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

The Challenge of “Critical” Ethnography, By Fatemeh Khavaninzadeh, with Input from Katerina Richard and Oliver Cusimano (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.”

It’s always easier to judge, harder to understand. So as anthropologists in training, we are constantly reminded and taught to let go of our cultural assumptions and other biases. It is engraved into our mind to really look at the data and listen to our participants. To not assume that we, by virtue of our privileges both academic and social, know better about what is going on than our participants. But what about when doing an ethnography where the key point is being judgemental? 

Working and researching diversity is inherently like that. The fundamental core of working on diversity is the belief that not all ways of doing diversity are appropriate. You can’t just come and write a paper and neutrally describe what is going on or praise the already underway work, can you? 

During my research on diversity in the university, I slowly realized that you can and perhaps you should. After all, this desire to harshly criticize an institution and never praise anything they do is a bias itself. You are being tied to what society expects you to say, and you can feel the invisible pressure all around you to say that the institution you are doing ethnography on is simply terrible at doing diversity no matter where you look. Every step of the way, you can feel how easy it is to say all the diversity work being done is essentially non-performative and for show, and how hard it is to try to claim otherwise. 

The pressure is not all external. If you belong to a minority of any sort, this desire becomes an internal voice too. Because you know that things are not okay, they hadn’t been okay for a very long time, so the desire to gravitate toward criticizing and only focusing on the negatives can be even more powerful. One of my classmates shared with me how as a part-indigenous person, she felt like sometimes she could be a little bit jaded when dealing with university or other colonial institutions. Resentment and anger about institutions and practices that had continuously undermined your people wouldn’t just disappear into thin air simply because we are putting our anthropologist hat on. 

So what should we do when we are stuck in the middle of two things that are both justified and right? On the one hand, the resentment is justified; on the other hand, we are taught that being neutral is the right approach to ethnography. Well, the thing about our justified emotions is that they can act as great fuel for us, drive us to inquire more, ask more questions, and investigate more broadly. Without that sense of desire to harshly criticize how diversity is handled, we are more likely to walk in the field, say that everything is okay, and walk out of it without digging deeper. So we can make use of our justified emotions throughout our fieldwork but have to switch gears when it comes to writing and analyzing our findings. 

How to be Impartial When Dealing with Something Critical: 

In essence, anthropological work aims to ‘understand’ what is going on and how it is happening. But as anthropologists, we are not simply our own spokespersons; the microphone given to us is not just a tool to voice our own opinions with a louder voice. We are to voice not just our own understanding of our field site but also that of participants who belong to that site. But since our justified emotions might still impact how we are voicing our findings we are always told to acknowledge where we are coming from. We are to do our best to represent the field as it is, but as a safety measure, we also impart to our audience that we have the potential to not be impartial, and so we entrust them to take what we are saying with a grain of salt.

That is not to say that we wholly shift the responsibility and burden to the audience. Before getting to that point, we must have already carried this burden of being impartial as we analyzed our data. We don’t want to just include data that support the ideas we had even before we stepped foot in the field, but reflect on what actually transpired with all the variety and contradictions. And when there are contradictions, whether between our own view and the participants or between the participants themselves, our job is not to pick one side and stick to it. This is something that another classmate of mine who worked on Positive/Safe Space signs in Hart House shared with me. Our work is to ‘understand’ the field, which includes understanding the contradictions. To do that, sometimes it means we have to make our framework bigger so that we can fit all the variety of opinions and provide a socio-historical context in which each idea, regardless of our view on it, is understandable. As this classmate indicated, we don’t have to agree with our participants; we can be critical of their views and their actions while still being impartial in presenting their opinion and trying to understand how and why they are saying that instead of judging them.

In any field site there is a lot that we don’t understand either because we are newcomers or because we have never been on the other side, especially when dealing with the administration of an institution. We are only looking at the issue with the mindset and experiences of a student, not an administrator trapped in many-layered webs of bureaucracy.  

Small Things We Don’t Notice:

Misunderstandings usually come from small things that take a while to notice. Each field site is like a puzzle; while it makes a big coherent picture, it is made up of many small pieces that may look like each other. Sometimes we might put a piece in the wrong place and struggle to progress for a while. That’s why small pieces of information can sometimes completely change what we see. It shows us a glimpse of what our participants living day-to-day in the field that we are interested in, see. 

For instance, one of the BIPOC librarians that I interviewed said that a lot of diversity work falls on the shoulders of BIPOC librarians because they are the ones who BIPOC students approach. He felt like it was extra work that was underappreciated. As a student who is more used to hourly wages, this seemed like an issue that proper wages could solve. So I concluded that it probably had to do with a shortage in budget. However, in a later discussion with another librarian, I realized that many librarians have a set annual salary. Hence, time wasn’t a factor that could make a difference in their salary. This changed my interpretation and helped me realize the depth of what that BIPOC librarian meant. He didn’t mean he wasn’t being paid enough, but that it was easy to miss the extra work he had to put in since he was on salary, not an hourly wage. 

When you approach the field with a judgemental mindset about diversity, it is easy to interpret everything negatively. In the beginning it can seem like every time somebody doesn’t respond to your email, it is because they don’t care about diversity. But it is only when you realize this small fact about salaries and overworking that you can look at the issue from a different perspective: maybe it is not that they don’t care, maybe it is because they are overwhelmed with diversity work already. 

The point is not that you should leave behind all the sense of anger and justice that you have before entering the field. As I have explained, justice-oriented anger is justified historically and it can be helpful with the investigation. It is not also about giving in to our participants, and if they say diversity work is underway, we simply repeat the same to our audience. I’m aiming to explain that being critical is different from being judgmental. 

When you are judgmental the world, the analysis, and the conversations all revolve around what you are feeling, around what you feel is right. You are seeing the world from your own perspective, while the point of doing ethnography is to see the world from other people’s points of view. When you are being critical, however, you are willing to acknowledge your own biases, even though they are justified; you are willing to be ‘understanding’ towards the responses and actions your participants have; and you are willing to take note of all the small things that can change your perspective. It is hard to be critical but not to give in to being judgmental, especially when it comes to something like diversity work that we all know need a lot of improvement, but then, who said doing anthropological work was easy? 

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