Every ethnographer is a Borat but is every Borat an ethnographer? (part 2)

2.0 When is ethnography actually ethnographic?

Ethnography is like the new girl in town. All sorts of disciplines try to have a date with her. Take for instance the fact that ethnography has had a recent hit in a handbook of criminology, it shows that at times this dating leads to a mating. Yet, ethnography finds its most suited bed fellow in anthropology. As you know, ethnography means ’writing about the nations’, with ’graphy’ from the Greek ’to write’ and ’ethno’ from the Greek noun ethnos that can be translated with either ’nation’ or ’tribe’ or ’people’.  What this implies is that the unit of analysis of the ethnographer, that is the ethnos,  need not be a nation, a region, a village or a speech community – no matter how difficult this concept may be to define – rather, to the ethnographer  this unit of analysis may be ’any social network forming a corporate entity in which social relations are regulated by customs’ (Erickson 1984:52). What makes a study ethnographic then, is  not the fact that this discipline takes a socio-cultural space of any size at any given time as a whole. Rather, ethnography portrays incidents through an emic perspective. This means that ethnography and the ethnographer, although we will tackle this matter at a latter stage, portray events from the point(s) of view of the actors involved. This focus on meaning constructed by the actors involved in the observed incident, is at the heart of Malinowski’s definition of ethnography in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. His attempt, in fact, was an attempt that although not always successful, it tried to crystallize meaning in words from the actors’ perspective. But so, where does the difference between Borat and the ethnographer lay? Let’s say that what Borat does is not ethnography, or better, it could be addressed as a pre-scientific ethnography. Unlike Borat, the trained ethnographer brings to the field a specific concern for meaning making at the level of actors. Borat may well be an excellent reporter of his own experience in the United States. It may also highlight several metonimic features of the socio-cultural spaces he has been getting involved with  during his search for the meaning of living in America, Pamela Anderson being one of them. Yet again, the ethnographer combines on the ground experience with an awareness gathered through meticulous fieldwork of those local meanings of behaviour that are other than his space of socialization. This is the ethnographer  magnum opus and yet its cross. He has to make sense of a ’strange’ behaviour, make it familiar to himself and then report on it and in doing so, he has the task of making it interesting again. Thus, ethnography differs from a journalistic report, a tourist diary or an episode of Borat in that it is painstaking in its data collection, rigid in its data analysis and controlled in the ethnographer’s own subjectivity. In the end, it is the ethnographer that gives way to a reality through his text and it is in this very text that the ethnographer produces a caricature, i. e.,  a systematic distortion of the features of a certain socio-cultural space. And yet this is a distortion that does not call for subjectivity and intuition at the expenses of objectivity. Rather, such distortion is a representation where, alike in a caricature, the ethnographer selectively reports on certain aspects rather than others  and where, he is rendering local meaning from a chosen point of view. And it is in so doing that an ethnographic study becomes ethnographic in that it shows the decisions made during the data collection process (Bezemer 2003; Jie Dong 2009; Spotti 2007), it describes the kinds and amounts of data that were and were not (made) available, the negotiations and related frustrations in gaining entrance within a certain socio-cultural space, and the process of rendering actors’ meanings in his own text.

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Kategoria(t): Massimiliano Spotti

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