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Every ethnographer is a Borat but is every Borat an ethnographer? (part 3)

3.0 Where is ethnography heading to?

A fundamental starting point of ethnographic research, and hopefully this shows already from my argument here, is that its research objects are human subjects (‘the ethnographees’). In ethnographically oriented fieldwork, therefore, theory does not emerge behind a desk, but when engaged within the field. Ethnographic theorising is dialectically constructed in interaction with the material world and in encounters with human subjects. Ethnographers approach the world as an incredibly complex place of social action and communicative practice, and theorise on the basis of a description of that complexity, rather than on the basis of existing theories (See Juffermans 2008 for a position paper that touches on the difference between ethnographers and tourists). Ethnographers in other words arrive at theory from below, that is from messy everyday life of a given sociocultural space and try to reconstruct its cultural ecology. Ethnography thus works its way up from small, micro-events and lived experiences to explain, or at least try to explain, the societal forces that are at stake within the cultural ecology of a given space at a given time.  As ethnographers we arrive at new forms of knowledge in collaboration and negotiation with agentive ethnographees, or not at all (cf. Cameron et al. 1992; Collins 1998). These ethnographees, our research subjects, are not passive researchees, but agentive human beings with attitudes towards the research object and, as I have hopefully already pointed out to you, with a voice of their own (Fabian 1995).

Ethnographic studies of language in society have recently known a ‘human turn’. That is, they have known a move away from languages as linguistic systems that are merely used by people, towards language as a sociolinguistic system that is constructed and inhabited by people. Prominent scholars of language in society (e.g., Rampton 1995; Stroud 2003; Blommaert 2005;  Makoni & Pennycook 2007; Jørgensen 2008; Juffermans 2010) no longer define the field of sociolinguistics as the study of ‘who speaks (or writes) what language (or what language variety) to whom, and when and to what end’ (see Fishman 1972; Extra & Gorter 2008), but as the study of ‘who uses what linguistic features under particular circumstances in a particular place and time’. The central question that ethnography, or better linguistic ethnography,  has to cater for thus shifts from ‘what languages?’ (with language in plural) to ‘who languages which bit of a language and how does he or she do that with what purpose’ (using languages as a verb). In such a sociolinguistics of languaging (as opposed to a sociolinguistics of languages), the analysis revolves around human beings (languagers) engaged in particular communicative activities and situated in particular social, historical and geographical environments. The task for such a linguistic ethnography is not only describing and understanding language, but ultimately in describing and understanding society. Will ethnography survive this challenge and the challenge brought by the languaging that takes place among people through social media? It is early days still, but it seems that linguistic ethnography is getting there.                  



 Bezemer, J. (2003). Dealing with Multilingualism in Education. A Case Study of a Dutch Multicultural Primary School Classroom. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Cameron, D., E. Frazer, P. Harvey, B. Rampton & K. Richardson (1992). Researching Language:Issues of Power and Method. London: Routledge.

 Collins, J. (1998). Understanding Tolowa Histories: Western Hegemonies and Native American Responses.  London: Routledge.

 Dong, J. (2009). The Making of Migrant Identities in Beijing. PhD Thesis. Tilburg University

 Erickson. F.  (1984). What Makes School Ethnography ’Ethnographic’?  Anthropology of Education Quarterly, Vol. 15, 51-66.

 Extra, G. & D. Gorter (2008). Multilingual Europe: facts and policies. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

 Fabian, J. (1995). Ethnographic misunderstanding and the perils of context. American Anthropologist 97(1), 41-50.

 Fishman, J. (1972). The Sociology of Language. Rowley: Newsbury House Publisher.

 Gal, S. (2005). Language ideologies compared:Metaphors of public/private. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15, 23–37.

 Jørgensen, N. (2008). Polylingual Languaging around and among Children and Adolescents.  International Journal of Multilingualism 5(3), 161-176.

 Juffermans, K. (2008). The discourse of lending aid on small-scale development project websites: Dutch depreciatory diminutives. Language Matters, 39(1), 125-144.

 Juffermans, K. (2010). Local Languaging: Literacy Products and Practices in Gambian Society. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Makoni, S. & A. Pennycook (2007). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

 Malinowsky, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

 Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. (1st ed.). London: Longman.

 Spotti, M. (2007). Developing Identities: Identity Construction in Multicultural Primary Classrooms in the Netherlands and Flanders. Amsterdam: Aksant.

 Spotti, M. (2008). Exploring the construction of immigrant minority pupils? identities in a Flemish primary classroom. Journal of Linguistics & Education 19(1), 20-36.

 Spotti, M. & S. Kroon (2009). Ideologies of Disadvantage: Language Attributions in a Dutch Multicultural Primary School Classroom. Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education 2(1), 179-195.

 Stroud, C. (2003), Postmodernist perspectives on local languages: African mother tongue education in times of globalisation. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 6(1), 17-36.

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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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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