Kelsey Butler

Ethnographic Exercise


            The following two ethnographic excerpts take place in the lounge of an Ottawa curling club, and are based on observation of some of its members before, during, and after an early evening game. As an insider at the location, I knew that it would be easy to gain access to both the space and the people, and my previously established habit of completing work in the space meant that it would not alter the behaviour of those around me if they saw me writing. The first approach is reflexive and written in first person, focused on the sensory experience of observing in the space, with particular attention paid to sound. The second is a more classic third person observational account that documents how those within the space interact with each other physically. Both of these draw from the same observations, but place importance on different things within them - a concrete example of how the ethnographer’s writing choices and stylistic voice can produce a number of unique perspectives of any given situation.


Style 1

            If I was going to pick a single word to describe the curling club that night (or any night, really), it would be loud. Even when there is no one else in the building, there is a constant soundtrack of machinery: the bar fridge hums, the ice machine drops a continuous stream of cubes, and the plant that cools the playing surface rumbles from downstairs. Tonight, is no exception, and those background noises are the soundtrack to my observations. I’ve taken my place behind the bar, watching the members arriving for the 5:00 pm game through the window as if it was a stage and the players were actors. At this point, only a few people have arrived and are now greeting each other before turning to the television, which is showing a game from the current professional curling tour event. They exchange comments, talking not only about the game’s score but also about the technical skill of the featured players. Members continue to come through the doors and up the stairs, and the volume begins to increase. It has now become difficult to listen in on individual conversations, with words blending together into a steady din.

            It is now getting closer to game time, and everyone begins to cluster around their teammates, making small talk, asking about weekend plans and other simple topics. However, there is someone that stands out: a woman whom I do not recognize sits quietly by herself at a nearby table, not interacting with those around her. She came in carrying a broom, which suggested to me that she is also a curler, but since I have never seen her before, I know that she is not a member. She sits in silence for almost 15 minutes before being approached and greeted by “S” (who is the president of this division), and then is joined by the team with which she is playing.

            I must take a moment here to admit that I influenced her first interaction with the president: when “S” greeted me moments before, I questioned her about the woman and referenced the fact that she appeared to be alone. I did not think much of it at the time, but revisiting my notes made me realize the influence that I had on that situation.

            The clock hits 5:00 and the green lights on the ice signal that it is time for the games to begin. There is a sudden sense of near-silence as the 32 players file out onto the ice and leave me with just four spectators, all of whom shift their attention towards their friends that are now playing. The television is still low in the background, and through the glass of the lounge comes the muffled yells of “hard!” and other phrases characteristic to curling. The soundscape stays this way for over an hour, changing only when the new set of players begins to arrive before the 7:00 draw. It is at the turnover point where the noise hits its peak, with almost 70 people contained in the small lounge.

            After the early games have finished, players from each game settle down at tables, to share drinks and more conversation. At this point, it became clear that while there were countless conversations occurring all around me, I was unable to listen to any single person’s words. The sound clip I have included with these observations was taken during this time, and is meant to give the reader a better understanding of how difficult it was to focus on a single conversation. As I move between the tables, it becomes easier to hear the various topics, and I am even brought into some of them: how are my classes going, am I going to watch any of the Olympic trials in December, did I see that shot that was made in the sixth end? Slowly the tables begin to empty, with just quick goodbyes given to table-mates before heading back into the night. A few people linger at their tables, consisting of teams of friends that have been together for many years, but even they eventually leave with a shouted farewell to me from the exit. Once again, I am surrounding by the mechanical soundtrack, waiting for the cycle to begin again in an hour.


Style 2

            The lounge of the curling club was the location for both the beginning and the end of the night for the members of the Weekend Mixed division, which is comprised of an equal number of men and women. Due to flooding in the lower level, where the change rooms and washrooms are located, people instead were required to spend the entirety of the time between their arrivals and the game in the same small space. Some broke into groups that consisted of their teammates, some settled one of the five round tables to watch the televised curling game, while others still chose to sit alone to prepare for their game to start. Curling is a sport that contains a number of set rules for socialization and interaction, but the pre-game time is free from any conventions: members were free to move amongst each other freely, and to speak freely.

            The first games always begin at 5:00 on Friday nights, and that week was no exception. The small green lights on the ice were turned on by the ice technician to signal to the crowd that everything was ready to start, and with some gentle prodding from the bartender upstairs, the players filed down the small set of stairs and out onto the ice surface. It took about three minutes for the bottleneck to clear and for players to find their teams’ assigned sheet, and at that point the games were underway. In this club, each sheet is delineated by black lines painted under the ice surface, sectioning off the large area into four smaller areas of play. Those lines created a border that was purely visual, as there was nothing to physically stop the players of one sheet from crossing over to another, but they were respected nonetheless. Eight players and sixteen rocks stayed within that space for the entire two hours, focused intently on the game happening on their sheet despite the constant noise and movement of the three other sheets around them. This does not mean that they ignored all other players: while their opposition was throwing, players would stand along those border lines alongside the non-throwing team of the neighbouring sheet and quick comments or jokes would be exchanged. The rules regarding interaction are much clearer out on the ice, and everyone playing that night was experienced enough to know all of them without any hesitation.

            Possibly the most heavily regulated time in an evening of curling is the post-game socialization - unlike many sports, where the losing person or team is penalized by being made to buy the refreshments, curlers have the winners buy the first round with the losers reciprocating. In fact, the very first tenet of the Curling Canada rules and ethics statement is that the game is to be played with a spirit of good sportsmanship both on and off the ice, and all of the members there followed that ideal. Teams sat down at the tables with their respective opponents, and all settled into conversations (typically about plans for the rest of the weekend) with a drink in one hand and a snack in the other. After the two rounds of drink offers, the social obligations have been fulfilled and the members were free to move between tables to join other conversations or leave for other plans. Departing members gathered their things, said goodbye to teammates and friends, and left for the night. Some tables dwindled down to just one or two people, who then combined into one group for a short while before they two left, leaving the lounge empty once again until the next games finished.



            What became clear to me over the course of completing this assignment is the importance of how an ethnographer situates him- or herself during observations, and how this influences the final work that is produced. My own status as both observer and insider within the space gave me additional insight into what I was watching and allowed me to fill in certain details that may not have been immediately evident, but it also meant that I began the process with preconceptions on what I would see and hear. Having read a variety of different pieces over the course of the semester, we were introduced to a number of different styles that highlighted how the many unique methods of writing can be used in the creation of ethnographic material and how those styles can be suited to different types of writing. It takes many years and many pages for one to find their own ethnographic voice, and this assignment allowed for me to push beyond the styles with which I am comfortable and borrow from the studied texts in a way that encouraged exploration. The above passages are ethnographic truths, but as Clifford put forward in Writing Culture: they are partial, they are ever-changing, and they are mine.