On Ethnographic Methods

Kathryn Mariner

Department of Anthropology
University of Rochester


January 25, 2022

In assembling this brief reading list on methodology, I was forced to articulate my specific take (make?) on anthropological—namely ethnographic, as I am an ethnographer—methods, a large and unwieldy, even indefinable, perhaps “unteachable,” field of theory and practice. I recently taught the undergraduate methods course in my department for the first time, and it was simultaneously one of the hardest and most rewarding classes I have ever taught. In teaching methods, I didn’t just get to share techniques and strategies for how to do anthropology, I got to reflect creatively and expansively with students (many of whom at this point had only taken one introductory anthropology course) about how we anthropologists think.  As Dara Culhane (2017, 12) observes, “Research ‘methods’ are, therefore, deeply theoretical: the explanatory beliefs (theories) we hold about how knowledge is created, and authorized or dismissed, all shape how we go about conducting our inquiries into meaning making and knowledge co-creation.” In the methods course, I teach students about the sensitivities and sensibilities that we cultivate through reading and talking and asking and listening and watching and feeling and conducting (experiencing?) fieldwork. The sense(s) of attunement we hone through being with others. I want budding ethnographers to understand “the idea that human beings are most productively understood as social beings who come to know what we know, about both ourselves and others, in and through relationship. We make each other up” (Culhane 2017, 18).

I told my undergraduate students that anthropological method is about the three P’s: process, power, and the production of knowledge. In my own work, and following some of my intellectual inspirations, I add a few more Ps: praxis, potential, possibility. The handful of readings included below have shaped my thinking not only on knowledge production, the research process, and power relations. They have also profoundly shaped how I move through the world when I’m not doing (thinking?) ‘proper fieldwork.’ Not just what I do, but how I am. Anthropology itself is, I think, a methodology for being in the world with others. This short list is certainly not exhaustive or comprehensive, and it is not really a list of the ‘usual suspects’ (citation is also methodological [Mariner 2022]), just a small slice of a rich and varied field of inquiry and insight about process, power, praxis, possibility, and the production of anthropological knowledge. The sources cited in this introduction and in the brief annotations that follow (as suggestions for further synergistic reading) appear below under “additional references.” 

Readings:

Shange, Savannah. 2019 “Chapter One #OurLivesMatter : Mapping an Abolitionist Anthropology.” In Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, AntiBlackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 1-21.

I love the way that Savannah Shange describes talking about method as a way of “showing” our work, like in a complex math problem—she talks about her “Black queer body” as “both research instrument and research subject” (7). In this introductory chapter of her brilliant book Progressive Dystopia, Shange lays out a blueprint for an “abolitionist anthropology.” In the first few pages, she draws a sharp distinction between revolution, which “seeks to win control of the state and its resources,” and abolition, which “wants to quit playing and raze the stadium of settler-slaver society for good” (3). In democratic socialism, Shange argues, “‘social justice’ means living happily ever after with the antiracist, distributive state. Abolition is a messy breakup with the state—rending, not reparation” (4). This is a crucial frame for anthropologists that want to think ethnographic method through the frame of Black study/studies. It has helped me think about my own work with Black communities, and my position as a Black anthropologist in the white space of the academy and discipline. It could be read quite productively alongside Stefano and Harney’s The Undercommons (2013) and recent theorizations of “accomplice” and “fugitive” anthropology.

Fine, Michelle, and Ruber Rodriguez-Barreras. 2001. “To Be of Use.”  Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 1 (1):175-182. doi: 10.1111/1530-2415.00012.

In my own research, earlier on transracial adoption, and more recently on urban placemaking, I have lost sleep over why my inquiries matter, the end to which I claim to be producing knowledge. For students, I call this (following numerous of my own teachers) the “so what?” question. Fine and Rodriguez-Barreras press social researchers to examine their motivations and the politics of accountability in their projects. In a later piece on critical participatory action research, Fine (2018, 1) argues that we must ask: “from where do our questions originate? And then we know, to whom we are accountable.” I find “To Be of Use” helps me think through what the authors refer to as “a whole string of problematic binaries between knowledge and action, experts and ‘the people,’ objectivity and subjectivity” (176). Indeed, if we claim to be doing community-engaged research, how are we defining “community?” What does it mean to be a resource? How do we model for students that expertise lies outside the university? For more advanced students and researchers, this would be interesting to read alongside Sara Ahmed’s recent book What’s the Use? (Duke University Press, 2019).

Haraway, Donna. 2016. “A Curious Practice.” In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 126-133.

The problem of where our research questions originate is taken up beautifully in this chapter in Staying with the Trouble, through the concept of “going visiting.” When I first stumbled upon Haraway’s definition of visiting (a concept inspired by the work of Vinciane Despret and Hannah Arendt, whose words open the chapter), I couldn’t help but see parallels to ethnographic practice. She writes:

Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond—and to do all this politely! (127)

Rather than coming up with our own inquiries and problems within the isolated realm of the Ivory Tower, a better—truer—perhaps method is to pursue the questions of our interlocutors. Methods are a way of doing, thinking, and asking. Haraway emphasizes the importance of “holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those one visits intra-actively shape what occurs” (127). The verb “to visit” has a dual meaning in English: (1) to spend time or socialize with others, and (2) to inflict pain or harm on someone. In this way it can guide ethnographic action without losing sight of the colonial history and extractive potential of our craft. Who and what are we visiting and to what effect? If visiting is indeed “a subject-and-object-making dance” (127), then what is your object and who are your subjects? Within the context of visiting, working together becomes a metaphor for research: “this kind of daily interaction of labor, conversation, and attention” (129). Visiting is a mode of care. Because I adore Haraway’s play with language, I can’t resist ending with another quote: “to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations to having met” (130). This reads beautifully alongside the McKittrick piece that is referenced at the end of this reading list, in which she writes, “Method-making compulsively moves with curiosity (even in frustration) rather than applying a set of techniques to an object of study and generating unsurprising findings and outcomes.” (2021, 44)

Odell, Jenny. 2019. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Penguin Random House.

If visiting is the confluence of “labor, conversation, and attention” (Haraway 129), an ethnographic methodology is an attentional practice. Ethnography, in a sense, is the art and craft of paying attention. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing isn’t explicitly about anthropology, but it has profound methodological lessons for those whose practice looks a lot like visiting, or those interested in the notion of “slow” research (Adams, Burke, and Whitmarsh 2014). A kind of radical self-help book for burned out anti-capitalists, How to Do Nothing is a guide for reorienting our individual and collective attention in the face of unending calls for more productivity and optimization. According to Odell, retraining our attention “enriches not only our capacity to resist, but even more simply, our access to the one life we are given. It can open doors where we didn’t see any, creating landscapes in new dimensions that we can eventually inhabit with others. In so doing, we not only remake the world but are ourselves remade” (94). What is ethnographic research if not the cultivation of attention? The brief line that sticks with me the most is, “Eventually, to behold is to become beholden to” (145), which speaks eloquently back to Fine and Ruber-Barrerras’ arguments about accountability. The kind of resistance Odell proposes is “refusal in place.” “The ‘third space’—,” she argues, “not of retreat, but of refusal, boycott, and sabotage—can become a spectacle of noncompliance that registers on the larger scale of the public” (77). I can’t help but imagine how generative it could be to read this text alongside Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus (2014), in which the concept of ethnographic refusal entails asking questions like “Can I do this and still come home; what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?” (111). Where are our ethnographic limits? How might we use method to resist the call for quantity over quality, for impact factors over impact, for distraction over dismantling, for tenure over intention?

Pink, Sarah. 2008. “An Urban Tour: The Sensory Sociality of Ethnographic Place-making.”  Ethnography 9 (2):175-196. doi: 10.1177/1466138108089467.

Odell’s notion of refusal in place calls to mind another “p” that is crucial to thinking through ethnographic method: place. I find this piece by Sarah Pink helpful—not just for anthropologists working explicitly on questions of space and place—for thinking through how the very selection and demarcation of an ethnographic field site is an act of placemaking. Pink helps us think through how we ethnographers, as well as our research questions and subjects, are emplaced: “the co-presence of researcher and research subject is itself inscribed on place-as-event as it is simultaneously experienced and constituted” (179). The ways in which we define our areas of inquiry—intellectual and geographical—have serious implications for how our research can and will unfold. This piece in particular explores the politics of how ethnographic places are constituted, both through fieldwork and subsequent writing of ethnography. Ethnographers must remain cognizant of anthropology’s long history of using expertise and violence to authoritatively create “places.”

Benson, Peter. 2018. “Tobacco Capitalism, an Afterward: Open Letters and Open Wounds in Anthropology.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21(1): 21-34.

In introductory anthropology courses, we often learn (and teach) the Greek etymology of ethnography (people + description). If one of our ethnographic goals is eventual dissemination of what we find/co-create, our understanding of methodology cannot be divorced from a deep engagement with the politics of representation. What is the relationship then, between method and ethnographic writing? In this difficult epistolary piece, Peter Benson addresses a ‘key informant’ with whom he is no longer on speaking terms since the publishing of his first monograph, a critical ethnography of American tobacco farming.  As Benson notes, “we do not usually write books with our informants in mind as the readership” (21)—how might our ethnographic praxis change if we did? When I recently taught this piece in my methods course, one of my students asked whether there exists a form of compassionate or ethical critique. As Benson notes, we do not absolve ourselves of voyeurism or abuses of unequal power when we create distance by claiming to be “critical.” But we also have to come to terms with the consequences of representing views and practices that we find violent, questionable, puzzling, racist. “But if you can’t stop the horror, shouldn’t you at least document it?” (1996, 2), asks Ruth Behar in The Vulnerable Observer. Behar’s classic, along with the edited volume When They Read What We Write would make fitting companion texts for Benson’s piece. These forward-looking concerns about the ‘final product’ of our fieldwork have profound implications for how we design research projects and interventions, how we conduct ourselves in the field, and how our work is received once it is published. The question echoes: “Can I do this and still come home…?” (Simpson 2014, 111).

McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. “The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound.” In Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 34-57.

I began this reading list with Black Studies, and Black Studies is where I will end. In this chapter from her latest book, Katherine McKittrick interrogates the relationship between method and discipline, and there are several takeaways for ethnographic practice. “Methodology and method make discipline and knowledge about categories,” she argues, drawing attention to the methodological link between discipline and epistemological violence (35). This text helps me think through what an interdisciplinary ethnography might look like, as a way to navigate “the tensions between liberatory thought and generic institutionalized politics” (37). How do we collectively create canons and toolkits keeping in mind that “description is not liberation” (39). I hear an echo of Gloria Anzaldúa’s claim that “in trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence” (2012, 59). McKittrick contends:

As we see from the work of many scholars of black studies, the liberatory task is not to measure and assess the unfree—and seek consolation in naming violence—but to posit that many divergent and different and relational voices of unfreedom are analytical and intellectual sites that can tell us something new about our academic concerns and our anticolonial futures. (50)

In essence, our methods should be transformative or they’ll be bullshit. An ethnography probably won’t change the world. But it should change something

Kathryn Mariner is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester. Her new project Fertile Ground is on placemaking in Rochester, New York.

Additional References:

Adams, Vincanne, Nancy J. Burke, and Ian Whitmarsh. 2014. “Slow Research: Thoughts for a Movement in Global Health.” Medical Anthropology 33: 179-197.

Ahmed, Sara. 2019. What’s the Use? Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2012. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th Anniversary Fourth Edition ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Behar, Ruth. 1996. “The Vulnerable Observer.” In The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press. Pp. 1-33.

Brettell, Caroline, ed. 1993. When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Culhane, Dara. 2017. “Imagining: An Introduction.” In A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies, edited by Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane, 1-21. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fine, Michelle. 2018. Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions.

Mariner, Kathryn A. 2022. “Citation.” Feminist Anthropology. (online first).

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.