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

Shifting Fields, Collecting Data and Trusting One’s Instinct (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Tarini Date

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 this blog post, I would like to discuss the challenges that collecting ethnographic data brought in my project due to the fluidity and flexibility of my field/site.

My research project was unique in that I was not researching a specific group (e.g. a sorority or a meme group) or enclosed space (e.g. a campus food bank or an elite graduate college) like others in this class, and thus I did not have a clearly defined field or site. Rather, my field/site was spread over three levels: wherever people discussed the pro-life presence on campus; on an organized group level; and on an institutional level.

Exploring responses on a group and institutional level was relatively straightforward. It consisted of observing pro-choice counter demonstrations, interviewing members of the pro-group and interviewing the students’ union executive in charge of clubs, respectively. However, exploring responses on the individual level proved to be the most challenging. The individual level is unique because my field/site is not bounded to a particular place or person/people, it forms and dissipates anywhere and anytime: for example I noted individuals’ reactions to the pro-life presence in conversations that I had with my friends and acquaintances when discussing my project, and even in academic settings in which my project came up and people reacted to it. On the individual level, the field travelled with me: I existed fully within my field—my field enveloped me. My friends, acquaintances, and peers become part of my field, which is unique to my project.

Collecting ethnographic data in such situations is not just about participant observation or passive observation in the “field”—the closest thing in my project to that was observing people’s reactions to the pro-life demonstrations or pro-choice counter-demonstrations. Rather, it is about noting the micro-expressions on people’s faces when they hear my topic, it is about engaging in conversations with my friends, acquaintances and peers, paying close attention to the words they use, the comparisons they draw, the way they conceptualize the pro-life presence on campus, the pro-choice response, the university as a landscape, and crucially, it is about being observant to people’s reactions to me. All of this is valuable ethnographic data when considering the individual level of analysis. For example, when I told my friends my research topic they said the following things about the pro-life group: “They make me so angry and so sick,” “They’re disgusting,” “They’re such terrible people,” “They’re the worst. They’re all racist and sexist and I just think they’re all inherently evil.” In academic settings, it is about understanding how people’s thoughts on and critiques of my research reveal their reactions to the pro-life group. One particular instance in an academic setting really stood out to me: in one of my classes, a peer asked me if I “was pro-life life or pro-choice” out of the blue (she knew about my research project but weren’t talking about it before she asked me this).  I had not expected that question and was taken aback by it for various reasons, chief among them because I did not see how the question mattered in the context of my research. How was my personal stance on the issue significant in my research? Why did she feel the need to know my personal values and beliefs in order to understand my research? She  could tell I was taken aback because she quickly added: “It doesn’t matter if which you are…”After I stated that I was indeed a pro-choice supporter she said: “I feel like you’re forgiving the pro-life group in your research.” Thus, friends, acquaintances and peers are all interlocutors.

This openness and fluidity of my field were very challenging for me because it required me to trust my instincts in my ethnographic work, which as a novice ethnographer was quite daunting because it meant trusting myself as a (mini)ethnographer. Ethnographic work is by its nature an intimate and personal undertaking, we insert ourselves into particular situations, we observe not only how the field changes in response to us, but we also use ourselves as foils to understand those we are studying. But it was this intimate and personal nature that made collecting ethnographic data an uncertain process for me, particularly because I couldn’t tie my role as an ethnographer to a particular field/site, I had to be an ethnographer in my personal and academic interactions too.

During the fieldwork process, I wasn’t sure what counted as data, I wasn’t sure what I could include and I wasn’t sure how the data fit into my research. For example, some of the questions I asked myself were: did Alexander’s (a fellow member of the  Anthropology Students’ Association) scoff and eye-rolls when I recounted my meeting with David (a member of the pro-life group) count as ethnographic data? Was it part of my field? Was it fair to note his response? Nonetheless, I noted everything down and had to trust myself even though I had doubts and as time went on and I began to get a better understanding of my field/site I was able to see with much more clarity how those personal interactions fit into my research and how to navigate them became much easier. This is to say that it is important to trust oneself to interpret fairly and correctly interactions that fall outside the traditional field in which there is some distance between the research and the research subjects.

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