ANT3142 - Ethnography: Comparative Perspective

The following ethnographic essays were developed by students of ANT 3142 Fall 2016 course, entitled “Ethnography: Comparative Perspective.” This course explores the often neglected, yet by no means secondary, aspect of the anthropological research process: the act of writing.  Anthropological imagination—as well as the ways in which anthropology is popularly imagined—centers in a profound way on the trials and tribulations of ethnographic fieldwork. Yet, as James Clifford reminded us in the seminal anthology Writing Culture, what anthropologists do, often for even longer periods of time, is write.

While students of ANT 3142 directed the majority of their efforts to reading and analyzing research accounts of other scholars, in the second half of the semester, they were also asked to experiment with ethnographic representation. Their assignment was deceptively simple: they were to conduct at least two hours of informal observation in a public space, paying attention to interactions, internal dynamics, practices, rituals and sensorial aspects of this setting.  They were then asked to write two very different ethnographic descriptions of the same place, by deploying, playing with, or downright deconstructing the conventions of ethnographic writing. 

The exercise revealed to them—as it was meant to—the complexity of the ethnographic writing process, as well as the many choices facing anthropologists as they attempt to render their observations into an intelligible, and hopefully illuminating form. In this way, students were also asked to operationalize some of their newfound understanding of ethnographic forms, elements and representational strategies.

Inevitably, students learned that ethnographic writing is hard, and involves making a number of choices, each of which may have unanticipated consequences. Some of them discovered their unique ethnographic voice; others lamented that the exercise felt more like trying on a series of different hats, none of which necessarily fit perfectly. Yet others pondered ethical responsibilities involved in ethnographic portrayal, which lead them to consider what details need to be included, or instead omitted, or perhaps changed (to protect anonymity). All of them came out of the assignment with a new, critical and more empathetic understanding of the process of ethnographic writing, and the inevitable partiality of each and every form of representation.

I invite you to take a look at their excellent work.

Larisa Kurtovic,
Assistant Professor,
School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies,
University of Ottawa