Learning to Do Ethnography by Reading the (Secondary?) Stories

During a workshop at the Ethnography Lab, we talked about how to learn to do ethnography. One way of learning, I propose in this blog, is to read ethnographies. And particularly one part of them: the stories that seem secondary.

By Javiera Araya-Moreno

‘Ethnography Beyond Anthropology’ Workshop with speakers: Javiera Araya-Moreno, Kregg Hetherington, Bart Simon and Kariuki Kirigia (left to right), Concordia Ethnography Lab, November 11, 2022

I have found many texts on how to do ethnographies and on how to write them. I haven’t found that many about how to read them. Of course, it should not be that different from reading other types of academic texts. Look for the main argument and aim to distinguish the main ideas from the details, hopefully without having to read every sentence. As graduate students, we learn to understand the main ideas and to skip or skim through the secondary stories, anecdotes, ideas, and explanations.

Ethnographies have a lot of those, though. Stories and vignettes describing in depth some situation that the author wanted to share with us; some anecdote, historical explanation or reference to an obscure old document that may not have been of our particular interest, but which nonetheless the author thought we, the readers, should know. While I don’t think it is possible or advisable to read every word in all of the books we consult, I discovered that reading those parts that do not seem that important to the main argument is a great way to learn more about how to do ethnography. Better than a manual.

In the weeks that followed my PhD defense – and, to some extent, out of guilt – I reopened some of the ethnographies that I had read too quickly while writing my thesis. An excess of optimism and a lack of financial self-awareness had made me buy physical books, and I enjoyed being able to touch them, to fold the corner of a page, to underline a sentence, and to write small notes in the margins. I set out to read everything, especially the stories that didn’t seem related to the main arguments. In fact, it wasn’t that easy to recognize the main argument in many of these books. At times, the ethnographer seemed as lost as me in the details of their descriptions, amazed by the situations they found themselves in. At other times, those stories seemed only to serve as an illustration or example of the sophisticated theoretical arguments the author was trying to make.

I realized that reading the stories, anecdotes, ideas, and explanations – those that I had considered secondary when writing my own thesis – could tell a lot about how to do ethnography. Since I wasn’t trying to identify the main argument, the research’s strengths and weaknesses, or specific theoretical or methodological points, I could let myself follow the ethnographer as they wandered in their writing, introducing all the stories, anecdotes, ideas, and explanations that I had previously considered less important. Reading them brought to mind a parallel world in which the author was the strange person in the place they called their “field”, asking questions, trying to be nice and sometimes saying something inappropriate. In that parallel world, I could see the ethnographer being “the spy”, “the friend who is doing research”, “the person-who-is-doing-something-we-don’t-understand-very-well-but-that-we-tolerate”, or “the academic researcher who could help us”, all of those descriptions that might make the authors uncomfortable, but in which their interlocutors recognized them.

This exercise of imagination made me think about all the potential stories the author decided to leave out, about all the situations they had to find themselves in so they could choose which one to tell, and about all those situations that were probably uncomfortable, frustrating or just weird, too weird to even mention. Or the situations when the ethnographer was scared of someone in the field, inadvertently broke something – an object, trust, a heart? –, ate something they shouldn’t, were too friendly or too distant with someone, or had fun, and even too much fun, and fieldwork that day ended up in a hangover and fieldnotes of questionable quality. Imagining the ethnographer being amazed by something, unrelated to their research, but too interesting not to include, made me further appreciate the secondary stories that I had previously read too quickly.

Even the acknowledgement sections reminded me of the huge number of debts ethnographers accumulate over many years of work. To their mentors, their colleagues, and their “subjects”; to their lovers, their families, and the institutions that funded their research. Debts of all kinds: time, money, knowledge, contacts, and many others. In the acknowledgements, all those relationships seem simpler than they likely were, and academia seems a less hostile place than it probably is. But just realizing the extent of support this kind of work needs, and of imagining the ethnographer having to deal with all and each of the people and institutions they include in their acknowledgements, somehow brings the doing of ethnography to life.

In fact, the question about these stories, that take up a lot of space in ethnographies, is not whether or not they are primary or secondary, central or peripheral, fundamental or auxiliary; after all, that’s a matter of (the reader’s) judgement, of who is reading with what purpose, if any, and in what mood. My point is not that we should (or not) read them, my point is that through them, whichever they are for a particular reader in a particular book, we can learn a great deal about how to do ethnography. Deliberately trying to be confused, worried, frustrated, uncomfortable, overwhelmed and amazed with the author, even if it is in an imaginary world in which the author is not the writer but the ethnographer in the field, teaches us about a research approach that is precisely an exercise of failing to distinguish the main from the secondary descriptions of the world.

‘Ethnography Beyond Anthropology’ Workshop, Concordia Ethnography Lab, November 11, 2022

Share this post on: