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

Ethnography as Obsession: On Immersion and Separation in Fieldwork and Writing (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By: Amanda Harvey-Sánchez and Annika Olsen

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.

While Annika and Amanda both thoroughly enjoyed the process of “doing” ethnography, the tendency for ethnography to become a form of obsession was looming constantly in the background. Despite it being incredibly illuminating, exciting, and thought-provoking, our fieldwork became also at times a source of stress and anxiety, an all-encompassing force. Therefore, we reflect here on why ethnography can become an obsession, how this obsession manifests itself in our work, and how we have learned and continue to learn to manage it. We argue that ethnography runs the risk of becoming obsessive because of its dual demands of immersion and separation. Moreover, we suggest that this becomes especially challenging to navigate with field sites where spatial and temporal separation is not easily achieved (such as the university).

Fieldwork as Immersion

One of the hallmarks of contemporary ethnographic fieldwork is the notion of “immersion” in the field. Rather than relying on survey data and interviews alone, Malinowski argued that to truly understand “the native”, one must live with them. This requires “participant observation”: a process of complete immersion, “to cover the full extent of the phenomena in each aspect of […] culture studied” (Malinowski 1922: 11), as well as meticulous data collection “carried on systematically throughout the course of one’s work” (21). The request for a complete and thorough account of the lives of those being studied can easily blur the line between life in the field and life outside the field. In our experience, this merging manifested itself through the awakening to the potential meaningfulness of the seemingly mundane, through a form of “yes” practice, and through intimacy created by emotional involvement. All three of these led to a feeling of exhaustion.

“I feel like a vessel and an emotional labourer”

One of the consequences of immersion in the field is an awakening to how everything is potentially meaningful. While everyone is analytical, anthropology forces the researcher to put on the “ethnographer hat”, supplying them with a particular frame or set of questions that allows the seemingly mundane to become potentially meaningful. This is…fascinating, but can also become intellectually burdensome, even exhausting. Amanda wrote about this in her fieldnotes, an excerpt of which is below:

This feeling of exhaustion is similar to the one I feel with ethnography. When I was talking to the other friend and used the phrase “intellectually exhausting” I explained ethnography in terms of Geertz’s analysis. Being forced to see how all the fragments are situated in a web of significance is draining at times. I feel like a vessel and an emotional labourer at once. Taking in all of the different fragments and being forced to see how they fit into a system of meaning, while also being attuned to every pause, every silence, every conversation, and the broader rhythm of speech and movement. I want to be able to unsee it, I explained at the time. Now I’ve learned how to turn on my ethnographer mode, but I need to learn how to turn it off. I want to take off the ethnographer hat – (Amanda’s field notes, November 2nd 2018)

“Say yes to everything”

While every interaction and moment becomes a potential object of analysis, there is also an anxiety around not wanting to “miss out” on what could potentially be the “best data”. As a consequence, we both employed the same “yes” approach to our fieldwork:. “If you’re invited to something, never say no” (Annika), “Say yes to everything” (Amanda). This type of approach works best when one is not also burdened by the responsibilities of being a student while also being a researcher (and the limitations on time and space that this produces). We both came to realize that it is not in fact possible to be everywhere at once. Given how intellectually exhausting it is to analyze ethnographic moments one encounters even accidentally, deliberately adding in more and more “events” to participate in can be a recipe for disaster.

Emotional Involvement

We both came to the conclusion that our “yes” approach requires some level of tempering. The problem, however, is that social obligation does not always allow saying “no”, There is a level of emotional intimacy and involvement that emerges out of the immersion in the field. We both experienced this despite us studying very different groups. In Amanda’s case, she shares a political and ideological affiliation with her main interlocutors, while in Annika’s case she does not. What is interesting is that in both cases, a sense of emotional intimacy and understanding was fostered through the process of fieldwork.

The result of this intimacy is a sense of caring for the “real world” outcomes of the politics being studied. Our interlocutors are not just characters on a page, they are real people with whom we have each fostered close bonds. We care about what happens after we put the pen down, and how our interlocutors will be perceived both by those reading about them and by others in the “real world”. This can make it difficult to “leave” the realm of the field as well as dismiss any invitations, because there is a persistent desire to “stay close” after the forging of this bond has occurred.

Writing as Separation

This notion of needing to “leave” alludes to this latter portion of ethnography. While immersion produces a set of forces tying the ethnographer to the field (attunement to meaning, needing to say “yes”, and emotional involvement), the necessary complement to immersion is separation. While fieldwork is a social process, writing is (for the most part) a solitary one. Anthropologist David Mosse (2006) discusses this as the separation between field and desk, which he argues is the essential feature anthropology inherited from Malinowski. But how does one “separate” from a fieldsite that one is both spatially and temporally close to? This was for us one of the major challenges in conducting research at the university.

As student the field and the desk are essentially collapsed within the context of research in our own communities. Even if and when we want to separate and retreat to the desk, our field is still surrounding us. In Amanda’s case, her fieldsite (Massey College) is literally her home, and so even after this course is over it, there is no extraction to inhibit constant observation and attunement to the questions which initially guided her research. In Annika’s case, constant exposure to the intense activism of the pro-life group by virtue of their presence on the U of T campus (and elsewhere in the city) almost can make the field seem inescapable. Thus, in a sense the field continues to follow us even as we attempt to move to the desk.

One consequence of this is the overbearing reminder that we may never be “done”. Even as we each write up our analysis, attempting to make arguments and draw conclusions from the data we presently have, new “events”, new data, and new observations continue to emerge. In the case of research outside one’s own community or home, the ethnographer “leaves” the site thereby creating a clear spatial and temporal divide between the observation that occurs in the field (then and there), and the writing that occurs at the desk (here and now). It is possible to say, “this is all the data I have and I just have to write”, whereas in our cases it becomes more difficult.

It would seem, then, that perhaps part of the solution is to remember what Geertz so clearly articulated, that “[c]ultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is” (Geertz 1973: 29). In the case of spatially and temporally distant fieldsites, this realization is easier to accept because the ethnographer is not constantly reminded of all that they omit from their analysis and writing, while in the case of spatially and temporally near fieldsites like our own, this feature of ethnography is simply more readily apparent. But in both cases, this feature still applies. Ethnography is, always, incomplete; we have simply been more forcefully made aware of this humbling realization.


Geertz, Clifford
1973 Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-30.

Malinowski, Bronislaw
2013 [1922]. Argonauts of the Western Pacific.  Long Grove: IL, USA: Waveland.

Mosse, David
2006 Anti-Social Anthropology? Objectivity, Objection, and the Ethnography of Public Policy and Professional Communities. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (4): 935-956.

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