diversity and volatility of stories and the complexity of their gathering, interpreting, and recounting, I am often struck by whether the stories I tell are useful and serve a purpose. Words inherently create and suggest various meanings, but for the purposes of ethnographic research, how do I as an outsider (or even an insider) determine which few of the plethora of stories in my possession will best serve the end goal of my research?
I suppose one answer to this lies in a comment made by Kaufman that the ‘era in which teaching was seen as the constant and learning as the variable’ has ended and expanded to allow ethnography to be malleable. If it is, as she claims, ‘purposed to foster understanding, cultural understanding specifically,’ this malleability is vital, as culture is an ever-shifting and often-contradictory construction. While every paper or write-up or analysis needs a sort of conclusion, mainly for the sake of the researcher and reader’s sanity, the idea of an ethnographer having an ‘end goal’ seems rather misleading. Understanding is never absolute, therefore our conclusions ought not be either. This does not mean that conclusions are malicious or incorrect by their very nature, but it does encourage us as ethnographers – and readers of ethnographic accounts – to constantly dig deeper into existing ideas, to consider situations from nuanced perspectives, and to be both bold and humble in our critical analyses of ethnographic works – others’ and our own.
Kaufman assures new ethnographers that ‘with continued exposure and practice,’ we will grow in ‘confidence and competence in both consuming and creating cultural portraits.’ As we spend more time reading what other ethnographers have done and wisely attempting our own creations at cultural portraiture, the vocabulary, methodology, restrictions and freedoms of ethnography will become more familiar to us. She reminds us in the beginning to take small steps using simpler models upon which later more comprehensive projects and conclusions can be built. Thankfully, she does offer a few guiding examples, showing how narratives can be used when they are considered for their ‘purpose, potential and strategy’ such as they relate to the research question.
Being strategic, aware, and also patient with yourself is key. In light of all the questions I have about my own research, it was comforting to read Kaufman’s reflection in her conclusion: ‘When I began examining the dimensions of qualitative research two decades ago, I felt that I was treading water while others were showing off their breast stroke. In retrospect I realize that most of my peers were also treading.’ I may be treading water now, but I am in the water – that’s a start.
Check back with me in two decades and we’ll see how my breast stroke is.