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

On being a native anthropologist, By Tenzin Tsundue (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.”

Being a Tibetan and having followed a specific Tibetan Buddhist teacher and his Facebook page (my field site) for a few years prior to my research, I started my project naively thinking that I was an insider. I was already familiar with the surrounding, settings, tones and mode of communication made available online. But I soon realized that there were many layers that differentiated me from the “community” I was studying. As Ferguson (2018, 190-195) notes “native anthropologists” are not entirely different from colonial anthropologists: they too may be perceived as academics and outsiders. Through my research process I came to see myself as just one of the Buddhist teacher’s followers among thousands of followers across the globe, each with a specific age, education, cultural background, ethnicity, level of participation and more subtle differences of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Being Tibetan and Buddhist did not make me a natural insider as I recognized by considering the position of my parents who were aware of this Buddhist teacher but did not access his online platform nor would they relate to some of his “modern” teachings.

Despite the differences, there definitely was an advantage in terms of my familiarity with some concepts and being part of the tradition. For example, my interlocutors seemed more cordial and open to sharing their views. The interview responses to my questions showed how people viewed me differently. Rather than the obvious difference of being a researcher, the interview responses showed how some of the interviewees were staunch followers themselves as they provided various additional advice or sources for me to further my own understanding of this teacher. They saw me as a mere passive observer and not necessarily as a complete insider. Contrastingly there were interviewees I knew personally whose responses were limited and who suggested that I should know more about the topic than them.

There is no “ideal insider” although one may be (ambiguously, partially) a “native anthropologist” in relation to a specific topic (Narayan, 1993, 685). This position has some advantages but a major drawback for me was the challenge of making the familiar strange and producing the “ah ha” moments of insight which could be easier in a novel environment. Being aware of the varying degrees of being native, its benefits and its pitfalls can help in preparing for one’s research.

Narayan, K. (1993). How native is a “native” anthropologist?  American Anthropologist95(3), 671-686.

Jane M. Ferguson (2018) Nativity Seen in the Anthropocene: Contemporary Fieldwork and Subjective Challenges, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 19:3, 189-196

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