Ethnography is so often thought of as what you write after a length of time in the “field”, or the end result of “fieldwork.” The field, as distinguished from the everyday, is a milieu in which someone’s observational capacities take on a new importance; it’s where the ethnographic senses are turned on and analyses are made. But why compartmentalize the field? Often, separating the field from the rest of one’s life obscures truths about the anthropologist’s place in it. The field becomes a closed system, the ethnographer nothing more than an observer. In reality, the ethnographer is an actor of equal consequence to the people being observed. The term observation doesn’t even fit; it implies detachment when ethnography consists of down-and-dirty interaction. The ethnographer does not magically appear in the field either, but travels to it with certain political baggage. Are the days spent in the field are not essentially different than the days spent outside of it? When does the everyday end and the field begin?
All this to say that the everyday is an excellent place for fieldwork, and much can be learned from injecting a little ethnographic pizzazz into what feels normal. The following ethnographic experiments were largely inspired by Kathleen Stewart’s book Ordinary Affects, a book that uses the everyday as a locus for ethnographic observation in the Rust Belt, Stewart’s own place of origin. The book takes many stylistic forms and dances along and across lines that needlessly divide the academic from the literary. One aspect that stands out is the lack of broad, sweeping terms used to explain phenomena. Rarely will you hear words like feminism or capitalism thrown around, although they could be used to describe some of the book’s accounts. Such words have their place but are often too big and baggy to convey lived experience, plus they are often applied retroactively anyways. For example, when I buy fruit from the grocery store I’m not living “late-stage neoliberal capitalism;” I’m living “buying fruit”.
The first experiment, “Coffee Trip at the Clinic” is written like a journal entry. I am simply recounting what I did and felt when I went to a local walk-in clinic last Sunday to get back blood test results. The clinic was intended to be my “field”, but during the experience I began to reconsider how I conceptualize fieldwork. I have tried to keep at bay certain analytic assumptions and generalizing concepts, and instead prioritize ethnographic description. I attempted to see myself as part of the systems I was observing and to negotiate the presumptions and purpose that affected my experience.
In the second experiment, “Blinded by the Left,” I tried to do the exact opposite by writing from the perspective of someone trying frantically to fit what they see into preconceived conceptual categories, in this case, mainly capitalism. It also uses a reflexive, journalistic style. The fun of writing this led it to become a caricature which might overshadow its purpose a little. Its intention is to make painfully evident how preconceptions affect and distort what we see, especially when these preconceptions are based in nebulous, contested terms like capitalism. The details are what animates ethnography and makes it useful, not explanatory concepts. Good ethnographic writing gives generative power to description and allows theory to spring forth out of it. And, when theory becomes an acknowledged aspect of the ethnographic experience rather than a standard that the ethnography must reach to, then you get some quality ethnography. This is a mad-scientist (ethnographic) experiment: stitched-together, lifeless ideas coming together into monstrously bad ethnography.
Both experiments could have benefited from being longer, nevertheless they offer quick snapshots of the ethnographic styles I wanted to convey.
Coffee Trip at the Clinic
Sunday morning, I woke up late and leisurely made coffee and then breakfast. Outside it was drizzling lightly, and I lamented the fact that I couldn’t just stay in all day; I had blood test results to pick up at the clinic, and I’d already put off going several times that week. Besides, a rainy weekend would be the perfect time to go, since no one else would want to deal with the weather either. Expecting a hassle-free, quick in-and-out visit, I set off to the clinic with an umbrella in one hand and a thermos in the other. As I sipped coffee, I started thinking about the power of caffeine; it’s like a hallucinogen, the way it enlivens thinking, makes synapses snappy, and it’s amazing that everyone drinks it so casually. It seems like it could be a powerful ethnographic tool that supercharges powers of observation. I was feeling amazing, if a little jittery, when I arrived, so I took it in stride when I saw that half of the neighborhood had also decided to spend this grey day at the clinic. All chairs in the lobby were occupied and people clustered around the doorway, waiting. I took a number from the dispenser and leaned against the wall with them. No one was really talking, and the only audible sounds were the zipping and unzipping of bags and the rustles of papers and clothes, all against the backdrop of a noisy air vent. Occasionally, the receptionists would call up a number, or a nurse would call a person into the examination rooms. I knew the procedure from previous visits: get a number, wait, give info to receptionist, wait, get called by nurse, wait, talk to nurse, wait, go back to waiting room, wait, get called by nurse again, wait until, finally, the doctor will see you now. This can sometimes be quite the bummer, but I was feeling good, having fun watching people, observing. I took notes throughout with the Notes function of my iPhone. It seemed natural in this situation; the population of the waiting room could probably have been divided 50/50 between people staring at their phones and people staring into space, and my note taking seemed unobtrusive.
Blinded by the Left
The clinic was packed when I got there. People lined up out the door. It bore clear evidence of the insufficiencies of our healthcare system, a system that squeezes funding from public services (like this clinic) in the name of “helping the taxpayer.” Yeah, right. More like so they can subsidize pharmaceuticals and fast food. It’s depressing to think about how perverted this system is, making us line up to listen to overpaid, overinflated founts of biomedical nonsense command us to pop pills and ingest chemicals with side effects worse than the symptoms they address. I took a number, and in doing so, became a number. Call me Mr. G68. The die is cast; I’m in the hands of the system now. The waiting room is inhumanly quiet. It brings to mind the concept of non-place: those spaces of transit and commerce that late-stage capitalism has stripped of all vestiges of community, humanity, character. I’m in a clinic in Ottawa but I could be anywhere in the world. Capitalism makes everything the same, tainting everything it touches with violent standardization. I look at the hapless drones around me absorbed in their phone screens; they couldn’t care less. They’re otherwise engaged, swiping and scrolling through mindless, algorithmically-generated content, producing valuable data for our Silicon Valley overlords to control us with. Mark Zuckerberg is doing a tour of America right now that looks suspiciously like campaigning. I feel distracted; my mind keeps wandering. I find myself staring into space. I even feel the urge to check social media. Jesus, this is how they get us. This is why we’re doomed for technofascism. They numb us with bureaucratic nonsense, crush us with boredom, make us vulnerable, and then dangle dopamine right in front of our eyes, turning us into drugged out data producers: the ideal subjects of control. I hate capitalists.
These experiments sought to show how conceptions of the field affect ethnographic writing by juxtaposing an open, reflexive, descriptive account with a closed, moody, accusatory one. One merged seamlessly into the field, the other cordoned off the field site and made it static. One opened up the possibility of learning new things while the other confirmed to itself what it already expected. Writing one, I gave a voice to my best attributes as an ethnographer/person, writing the other, I gave voice to my worst (although good and bad are present in both). Ethnographers must constantly struggle with their own positionality, and while it is impossible to do fieldwork without preconceptions, it does make a difference whether or not they are sought out, acknowledged, and made a part of the account. Much like the field should not be segmented from the everyday, concepts cannot be thought of as closed and bounded entities and then applied like band-aids to observed phenomena. The field, like capitalism, is a conceptual category that blurs and comes undone in lived reality. The world is best conveyed without unifying ideas and frameworks to constrain it, and good ethnographic writing transcends those clumsy tools.