Ethnography as being-in-the-world rather than method

A fascinating discussion by Matthew Desmond in the conclusion of his wonderful book Evicted:

There’s this idea that ethnography is a “method.” When we see it this way, we tend to ask methodological questions about it. How do I get my project approved by the IRB? When should I write field notes? I tend to think of ethnography as a sensibility, a “way of seeing” as the anthropologist Harry Wolcott once put it. This means that ethnography isn’t something we go and do. It’s a fundamental way of being in the world. If we think of ethnography this way, then we begin to ask different questions. How can I get strangers to talk with me? How can I become more observant? If we approach ethnography as a sensibility, then we can begin cultivating a set of skills or disciplines long before we actually enter the field. It is possible to transform yourself into an ethnographer—day in, day out—so that when the time comes for you to set foot in the field, you already are one. (It also helps to get rid of your smartphone.)

As he goes on to write later in the conclusion:

To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel. In this line of work, living “in the field” helps quite a lot. It’s the only way to have an immersive experience; and practically speaking, you never know when important things are going to happen. Renting a trailer allowed me to meet dozens of people, pick up on rumors, absorb tenants’ concerns and perspectives, and observe everyday life all hours of the day.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Sociological Craft


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