Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Knowledge 2020 / Undergraduate Ethnography

“Are You Sure About That?”: Trusting the Ethnographic Process, By Isabella Daniele, Tomoya Boehm & Sofia Champion (Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Producing Ethnographic Knowledge.”

As ethnographers-in-training, we find ourselves immersed in doubt as we continuously question every step of the research process: Do I have enough data? Did I speak with enough people? Did I frame the question objectively? Did I stay long enough at the event? Throughout our fieldwork, we grappled with the dual meaning of doubt as we questioned both our own research abilities and the “truths” of our informants’ experiences. We experienced the debilitating and stagnating effects of doubt caused by constant self-questioning and learnt to transform our doubts into the productive forces which invigorated our research. As Clifford Geertz notes, doubt is intrinsic to cultural anthropology because “cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses…” (1973:22). This echoes ethnography’s counter-intuitive process since the most insightful claims are generated when both researchers and their informants understand that they are “not quite getting it right” (Geertz 1973:32). Throughout our ethnographic research, we all had to learn how to trust our experience of the field and our abilities to interpret these “guesses.”

Conducting online ethnographic research through different social media platforms introduces a new doubt concerning how to interpret the likes, shares, emoji reactions and comments made to a given post. Tomoya faced this challenge when observing Facebook groups and news feeds to study how solidarity has been disabled within the Black Lives Matter movement in Nova Scotia. On Facebook, he could not rely on in-person cues like body language and vocal tone to contextualize speech, which caused him to question his interpretations. The Facebook comment sections were especially challenging to interpret with time lags between responses and multiple threads. Do commenters A and B know each other? Is person C’s comment serious or sarcastic?  Thus, to contextualize the posts and understand the conversational flow, Tomoya started to analyze the individual commenters by exploring their general profiles and reading their past Facebook posts. The online setting is equally rich with nuance.  For instance, an ‘All Lives Matter’ comment was posted by a user who supported the Black Lives Matter movement, hinting at an alternative understanding of ‘All Lives Matter.’

Doubt does not only arise from trying to analyze words posted on people’s pages but from choosing which words to use. Throughout the interview process, there was a concern about how to frame questions that opened the discussion without influencing the interviewees’ response. For instance, when asking parishioners to discuss the “sensory knowledge” used throughout a Catholic Mass, many struggled to respond. However, when asked to think about how they use their five senses (i.e. touch, scent, hearing, taste, and sight) throughout the Mass, interviewees had a lot more to share. Thus, finding the “right” wording of a question and avoiding jargon like “sensory knowledge” helps establish a conversational flow that reassures both the participant and researcher. 

What occurs if it is not a matter of wording? Sofia’s research explored whether neurotypical people were suddenly having something of an ‘autistic experience’ as they learned a new mode of social engagement that was not intuitive to them. She was surprised when her interviewees, students and employees who were working online due to the Pandemic did not express “Zoom Fatigue,” an experience that was widely reported and linked to screen-time overuse. She began to doubt her findings, but eventually reconciled this doubt by avoiding sweeping generalizations (i.e. trying to assert that everyone is going through an “autistic experience”) and instead making the “softer” claim that this was an experience many more people, not all, people were having.  She was also reassured by the number of blog posts, Reddit threads and news articles discussing Zoom fatigue, which confirmed that a number of people were struggling to adapt to this new form of interaction.

Researchers are not the only ones who are uncertain about their knowledge and authority in the field. Their informants also have their own doubts. Since fieldwork is about exploring the “every day,” informants are often overqualified to speak about their daily experience, yet they continuously repeat, “I’m no expert, ask so and so.” As researchers, we found ourselves explaining to our interviewees why we wanted to speak with “the average Joe”- as one informant described himself- and not experts like the march organizer, the parish priest or the campus psychologist. Our informants were often unsure about what insights they could offer, repeating “I’m not sure if I’ll be much help” and were insecure about their responses- “I’m not sure if that answers your question.” Although many of our interviewees generously agreed to speak with us, they were skeptical that their everyday experience could serve as a form of data. Initially, we also doubted the ethnographic process, but as we spent more time in the field and continued to conduct interviews, we gained confidence in our research skills and learnt to trust our interpretations of the “uncertain.”


Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The      Interpretation of Cultures, 3-37. Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

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