Challenges of a Student Ethnographer, By Charlotte Millar and Erica de Souza

It is a unique experience going from student to ethnographer. This post will document two student ethnographer experiences and the challenges they face. 

Charlotte Millar

When I started my project as an anthropologist, I wasn’t aware that becoming an ethnographer would be a completely different experience. For the first time, I doubted my work. Was it ethnographic enough? Am I doing it right? I struggled with understanding how to make my observations into actual recordable data. 

But as I entered the Bahen building for the third time, I felt different. I felt that suddenly that the things I was observing were actual anthropological observations. What is an anthropological observation? As I discovered, the smallest observations I made became key data to illustrate a story. The quietness of the learning environment; the individualization of the study spaces; the personalized timeline of the program.  It is hard to walk around without being noticed but when you are noticed it feels like you are intruding on their studies. You are met with unwelcoming faces disturbed by the noise you make as you walk around the silent halls of Bahen. 

Still, the lack of interpersonal observation (face to face) made me feel that my work was not worthy of being called ethnographic. I was amazed at first when I saw the depth of illumination that a simple Reddit question can bring out. Students felt able to post their identities and converse on the topic of belonging and diversity with each other through the comments on my post. Perhaps these exchanges were even more illuminating than I may have been able to achieve from an in-person conversation. The safety of anonymity offered by social media provides a platform for communication of identity and experience that one may not feel safe to expose in an in-person conversation. 

Erica de Souza

My ethnography project was about the circulation of diversity work on campus, including the messages (such as emails), and equity offices that support it. As COVID was happening, I found I became more restricted in places to practice participant observation, and my main site became zoom workshops. 

My first week I just walked around campus, taking a survey between Robarts and Sidney Smith. I had an overwhelming feeling of excitement when I could interact with other students, moving between roles as researcher back to student through a verbal survey, and engage in non-structured conversation. This double identity created boundaries, but it was my role as a student that helped to ease the tension of qualitative and quantitative research. I didn’t think of myself as an ethnographer (in-training) however, even up until the end of the project. I thought of myself as a student, putting on the hat of a researcher, hoping others would not be driven away by the sight of the hat and the history related to it. If the title of ethnographer was one that could be achieved simply through a grade, I would do it, but that wasn’t what this was. It is a practice of scribbling notes into a notebook, sending emails, observing a site, and most importantly talking to a diverse student body. How we carry ourselves became a part of this practice, as the responsibility of a researcher is heavy. If anything was a challenge, it was trying to articulate why I was not a threat to closed groups. While you wear the researcher hat there is a making of professionalism you try to live up to and exude, but at the same time, you try not to become your own wall, restricted to your theories, assumptions, and false objectivity.