Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 5


1- The main reason of thick description is to make an incident meaningful to those that are not part of a specific cultural group. In doing so, thick description explains both the incident and the context of the incident, therefore the incident becomes meaningful to someone who is not part of the cultural group and perhaps does not understand the practices and discourses of the group.

My main concern here is who can provide better thick description of the behaviors and do an enriched symbolic anthropology? Should an ethnographer be a member of the cultural group or be an external ethnographer with no group affiliations? On the other words, does the group affiliation of the ethnographers enrich their description of the behaviors and the meanings of symbols? Do you think group affiliation of the ethnographers may reduce the quality of a symbolic anthropology; does not let them “get close” ? and hinder the access of ethnographers to the original information by the subjects considering that there is a possibility that the subjects may think that the researcher knows the meanings attached to actions and therefore may avoid sharing experiences and information.

2- the other issue is that Emerson asks ethnographers to “ immerse “ in the social worlds, what if our case of study  is a minority group; which stage do you think is the most vital one to facilitate our immersion in the social world?

- the first stage of entry ?

- the stage of doing ethnography?

- the final stage of publishing the results?

3- Is just immersion enough to assist us to do participant observation? How  other factors such as credibility influence participant observation and the process of immersion? For instance, how a female researcher can get credibility among its subject who are male prisoners? How can she get immersed in the social worlds while issues such as race or gender differences may influence her credibility among its subjects negatively?

David B.

I feel weird reacting to Notes on a Balinese Cockfight, since I’ve read it several times a few years ago. I suppose the only thing that can be said, is that its a seminal piece of Anthropological work. But while it is invariably assigned in almost every introductory Anthropology course, the nature of the case study is forgotten all of the time. By that I mean, Geertz is giving a description of adults playing a game, and yet studying more contemporary gaming culture (video games, paper-based roll playing games, LARPing) needs to constantly be defended as legitimate work. Go figure.

Having done some limited fieldwork, I felt Emerson did an amazing job of noting almost every problem, concern, or difficulty the average ethnographer comes across. I really wish I had read this my fourth year of undergrad, before writing my baccalaureate thesis, because it would have prepared me for many of the little foibles that a methods textbook doesn’t cover. Emerson seemed to assume “jotting” would always lead to negative reactions, but my case was different. When I was doing participant-observation in the city of Sarasota, a lot of the residents thought I was a reporter (even after I explained what I was doing). They would come to me and start offering their opinions and explained their fears. I found myself writing completely superfluous things when it got dull, just to get people to come and talk to me, so I could get some more substantial data.The consultants and city officials were always courteous and since my main contact was an alum of my undergrad, it was easier to gain trust. I was even elected by my table to present their collective conclusions during one of the mapping exercises, which I would liken to being given a “kinship roll.” Here’s a picture of me performing my new role in the (temporary) community:

I can certainly say that learning a “short hand” is incredibly important, since you’ll usually find yourself furiously writing down notes as a really important conversation starts to take place. In general the four “implications” that Emerson deduces (data and observation are inseparable, importance of indigenous meanings, field notes are the key to providing detailed descriptions, and those field notes should reflect the everyday, as well as the special) seem to characterize the state of art of ethnography.

Martin’s work on the pharmaceutical industry was a really compelling case study. I was surprised to see her quotes include her own replies to interview questions. I thought that was a really great convention and I hope to use it.


I find it amusing to see how different disciplines have the same kinds of conversations over similar problems.  Reading Geertz’s take on Thick Description and certainly Emerson’s breakdown of taking field notes took my back over and over again to how, as a photographer, carrying a camera is not unlike carrying a notebook - both in the sense of what sorts of protocols one must consider in social situations, but also in terms of what kinds of momentary information one expects to capture for future evaluation, editing, and storytelling.

In terms of the first – that of social propriety – I can recall numerous conversations with my students about how to best approach subjects.  Not unlike what Emerson lays out here, for me it always came down to a combined approach depending on circumstances.  When photographing spaces, buildings, etc (even when trespassing) a person with a camera becomes suspicious for reasons of liability and assumed mischief or, alternatively, you were assumed to be a reporter or insurance investigator [echoing David above].  But claiming the ‘artist’ card – or in the case of my students the ‘student artist’ card which carries some weight often proved the critical diversion.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual for people to start talking to you about art and photography [sometimes too much] as a result.  Thinking more about it, I would be interested to see how well using a ‘social scientist’ card would work in those circumstances.

In any event, photographing people is an entirely different story.  Emerson and Geertz both describe the presence of the ethnographer as a factor contributing to the thing being experienced.  While the presence of the researcher is unavoidable, their task in documenting events can have varying levels of conspicuousness.  The presence of a camera or other recording technology, however, changes the game significantly.  Acknowledging generalizations, it is safe to say most cultures have certain expectations and reactions in place to confront the presence of a camera.  This is the bane of all photographers work in their goal to acquire the ‘authentic’. Garry Winogrand is worth mentioning here – his method was to ‘look like a tourist’ walking around zoos, beaches, etc, so people didn’t take notice of his presence.  But in effect it allowed him to shoot from the hip – often not even looking through the camera when tripping the shutter.  

Alfred Eisenstaedt is another – he used to do photo interviews in ways not unlike how Emerson describes overt jotting.  He would put his camera on the table as soon as he entered the room, periodically pick it up and click a photo, go back to conversation, and do it all over again – sometimes for hours.  Unlike the ethnographer who may have the convenience of going to the bathroom or writing their notes later before bed, the photographer has no such luxury so must make do in the moment [Sophia Loren].

Bruce Davidson on the other hand made a real name for himself by being the upfront - I’m here to document - style.  It nearly got him killed in a few instances.  His images speak for themselves in terms of their visual impact, but I’ve remained skeptical of how well he was received within his ‘community’ [thinking of his NY subway series in the ‘80s here].  In fact at some point he actually served as the bait to bring in a number of subway muggers [man on the left below is the undercover cop].

Going back to the concept of thick descriptions, Roland Barthes said it well in Camera Lucida…”I observe that a photograph can be the object of three practices: to do, to undergo, to look.”  A photograph is by nature a slice of time removed from context, interpreted by the photographer both in the moment [by selecting what does and does not get photographed] in the edit [what makes the cut], and delivered in faith to an audience left to interpret what is given.  Edward Curtis is an interesting case of this – the man spent nearly 25 years [1907-1930] and 3000 photographs [no small task in the age of glass plate negatives] documenting Native American tribes west of the Mississippi and into Alaska.  Curtis’ images were used as the gold standard for decades as accurate documents of Indian lifestyle and customs.  BUT – while Curtis’ take on Native culture was always considered an abstracted one - it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that it was discovered through the notes of fellow travelers [and a lost archive of more of his photographs and notes] the extent to which Curtis regularly staged his images to suit his notion of the Indian.  This has opened up a lot of debate over the value of his work.  In a sense, the wink gets heavily confused. Where then is the value of the work – in the documentation of the artifacts or in the description of their interplay?  Because of Curtis’ heavily interpretive methods we see a headdress, but is this really the chief, is this Curtis’ own horse?


I have to admit that I am struggling to find much to say about ethnography. I'm not so sure the methodology is for me and I have a hard time getting into most of the ethnographies which I am instructed to read. Sometimes they make for interesting stories (the pharmaceutical article for instance) but I am usually left with a nagging question: "So what/Now what?" What about the big picture? I admit that some of it probably has to do with the topical areas of the assigned texts. Sherry Turkle makes use of ethnography in her latest book and it is, so far, the only one which I have found that has engaged me much at all (though it likely interests me more as a reference/resource than inspiring me to do ethnography myself).

I have been trying to work out for myself what kinds of answers ethnography can provide and what kinds of answers it cannot. In my current view, I see it is useful for compiling meanings channeled through both the cultural framework of the observed and the ethnographer. I don't see it so much as giving us direct insight into the phenomena under consideration but rather the particular rationalizations available (ie culturally acceptable) to the observed to describe their own behavior and the particular rationalizations available to the ethnographer in interpreting those descriptions. What if we are not so much concerned with what kinds of symbolic meanings can be inscribed from an activity but how that activity fits into a larger pattern of practice and living? What if one is, as a scholar, not interested so much in what people think about what they are doing but what they do and the consequences of their practices? I guess my main worry is: does it lock you into mostly/only doing semiotics and microscale work?

   Also, I have reservations about whether or not the motivations and reasoning given by people are really what moves them to act but I think they may mostly be the best they could come up with to justify to themselves and the interviewer what they are stuck doing because of some other reason. That line of thought leads me to wonder about the tought balancing act in doing ethnography. How does the ethnographer keep his/her questioning from become performative

for the kinds of explanations that he/she is looking for?

   I found the following quote from Geertz interesting: "it is through the flow of behavior...that cultural forms find articulation." I was struck by this statement in that I worry that it presupposes that some disembodied cultural form precedes behavior. Where else could culture exist if not in behavior itself? (Not in the ether I hope). How can a cultural form "find" an articulation? I might just be over analyzing what he has written here (he might be merely waxing poetically) but I find the statement odd.


In having done some ethnography myself, Geertz really resonated with me in terms of the importance of thick description as a methodology, but it also helped me clear up some issues I have had doing these things. In particular, I think there is the sense when we are given the pen and pad and sent out into a community that our goal is to become ‘one of them’ as to gain their trust and tell the true/pure story of their lives in our own words. I’ve always felt this to be a problem because even amongst groups that I have formerly felt a part of, I realize that the mode of thinking and discretion that I would use to describe it also cause me to be removed from it. It’s important, then, to be aware that we are always researcher in some capacity and that we have to be honest about that when we’re doing our notes in the field. That is not to say that there is nothing that we can glean from observation when we are in an inside/outside position. I don’t know if Geertz would even agree with the strictness of the inside/outside binary. When Geertz is then in the field, I think that the notion that he was ‘outside’ and then came ‘inside’ when he participated in running from the cops after a broken up cockfight is important, but what is more important that he never fully enters their world. I recall he points out that the community makes it a point to acknowledge him, but he is still known as a researcher.

        I suppose then what I’m really wrestling with is how important is it that we get these super pure, pristine and perfect stories from the field to bring back? This notion of purity seems more the for the benefit of people who are outside of the social sciences than for us who are in it. Geertz and Martin seem perfectly find acknowledge the limitations of the method, but when I go to talk about it I feel the tension that I’m not doing real observation because I’m not fully within the culture of the people I want to study. It might just be a reaction or awareness of the legacy of colonialism in studying other cultures, but I think we have to get past that an into an area where we can locate ourselves as being both inside and outside the culture we study without fear of compromising our credibility.

        Lastly, I love the idea of tools we carry into the field. Geertz and Banks have field notes, Kirk presents some interesting ideas about with cameras, but I’m still curious about how we go about using these things in the field in a way that is makes the awareness of the tool we use a part of the analysis. For example, I have heard many stories about how to ‘shoot candidly’ using different techniques and tools, but does it escape the fact that it is a photograph with all the baggage that it carries and Kirk points out? It may very well be that ‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe’, but at the same time do we risk all credibility when we point out that a photograph is just an image of a real thing and that notes on culture are, although carefully observed, still on some level filtered through a researcher who’s relative position to the community isn’t always clear?


 Whew!  I am glad to see that I’m not the only one... on a lot of topics.  Having no experience in doing ethnographies for research (but apparently quite a bit informally in my attempts to play Navy officer, politico, etc), I’m in a similar boat as Taylor in wondering whether this is a direction I should be going.  I’ve heard that a lot of specific training is given to people in anthro and sociology who actually go into the field, and there are people who just don’t jive with it in the end.  Personally, I also worry about my tendency to... maybe not “judge” but to evaluate in terms of ethics and other evaluative dimensions in ways that could hinder a more “unbiased” accounting of a situation.  For example, I found myself wincing a bit reading the cockfighting piece because of some of the insights revealed about Balinese culture (both the disdain of animals and the sexism that reminded me that I’d be shut out of many communities a priori, see below).  There is also an uncomfortable feeling of dishonesty to me because on the one hand you want to be accepted “into” the group... so you can take that insider information “outside.”  Yes, as a researcher you tell them, but the social dynamics of seeing someone as an insider are not under conscious control of people, according to some theories.  I HAD to become an insider in the Navy and in politics because those were my jobs, but it feels strange to me to strive for that for a community I just want to study, but not actively become a part of.  

 That said, I liked Emerson’s piece because it not only explained the process in understandable ways, but also addressed a lot of concerns that arose as I read it - that coding will have a lot of variation based on the individual and even on the individual’s changing perspectives.  To address Dan’s concern, it seems that the goal is NOT to get a “pure” story from the field, but a … valid one?  One that is coded and interpreted in an insightful way?  It feels like finding a point of balance equilibrium on a moving platform - you tend to “know it when you have it.”  I certainly saw a lot of Goldilocks-type description, especially around how to “make jottings” (that term amused me for no reason) - not too much, not too little, not too specific, not too general, but juuuuust right.  It comparison to this seeming squishiness of grounded theory, symbolic interactionism seems to make more sense to me because it doesn’t pretend to be concrete. (I know that probably sounds counter-intuitive)

 I share Sonia's concern about credibility in the face of more glaring differences (like gender and ethnicity).  In a less restricted culture, such as an indigenous tribe, there may be both males and females, but it feels like without careful wrangling and a lot of luck, a female researcher would get "stuck with the womenfolk" (and likewise, a male may be kept from interacting with females).  This seems to place an arbitrary limitation on what a researcher can uncover in such research unless you are willing to go to great lengths to hide those factors.  Why should I try to train in ethnography if it just relegates me to having access to certain areas but not others, when my research would likely take me across gender and ethnic lines?

 Kirk’s photography description is very apt. It reminded me of the constrictive side of that activity - while in Safety in the Navy, I’d walk around the ship taking pictures of unsafe things. It was amusing how much pucker factor a camera would induce in people, and how much they would try to “behave properly” in front of it.  I took a lot of pictures while in Japan, but consciously avoided taking pictures of people for fear of appearing rude.  Back to the technology of taking notes - I found that discussion in Emerson very interesting.  It made me wonder if new notetaking technologies would 1) hold potential to make ethnographies easier and 2) be accepted by researchers to replace written notetaking.  

 David B - Well said re: gaming culture legitimacy.  I would say though that there is snobbery in many areas.  As a young'un, I resented Shakespeare snobs who would turn up their noses at cartoons and science fiction books, claiming to be "more cultured" because they read the Bard's raunchy tales about "biting thumbs" and whatnot.  When I mentioned this to someone, they insisted that eventually someone with status would do a study that legitimized gaming culture... which highlights the problem further that unless such work is recognized (in circular fashion) by the community as legitimate, usually being done by someone the community recognizes, any work done by juniors in the field would seem to be largely disregarded.

David M.

Having already discussed Geertz last semester, I had a sense of deja-vu with some of the comments and issues raised.

Firstly, I had a severe case of what Taylor was talking about, all through-out of last semester’s methods class. I still do, to a point. I’m still unsure about the way I’ll conduct research, and skeptical that my chosen research area (nanotech policy) would benefit from me gaining access to the policy community and jotting down the discussions during the late-night drinks where the actual debates are being held about what to do next. However, my iffyness has significantly toned down, as my understanding of ethnography has widened. After reading numerous texts which mostly had to do with the ethnographic community, I understood the internal struggles and uncertainties that practitioners deal with. They don’t just blindly accept the “story” or the “particular rationalizations available” to their interviewees, they take the information and reshape and recast it, by adding their own thoughts and rationalizations (As Geertz says: “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people's constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to”). The information provided to the researcher directly from the subjects, which obviously already has the coating of the thoughts and notions of the subject, are most usually not left “as is”. Sometimes, at least from my limited bibliography, the way that story is being told, or the way the narrative is created is more important to the researchers. Because this, in turn, answers the question, or at least tries to answer, “what’s next?”. By understanding more than just why members of certain tribes prefer to sleep outside during the winter (random example), the researcher can then help shed light to the processes or mechanisms that make that particular culture what it is. It goes beyond simply stating the reason for them sleeping outside in the winter, it opens our eyes to the much larger spectrum of actions by that tribe. It offers a potential description, and I use the word potential because of the subjective nature of the process. Like I said last time about grounded theory, it’s about our personal interaction with the data, that then, however much we admit it, still doesn’t dissapear.

To Kirk’s wonderful analysis of photography. I, personally, see photography like any other technology that is in place to help the researcher. It’s a tool, an invasive technology. From last semester’s conclusions, the idea of whether or not an ethnographer with a camera would be easier or harder to accept and “feel natural” around is still undecided. Different people react differently to technology in an ethnographic endeavor, and this simply means that the use of such technologies can lead to a potential upper-hand, or a potential detriment. The take-away is that these tools should be used carefully and first gauge the subjects’ comfort with the instrument. And this goes even for what can be seen as less intrusive technologies as recording devices. What I did have a problem with, while discussing this aspect, was that my proposed example of daring ethnography (a young photographer took some gut-wrenching stills inside a crack-house, after earning their trust, listening to their stories and spending almost entire days with the drug-addicts) was shot down as soon as I mentioned that it then appeared in a newspaper. Which would confuse the channel of dissemination with the actual work. While the article and photo gallery were more journalistic in nature, the work in the field, I dare to say, is no different from that of an ethnographer. While not particularly helpful to my argument so far, I’d like to share an example, which can be dismissed as not being actual ethnography, but it is connected to Kirk’s concern about gaining access. This past weekend I helped out the Model UN club at Penn State with their annual home conference. I had been an Under-Secretary General before and I came back and reprised my role, that of photographer. I took about 3,000 photos from Thursday all the way until Sunday. Having done it before I knew that the first few hours I had to gain the trust of the atendees. Yes, they were all in suits, were following strict rules of conduct and generally had a certain stiffness to them that one would expect from Model UN folk, but they still felt uncomfortable with somebody taking 5 close-ups of their placard in the air. By Friday afternoon, I had become part of the scenery, I would enter committee rooms practically unnoticed, was able to take even extreme close-ups and had no problem even moving people or items around to get a better shot. So much so that at the slide-show during closing ceremonies, most people would say “when did he take that photo of me? I don’t remember him being there.” Of course, this wasn’t an ethnographic endeavor, more an archivistic one (if I’m allowed to bastardize that term). Of course this could also have meant that they simply became numb to a lens starring them in the face, or that the adjectives of “creepy”, “weird”, “photo-fetishist” died down only because they had no response from me. However, it had to do with access and with technology.

One last point about photography, or any other recording technologies is that sometimes (I held back from using “most of the times”) this is more comforting for those that want to get their story across, than when the ethnographer is writing down his notes. Through recording devices they are certain that what they’re saying or doing is not “misinterpreted”.

To Sabrina’s point I think that the notion of access is crucial and the limitations are not just race or gender-based. They’re limitations that can stem from multiple issues and this is one of the questions, or at least that’s how I perceived it, of ethnography. How far does one go for the data?To another part of your comment, I don’t think that the “insider” status is gained by necessarily always being “one of them”. While it can help, there are, of course limitations. Going through the rituals of a tribe may make you “one of them” according to their culture, but on a personal basis you can still be treated as an outsider, and the reverse is just as true. More so, the status of “researcher” allows for this dichotomy to happen. One doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the navy to get to talk to the people involved, spend a few days with them during exercises, etc. However, I do believe that a former “insider” status, somebody that has “graduated” from that group, would have a tremendously easier time. Because while people perceive that person as a “researcher” or an outsider, their former member is accustomed to their ways and could easily gain their trust.