Some reflections on immersive ethnography

26 Feb

But first-why does ‘awful’ mean something bad, when it could so easily have meant being filled with awe (and therefore something not-bad)?

Ethnography, pointed out one of my favourite Professors during a Research Methods lecture, is not simply fieldwork. There is an element of time and depth of involvement that sets apart mere fieldwork from ethnography. There is no clear cut definitional distinction between the two, and I suspect one can wade through a few tough knots when trying to conceptually separate the two, but let me put it like this-

Say your research project is trying to understand the behaviour of consumers at a particular market. You have ten months to do this. If you choose to compile a survey, visit the market once every week and target ten buyers every visit with that survey for eight months (because you need atleast two to analyse and write it up), you’d probably be doing fieldwork. If however, you visit the market four to five times a week, use your survey and additionally converse with buyers and sellers, and spend a lot of time observing and chatting with no end goal specifically in mind-that would probably be closer to ethnography. And chances are, you’d spend 9.5 months of your time in the ‘field’ because you never know whether you have enough material 😛

All fieldwork has an element of uncertainty and surprise, but ethnography probably has more of it. One doesn’t head into it unprepared-but plans are almost constantly remade because the situation on the ground changes. Also-fieldwork can be incorporated within quantitative research methods but ethnography, is, I think, pretty much always a part of qualitative research only.

I have been ‘doing’ ethnography since about 2009, but properly fell into it March, 2012. At that time, it was not actually ethnography because the academic aspect was missing: I only wanted to know how I could help the organisation in question. A few months down the line, however, I ended up making that my thesis topic (for the MPhil). Since then, my engagement has been both academic (for they continue to be one of the case studies for my PhD) and personal. I am invested in that issue, in the people and have worked on things with them that have nothing to do with the thesis. There is, I suppose, an element of activism involved in my engagement with them and there are other terms that have been coined to capture this research stance- Participatory Action Research being one of them.

Such an engagement has been, for me, a question of doing justice to my research, but more importantly-it has been about ethics. I am loathe to think of myself as that typical academic leach (and ethnographers, especially, come close to being this leachy variety of academics. It just seems so unfair that people like us spend months, even years, studying a (usually less well-off) community only to go back, write a thesis, get paid as a researcher and live a life that is far removed from that community’s). I have tried hard to reduce the separation between my lives with them and away from them. To an extent that came naturally. The clothes I wore, the lifestyle I led did not differ so much on and off the field. I did not shed a persona the minute I stepped ‘off’ the field. However, there are/were limits to how much I could pretend, to myself, that I was ‘one of them’. At the end of the day I lead a very middle-class life-and they don’t. I take running water, electricity, a room to myself  etc etc for granted.

Class guilt aside, I was very willing the blur the boundaries between the professional and personal. I have to say though, that a little over three years later I’m finding the need to actually draw this line and be okay with it. While one learns a lot through what I call immersive ethnography, it has its costs.

* When you get that involved in terms of time and energy with a particular community, time comes when some people get over-familiar and even inappropriate. Some people try to ‘own’ you or your welfare and this is uncomfortable not just because it crosses a line but also because you know this is a sort of power play. They are being ‘nice’ to me because they know their leader ‘values’ me and therefore by being nice to me they are earning points.

* Repeated encounters of the ethnographic kind produces a kind of ‘over-exposure’ after a point. The tenth protest rally you attend suddenly begins to look just like each and every preceding one and you feel like you have reached a stalemate. Nothing new emerges. However, as that Professor pointed out, it is perhaps unfair on my part to expect something new every time. Because, she said, I am trying to map the everyday details (which don’t change that fast) and  the events in the life of this organisation and their movement(which have been changing VERY fast)-mapping gradual differences and the bigger ones- I face this quandary of encountering a stalemate. That is, I expect every rally to be different just because at the macro level things are different every couple of months.

I have decided it is perfectly fine to take a step-back and do new things to think different thoughts.

*It can lead to rapidly declining hygiene standards. This, however, applies perhaps more to an outdoor life than immersive ethnography per se. When you are out on the ‘field’ you want to try and adapt yourself to the ways of the people in the field in order to not be any more of a nuisance than you already are. So you eat and drink what is offered you, and with thanks, etc. I have eaten off unwashed plates (not because there is a lack of water but because most people tend to not wash already washed plates-even though it might have been washed hours and hours earlier!), eaten without washing my hands (no water to waste), drunk water that I might perhaps not have when at home.

However, when I recently saw someone use their towel to wipe their shoes, well, then it struck me that I better be careful! I do NOT want to unthinkingly adopt a practice like that, ever! I’d rather go with dirty shoes. It is okay to do what I need to and can do to maintain certain standards of hygiene. I will not throw a hissy fit if there is no way to wash hands before eating, but I will also not NOT wash my hands just to avoid drawing attention to myself.

I suppose I will have more to add to this post later. For now, this will suffice.

 

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