Archive for August, 2009

John Kille: Why I Love Ethnography

August 28, 2009 1 comment

JohnThere are so many things I love about working as an ethnographer —
traveling and experiencing new places, meeting new people and learning about their lives and traits, looking inside new unknown subcultures, and being able to go to spaces where we don’t normally go, such as peeking inside someone’s medicine cabinet. As a sociologist, I really like ethnography because it doesn’t limit me to one particular method to understand a culture. It’s holistic, which means I can use participant observation, historical analysis, language examination, or use a combination of methods to understand a group or subculture. Looking at the big picture from the inside out is just plain awesome.

One of the most important parts of gathering data as an ethnographer is being comfortable in multiple environments. I’ve worked a variety of jobs in my life, from dishwasher to landscaper, grocery store clerk (yes, pushing carts) to clothing store clerk, bartender to warehouse dockworker. In these jobs, I met so many types of people with all sorts of social, racial, and economical backgrounds, and I have worked in various parts of different cities. I think my experience working with a multitude of different people in a multitude of places has helped prepare me for ethnography.

I have always been interested in people in general, how different we all are, and how our commonalities bring us together. I had worked as a journalist (covering technology and music for different magazines) after my Masters work and became more interested in studying cultures and subcultures up close, getting inside of them and learning what makes them tick. When I returned to grad school for PhD work, I took a course called “Communities in America” and one of the first books we read was ethnographer Andrew Ross’ Celebration Chronicles about his year long study about Celebration, Florida, a small Disney-spawned community near Orlando, Florida. I saw how Ross combined data from his interviews, cultural artifacts from the community, and other aspects of the cultural context to understand the whole body of the community, from the heartbeat to the guts.

I read others in that course, such as Philippe Bourgois’ study on East Harlem social problems, and I saw how the ethnographer placed himself inside the community to learn about it. I learned how viewing a community from the inside out allows a researcher to learn far more about it than looking at it from the outside. I was really interested in this concept.

I am very fond of sociologist Paul Gilroy’s work on social identity. He says that identity is always both rooted and routed. So the roots of a culture, its origins, is always intertwined with that same culture’s roots–where the culture has traveled geographically, spiritually, psychologically, etc. This means that as a culture or subculture’s identities continue to form, their old identities are always going to be there, but that the new ones constantly alter the culture. So societies, subcultures, and groups are continuously developing, changing, and moving depending on an array of social variables. This keeps sociologists, us, very busy!

I am really interested in mass media and social identity and dig both Stuart Hall and John Fiske’s work on audience reception (encoding and decoding). Both Hall and Fiske argue that social situations of different cultures may lead them to adapt a different understanding of something produced, whether that production is a movie, book, a newspaper article, or even a school bus. So a person may adopt the mainstream understanding of the movie or school bus, or adopt it differently, depending on the background (social, economical, geographical, etc) of the culture. What this means is that people don’t simply passively use items as they were intended. They will interpret it differently depending on their cultural roots and routes. A punk band can use a school bus for late night gigging, just as a homeless man can use a shopping cart for his belongings as he treks through the city. Both items, in this case, are being culturally adapted and used for something other than their originally intent, which is just really cool. I am interested in seeing how these sorts of things move around in our society.

In this job, I get to experience all kinds of communities, from a small town in frigid Wisconsin to a large metropolis in sunny Florida. I really loved traveling to Berlin, Germany this past summer—the ease of public transportation and bike paths along city streets was really interesting to me. Boston, Massachusetts and Berkley, California were appealing for different reasons. Oh, and Miami, Florida was awesome too—South Beach rocks!

Categories: Ethnography