How is knowledge produced during ethnographic fieldwork?
Date: 23 Apr, 2024

Author: Malin Roiha, Universitat de Barcelona

Currently, between March and September 2024, researchers across the eight EXIT countries are conducting fieldwork in the 17 selected case study areas, to explore local experiences, perspectives, and perceptions of territorial inequalities, as well as practices and strategies to counteract inequalities. This fieldwork mainly encompasses in-depth interviews and participant observation. But how is knowledge produced during fieldwork and what is the role of the researcher and the informants in this regard?

A conventional ethnography often opens with the ethnographer’s arrival to the field – an opening narrative that, as Mary Louise Pratt (1986) highlights, plays the crucial role of anchoring that description in the authority-giving personal experience of fieldwork. During the EXIT fieldwork, the researchers displace themselves to a field in their respective countries. The researcher, in this sense, is not a complete outsider nor a complete insider, but has a role somewhere in-between. It is important that the researcher is aware of their own (perceived) position or status in the field; in social anthropology we refer to this as reflexivity. As Margery Wolf puts it, “we as anthropologists can only try to be sensitive to the implications of our perceived status, implications that may be even more troubling for the fieldworker who works in her own society” (1992:13).

From a feminist methodological point of view, we must be transparent with the fact that all research is always determined from a specific ideological position and imbued with certain values that influence and determine the research (Igareda et al, 2019). Feminist anthropology has questioned dualities such as subject/object, personal/political, thinking/feeling, aiming to build a dialogical and intersubjective path between the “researcher” and the “researched” (see e.g., Gregorio, 2014). To build this path, it’s necessary to check that the researcher’s story or voice does not overshadow or silence the voices of the informants (Ellis-Sloan, 2014). With this perspective appropriately applied, the narrative in a sense becomes a meeting place between two subjectivities, that of the researcher and that of the informant, who both become collaborators and participants in the production of knowledge. In this way, interviews may become a form of collaborative theorising, as Patti Lather (1986) puts forward. The participant is not just a “source of data”, to be analysed, but rather an expert on their own experience, treated as capable of being analytical and reflective on that experience and what it means.

Further, adding an intersectional lens to the fieldwork not only provides cues for the sample in terms of significance of different experiences; it is also crucial for prompting a different way of thinking about inequalities – as dynamic interactions between structural oppressions – and how to capture these in research. From this perspective, different dimensions of social life cannot be separated into discrete strands, but we need to look at the imbrications of the different dimensions. With each new intersection, new connections emerge, and previously hidden exclusions or inequalities may come to light (Davies, 2008). By asking another question, the research may take on a new and sometimes surprising turn, exploring the consequences of intersecting categories for relations of power.

For David Graeber (2004: 12), the anthropologist observes what people do and then tries to disentangle the hidden symbolic, moral or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions; trying to understand how people’s habits and actions make sense in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of. If informed by reflexivity, the results of ethnographic research “are expressive of a reality that is neither accessible directly through native text nor simply a reflection of the individual anthropologist’s psyche” (Aull Davies, 1999: 6). Nevertheless, whilst the anthropologist listens to as many voices as possible, she eventually takes the responsibility for putting down the words, “for converting their possibly fleeting opinions into a text” (Wolf, 1992: 11). This action is always to a greater or lesser extent an exercise of power (Ibid).

Ethnography, thus, reveals an interpretation of reality created between the researcher and the informants. This would not be counted in the same manner by a complete “insider”, as the ethnographer has boiled down a variety of voices and has conducted an analysis based on their understanding and background. In James Clifford’s (1986: 2) words,

ethnography is actively situated between powerful systems of meaning. It poses its questions at the boundaries of civilizations, cultures, classes, races, and genders. Ethnography decodes and recodes, telling the grounds of collective order and diversity, inclusion and exclusion. It describes processes of innovation and structuration, and is itself part of these processes.

 

References:

Aull Davies, C. (1999). Reflexive Ethnography. A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London: Routledge.

Clifford, J. (1986) Introduction: Partial Truths. In Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E. (Eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellis-Sloan, K. (2014). Understanding teenage motherhood through feminist research: A reflection on the challenges and advantages, Athenea Digital, n.14(4), pp. 129-152.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Gregorio Gil, C. (2014). Traspasando las fronteras dentro-fuera. Reflexiones desde una etnografía feminista, Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 9(3) Septiembre – Diciembre, pp. 297 – 322.

Igareda, N., Pascale, A., Cruells, M.  and Paz, O. (2019). Les Ciberviolències masclistes. Barcelona: Institut Català de les Dones.

Lather, P. (1986). Research as Praxis, Harvard Educational Review, 56(3), pp. 257-278.

Pratt, M.L. (1986). Fieldwork in common places. In Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E. (Eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, M. (1992). A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility. Stanford University Press.

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