Mid-term ENGL 5870

Ned Weidner

ENGL 5870

Dr. DeVries



1)    Developing and articulating a working definition of ethnography is important to me so that I can better understand the work we are doing this semester as ethnographers.  However, developing a concrete definition is an extremely difficult task because there are so many intangibles involved.  There are so many intangibles involved because at the base level ethnography is the study of culture, but how we study that culture depends upon the person studying it and the culture they are studying.  We have read a number of different articles, all with a slightly different take on the field of ethnography because all of the scholars are coming from different social, cultural, and historical perspectives.  Purcell-Gates defined ethnography as the “accurate reflection of participants perspectives and behaviors” (92).  I argue, as Brenda Jo Brueggeman might that ethnography is merely a snap shot taken from a particular lens at a certain angle.  It is accurate only from that perspective.  Another scholar, Frank wrote that “ethnography is the written description of culture” (2), and I would agree that the eventual product, the eventual conclusion to years or in our case months of research is the written description of that research.  But there are many challenges and roadblocks that must be dealt with before the ethnography, or the description of a culture from one observers’ perspective is written.

The first challenge is changing the dynamics of the culture studied.  When an observer first steps into the classroom they immediately change the dynamics of that community because as Goffman argued in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “when and individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have” (6).  When an observer appears before the classroom then they will influence the actions of the students and teacher in the class.  This is so because people are social creatures whose identities depend upon the interaction they have with others.  People act differently and play different “characters” depending upon the situation.  So the students’ and teachers’ habits and routines might change once the observer enters the situation. One of the biggest challenges for “classroom observers is to understand and reveal these implicit patterns and routines” (Frank 3).  A possible solution to this issue is to become intimate with the culture you are studying.  And while this alleviates some of the changes in students’ social behavior, it causes just as many challenges for the observer. 

One challenge that it causes is the difficulty to remain the observer.  It is hard to walk the line between observer and participant, between researcher and community player.  Brueggeman highlights this difficulty in her article, “Still-life Representations and Silences in the Participant-Observer Role.”  She writes, “the space between participant and observer is an awkward, dark and confusing and hard to define place…We can be neither exclusively participant nor wholly observer because in order to be reflexive in our roles and representations as qualitative researchers, our frames must always be ready to shift” (19).  So, while it benefits the ethnographer to get close to a community because they may see things that an outsider would not have the chance to see, it complicates their research because now they have become more than just an observer.  They have become an observer-participant. But it is in this borderland between observer and participant that true research and ethnography is done. Because as Brueggeman quotes Fine, it is in this “zipper” that the real research is found.  “We must instead ‘work the hyphen’ traverse the terrain of what is ‘happening between’ participant and observer, learn to negotiate the ‘zippered borders’ of our various roles and representations” (20).  If we as ethnographers learn to negotiate that zipper, that hyphen, which is no easy task, then our research will benefit all the more.

But, balancing on the zipper is hard to do, and it is something I have struggled with during my own observations.  One teacher likes to get me involved in the discussions and group work and sometimes appeals to my so-called expertise as an English MA student.  This makes it extremely difficult to conduct ‘real-time’ notes, but it allows me to get closer to the students I am observing and thus a better representation.  For myself, the key is to come to terms with this, to come to terms with the fact that sometimes I will be an observer-participant and others I will be a participant-observer. I have to be ok with this, or I will be guilt ridden and destroyed like other ethnographers before me.  I have to be ok with the balancing act.

This ethnographic balancing act extends beyond the division between observer and participant, it extends to the actual write up.  Because ethnography is often described as a soft science, sometimes there is the assumption that the ethnographers’ report should look scientific, that the observations and perspectives of the ethnographer should be written as factual or informational, however this assumption fails to consider the social conditioning of the observer and Goffman’s theory that the students may be playing different characters when the observer is in the room.  But I feel that ethnographic research should be written in a captivating way.  I feel as Barbara Sunstein wrote, ethnographers are “preservers of story as opposed to dispersers of information” (180).  I feel that ethnography is about telling the story that you the ethnographer sees.  I feel as Sunstein did that there must be a “relationship between what goes on in a culture and how it appears on the page, a relationship dependant as much upon the writer’s lenses and tools as it is on those of a researcher” (179), and as writers we must tell the story of our observations in a compelling yet believable way.  When we do this, when we write with the passion of an observer-participant, as opposed to simply a scientific observer, “the boundaries blur between fiction and non-fiction, between poetry and prose” (194), and as such we will frame the culture for the reader through our lens.  We can’t help but to do so. 

And thus just as Murray saw the most photographed barn in America, as the others saw it, “we see only what the others see,” the readers of ethnographies will see only what the ethnographer sees.  So when I am doing my research with the thought that I may want to write it up someday, I try to be cognizant of my audience.  I try to be cognizant that my reader might take me to be some sort of an expert on the subject I am writing about and thus might take my perspective as fact.  That is why I think it is important to do as Sunstein suggests and frame the writing from the beginning, tell the reader who you are so they may develop an understanding of some of your biases and take them into consideration when reading your writing, because in the end the ethnographer is trying to portray the culture they are studying as accurately as possible.  Ethnographers are trying to describe the story of a culture as they see it.

2)      Dealing with the dilemma of subjectivity is important because as I and others have argued both in class and on commentaries, ethnography is not scientific, but there must be a level of truth in order for the research to be taken seriously and divided from fiction or a story.  This is difficult because as Sunstein wrote, when an ethnographer writes “the boundaries blur between fiction and non-fiction, between poetry and prose” (194), and so the boundaries blur between objectivity and subjectivity.  Ethnography is related to science and science is thought to be objective.  It is thought to be factual and contain the truth; however, when dealing with people the truth can never truly be found.  We can only hope to get close to it; at the same time, objectivity can never truly be reached because people are social creatures, and as social creatures our knowledge is gained through social interaction, which makes knowledge value laden, and if something is value laden it is tainted and contains things that were created through social interaction, and thus can never be wholly objective.  As I have said and will continue to say objectivity is dead.  But that does not mean that we succumb to its death and submit to being wholly subjective.  If ethnographers did that then they would be no different than the fiction writer or the fortune-teller.

It is impossible as an ethnographer or any researcher to be objective because of our biases, both implicit and explicit.  They affect the research that we do.  They affect the way we see things.  Our biases as ethnographers are our wrappings, and as Walker Percy wrote, “the thing is lost through its packaging.”  So what is actually occurring is lost it cannot be seen as it is because as humans we are wrapped in social biases that are nearly impossible to escape.  And even if the ethnographer was somehow able to detach him or herself from their own biases they would still be observing people who were trapped within their own wrappings, their own biases, and so the people they were observing would not truly be themselves.  They would not be themselves because as Goffman argued people are different in different situations.  “I have said that when an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have” (6), and “given the fact that the individual effectively projects a definition of the situation when he enters the presence of others, we can assume that events may occur within the interaction which contradict, discredit, or otherwise throw doubt upon this projection” (12).  In other words, people act different depending upon the situation they are in and all the different situations and different characters a person plays in those situations make up the identity of that person.    So, a person would be an “a product of all these arrangements” (Goffman 256); people have multiple identities. 

The fact that people act different depending on the situation and that ethnographers are wrapped in their own biases is an important issue to deal with because that means that their final write up is subjective.  It means that ethnography itself is subjective.  Dealing with this problem is the real issue.  If ethnography is subjective how do researchers make their reports accurate?  How do they add validity to those reports? And how do they present it to the reader? To the people they are studying? 

I like both Sunstein’s and Brenda Jo Brueggeman’s tact for dealing with the problem of subjectivity in ethnography.  Both scholars attempt to deal with it by trying to make both the reader and ethnographer aware of the implicit and explicit biases.  They suggest that the ethnographer write a bit about themselves to begin the report.  By doing this, the ethnographer helps to make the reader aware of who the writer is.  This is important because if the reader is aware of who the writer is then perhaps they can disseminate what is a bias and what is actually happening, even if the ethnographer is unable to do so.  If the reader can understand who the writer is and detach the biases then the ethnography becomes a little more valid.  It becomes a little closer to the truth.  

Another way the ethnographer can deal with the problem of subjectivity is to do what Brueggeman did and let the participant read your work. If they feel that they are being misrepresented than perhaps the ethnographer has too many biases, perhaps they have too much wrapping.  Or perhaps, in an attempt to make it more compelling they wrote it in too subjective of a way, and the report ends up closer to a fictional story.  If this is the case having a participant read the report could be helpful. 

But perhaps the most useful tool when dealing with subjectivity is triangulation.  Triangulating research can help add validity to the field notes and can create a clearer picture of the culture being represented.  There are a number of different ways to triangulate research as Purcell-Gates writes about in “Ethnographic Research.”  A researcher can conduct interviews, focus groups, assimilate artifacts such as: “copies of worksheets, writing samples, book reports, test results, drawings, and so on” (106).  If more than one of the different artifacts shows the same results then the researcher can be better assured that they are getting closer to the actual truth, whatever that may be. 

During my own ethnographic research, I have tried to triangulate my research.  I have tried to add validity to my field notes.  I have interviewed students and teachers.  I have collected class documents like homework assignments and drawn pictures of the classroom settings.  I also intend to write myself and my situation into the final report.  I sometimes include my own daily situation into the field notes.  I think this is beneficial because it gives it some perspective.  I also go to the same classes over and over, in attempt to fit in and observe the class in its natural setting. I am not sure that this makes me any more of a researcher than others, just as I am unsure that it makes my research less subjective because in the end I am dealing with people and as I stated above, when dealing with people everything is subjective.  But, what it does do is give me as the ethnographer some piece of mind that I am trying to be aware of my biases, that I am not trying to be subjective, and that I am doing everything in my power to collect as much data as possible, and be as unobtrusive in the class as possible, so that I can deal with this issue of subjectivity as best as I possibly can.  

1 comment for “Mid-term ENGL 5870

  1. May 11, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Ned, You’ve given thoughtful answers. I see in both of them that you are struggling with the issue of the ethnographer’s subjectivity.

    I wonder about trying to remain unobtrusive; do you think that will let you really get the inside knowledge of a participant observer?

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