Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Power 2015 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Fieldwork (Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power)

What We Tried, Where We Stumbled, What Worked, and Dilemmas that Emerged


Excerpt from Anna Shortly’s Fieldnotes 2015


By Alexandre

Ethnographic fieldwork is a unique way of doing research where one has to use their own body as their main tool of research. By putting themselves in a place where people interact as part of their lives, ethnographers try to find out through participant-observation (by participating and observing) how a certain group understands and sees the world by decoding its social facts. Anthropology put forward the idea that to make sense of a social phenomenon, one has to experience it first hand.

In the context of our research we placed ourselves in a field that was very personal to us: our own university. By already being a member of the field we researched, it created certain dilemmas. For instance, how were we to mediate our relationships as researchers, as fellow students, and sometimes as friends? How could some of us mediate our role both as researchers and employees without inappropriately crossing boundaries?

Contrarily to traditional modes of anthropological research, we made the ample use of documents in order to further our research. For instance, the university and campus groups have a plethora of documents that are produced in various forms, such as mission statements, meeting minutes, student newspapers articles, flyers, etc. If one has the proper tools to look at them, documents can offer various research clues in the way they are constructed and used throughout the university.

Various events emerged in the field and we ended up finding ourselves moving towards a specific line of inquiry. One has to strive to find the missing pieces of a puzzle in order to understand what is happening in the field. However, on the route to solving this enigma, various obstacles got in our way. We sometimes found ourselves forced to move backwards in order to move forwards. Suddenly, we might find a contradiction that would shatter everything that we previously thought to be true. Nevertheless, one has to be open to these obstacles as they might simply be what helps us move forward in our project.

 Messing with Messy Data

By Alexandre

At the beginning of my project, I was slowly trying to pick up pieces to try and theorize the myth of why the average students at the University of Toronto do not really get involved in student politics. Are they simply disinterested by student politics in general? Why do people decide to get involved? I was a bit lost trying to get to understand student politics without having a clear direction as to where to get to.

Without having expecting much out of it, on October 7th came the AGM. I initially thought it would shed a light on the subject, but God was I wrong. The Annual General Meeting of the University of Toronto Students’ Union was very eventful, a mix of highly bureaucratic rules contradicted by a chaotic fiasco of people that did not seem to care about any types of authority.

What I thought would be a serious and disciplined ended up being nothing like it. After a long hour waiting we finally approved the agenda to have it completely disrupted by a marching band. Going from there, I started to notice that things had already been going on in every direction. Some attendees were drinking alcohol. People had openly made fun of the authority of the UTSU by laughing at their anti-oppressive ideology. Nobody respected the chair’s incessant call to ‘order’ by asking them to keep quiet. Attendees were playing a bingo of the UTSU until one attendee screamed bingo as he won. The attendees purposefully stalled the meeting for political reasons, which allowed us only enough time to go through 5 points of the 17 points in the agenda over the course of 5 hours.

With about a dozen pages of field notes filled with a huge mess of data and themes, I found myself limited as to how to theorize these events considering the theoretical knowledge we had looked at in class. I did not know where to start. How was I supposed to make sense of an event whose participants highly contradicted the bureaucratic and embodied authority of the union that claimed to represent them? How could I think of this mess of data in any other form than a mess?

 Ethnography at ‘Home’

By Shannon McKechnie

Even though I knew I wanted to pursue the field of Student Life as my research topic, I was nervous about the fieldwork part of this experience since it would likely mean that I would be conducting research in my place of work. To avoid this, so I could remain as unbiased as possible, much of my fieldwork was interview based, and I participated in Student Life programming that I would have been able to access as a student anyways. However, even in doing my fieldwork outside of my direct place of work, I still found myself within this site that I was incredibly familiar with – not only Student Life, but the University itself too. Studying the student experience as it is carefully and purposefully guided by dedicated and earnest individuals in the University’s Student Life departments was an incredibly immersive and reflexive experience for me. Mapping out the network of power in this area of the University and identifying the limits of this field has given me a great deal of insight into how the student life programs are created and implemented, and more importantly, inspired me to look upon this field I hope to contribute to professionally in a far more critical way.

By “doing” anthropology, we were able to investigate the theories we’ve read in classes for the past four years in a real, accessible manner, in a site we navigate every day. Looking at the University from this new lens was difficult, but proved to be incredibly rewarding.

Details, Details, Details!

By Saania Punja

In my fieldwork, I paid a great amount of attention to the details in the images, descriptions and conversations of students on campus. The benefit of studying student identities at a University where I am also a student was being able to use my own participation as a means of conducting research. This came in most helpful when I would stumble upon interesting discourse, both written and spoken, that really pulled together my work.

I found that being attentive to the topics that are discussed and language used to discuss them gave me a great insight on how narratives of University students are formed, reproduced and then also challenged by the students themselves. One of the best ways that I did this was by listening to conversations that occurred among students at my fieldwork sites. This allowed me to pick up on the how students would both express their discontent towards certain narratives and at the same time give truth to these narratives by addressing them as a problem – which is what lead me into further research about available solutions to student discontent (such as on-campus organizations that aim to break these student narratives). Additionally, I was also able to use social media resources such as blogs and group pages to analyze discourse and images in this very same way. From this I was able to notice recurring ideas about student identity within discourse and use it as an area of focus for my research.

Although this method is counter-intuitive to conducting research, for example, by actively asking questions and seeking answers, I found that participating in events and then stumbling upon unintended findings made me analyze areas that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought to look into. Moreover, this was a great way for me to gain more knowledge about my area of research and then solidify this further through the use of background information, interviews and theories.

Making Sense of Incoherence

By Henry Lee Heinonen

When I began this project, I expected to encounter a very coherent, centrally run wellness program. What I discovered at Hart House Weekly Wellness was a set of individual programs with not much tying them together. I tried to focus my efforts more by utilizing the medical concept of aetiology, in order to build a more coherent picture of the wellness program. In a medical anthropology class I was taking, we read about political aetiologies being developed by poor Egyptians with failing kidneys (Hamdy 2008), and how they can be contrasted with localized (and depoliticized) biomedical explanations of illness. It got me thinking. While diagnosis is usually only implied (or limited in scope), aetiologies are presented clearly, on the side of the institution. To understand the different treatment programs I encountered, I should try to tease out the implied aetiologies.

Weekly Wellness Aetiologies:

Massage Mondays: Masseuse claims the issue is behavioural: my back is tight because I lift weights, and my back is tight because I sit at a desk too much for school (he says this when I tell him I’m an anthropology major. “Anthropology? You must be at your desk a lot.”)

Tea Social: N/A: No programming or instruction available. With the Tea Social there is an implicit diagnosis about lack of socialization, though there is no aetiology provided.

Mindfulness Wednesdays (Meditation): Environmental/natural aetiology. You will always be bombarded with things to do – we all get stressed, we are all mindless sometimes. Thus, we need to learn how to deal with the barrage and live in a mindful way.

Get Crafty: Environmental Aetiology: Last week when I attended Get Crafty, our craft was to make envelopes and decorate them. This was supposed to inspire us to write hand-written letters to loved ones. The instructor went through a familiar script about how technology is making us stressed – let’s slow down and write by hand and get away from electronics.

The aetiologies provided are general, as any student could experience unwellness, which a given aetiology could explain. These explanations of unwellness are not only general, but point to processes over which the student has no control. The student can’t abandon technology, or school altogether. What are the aetiologies of the unwell student?

Affective Experience of Fieldwork

By Laura Beach

About half-way through the semester I decided to take an engaged/experimental ethnographic approach, which helped expose particular modes and relations of power. I found blending activism and academia to be confusing and muddy; an uncomfortable subject position opens up in the simultaneous performance of personal politics and research. From the get-go I was already feeling the emotional toll of putting myself out there as an individual, with a cause, knocking on proverbia doors (in reality: exchanging emails) and seeking to enact change. The over-arching affective landscape that was carved out, was one of rolling hills, the dips and rises of feelings of anxiety, of frustration, of foolishness, of despair, and of hope. There was the sinking feeling in my gut when I saw an email response pop up in my inbox, and a growing anxiety, and a flush of foolishness, as I read the response, and internalized it as if it were physical and not simply words on a screen. There was also a small seed of hope, and a tiny trumpet of triumph, as I drafted my reply, and sent it out into the cosmos.

This affective landscape led me to think about activist burn-out and the emotional toll of engaged research, as a mode of power. I found myself wondering how the emotional toll of pushing for change, and the difference between the labour of the activist (largely un or under-paid, unofficial and lacking material and social resources, and of a personal nature) and the labour of the administrator/official (largely paid, officially recognized, supported, and impersonal) relates to the maintenance of hegemonic discourses, practices and power relations. I resolved to look closer at the asymmetry of power within these relations, and the disempowering/demotivating effects of emotional exhaustion. Toward the end of my fieldwork I reached out to CUPE 3902, for support and solidarity toward the changes I am hoping to enact, and was met with such a positive response I felt truly rejuvenated, re-energized and buoyed. This has led me to consider the relative power of the collective versus the individual and the role of emotional support and coalitional politics in transforming power relations, sustaining political movements, and enacting change.

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