The Responsibilities of Ethnography

What responsibilities do ethnographers have towards their research interlocutors and their research partners? What ethical obligations do they have in writing about people’s lives?

We find ourselves returning again and again to these questions. These questions not only speak to ethnographic practice, but to all forms of academic research, as well as other forms of writing that represents peoples’ worlds, such as policy reports, fiction, and journalism.

To begin thinking around these issues we have identified three themes we will explore in more depth as the course continues. Here are our very first thoughts that will guide our future conversations.

Here are some of the thoughts from class members.

1. Ethnographers need to carefully consider their responsibilities

“The responsibility of the researcher does not end when the fieldwork is finished. There are multiple responsibilities in writing about people’s lives.”

“Ethnography must be questioned and challenged. It claims representation of a group of voices that we might never hear first-hand. We must accept the responsibility to continuously challenge its development, in order to produce a more ethically powerful methodology for making sense of the cultural world.”

“There has been a shift towards conducting ethnography and writing ethnographies in ways that create a more equal relationship between the researcher and the research partners.”

“Ideally ethnography will be a very accessible form of writing. However often it is not, and can be heavily bogged down by jargon.”

2. Ethnography is still dealing with the colonial legacies of academic knowledge practices

“Ethnography comes with some pretty heavy colonial baggage.”

“As Linda Tuhiwai Smith phrased it: ‘The word ‘research’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful’. (p1)”

“Far from neutral, ethnographical assertions about what constitutes the ‘culture’ of groups have been central in constructing how Western societies view themselves in relation to the rest of the world, and to how Westerners view the world outside of the West. This has very real ramifications”

“The authoritative power that the ethnographer holds in representing a culture, can be a dangerous tool.”

“Ethnography is a platform that can give people a voice. However, some indigenous communities have experienced ethnography as taking away their voice, as taking advantage of them, or they feel that their culture has been misinterpreted. This has led to a lack of trust towards anthropology.”

“Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book Decolonizing Methodologies highlights the history of research methods which she frames as a form of continued imperialism, and she appealed for decolonizing research methods and writing.”

“In ‘Anthropology as White Public Space?’ (2011) Karen Brodkin and Sandra Morgan explore the continuing exclusion of people of colour in the field of anthropology and how anthropology as a whole has often been an unequal institution.”

“Recently, indigenous communities are talking back to the ethnographic cannon, offering their own interpretation of past ethnographic studies and reflecting on how these studies have affect their communities.”

“inspired by a Kaupapa Māori framework, I believe that ngā tāngata Māori come first and the research second. This changes the dynamics of how the ethnographer navigates the research drastically. Not only is their mahi not the most important thing, but they also should act as the manuhiri wherever they go. They must engage in a collaborative relationship with the group that is centered in a way that leads to co-operation, harmony, trust and the sharing of power.”

“Classical anthropological ideas about fieldwork assumed that the researcher needs to ‘leave home’ for an extended period of time, complete research on a matter that is not within their own culture or value systems. They needed to immerse themselves within that space, observe, ask questions, take notes, learn as much as possible before returning home to ‘write’. Personally, I don’t agree this is the only way. It’s ok to want to observe your own community, this is occurring more now and can be seen within indigenous communities.”

3. Ethnography has become increasingly collaborative

“Recent critiques challenge the more detached, third-person, ‘realist’ writing style of much 20th century ethnography. These critiques argue that multiple interpretations can be made of any reality. Postmodernist critiques from the 1980s sought to lift the lid on ethnographic practice, to revealed how ethnographic knowledge was constructed. Recent ‘polyphonic’ approaches have sought to introduce multiple voices into ethnographic texts”

(later in the term we will be reading early works from the first half of the 20th century that also departed from the realist genre)

“Collaboration involves working with the community, naming them within the research (if they agree) and claiming the work as collaborative by either listing them as contributing authors or by making space within your writing to list each contributor”

“In a world where social issues are increasingly understood as manifestations of inequalities between groups of people, exploring these differences in a more equal, collaborative and self-aware way is powerful.”

“Collaboration should be less about the inclusion of quotes from key informants, and more about the collaborative production of the entire work itself.”