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Guest Post: Volunteer Ethnography

Following my post Who Needs an Ethnographer? a few weeks ago, I had several very interesting conversations on the purpose and possible methods of volunteering expertise as an ethnographer.  One of these was with Eugenia Lee who is today’s guest blogger on her experience of working on a volunteer ethnography project in conjunction with Tufts University centred around Somerville, Massachusetts.  Eugenia Lee is a social impact ethnographer who is interested in how ethnography can be used to understand communities.  In this piece, she discusses how ethnographic skills can be useful in volunteering.  She tweets @eugenialeee and you can find out more about Eugenia and her work at eugenialee.net.


As trained ethnographers, what we study in school doesn’t always easily translate to jobs in non-academic settings. One possibility is to pursue ethnography on the side, volunteering skills to organizations that need to understand specific communities and contexts.

Though offering ethnographic skills isn’t simple, it’s definitely possible in volunteer work. Ethnographers are especially valuable when it comes to offering meaningful cultural insights in engaging immigrant or refugee communities, improving programs, and filling information gaps for organizations with limited bandwidth and time.

What Can Volunteer Ethnography Look Like?

So, what does it look like to volunteer our skills and do ethnography on the side?

In Fall 2010, as a student enrolled in the Tufts University course “Urban Borderlands“, I began conducting fieldwork in east Somerville. This research was done in partnership with the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), an organization advocating for diversity and affordability in Somerville, and supported through grants from Tisch College’s Project PERIS (Partnering for Economic Recovery Impact through Service). SCC sought to establish priorities and values of low-income and immigrant community members, and to create strategy proposals to prevent community displacement.

Serving as volunteer ethnographers, we identified immigrant groups and businesses we wanted to study and approached them to write ethnographic stories. SCC’s hope was that these stories would contribute to stronger community advocacy as the MBTA green line extension moves into Somerville, bringing with it further gentrification and rising rents.

We interviewed and photographed immigrant business owners in the Union Square area and conducted ethnographies for SCC. Over the course of several months, I spoke with local immigrant business owners about what led them to move to the United States, how they ended up in Somerville, and what they currently did in the community.

Why Ethnography?

Stories without analysis are just anecdotes; analysis without stories is dull and lifeless.” – Professor Deborah Pacini, Urban Borderlands

Ethnographic stories provide an added perspective that combines storytelling with meaningful analysis. Through ethnography, I sought to understand how immigrant business owners appropriated aspects of their culture to create social and cultural spaces within their own businesses, and how the businesses contributed to the diversity and economic success of Union Square.

At the conclusion of the class we presented our completed projects to the Somerville Community Corporation, and our research was stored in the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives for public history purposes. Presentations with SCC discussed what we learned about immigrant businesses and how they were likely to fare with the arrival of the Green Line. The ethnographies our class produced painted a picture of Somerville as powerfully community-driven, illustrating the richness of the entrepreneurial immigrant community already existing there at the time of the study.

What Happened Next

The ethnographic research data collected by the students of Urban Borderlands have been used as reference points by Susan Ostrander in her latest book, Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City: Somerville, MA, and by the city of Somerville. My follow-ups with players involved in the partnership have been positive. Alex Pirie, the coordinator at Immigrant Services Providers Group/Health, told me how important the stories have been as a piece of archival history and as a helpful resource for learning more about the community.

While it is always difficult to truly determine the impact and outcomes of volunteer work, creating ethnographic stories did bring the Somerville community to life. As developers begin to move into Union Square, these stories will help make the case for saving small businesses, and they will serve as oral histories describing and analyzing the businesses even long after they are gone.

What This Means

The key to successful ethnographic volunteering is to develop a deeper understanding of the organizational values and strategic vision, and to work with program coordinators and organizers to discuss where ethnographic research can begin to serve the needs of the community and organization alike. In our partnership with SCC, we learned about their organizational focus and we regularly corresponded with SCC community organizers to consult on the direction of our projects and to ask questions. Maintaining regular communication with the organization also helped us figure out whether the ethnographies were in line with information gaps the organization needed to fill.

Volunteer ethnography can be especially useful to any organization seeking to understand a group of people for community advocacy purposes. Whether that means refugees settling into new homes or immigrant business owners threatened by gentrification, ethnographic stories can become a powerful learning tool and resource in advocacy.

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