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

Trust the Process: Engaged Inquiry and True Discourses, 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.”

In this post I reflect on the challenges I faced when the tables turned and my role as a participant switched to becoming the observer, the analyzer, the ethnographer. Conducting and writing up my first ethnography has been a bumpy yet rewarding ride. Some of the challenges faced were in trying not to be reductive, in making the familiar strange, and developing a proper enquiry and analysis. 

I come from a science background where the focus is on finding solutions and being objective. I switched my studies to anthropology because I liked the engagement with real life. In the hard sciences the aim is to control all the confounding variables while maintaining zero interferences to obtain objective results. But in real life and our perceived realities are filled with subjective biases and there is no way to control all the variables. Experiences arise through multiple  connections that cannot be studied in laboratories isolated from their surrounding. The richness of a thick description, inclusion of subjectivities, attempting to look beyond the materiality and even questioning the researcher’s own positionality were key features that drove me towards anthropology.  That said, having trained most of my life in hard sciences, I often found myself questioning the validity of certain events, looking for truth claims/solutions and reducing certain events to either a scientific claim or committing confirmation bias based on my own beliefs. Attempting to become a social scientist seemed much harder as the findings and theories in social sciences do not simply translate into the facts and trends one finds in a scientific paper.

During my research several doubts arose. How do I properly analyze a research paper and its findings? Is my analysis of the evidence just mere judgement? Do I have enough background knowledge to comprehend such theories and events? Am I just looking for famed scholars and fancy theories to support and validate my own claims? Overcoming my own imposter syndrome in this field and building up confidence required a lot of fieldwork, analysis, and support in the form of guidance and encouragement.

From my initial exploration I have found three formulas helpful. First is to trust oneself, which becomes easier with spending enough time in your field site, taking proper notes, and recording every analysis. Secondly, reasoning must be “…a practice of an engaged inquiry rather than forms of deductive proof or determinative negation…” (Rabinow, 2012, 26). Thirdly, achieving a proper inquiry can be done by recombining, reconfiguring, and “reconstructing” what we see as “problematizations” followed by “true discourses” which unlike being “merely discursive are free of mere abstraction” Rabinow (2012, 34).

Rabinow, P. (2012). How to submit to inquiry: Dewey and Foucault. The Pluralist, 7(3), 25-37.

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