Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Morally Grounded Ethnographies that Impart Change, By Nana Koomson and Mason Lorch (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Concepts and Methods.”

While doing ethnographic research on how students at the University of Toronto imagine themselves as diversity workers, we discovered that the University as an institution rarely supports students in their diversity work. Interviews with various student leaders revealed that students had to choose between their education and their diversity work. They could not give 100% of their efforts to both. As student ethnographers, we found this disturbing. What does it mean to discover that the University as an institution is in the wrong? Our finding led us to the question of whether Anthropologists can take an ethical stance in the work they do. Moreover, can anthropologists make a difference with their ethnographies if they do not take an ethical, moral stance?

As Jobson describes, in the last few years, Anthropology as an institution has been burning. There has been a fracturing of the discipline that has led to a ritual self-flagellation as anthropologists everywhere try to fix what has been broken. However, Jobson explains that what has been broken in Anthropology cannot be fixed. Instead, he asks that we let Anthropology burn (Jobson, 2020). Letting anthropology burn means accepting that the entire institution needs to be decolonized. It means abandoning our liberal sub-positions as anthropologists and bearing witness so that we are in thick solidarity. Schepper-Hughes exemplifies this abandonment of liberal anthropological sub-positions when she explains that anthropologists can no longer equate cultural relativism with moral relativism. In the world we live in today, anthropology and anthropologists must be ethically grounded (Scheper-Hughes, 1995).

Anthropologists must start to call out cultural, social, historical, and economic structures of oppression if we want to impart positive change with our ethnographies. We must be in thick solidarity with the people who we once marginalized with our discipline. This means making visible through our work colonial and neocolonial structures that we once propagated and calling out wrongs through our acknowledgment that humanity is not unproblematic. Participant observation inserts anthropologists in a positionality where structures, ideals, and ideas which may not be visible in other disciplines are made apparent to us. To ignore such oppressive structures in the name of cultural relativism means denying our discipline the change that it is capable of imparting. 

An important strategy for “ethically grounded Anthropology” is to describe a particular ethnographic space from multiple engaged perspectives. Rather than writing from a single relativist Boasian perspective, the ethnographer chooses to engage with their material emotionally, and express their moral discomfort or outrage. However, they do so from multiple perspectives. A good example of this approach is Porkopolis, Alex Blanchette’s (2020) study of industrial pork factories in the United States. His approach of studying from multiple levels within the factory allowed him to uncover layers of injustice that would not have been visible otherwise, and also pre-empted overly simplistic moral reactions such as blaming the management for the cruelty experienced by the workers. This approach further inspired ethnographic research on Diversity work within the University. The perspectives of faculty and students were separately analyzed and balanced against each other.

With insights from other anthropologists on what ethically grounded anthropology looks like, it becomes apparent that as anthropology students, we must call out the University’s non-performative diversity work and limited student leader support. However, we continue to ask ourselves if we have explored all the multiple perspectives that surround this phenomenon. The dialogue surrounding ethically grounded ethnography that imparts change must focus on how to fundamentally change Anthropology. It is a conversation that must be continually explored and reflected upon in all the work we do as anthropologists. It cannot be reduced to a simple acknowledgment that our institution is broken.


Jobson, R. C. (2020). The case for letting anthropology burn: Sociocultural anthropology in 2019. American Anthropologist122(2), 259–271. 

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). The primacy of the ethical: Propositions for a militant anthropology. Current Anthropology36(3), 409–440. 

​​Alex Blanchette. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm. Duke University Press, 2020.

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