Sports domes host a variety of activities for soccer players, among them women’s competitive winter soccer leagues. I chose this setting for my ethnographic observations, as I wanted to study team energy and competitive behaviour amongst women. Once on site, however, I noticed athletes of different ages were comparing themselves to each other. Thus, I decided to focus on the differences between older and younger competitive female athletes.
My first ethnographic excerpt is a sensory description, focused more specifically on sight and sound. In his essay “Partial Truths”, James Clifford mentions that some anthropologists believe in a hierarchy of the senses, specifically favoring sight above all else (Clifford, p.11). In this particular ethnographic description, I tried to create an immersive, tangible experience, fixating primarily on sound (describing the sonic atmosphere, dialogue, etc.). In spite of this, I still found myself relying heavily on the visual elements to complete my description. I sought to give life to the setting itself, portraying the dome as an active part of the scene and acknowledging its interactions with the public. I chose to write in third person for this description, as I found this point of view would best allow the text to be immersive and transportive.
My second approach is what Clifford would call a “a self-reflexive fieldwork account.” As “with the ‘fieldwork account’ the rhetoric of experienced objectivity yields to that of the autobiography and the ironic self-portrait” (Clifford, p.14). This short ethnographic piece is composed of simple sentences, is ordered chronologically and is straightforward in style. It aims to emulate the “ironic self-portrait” mentioned by Clifford: not only does it incorporate my interplay with the setting during the fieldwork (my physical state, my social discomfort, etc.), it also takes into account my familiarity with the dome. Having frequented the setting myself for many years, this pre-existing familiarity with the dome certainly coloured my ethnographic experience, in the physical (sights, sounds and smells) and the social (behavioral patterns, actors) sense. I felt that it was important to acknowledge this through at least one of my descriptions. Consistent with my reflexive tone, I chose to write this piece in the first person.
Ethnographic description 1: Coliseum Comes to Life
A thick metal and glass bubble, it cuts out all the noise. There is only a suction sound and the jarring clicks of cleat against metal as footsteps are taken to push the door forward and around. Then, an audible hiss as air is released and the door glides open.
The noises flood in first; yelling, shouting, clapping, smacks and heavy footsteps, whoops and whistles… Then, as one steps beyond the door, light comes next. It is somewhat blinding at first, as one’s eyes grow accustom to the brightness of fluorescent bulbs. Their glow reflects off the white oval-shaped ceiling that hovers above the green turf, like the underside of a massive white balloon.
A few feet away, blue and black silhouettes dart back and forth with impressive speed. The ball they chase thunks as it is knocked around from foot to foot, louder even than the players’ footfalls. When they are at their fastest, the athletes tread lightly, elegantly, and only stomp when they turn and stop.
As the brightness recedes, silhouettes become figures, and figures become people. The ones dressed in identical blue jerseys and white shorts are only girls; they are skilled, yet smaller, slighter than their opponents. They are quiet and sometimes shy away from the ball. They try not to glance at their parents on the sidelines, who offer positive encouragement and strict instruction alike.
The ones dressed in black are women. They run with more power and strength, they call to each other with confidence and conviction, despite their absent supporters on the sidelines. They do not wear identical jerseys, instead opting for eclectic equipment of the same colour. But their choices are not meaningless. A rearing horse here, a small black raven there; these images are glaring symbols of past prestige and experience. They are meant to intimidate.
Two whistle blasts at centerfield. The black team steps off the turf; the blue team retreats. Further away inside the dome, other teams do the same. The entire space is oddly hushed.
The players on the black team sit and stand, listening to their coach. Arms crossed, legs intertwined, drinking water, eyes darting away and back, they are never motionless and hardly pay attention. Meanwhile, the younger girls sit in a row on their expensive team bench, eyes glued to their coach as he motions animatedly with one arm towards the far side of the field, whilst gesturing with the other hand to emphasise his words. The players absorb his comments, drink them in. They need the instruction.
A whistle sounds. All teams are called back on the field and the second half begins.
The dome comes back to life.
As balls are touched and kicked, goals are scored and saves are made, the teams set to play next begin to trickle in. Highlighter green and dark purple players settle next to the revolving door, slowly dressing themselves and preparing for their turn on the artificial pitch. Both teams are considerably older than the players currently competing, and they seem to know it, too. They appear almost envious.
See? They’re playing actual soccer, one exclaims.
These girls aren’t as rough as the ones we play, comments another.
They’re good though, says a third. They all grumble in agreement.
There are a lot of interceptions because [the players] are so fast, though. Another grumble of agreement.
The game ends, and to no one’s surprise, the black team has handily won the game. The next match begins shortly after.
The evening is a cycle; the highlighter green team beats the purple team, and new players congregate to get ready for the next match. This time, the teams are red and blue. They sit at opposite ends of the field.
Through the metal and glass bubble again, the shouting, clapping and thunking cuts out. For a moment, there is only suction and the sound of shoes scraping against the metal floor. There is an audible hiss as the door opens up to the night.
Outside, lights flicker and the air is gut-wrenchingly cold; it bites into the skin and sharpens the senses, a rather unpleasant awakening.
The real world is dark, still and quiet.
Ethnographic description 2: Coliseum – Notes from the field
8: 22 pm – Arrival
Sweat still clings to the nape of my neck as I spin through the revolving door. I’ve just finished playing a soccer game myself, but my teammates are long gone. Still, dressed in a grey oversized sweatshirt and classic black and white soccer pants, I am unremarkable in a sea of athletes.
The dome is noisy as there are three mini-field games underway at the same time. I assume the space reeks of rubber and chemicals, but I’ve been here so often I can’t seem to smell it anymore. Plopping myself down on a small three-legged foldable stool and pulling my laptop and glasses from my soccer bag, I choose a spot that is not too close to the field, but not too far from the spectators.
The players pitted against each other are all strong, skilled athletes, but one team, clearly older and more experienced, is outdoing the other.
8: 30 pm – Half time. The players dressed in blue and black consult with their coaches. Teams playing further away also leave the field; the dome quiets down. The younger team sits in a row on a six-person foldable soccer bench, and is clearly attentive. In comparison, the older team listens but their bodies suggest different levels of attentiveness. Some forage through their bags while others drink water and look around as the coach speaks.
8: 33 pm – The players are called back onto the field and the second half begins.
The older players have set up camp opposite me on the other side of the field. They run with strength and confidence, and they communicate more. They sport black shirts (they are clearly a team), but most do not wear the same jerseys. Instead they dress in clothing that showcases their competitive past (club logos, but also Carleton, UOttawa and Dalhousie University brands).
The players on the other team wear identical blue jerseys and white shorts; they are smaller, thinner than their opponents and shy away from physical challenges. They hardly speak to each other. Having played many years of competitive soccer, I am able to identify some of their faces. I believe the players on this team are around seventeen or eighteen years of age. I wonder if I am recognizable to them, and if so, what they must think of me as I sit here with my glasses on, observing their game and taking notes.
Their spectators sit to my right, watching the play on my side of the field. There must be at least a dozen parents. If it was not noticeable at first glance, this is a sure sign that the blue team is in fact quite young and inexperienced; at the women’s level, fans are not usually present in such numbers. The black team has no spectators.
Other teams begin to arrive in preparation for the next game. One group of older women (in their late thirties to early forties) sits next to me, so close that it almost looks like I could be part of their team. They slowly begin to put on their equipment, meanwhile watching the game currently underway. They comment on the skill and speed of the players on the field, almost enviously.
8: 57 pm – The first game ends. The black team wins. A new referee takes the previous one’s place and the next two teams (the aforementioned green team, and a purple team) are called to the field.
9: 02 pm – The second game begins. The pace is slower than the first, the green team dominating the play and scoring two quick goals within the first 10 minutes.
9: 19 pm - Already, some players wearing red and blue jerseys begin to arrive for the game that will be played on this field at 10pm.
10: 08 pm – Departure
I am shivering. My jersey is no longer soaked in sweat, but the air in the dome is hardly heated. My hands are frozen and dry, the tip of my nose is numb, and I can feel the cold penetrating through my thick futsal sweatshirt. I pack my things and leave the dome.
Exiting through the revolving door, the night chills me immediately and my shivers become violent. The lights flicker and all is quiet in the parking lot.
This exercise made me aware of the challenges of undertaking fieldwork and writing ethnography. During the actual fieldwork process, I quickly realized that it is impossible to take note of all that is happening and because of this, anthropologists omit things unconsciously as much as they do consciously. For instance, despite my desire to write a descriptive text focused on all the senses, I caught myself fixating exclusively on sight, and constantly felt the need to mentally reorient my observations.
Deciding what and what not to include in a one-page ethnographic description was also challenging. I witnessed three different 50 minute games and took over 2500 words worth of notes during my 2-hour observation period. I wanted to address everything I had seen in the field, but after writing a two-and-a-half-page draft of my second ethnographic excerpt, I decided that I could not include all of my observations without jeopardizing the quality of my descriptions.
The process of writing itself was a difficult one; my second ethnographic description felt like an extension of my field-notes, but my first certainly required more time and thought. In writing both ethnographic descriptions, I was made aware of the importance of proper word choice. Trying to find adjectives and descriptors that do not wrongly portray or embellish an experience was challenging at times, especially when describing emotion.
I came to understand that adopting one writing style will force the ethnographer to omit certain details that might otherwise be at the center of another style. In example, writing in the first person and including my own experience in the field allowed me to reveal more background information about the setting in my second ethnographic excerpt. This information was near impossible to include in the first ethnographic description. Nonetheless, my first excerpt creates a more tangible, transportive image of the dome itself; I feel that it better describes how one might feel if one were to step into the setting with little to no context. In this way, I find James Clifford assessment of ethnography to be quite accurate; a fragment of reality, a facet of the true experience of being there, ethnography is a partial truth. The anthropologist’s experience is filtered at least twice before it reaches the reader; once through the author’s eyes, and a second time through his or her words.
The ethnographic materials read and discussed in class allowed me to better understand what constitutes an ethnographic text, and gave me the opportunity to discover different styles of writing effectively used in anthropology today. With these examples in mind, I was able to better situate my own writing within the larger context of ethnography. My first ethnographic description was more experimental, inspired by Hugh Raffles’s Insectopedia, specifically the excerpt entitled, “Deepest of Reveries” which served as a model for thick description focused on the sensorial experience of the setting. I also drew on Lila Abu Lughod’s chapter, “Guest and Daughter” from Veiled Sentiments, and sought to emulate its narrative, visually enthralling style and reflective tone, thereby also including myself (and my thoughts, ideas and reflections) in the narrative. My second ethnographic description also takes after Katherine Stewart’s short blurb “The Anthropologists” (from Ordinary Affects) in the sense that it is composed of simple, quick and straightforward sentences and employs casual language.
This exercise has physically shown me that as ethnographers, we truly do have the power to shape how others see the world; the elements we choose to focus on and the way in which we portray these elements can change how a setting is experienced through the page.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1999. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Updated ed. with a new preface. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clifford, James. 1986 “Introduction: Partial Truths” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George Marcus (Eds.) Berkeley: University of California Press. Pg 1-27.
Raffles, Hugh. 2011. Insectopedia. 1. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage.
Stewart, Katherine. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.