Amanda Engineer

Ethnographic Experiment


As the end of the year approaches, shopping centres are bustling with families and individuals who are getting ready for the holiday season. I decided to conduct fieldwork for my “ethnographic experiments” by walking through a shopping centre, beginning in the food court and ending at the main bus stop. My choices lie primarily in convenience, as I work in the very same mall, and I was due to work the same day, two and a half hours later. However, I also took this as an opportunity to “make familiar strange.” Furthermore, this mall in particular, due to its suburban location, attracts a diverse demographic. People of all ages, races, and genders shuffle through the mall every day, and I thought that beginning my fieldwork in a place that features the many faces of Canada would be a great start. Ethnographies are always partial truths, but to gather as much information as possible, I figure it would be best to observe a diversified group of people.  

For these short ethnographies, I used two different styles of writing. Throughout the course of the semester, we read several different types of ethnographic writing in class. In the first essay, I attempted to emulate my favourite kind of anthropological writing, sensorial description, while for the second ethnography I wanted to try something different.  

In “Take 1” I attempt to describe the setting by focusing on the senses. Drawing from Raffles’s “Deepest of Reveries” from Insectopedia and Moretti’s methodological chapter on “Walking,” I tried to transport my readers to the site and allow them to share in my experience as an ethnographic observer.

For my second approach, I decided to look for my own ethnographic voice and writing style. This exercise proved to be an opportunity to try something totally new and figure out how I would navigate the waters of anthropological fieldwork after being “thrown in.” In order to do this, I took the advice of Moretti and decided to walk around the shopping centre, and to the bus stop outside, while taking my notes.  


Take 1 (Sensorial Description) 

10:30 am  

I am sitting on a faux-wood bench-for-one, covered in vinyl padding for comfort. This bench is connected to a small, personal sized table in the middle of a food court, where people everywhere sit in identical seats. It is 10:30 in the morning, the sun is shining brightly through the skylight that runs along the domed-shaped ceiling of the shopping centre’s roof. There’s a white noise buzzing all around me as people hurry around, keeping to themselves or their little groups. Everything is the same shades of brown, beige and white.  

Lots of people are in line for coffee and breakfast foods. Several people already have their hands full of bags. You can hear the sound of shoes on the linoleum flooring, the plastic rubbing together, melted snow squeaking and being rubbed into the ground. Children are crying somewhere in the dining hall, but they slowly calm down as a grown up soothes them.  

Machines are working hard, people behind the counters are working harder. Orders are being yelled, for food, for instruction, “2 Milks” has been said several times in the last fifteen minutes. There is a group of elderly couples sitting at a table next to me, all drinking their coffee. Some have a copy of the paper-- I can hear the rustling in their hands. They are talking about small nothings, things like the weather, stocks and their families. They laugh, they embrace each other. They never take off their fully-zipped coats. Watching them interact makes me feel warm, claustrophobic even, and I find myself looking away as soon as I become uncomfortable. Why am I uncomfortable?  

There is scratching and ripping and page turning coming from elsewhere as well, as my own hands are writing as quickly and concisely as possible, because I do not want to miss a single detail. Or, perhaps, does trying to write it at all down take away from the experience? I’m overthinking it now, and feel it best if I take my leave and walk around the mall.  


I stand up and decide to walk around the mall. I am alone, walking past the people weighted by their bags and their lists with a bounce in my step. Standing on the escalator, I place myself in the middle, and people, hurrying somewhere, push to get past me. I check my wristwatch, which has since rolled to the inside of my wrist. It’s about 11 o’clock. Perhaps people are getting to work, starting their shift or catch the bus. The escalator is loud but a smooth ride nonetheless. I reach the bottom, about 10 meters to the right of the main exit. Cold air rushes to me and I can hear snippets of the daily commotion that occurs outside in the parking lot as the doors open and close.  

My walk starts, I can hear my own feet against the ground. My shoes are indoor only, and make very different sounds than those of the people around me. At every other moment, I find myself accidentally touching a stranger who has been shuffled too close to me by the crowd. It is noisier down here. I can hear the music playing over the shopping centre’s PA system. It smells like popcorn (there is a popcorn store under the escalator) and various other foods, but also like the static created by people’s coats rubbing together and plastic on plastic.  

A woman stops me, her face full of recognition. “Hi! How are you?” She is someone who also works in the shopping centre, and we stop in the middle of the crowd to catch up for a few minutes. The flow of people continues around us, un-wavering to the new obstacle in their way.  

I continue to the bus stop. It is a cold walk across the street. It’s loud, it’s crowded. The telltale screech of the bus breaks is a constant, while the sound of cars are started and locked can be heard only intermittently. I sit on the cold, hard bench outside the bus shelter. It smells like oil and fuel, and it is full of people with blank looks on their faces. Headphones in, phones out. They are all together, but trying to be alone.  


Take 2 (Personal Style) 

Sitting in the dining hall of a shopping centre, I notice immediately that consumables dominate the scene. Every table is packed, which is unusual for this hour, but not that unexpected during the pre-holiday season. Several people, almost everyone I can see, have placed their purchases on an empty chair beside them. Why not underneath the table, I wonder? It is loud and lively for 10:30 in the morning, and I can hear people eating, their bags rubbing together, talking amongst themselves. I'm curious to see what everyone is eating, so I get up and walk through the food court, pretending to be looking for somewhere to order. Everyone is eating food they bought from one of the vendors. It is hard to find someone without a shopping bag in their possession.  

I sit back at my table, beside a group of elderly people who are enjoying their coffee. They exchange stories and have a great time together. They are clearly friends, and I watch them for a while. I wonder if they have noticed me. I do not think they have. Eventually, I become uncomfortable watching them and decide I should go for a walk around the mall.  

Everyone is bustling around the mall, looking for more places to shop, to consume. It's that time of the year, where everything is a good deal, and Black Friday is just around the corner. Every store, it seems, has a good amount of people shuffling around inside of it. As I begin to walk, I feel conscious about what people may be thinking of me, walking with a pen and a paper. Am I a nuisance? A bother to them? An obstacle in the way of their goal? Do they even notice, I wonder?   

Everywhere I walk I accidentally touch other people. It's hard to get away. How can one place be so crowded, even though everyone arrived here independently? Is coming to the mall a social excursion, or is it a solitary act, marked by secrecy and desire for independence (especially when you are shopping for surprise gifts)?  

Shopping centres function as both generators for the capital economy in which we live and as sites of social engagement. I see many couples and families around me in the mall, having a good time, getting out of the cold. This being said, I also see several individuals, hurrying through the mall and their shopping list. In this sense, shopping centres and malls become spaces of discomfort and anxiety. I know that I am experiencing feelings of stress and claustrophobia being in this crowd.  

Someone who works in the mall stops to talk to me. I notice she is not in her uniform, and so I ask if she has just finished working for the day.  To my query she replies, “Nope, just doing some shopping!” This is strange to me, because I feel like I do not ever want to be in this shopping centre when I am off work. I feel that my experiences working in retail have heightened my awareness of consumption practices, and affected my choice of places where I shop. This experience pulls me away from "mindless" or "careless" spending. I wonder why my acquaintance does not feel the same way as I do.  

I say goodbye to my mall-employee friend and make my way to the bus stop, outside the centre. I notice that our short conversation has not disrupted the flow of people around us, which surprises me.  It is a cold walk over to the station, and everyone who is walking around me is bundled up in their winter gear. I start wondering if their winter clothes are new this year.  

I get to the bus stop and sit on the bench. Everyone who has collected at the stop listens to their earphones, or is typing on a device. Mothers, teenagers, elderly folk, I even notice a toddler playing with their parents' tablet to keep busy. I do not notice a single person who does not have a device on them, other than myself, although normally I do believe I would have one on me.  

This experience makes me wonder about consumerism and isolation. Why have we closed ourselves off to others? I do not doubt that many of the phone users are also communicating through their device to others, but I have never noticed exactly how isolating it is to be the only person in a group with no device to turn to. It is very lonely, and although I do not know the strangers sitting next to me, I am hyper-aware that they would not talk to me, if given the option to continue talking on their phones.  



This class’ lesson in all, was to think critically about ethnography, especially with regards to position of the anthropologist, narrative forms and techniques (such as tone), context and scale. This assignment unified and solidified all of these concepts, by prompting us to conduct observations and write up our own ethnographic material. I have learned how tough it is to pay attention to the little detail that surrounds us and what constitutes an ethnographic observation. Additionally, I have begun to understand how some people may be oblivious to being observed, while others are hyper-aware of your presence, to the point in which I become uncomfortable. Although I had understood from several class discussions, this experience solidified my understanding that ethnography is important, not only because of the information it provides about a particular setting but also about what it uncovers about the anthropologist themselves. “Take 1” highlighted the many things that I noticed, and documented all that I felt, in order to achieve the goal of transporting the reader to the shopping centre. Therefore, “Take 1” depends largely on my senses, and as someone who is hard of hearing, my experiences are different than others. “Take 2” is meant to be reflexive and includes more of my own thoughts. It draws inspiration from texts such as Lila Abu Lughod’s “Guest and Daughter,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. In these texts, both authors reflect on their positionality, which inspired me to do the same. Reading through my notes, I can see the places in which my personal experiences shape the way I navigate through the experiment, such as being stopped by another mall-worker. The ethnographies we read in class allowed me several examples of tones and techniques I could consider using for my approaches, but more importantly, I used my critiques of the ethnographies in class as tools in order to try and learn from their mistakes.