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.”
What exactly is ethnography? At its heart, it is two things: a research method and a genre of expression that describes and represents cultural worlds.
Over the last two weeks we have been trying to articulate how each of us use and understanding the term ethnography. This is important to explore so that we can see how our ideas and perspectives grow, change or deepen over the year.
As one class member expressed, “It is hard to define something that is so dynamic.” So rather than come up with a singular definition, below we share a range of ideas that students contributed to our conversation.
These are by no means the only ways one could define or describe ethnography, but they are the ones that were salient to us.
There are many different types of ethnography, and many different strands to ethnography. Here are some of those strands that stand out for us:
So, what is ethnography?
“Ethnography is about lived experience, so it becomes a personal, relational, creative space where transformation can occur.”
“Ethnography puts people at the centre of everything, focuses on lived experiences, and captures moments of time.”
“Ethnography is relational – how people connect to environments, things, culture and others, this includes the relationship between the researcher and their participants.”
“Ethnography is an art form; the description of a cultural world is an art form.”
“Ethnography is deeply personal and subjective.”
“While one viewpoint may paint a culture in intricate detail, it is only a viewpoint, drawn from one stance. The ethnographer lives in an experiential world, like all humans. This can limit their vision to originate from one angle alone. Ethnography encourages us to attempt to ‘see’ from multiple perspectives.”
“Ethnography explores the different interpretations and meanings life and practices hold, providing a ‘thick description’ as coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz”
“Ethnography involves ‘deep hanging out’ in a community. At times, in order for you to even partake in daily activities, you need to be accepted into the society you are studying. Or else, you find yourself on the outside looking in.”
“Ethnographic writing often seeks to subtly enhance the scholarly credibility of the author, and to build the audience’s trust in ethnographer’s credentials and expertise.”
“Ethnography is a form of humanistic enquiry, one that is grounded in the practice of fieldwork and the articulation of this experience through almost any creative form.”
“Ethnography is a hermeneutic and deeply personal practice.”
“Central to ethnography are relationships, and I see the ethnographer as a mediator of knowledge between the group they are working with and the reader/viewer.”
“Ethnography is not just produced by trained anthropologists. A person on a podcast talking about the reaction of a fan group to the latest entertainment trend could be classed as a form of ethnography. The speakers on the podcast may have had no formal anthropological training but they have still created ethnography.”
Students argued we need to remain aware of the ongoing legacies of early ideas about ethnography.
“Ethnography and anthropology can be traced back to 17th and 18th century Enlightenment ideas where thinkers began to advocate for: scientific methods, reason, secularised learning, universal education, and ‘progress’ as the basis for examining and understanding the human world. From these fundamentals, in particular, the provision for the scientific method enabled the development of methodology as a technique to synthesize reasoned explanations from empirical data. However these ideas were not neutral and emerged at the same time as scientific racism and imperial expansion.”
“Bronislaw Malinowski emphasized the importance of data collection through sustained fieldwork observation, detailed note-taking, holistically linking of information, and prescriptive sense-making of observations and inquiries. Moreover, the written-up research monograph – the ethnography, would in due course gain recognition as a ‘scientific’ and literary genre.”
“Ethnography involves acknowledging positionality: The ideas, intent and impacts of an ethnography cannot be separated from the anthropologists who create them.”
“Ethnography is reflexive, and involves acknowledging the complex social dynamics that an anthropologist brings to research and is embedded within in the world that they are exploring.”
“Ethnography has often relied heavily upon the idea of ‘being there’ in the field. Ethnographic writers often attempt to assert authority over knowledge through providing ethnographic details and first-hand observations. This encourages the reader to feel that the ethnographer has a rich, direct understanding of the knowledge shared and therefore has credible authority to share it.”
Mo Muse: A twitter thread about the seven stages of racism that allowed the Christchurch terror attacks to happen in the context of New Zealand society
Jinghan Naan: “I hate to say that after all of that elaborate planning, and the perverse and wretched efforts on your part, you still failed to drive a divide among the Muslims and non-Muslims in the world. For that, I can’t say that I’m sorry.”
Faisal Halabi on what it means to be a Muslim in New Zealand. “I witnessed time and time again the Muslim community pushing through, always guided by the five pillars. But, as those stereotypes hyperinflated, somewhere along the way a small but very real distance between the identities of being a New Zealander and a Muslim formed.”
Chloë Swarbrick re-posts her friend Mukseet‘s reflections on the everyday racism encountered when growing up Muslim in New Zealand.
A short and very moving video about hope in the wake of terror, by anthropology doctoral candidate at Canterbury University, Wael.
Saziah Bashir: Four things you should do following the Christchurch terror attacks “Muslims have been dehumanised and demonised in the media the world over since 9/11. The failure to include Muslim voices in this narrative has left unchallenged the stereotypes painted of us, as if we are a two-dimensional monolith, a single monstrous Other”
Mohamad Elmasry: “Shootings at Christchurch mosques are only the latest on a long list of acts of white supremacist terrorism in the West.”
Faisal Al-Asaad: Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we organise. I’ll never forget the many meetings and roundtables I attended, alongside other Muslim advocates and leaders, where we argued and pleaded, pointlessly it seems, with different government agencies to turn their attention from our communities and mosques to the real threats in this country.
Lamia Imam: ‘I cannot forgive the rhetoric that got us here’ “we as a country failed to stop something horrific, because we like to believe we are better. We like to believe that for example Duncan Garner’s words that compared immigrants shopping at K-mart to a human snake are not racist.”
Lamia Imam: Vigils are useless without real change. On NZ politicians- “Are their policies designed to harm racial minorities? Is their rhetoric designed to pander to racists? Then they are racist. We do not have to establish it. It is evident.”
Haezreena Begum binti Abdul Hamid: A reflection on the Christchurch shooting massacre. “we address others in the Islamic faith as brothers and sisters because it gives us a sense of unity and a sense of belonging. We feel for each other and we look out for each other. That’s why we are deeply impacted with this tragedy”
Mohamed Hassan: Unlearning My Name “I spent 19 years mispronouncing my name so others will be able to say it. I wrote this poem about learning/unlearning that habit.”
RNZ video: Phillip Gondar lost one of his best mates, Talha, in the shooting. Speaking from the Al Noor mosque, he pays tribute to his friend, discusses everyday racism in school, and says he hopes the unity continues.
Al Noor Mosque Imam Gamal Fouda. Full speech, 22 March, 2019, Hagley Park: “Our loss is a gain to NZ’s unity and strength”
Hina Cheema: Christchurch shooting: ‘Just accept us as we are, ordinary‘. “We do not need sympathies, we do not need extra attention, and we do not want to be in limelight. We do not need platforms to speak, we just need acceptance, a place to be comfortable under our skin, a place where we have feeling of home, a feeling of co-existence not merely existence.”
Hala Nasr: Islamophobia: A Personal Reflection. “the culmination of my lived experiences, and many others which I can’t bring myself to repeat, rests under the surface of my discomfort with the ‘They Are Us’ solidarity statements”
Guled Mire, and Denise, who are active in the Canterbury Muslim community, spoke to John Campbell on TVNZ1’s Q+A about their experiences in New Zealand as Muslims.
Stuff: The people we lost. Tributes to each victim, often with a few short words from their family members.
Khaled A. Beydoun, a Muslim law professor whom lives in Detroit who studies the “mainstream media’s neglect of Muslim victimhood”. His Twitter thread is focusing on the victims of the shooting by giving detailed descriptions of their lives and who they were. See also his other article.
Me and White Supremacy – TheWorkbook, by Layla F. Saad, a Muslim women writer in the US. This 28 day workbook is a great educational resource. See also her twitter account, @laylafsaad where she posts about dismantling white supremacy and her podcasts, the good ancestor, which also involve many themes around white supremacy.
Rethinking Schools. A U.S. teaching resource on how to support and stand in solidarity with migrant students in school, and ways to defend them from racism and Islamophobia.
Australian Muslim Voices on the Christchurch Mosque Attacks and on Islamophobia.
Waleed Aly: Journalist from The Project Australia on not being shocked, the complexities of silence and speaking out, how we can challenge politicians who tacitly stoke fear of Muslims.
Perspectives on socially embedded racism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia in New Zealand
This is Us. A short comic by Toby Morris explaining how this event was able to happen in New Zealand due to societal conventions. It shows how “Overt acts of horror are built on top of a lifetime of smaller everyday assumptions, structures and systems that reinforce an undercurrent of white superiority”
Mārami Stephens: Standing still in the whirlwind. “New Zealanders commit banal evil on a much smaller scale every single day. We know this to be true. Smaller evils don’t inoculate us against larger, grander ones.”
Deranged but Dangerous is a two-part article by Ben Peterson from 2015 looking into the threat of White Nationalist extremists in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Susan Devoy: Hatred lives in New Zealand. “The warning signs for yesterday’s atrocity were everywhere, if only we’d looked – or listened to New Zealand’s Muslim community”
Georgia Gifford: facebook post. “This act of terrorism is a direct result of non-action towards dismantling colonial systems that allow racism, white supremacy, xenophobia and islamophobia to exist in our society which results in the constant emotional, mental, and physical harm of people of colour.”
Scott Poynting: ‘Terrorism has No Religion’ “What hate crime and terrorism have in common — and this crime was both — is that they victimise communities beyond those directly targeted, in order to ‘send a message’.”
Sara Kindon: Hard questions about inseparable events. “Indigenous and other scholars and activists have long made connections between the violence wrought on the Earth and that inflicted on marginalised groups. ‘Nature’ and those deemed to be closer to it by dint of race, ethnicity, age, gender or sexuality are routinely violated, exploited or killed in the name of progress and modernity for the usually white, adult, privileged few.”
Asim Qureshi New Zealand cannot erase colonial terrorism from its history. “if New Zealand hopes to have any chance of recovery from what it has suffered, then it must first seriously confront its own colonial history, and how that colonial violence continues to be excluded from the foundational myths of New Zealand as a tolerant society”
Mental Health Foundation: Extremism is not a mental illness. “White supremacy is not a mental illness. When we talk about mental illness in relation to these kinds of attacks, most of us aren’t talking about the facts of mental distress; that it is an experience more than half of us will share and a sign that someone needs help and support. Instead, we’re using “mentally ill” as a short-hand for “violent” and “threatening” and “a risk to the community.” This is deeply troubling.”
Ghassan Hage White entitlement is part of the very structure of Australian society. “white nationalism expresses itself primarily as a sense of white entitlement. To put it succinctly it is the belief that, if you are white and you are not doing well, economically or in whatever way you imagine you are not doing well, you have every right to expect better precisely because you are white”
Chris Graham: Australia’s hate now for export. “To consider the Australian terrorist’s actions you need to understand a little about that nation’s dark past and the quality of its present leadership.”
For Muslim People, by the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association. “We stand with Muslim scholars who have been marginalised within and purposefully excluded from the same academy that offers millions of dollars to researchers conducting what are often harmful studies on Muslim people”
The Challenging Racism Report. A Western Sydney University Project collating a wide range of reports on racism and Islamophobia in Australia.
KHAIRIAH A. RAHMAN and AZADEH EMADI: Representations of Islam and Muslims in New Zealand media. “Media studies on Islam show negative portrayals in Western media which neglect the Muslim voice…This article identifies the growing trend of stories in the New Zealand media relating to ‘Islamic terrorism’ “
Jessie Daniels: The Algorithmic Rise of the “Alt-Right”. “As with so many technologies, the Internet’s racism was programmed right in—and it’s quickly fueled the spread of White supremacist, xenophobic rhetoric throughout the western world.”
CJ Werleman: Rupert Murdoch’s Islamophobic media empire. A new study of six Murdoch-owned newspapers in Australia reveals that on average eight negative stories appeared about Islam or Muslims per day – and that’s just a tiny fraction of the billionaire’s global media empire.
This is our New Zealand: Report Islamophobia. Created by a group on New Zealand Muslim women in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack on the Muslim community, this website is a place to share and record abuse against the Muslim community.
Tarapuhi Vaeau offers good advice on how to handle this week at work and with colleagues in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
Supporting the victims and their families. The New Zealand Islamic Information Centre (NZIIC) has set up a crowdfunding campaign
In class today we reflected on the horrific white supremacy terror attack on Muslims in Christchurch last Friday. This is a deeply sad and tragic event.
Some class members are from Christchurch. Others know people who have lost friends in the attacks. Some were reminded of the racism they or their family have experienced living in New Zealand.
We all felt a need to respond in some way to show solidarity with the Muslim community in Aotearoa, and to address the racism that underpins this tragic event.
Today we decided to produce a public syllabus, in collaboration with ANTH 312, an undergraduate class that also examines ethnography, taught by Tarapuhi Vaeau.
A public syllabus is an open access curated list of texts and resources that aims to deepen public understanding of an issue and encourage positive social change. A few good examples are the #blacklivesmatter syllabus and the #metooanth syllabus. A good public syllabus values diverse forms of knowledge and reflection, not just academic ones, and may include blog post, twitter threads and facebook posts.
Once we started to build our syllabus, others in the School of Social and Cultural Studies wanted to support this. We thank Dylan Taylor and Jonathan Oosterman in sociology for adding some excellent sources to our list. Over the coming weeks we hope students from a range of courses in our school can also contribute. Please email email@example.com to contribute. We ask you to send through a link to the source along with a line describing its content.
You can find our syllabus here. Please take a look now, and also check on it over the coming week to see how it has grown.
Welcome to our class blog. We are a collective of cultural anthropology honours students at Victoria University of Wellington exploring the genre of ethnography. Across 2019, we will read a wide range of ethnographies and experiment with our own ethnographic and public writing. Some of the core questions we seek to explore in this course are:
What are the ethical and political issues involved with representing people’s lives through the genre of ethnography?
What aesthetic, literary and narrative conventions have developed within ethnographic writing, and what are the ethical consequences of these approaches?
How do different ethnographic styles shore up or challenge the authority of the author?
What experimental possibilities exist for ethnography in this moment?
What possibilities exist for collaboration, sharing and engagement within ethnographic writing projects?
For each of us, what direction would we like to see ethnography move in?
We aim to write accessibly for a broad public audience. We hope you find our reflections, observations and critiques an interesting addition to conversations about ethnography.