Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

At the gates of ethnographic knowledge (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Nil Alt

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

My first and eventually successful attempt to enter my field, the UTSU food bank at the Multi-Faith Centre, was a frustrating experience. My field notes say it all:

“The moment the UTSU membership services coordinator heard that I was looking to do participant observation at the food bank, her facial expression changed from a smile to a tight frown. She also immediately shifted to talking in a bossy manner. She asked me, quite authoritatively, what exactly I was researching. I said something about student food insecurity, and how I was at the very beginning of my project so I did not have much clarity yet. Then she asked me if I did not have a “proposal or something”. I probably offered some more inarticulate explanation. I am drawing a blank now, trying to recall. I must have felt really nervous. Eventually,  we agreed that I would send her a brief description of my project to get so she could get the union’s approval. Just as I was turning around to leave, I was delivered the final blow: “You know .. I can’t parachute you in just like that”. Wow… A wave of anger and some sort of a weird fascination swept over me. Parachute me? I was not asking for that. Then she asked me to email her an excerpt on my project by midweek and left.”

The UTSU food bank at the entrance of Multi-Faith Centre

Phew… Leaving the food bank, a lot of questions were racing in my mind. I thought of myself as a calm and articulate person so then why was I overreacting now? Why was I feeling so anxious? Would analyzing my emotional reactions even a good idea? Would it help me make better sense of my observations? Looking back, I see how I could not have experienced this interaction differently and how this was exactly what I needed to learn about ethnography.

After a stressful wait that lasted a few days, I was asked to provide a poster about myself and an info sheet about my project, and my volunteer application was approved. I thought perhaps Burawoy (1994) was right to remind that “participant observers confront two hurdles: getting in and getting out”, and the former might very well evoke feelings of nervousness and humiliation (p.2).  According to Buroway (1994), the more anxiety and resistance was conjured up when you are trying to enter your site, the more potential it held for “revealing much of what is normally hidden or taken for granted” (p.3). I wanted to understand what lied beneath my anxiety, but I also had no intention to make this ethnographic experience all about myself.  At this point I turned to Bourdieu for help.

Bourdieu (2003) substitutes ‘participant observation’ with another term he coins: “participant objectivation”.  While participant observation means immersing oneself in an unfamiliar social context in order to observe social phenomena, participant objectivation stands for an elaborated form of socio-analysis where the researcher mobilizes their own life experience to understand what others experience (p.287). In doing so, they are compelled to examine their own point of view embedded within the larger context of their personal and academic inclinations. These inclinations, argues Bourdieu, are products of the researcher’s educational and professional conditions that shape their subjectivity.

untitled2Following Bourdieu’s insight, I called on my own experience as a food bank user when trying to develop a reflexive analysis of myself as an ethnographer. Making myself the object of my own analysis helped me know myself both as an observer and as a food bank user.  I came to see that while using the food bank, I had developed a sense of belonging with it and other students who used it. I was resistant to viewing this space of care as a political space. Maybe I felt that accepting its inevitably political nature would have placed me at the weaker end of the power spectrum. It might even be that I did not want to critique ‘the hand that fed me’.

Eventually I managed to get in my field and have conducted participant observation at the food bank over the past two months. I have learned a lot and have certainly developed a sort of commitment to this contested space and those who frequent it. The complexity I am provided by my position, I reckon, cannot be captured merely by “analytical binaries of incorporation and resistance” (Cloke and Williams, 2018, p. 705). Therefore, this might be a good time to take a step back and view the food bank both as an uneven political field resulting from welfare state retrenchment and as a space of care.

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, P. (2003). Participant objectivation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9(2), 281-294.

Burawoy. M. (1994). Participant Observation. Syllabus for Sociology 272 at the University of California Berkeley. Retrieved from

Cloke, P., May, J., & Williams, A. (2017). The geographies of food banks in the meantime. Progress in Human Geography, 41(6), 703-726.


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