Ethnography – What is it and why do we need it?
‘You just want a holiday, don’t you?’
‘You just want a holiday, don’t you?’ – This is the not uncommon response from the uninitiated when one is embarking on a faraway ethnography project. It was in any event what a university employee asked me as I was setting off to conduct research on maritime migration into southern Europe – with first stop being, erm, the Spanish Canary Islands.
Aside from my unfortunate choice of initial destination, those who compare ethnography to a spot of vacationing do have a point: ethnographers in action can sometimes look distinctly like layabouts with too much time on their hands. You might spot them on a street corner, smoking with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells or pin-striped investment bankers, or catch them lazing about in a teahouse, a pub or a palm-fronded village. But as the ethnographers smoke their fags or sip their tea (or beer), what you don’t see is the mental gymnastics as they figure out how to enter the world of a street con artist, a body-builder or a stock broker. As one anthropologist once told a class of aspiring ethnographers, it’s all rather like being a teenager again: spending time trying to fit in and befriend perfect strangers.
Still, it can be good fun. Try it for yourself – a few minutes during your daily commute will do. Start off by observing other commuters stream past. How do they interact with each other, with the gates and the workers, and how can you tell them apart? Who is relaxed, who is stressed out, who glances anxiously about? Then join them in the rush: feel and sense what it’s like to be a commuter – the squash, the pushing, the rank armpits, the blinking smartphones and the freesheets held up as shields against intruding humanity. Observe it all. Sense it all. Then, finally, befriend those perfect strangers. Repeat next day. And the day after that. A year of this and you might be done and dusted.
Ethnography is research on the slow boil – something that’s getting harder to justify at a time when our public debate increasingly favours the quick flash in the pan.
Besides such ‘participant observation’, most of what ethnographers do is writing, writing, writing. Not just finished books or articles, but ‘field notes’ – scrawled into notebooks or typed on to a laptop, as I did when travelling the Euro-African borderlands on a quest to understand the interlocked worlds of undocumented migration and border controls. After a day volunteering in the migrant camp of Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave in North Africa – interpreting for the camp workers, answering migrants’ anxious questions, hanging about being generally useless – I’d rush home to type furiously on my wobbly Eee PC. As I travelled along clandestine African trails, I scrawled notes at the back of the bumpy four-wheel drives of Senegalese border police; and as I crossed the tall border fences surrounding Ceuta, the Spanish border guard accompanying me advised that I hide my notepad to avoid rousing suspicion among his Moroccan colleagues. It didn’t help much: next time I showed up a soldier waved his gun at me, but no matter. Weaving between camp life, border fences and surly soldiers was all in a day’s work – much as other ethnographers spend their time crouching among farmworkers in the fields, sneaking into the secret world of Wall Street or learning the art of sorcery on the edge of the Sahara.
It may be messy and imperfect, yet it opens up worlds that will otherwise remain locked to outsiders.
Ethnography, then, is straying out of our comfort zone in order to understand another social world. It is a messy, fuzzy, tough and accident-prone line of business, as the young sociologist Alice Goffman realised when critics started tearing into her bestselling On the Run, a riveting ethnography about the causes and effects of constant police crackdowns in a poor black American neighbourhood. One journalist, frustrated with how Goffman had anonymised her data – and so made her text unverifiable – hit out at her methods, calling ethnography ‘an uncomfortable hybrid of impressionistic data gathering, soft-focus journalism with even a dash of creative writing’.
Besides their more valid concerns, some such critics of Goffman’s book were trying to read it as a piece of reportage that principally pointed a finger of blame. But ethnography is not a journalistic exposé. Rather than dig for killer facts, good ethnographers aim to uncover something deeper about how a society or subculture works – and it does so by changing perspective to that of the insider. We have to suspend disbelief and shift our gaze: what is the world really like when, during your every waking moment, you feel the police are out to get you? As Goffman took us into the street lives of young African Americans afraid to visit the hospital because they might get arrested, she conveyed to us these men’s view of the authorities, of the world and of their precarious place in it.
This understanding cannot come about through a social survey or a piece of investigative reporting alone. We have to stick around and listen, observe and participate, one awkward step at a time. It may be messy and imperfect, yet it opens up worlds that will otherwise remain locked to outsiders.
Ethnography is research on the slow boil – something that’s getting harder to justify at a time when our public debate increasingly favours the quick flash in the pan. Yet amid calls for more media soundbites, ready-made research metrics and pre-cooked policy ‘solutions’, this is precisely why we need it more than ever.