Eliminating the first person from ethnography

A powerful argument by Matthew Desmond from the conclusion of his incredible book Evicted. What do you think? Far from being a prerequisite for reflexivity, can writing the “I” into ethnography inadvertently make the text about the author rather than the subject matter?

But first-person narration is not the only technique available to us. In fact, it may be the least well-suited vehicle for capturing the essence of a social world because the “I” filters all. With first-person narration, the subjects and the author are each always held in view, resulting in every observation being trailed by a reaction to the observer. No matter how much care the author takes, the first-person ethnography becomes just as much about the fieldworker as about anything she or he saw. I have sat through countless conversations about a work of ethnography or reportage that have nothing to do with the book’s subject matter and everything to do with its author’s decisions or mistakes or “ethical character.” And after almost every academic talk I have given on the material in this book, I have been asked questions like: “How did you feel when you saw that?” “How did you gain this sort of access?” These are fine questions, but there is bigger game afoot.

There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land. At a time of rampant inequality and widespread hardship, when hunger and homelessness are found throughout America, I am interested in a different, more urgent conversation. “I” don’t matter. I hope that when you talk about this book, you talk first about Sherrena and Tobin, Arleen and Jori, Larraine and Scott and Pam, Crystal and Vanetta—and the fact that somewhere in your city, a family has just been evicted from their home, their things piled high on the sidewalk. There are costs to abandoning the first person. In the context of this study, it meant disguising when I intervened in nontrivial ways. There are two such instances in this book. When a “friend” rented Arleen a U-Haul truck to move from Thirteenth Street and when Vanetta borrowed money from a “friend” to buy a stove and refrigerator in anticipation of a visit from Child Protective Services, that was me. It is also important to recognize that none of the tenants in this book had a car. I did, and I sometimes drove people around when they were looking for housing. When I didn’t, people relied on Milwaukee’s irregular bus system or set off on foot. It would have taken families much longer to find subsequent housing if they hadn’t had access to my car (or phone).

Categories: Committing Sociology, Sociological Craft

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1 reply »

  1. How do you eliminate the I in ethnography.I have written a case study about my lived experience in a certain environment,linking the experience to relevant theory, How can I do this without being a part of it? My study sounds like a novel rather than an academic piece of writing with myself being the main character.

    Thanks,I hope my question isn’t too long and makes sense.

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