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Who Needs an Ethnographer?

I recently found myself lamenting the lack of ethnography in my professional life with a new acquaintance. Don’t get me wrong: my job stretches me in other ways. But many of the things I was trained for during my PhD aren’t called for in my day job. Not explicitly, anyway, though I would argue that once you’ve been taught certain kinds of observational skills it’s very hard to turn them off.

“You should set up your own independent project,” she said. “Do some ethnography on the side.”

My acquaintance is Kat Jungnickel, a sociologist currently researching cycling cultures. I met her in her office where swatches of fabric were pinned to 19th century patent applications for women’s cycling clothes, a series of hand-sewn garments based on these patents hung on mannequins by the door, and early photos of coteries of women cyclists were pinned to a bulletin board. This kind of creative, tangible research is definitely something that I would like more of in my life.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, actually. I do want to use my qualitative research skills more but I’ve been hesitating because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to employ them in a volunteering context. At present I mainly use my writing and thinking skills for theatre reviewing–I find this very rewarding, but it’s not getting me to stretch my research muscles any.

But when I try to picture what a “volunteer ethnographer” might look like, I draw a blank. Ethnography isn’t generally the kind of skill people offer to volunteering efforts. There are all kinds of skills that charities and volunteer organisations need…bookkeeping, driving, cooking, tutoring, mentoring, crafting, building, and so on and so forth. But ethnography?

When you get right down to it, who needs an ethnographer? Generally speaking in ethnographic research the person conducting the study calls the shots: the research lead decides who and what they will study and why it’s important that the world has (for example) a detailed, rich description of the belly dance community in the online game Second Life. (My chapter “Digitizing Raqs Sharqi: Belly Dance in Second Life” in Belly Dance Around the World: New Communities, Performance and Identity will explain everything you need to know.) Increasingly, ethnographers work with the communities they are studying to find out what are the most important issues to them and how an ethnographic study might serve them, instead of focusing on what the rest of the world can gain from that research. But it’s still usually the ethnographer who initiates the study, the ethnographer who’s decided that there is something worth examining here. I don’t know of many examples where it is the community who has asked the ethnographer to study them. Please comment if you know of any.

I think ethnography can give you something that no other research method can provide in exactly the same way: a deep understanding of social life and of the social dynamics in cultures. The benefits of this can be wide-ranging but given the reflexive nature of ethnographic studies, it can be hard to envision in advance what the outcomes of a study might be. For this reason it may not be obvious to a community or organisation why it should think about studying itself.

So now I ask you: who needs an ethnographer? I mean that principally as a call to find out who’s looking for a volunteer researcher–get in touch if you have a project in mind and you want to talk about it, or if you know of any groups that want to do some research but don’t know where to start. I also mean this as a philosophical query about what we think ethnography–especially outside the structured bounds of academic research–is for, and who needs it performed for them, and why. Who would welcome the expertise of ethnographers? What does a volunteer ethnographer look like to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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