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

Being Native to the Field: A Double-Edged Sword (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, Ailin Z. W. Li, Yiran Li, and Amanda Dias N. Sumanasekera

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.

In conducting an ethnography of the university, the researchers were required to negotiate the complexities created of being “native” to the field, which produces many advantages that can facilitate heightened forms of observation and analysis. Yet, these advantages also hold the potential for disadvantage, implicating researcher and those subject to research in complex and contested ways. Navigating the double-edged sword which characterizes being “native to the field” is a process each researcher has to had to learn; we discuss some of these efforts and particular findings gleaned by virtue of our “being native” below.

Facilitated Access

Being native facilitates easy access to the field and its actors, especially in the fields that have significant gatekeepers. In the case of the sorority, membership is only accessible to members is restricted to girls who meet particular requirements and the legibility of information transmitted by and through the group is accessible to members.  Access, then, extends beyond access to information and the group. It also facilitates the access and legibility of the information transmitted within the site. In both the sorority and in the U of T Memes for Edgy Teens Facebook group, a particular lexicon is employed whereby the symbols and language used are only intelligible to those who are a part of the community. For example, the researcher need not clarify what is meant by “legacy”, “sweetheart”, or even what constitutes a “dank meme” if she accesses the lexicon shared by members of that community.

Sometimes, however, this access to legibility can produce a disadvantage, which appears in an implicit expression of the paradigm: “you know”. Based on the assumptions that they have shared a common knowledge of the fields with the researchers, the interlocutors may be less willing to explicate what they mean, thereby omitting important details and layers of nuance that may be crucial to the researcher’s study. During an instance of observation, when sorority members voted against accepting a girl on the basis of her not fulfilling certain aesthetic requirements. Amanda asked a girl why exactly she cast her vote as she did. She received the response, “well, you know why”.  This is not to say that shared background between researcher and interlocutors forecloses the possibility of bringing certain actions “under the microscope”, but it does make the exposition of meaning a more challenging endeavor.

Rapport, Disclosure & Consent

A related feature to access is the question of rapport. In the case of researchers who are native to the field, they are often already friends with their interlocutors, or at the very least more closely bound to them by virtue of their shared membership (and shared paradigm, as discussed above). The downside to this advantage is that it can complicate issues of consent. Interlocutors give consent to being subjects of research at the start of any ethnographic project, but if they are already friends with the researcher a priori, they may be more inclined to share personal information as a friend, forgetting that their friend is now also a researcher. This produces an interesting paradox: while friendship with interlocutors a prior might seem at first glance to make ethnography less extractive because the researcher already belongs to the community (they already have a claim to it), it can also lead to the worry if not actual occurrence of ethnography being more extractive – exploitative even – as researchers could be viewed as abusing their increased access to the field as “natives”  in order to uncover events and thoughts that the community may not necessarily have wanted to become public.

Being “Objective” & Continuity in the Field

Holding the membership to the field, it is sometimes difficult to hold a normal objective and critical approach to portray the interlocutors. On the one hand, one may feel the duty not putting the field and community in an overwhelmingly negative light; Additionally, membership within the group being studied can at times mean different claims, restrictions, and pressures from the group on the researcher, For instance, in the case of tightly regulated groups like the sorority, it is possible to “get in trouble” for negative or otherwise overly revealing public descriptions of the community. Meanwhile, some of us found in our own research an additional pressure to appear “as objective as possible” because of concern that others reading our work might discount our conclusions due to our membership in the group.

On the other hand, being aware of the future continuity of membership beyond the studies, the researchers may be motivated to have smoother interactions during and after the fieldwork or to take a more activist role. This is something that all of us experienced to varying degrees as students at the U of T campus: we continue to “run into” our field site and our interlocutors beyond the end of our fieldwork, and may also maintain official membership in particular groups. This continuity is perhaps most visible in the case of Amanda H-S, since her fieldsite of Massey College is also her home and community. As a resident at Massey, Amanda will continue to live there and participate in everyday life. This can make extricating herself as a researcher challenging since she continues to be a member of the Massey community and continues to be attuned to the questions of politics that initially guided her research.

Awareness of continuity in the field after the official end of fieldwork can also have implications for interactions during fieldwork. While researchers always strive to foster positive relationships with their interlocutors, knowing that membership will continue possibly indefinitely produces an additional motivation to keep interactions smooth and not “rock the boat”. Still, in other instances, the notion of continuity could instead lead the researcher to feel that they have a greater stake in the outcomes of events, perhaps encouraging them to take on a more activist role. In either case, the notion of futurity (combined with membership as discussed above) has implications for how researchers and interlocutors inhabit the present.


Being native to the field of study comes with both advantages and disadvantages. It is in many ways a unique positionality, but the questions that emerge are not themselves entirely unique. Questions of access, rapport, consent, depictions of interlocutors, social obligations, and perceptions of the work itself are present to varying degrees in all ethnographic projects. When the researcher is native to the field many of these questions are pulled more sharply into focus or become more difficult to navigate. What our experiences demonstrate, however, is that these questions can and should be continuous subjects of reflection for all ethnographers, not only those who are “native” to the field.


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