An Introduction to Ethnographies

Uploaded by ipegmarc on 21.06.2012

The Role of Ethnographers and Ethnographies We have a problem when we try to study cultures.
Do you know what the problem is? The problem is that we all belong to at least
one main culture and numerous subcultures. So, how can we objectively understand and
study different cultures? Subjective understanding is easy. Subjectively we constantly are judging
and evaluating other people and their values and behaviors based upon our own personal
experience. It is much more difficult to put our personal feelings, preferences and values
aside in order to objectively evaluate and study another person’s culture.
Ethnography attempts to deal with this issue. Ethnographers are individuals conducting the
ethnographic study. They come from any field of study, but most commonly are found in sociology,
anthropology and psychology because those are three fields that study human behavior
and need a "scientific" way to do so. An ethnography is an objective inside look
at a group of people. It often is referred to as "participant observation" because the
ethnographer, or fieldworker, might live with the people or at least spend as much time
as possible with them and take part in as many daily events and special ones as possible.
By participating in the culture, they can get a better understanding than just by watching
from the outside. The observation part comes from filtering the daily activities through
one or more theory from their field; so they are filtering the activities and attempting
to apply some objectivity. Hofstede said (I believe that’s how you
pronounce it) "The core of intercultural awareness is learning to separate observation from interpretation"
(Hofstede et al., p. 17, 2002). It is such a natural process to observe something and
make a conclusion/interpretation about what we have observed. Think back to the images
in the Module 1 Lesson. When you saw the pictures, your mind probably automatically applied an
interpretation that fit your personal experience. For example, I grew up in a farming community,
so I interpreted the first picture as the planting of seeds and it never even occurred
to me that it was a man attacking a woman violently. My interpretation of the second
picture was a sales presentation. I would have said it was a teacher except that in
my experience classes are usually larger than that. However, my point is that I observed
and interpreted at the same time. As ethnographers, we need to learn to separate the observation
from the interpretation. Visiting students at their homes or in their
communities was suggested in the reading of Megastrategy 10 as a form of ethnographic
study. I personally can vouch for the effectiveness of this strategy. Instead of keeping all of
the power in the relationship and making the student and student's relatives always come
to you, it can be extremely helpful to the relationship if you surrender some of the
power and visit them on their "home turf." One of the things I like about Michelle Pfeiffer's
character in the movie "Dangerous Minds" is that she did visit some of her students in
their homes. However, there's an interesting point in the movie where a mother of two of
her students explains that she is taking her sons out of school. She tells Michelle's character
to find "some other poor boys to save." So, she wasn’t very happy with Michelle visiting
them and taking time out for them because she thought it was done from a position of
superiority. So, even when we reach out with the right motives, if we are members of the
majority population, we need to be sensitive to possible misinterpretations. In fact, it
doesn’t really matter what we do, we should realize that someone else will not always
interpret what we do and say the same way we mean it because their experiences are going
to filter the information that comes in through their senses.
In Module 3 you will get a taste of being an ethnographer; although, it will be a unique
way of writing an ethnography I admit. At least it will introduce you to the process
of separating observation from interpretation. An ethnography describes what is observed
and attempts to interpret what is observed through the eyes of the cultural insider.
So, it’s interpreted the way that that culture would interpret it themselves instead of applying
an outside viewpoint, an outside cultural interpretation (if that makes sense). So,
it’s a challenge, but I think you’ll be up to it. Thank you.