Events / Updates

Ethnography Lab Workshop Series 2016-2017

Ethnographic Objects: Materialities and Meanings

The Ethnography Lab is excited to launch its 2016-2017 Workshop Series. This year, the series will focus on experimenting with different techniques for interpreting ethnographic data. Once primary data has been gathered in the field, every ethnographer must grapple with deciding which techniques are best suited to analyzing it before it can be included in a monograph, dissertation, or other published work. Most ethnographers don’t hesitate to spend hours pouring over field-notes, listening to audio recordings, or scrawling the perfect ethnographic vignette to tell a story about their data. But what actually happens between the gathering of that data and its transformation into abstracted, anthropological analysis, is often a mystery.

This workshop series, entitled Ethnographic Objects: Materialities and Meanings, is designed as a collective experimentation with different ways of interpreting the ethnographic object. Each workshop will center around one particular kind of ethnographic object that is commonly encountered in the field: the video interview, the mystical object, the selfie, the music playlist, the Facebook post, and others. Presenters will spend time contextualizing the object within their own field-work experiences, after which participants will be invited to join in the “workshopping” of different techniques to arrive at creative ways of analyzing their meaning. The objective of this series is to encourage critical and active thinking about the processes that are involved in transforming primary data into an anthropological product.

Located in the University of Toronto Department of Anthropology, the Ethnography Lab strives to encourage dynamic discussion and experimentation with the various ways in which ethnography is practiced and imagined.

Join us in the Ethnography Lab Seminar Room, located in the Anthropology Building, room 330, on select Thursdays from 5-6:30pm for stimulating discussion.

This series is FREE and OPEN to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

Contact Jessika Tremblay at for more information.



Thursday, October 27th, 5-6:30pm

squatter-clearance-diamond-hill-1984We (Josephine Smart and Alan Smart) will focus on the afterlife of fieldnotes and their intersections with confidential Hong Kong government documents, rather than their use in the original project for which they were collected.  In particular, we will address their current research project which is taking advantage of the Hong Kong policy of making confidential government documents available after 30 years.  Our research for our doctoral degrees at U of T began 33 years ago, so we are beginning to work on government documents relevant to our projects on the clearance of squatter areas (Alan Smart) and unauthorized street vending (Josephine Smart).  We will address the potential value of bringing ethnographic field research and archival documents on the same topics together.  We will also provide examples of our recent analyses of some of the issues raised by some of the government documents we have located.

Workshop Facilitators: Josephine Smart (PhD, U of Toronto, 1987), Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary, and Alan Smart, (PhD, U of Toronto, 1986), Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary


Thursday, November 24th, 5-6:30pm

emily-magical-objectMagical objects are a type of object that are thought to have either intrinsic supernatural powers or the ability to help connect people with a supernatural world in some way. As objects, they can act as potent signifiers, communicating a range of cosmological ideas. However, to understand these objects requires a significant amount of background information about the possibilities of the supernatural world they index. Interpreting these objects also involves knowledge about the context in which they were produced and circulated. Without this information these objects could be read as mundane, as opposed to “magical”. In this workshop we will begin with an activity focusing on some atypical magical objects I acquired during my ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia. We will brainstorm ways to interpret these objects in stages. In each stage I will help to explain more of the contextual details that may make these objects legible to different groups of people. After this we will try to position these objects alongside examples of other kinds of magical objects, comparing the kinds and breadth of contextual data needed to interpret them as supernatural.

Emily Hertzman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research focuses on Chinese Indonesian mobilities and subjectivities. She is a member of the Ethnography Lab and works on several projects in the city of Toronto, including the Kensington Market Research Project, and a project collecting Chinese Canadian oral histories.  While studying migration patterns and practices in Borneo, West Kalimantan, she encountered a widely popular practice of Chinese spirit-mediumship, a tradition that includes many different sorts of magical objects. While not a specialist in the anthropology of religion or magic herself, she welcomes experts to this workshop to create a richer dialogue and more productive group analysis.

Workshop Facilitator: Emily Hertzman, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


Thursday, January 12, 5-6:30pm
bronwyn-video-interviewVideo is an efficient and accessible means of documenting and disseminating what happens in an ethnographic interview. When used together with a transcript, for example, a wealth of visual cues complements the text. While researchers can write things like “[laugh]”, “[hysterical laugh]”, or “[short sarcastic laugh]” in their transcripts, video more richly communicates these and other non-verbal elements involved in the interview. Clothing, ambient sounds, and objects within the frame consciously and unconsciously inform our analysis of the text. Of course, what the videographer decides to exclude from the frame also shapes the ethnography. As in a written ethnography, the people, places, and things the researcher decides to capture necessarily prioritize certain realities while excluding others. Although this narrowing of focus is necessary to conduct effective research, it is important to be aware of the implications of one’s selections. In visual ethnography, this process is further complicated by aesthetic considerations and technical limitations.

This workshop will provide an overview of Bronwyn Frey’s video research in Kensington Market in relation to the practice and ethics of visual ethnography. Together, we will examine excerpts of a video interview and conduct a short exercise in thematic network analysis, which is based on the principles of argumentation theory and shares structures with many other qualitative analytic methods, including grounded theory and frameworks. We will also think about ways to develop this and other analytic methods to address visual as well as textual data.

Workshop Facilitator: Bronwyn Frey, MA Student, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto

THE FACEBOOK POST    **updated date and time**

Friday, February 3rd, 5-6:30pm
bahasa-lebay-want-to-go-outside-but-its-raining-cropTen or twenty years ago, ethnographers who encountered online social interactions through such platforms as chat forums, multiplayer online roleplaying games, or virtual worlds, were dealing with marginally represented segments of the population. Not everyone had the access or the interest to incorporate the “online” into their daily lives, let alone shape their identities. As a result, ethnographies dealing with online data were briefly relegated to separate categories such as digital ethnography or online ethnography. More recently, the ubiquitous presence of internet-based communication in the daily lives of a growing segment of the global population has begun to change the ways in which ethnographers approach the significance of online data for their research. Social media, that broad term that applies to a wide range of tools and communication practices that allow users to create and share content through networks, has evolved drastically over the last decade. Yet (depending on the field site) the Facebook post has grown to represent a significant source of data for the ethnographer. In Indonesia, where Facebook remains one of the most popular social media sites among its 88 million active internet users, the Facebook post represents a significant source of sociocultural data. As primary data for an ethnographer, however, what exactly is a Facebook post? How does it relate to face-to-face interactions from the present and the past? How do its form and content recall other forms of mediated communication that precede and coexist with it? For example, how do “traditional” Javanese social practices that surround gossip, ritual, and social hierarchy transfer (or not) into the medium of the Facebook post? How is language use altered and why? Jessika Tremblay has conducted 20 months of ethnographic research in central Java, Indonesia (2012-2014), where she gathered extensive data from Facebook and other social media sites. This workshop will encourage participants to examine what a Facebook post is from a cultural and ethnographic perspective, and how to analyze it from various perspectives.

Workshop Facilitator: Jessika Tremblay, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


Thursday, March 2nd, 5-6:30pm

in-field-with-daughterIt happened when Boon Kiang and I were walking along the old railway tracks. Boon Kiang motioned me ahead, and drew my attention to a huge longkang (drain). “I was the kind of kid who, after school, went down to the longkangs to fish” he said with a laugh. “I caught a lot of guppies in here”. I looked down into the large drain, 5 metres wide by 3 metres deep, and cordoned off by steel railings painted a cobalt green. Beneath, I saw 5 inches of water, tinged light brown with muddy silt, and travelling down the length of the drain at a leisurely pace. Suddenly, what was once a fuzzy memory in the distant corners of my mind came into focus. My brother and I, both in jersey shorts and white trim, squatting by the drain with nets, trying to catch the orange guppies darting about while my grandfather poked about in the bushes nearby.

Longkang fishing, childhood days, and grandparents, are all classic themes in Singaporean nostalgia. Each time I go on guided historical tours or take walks with my informants, their own stories of the past trigger and colour my own memories of youth and childhood, inevitably lending a distracting sepia tint to fieldwork data. At the same time, memories are notoriously unreliable and this slippage is also possibly a fictive result of working extensively with heritage enthusiasts and archives. What happens when informants’ historical and archival photos trigger the ethnographer’s own memories and reflections? I liken the attempt to working between two modes at once; part analytical, part auto-ethnographic. Paying attention to the ambient and rarely acknowledged memories that hover at the “very edge of semantic availability” (Williams 1977:131) can draw out nuggets of insight that form the arc of an ethnographic story. In this workshop, we will explore ways to interpret and analyze the ambient memory as an (auto)ethnographic object that arises in conjunction with fieldwork data.

Workshop Facilitator: Jean Chia, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


Thursday, March 23rd, 5-6:30pm

jacob-playlist-nokiaPlaylists—sequences of songs—are a routine interface for the use of information and communication machines. What kind of data are playlists? How can ethnographers interpret technologically assembled, affectively charged sound sequences? Thinking about playlists as artifacts involves considering how they come into being, what the relations between their elements symbolize, and how they capture collective moments. A genealogy of playlists calls forth histories of recording industries and playback technologies in relation to nations, regions, languages, and styles. It involves the materiality of storage and transmission—mixtapes, SD cards, Bluetooth, or individualized streaming services. In this session I present a playlist copied from the mobile phone of a youth consultant in the highlands of West Papua. It exemplifies the region’s characteristic eclecticism, including contemporary American R&B, Indonesian pop, and European techno. The most frequent style is the reggae- and country-inflected pop of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. There are also local productions that mimic this broader Melanesian style, or that layer customary forms and electronic sounds. I briefly interpret the associations of these styles with reference to the region’s recent experience as an end-point in circuits of commodities and political power. I focus on two songs that were particularly popular and evocative at the moment of fieldwork. I invite participants to propose alternative methods by drawing on their own research and experiences.

Workshop Facilitator: Jacob Nerenberg, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


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