Every ethnographer is a Borat but is every Borat an ethnographer? (part 1)

1.0  Introduction

I am an academic, or better my identity is often ascribed by others as that of an academic. More specifically, according to which conference I attend, my academic identity is ascribed as that of a sociolinguist, of an anthropologist, of an anthropologist interested in linguistics or, in the best of cases, as a linguist ethnographer. If I were to provide a description of my inhabited (academic) identity, I am a primary school teacher who has bumped into anthropology and sociolinguistics and who has tried to bake something out of these two disciplines. In so doing, I have become an ethnographer interested in how people construct their identities in verbal interaction within a sociocultural space, like a multicultural primary school classroom (Spotti 2007, 2008; Spotti & Kroon 2009). Setting this aside, this ascribed homo academicus identity of mine is in sharp contrast with my inhabited identity that is of someone who is well into ’low key’ cultural activities like going to the pub, cheering for a football team and, although either it does not suit the ascribed identity that has been impinged upon you or you will be shy to admit it, I am well into low key TV programs like Borat. It is while watching one episode of this series that I came to think that Borat has quite a bit to do with ethnography. How so? Let me first bring some enlightenment to those of you who do not know Borat. Borat is a foreigner from Kazakhstan. More precisely, he is a foreigner who has lawfully entered the United States of America and who tries to understand what living in America is all about. Like Borat, the ethnographer’s goal involves:

’analyzing a cultural phenomenon from the perspective of the outsider (to whom it is strange) while seeking to understand it from the perspective of an insider (to whom it is familiar)’ (Gal 2005:349)

In short, it is the ethnographer’s task to reflect light on phenomena that members of a culture overlook because they take them as a given, and often explained with the metapragmatic rationale that ’that thing happens here because it is normal for it to happen like that’. Borat, like an ethnographer, is trying to grasp the cultural ecology of the sociocultural space that he is inhabiting. In what follows, I try to tease apart what makes ethnographic research ethnographic and to draw a line between Borat’s own experience and the job of being an ethnographer engaged in field work. I then conclude with some considerations about where ethnography  is heading to.

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Kategoria(t): kirjoittajat, Massimiliano Spotti


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