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Why Alex Wills Loves Ethnography

September 28, 2009 Leave a comment

I love working as an ethnographer because I get to be a perpetual student! Each project I work on, each fieldwork I do, is fresh and exciting in its own right. Every one has a story to tell, given the chance. Doing this kind of work has really taught me the value of listening and opening up to understand how others navigate our social worlds (and really, worlds is the operative word here). And the people. I LOVE just how many viewpoints and experiences there are. The people we spend time with are almost always gracious, hospitable, and very, very interesting. And if I’ve done my job right, I honor them by transmitting insights our clients just couldn’t get with other methodologies.

Sometimes the path we travel to find the people we spend time with is just as interesting as our actual time with them. Doing ethnography constantly requires me to step outside of my comfort zone, whether that means stepping off the plane in a new and unfamiliar city and making my way to our participants, or being willing to ask the delicate questions that help us get to the heart of our topic of study. It keeps me on my toes.

And how exciting is it that as an ethnographer, I get to spend time in places that ordinarily I would never have access to, like hospital basements, patient bedsides, or the gardens of people I am meeting for the very first time? I studied journalism in undergrad and the leap to sociology only seemed natural. Then in graduate school I studied ethnography and spent time learning about the Cambodian community in Long Beach, California. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I wish there was a job out there that would let me do ethnography.” Voila!

I love symbolic interactionism, partly because I love language and communications, but also because I appreciate how our reality is socially constructed. I find it fascinating that each family member can have a completely different interpretation of the same birthday party, and that we constantly adjust who and how we are to fit our perceptions of how we think others see us. One of my colleagues said it best when she referenced the prominent American sociologist Charles Cooley and his theory of the looking glass self by saying, “I am who I think you think I am.”

I am too new to this work to have ‘a favorite’ place. I try to relish the gems bobbing along the surface of seemingly mundane experiences. Like Herman the hotel shuttle driver in Albany, the ferry trip from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, the scrumptious potato pancakes at Zaftig’s deli in Boston, or simply a visit to a new neighborhood in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

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Categories: Ethnography

Why Melinda Rea-Holloway Loves Ethnography

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

I always knew that I wanted to be a sociologist, I just didn’t know what it was called! Growing up in a family of 9 kids sure taught me a lot about people and the nature of social interactions. Then in my senior year of high school, I took a sociology class from Marcelus Reed and I finally knew what to call my career aspiration.

Teaching sociology for several years taught me a lot about sociological concepts and theories (more than I ever learned in graduate school.) Doing fieldwork with police officers as an undergraduate and with people who were HIV positive as a graduate student taught me a lot about how to listen and approach fieldwork in an inductive way.

I love that ethnography allows me to embrace my curiosity about the world and about people. I love that it allows me to meet people with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. I love that it allows me to continually learn without having to pay tuition or take exams! I love the analytical process of putting it all together—I get paid to do puzzles. I love sharing what we learn with clients and helping them to see their product and their consumer in a more holistic way. I love being able to put my training as a sociologist to practical use. Really, I could go on and on. . . .

I really like dramaturgy (Erving Goffman) because I can see it in practice everyday, in almost any social situation. We are ALL doing impression management ALL the time. This theory helps to remind us how SOCIAL virtually all things are, even things that we tend to think of as personal (like thoughts).

Manila is probably the favorite place I have traveled for work. . .

I loved the mixture of so many different cultures. Daily life routines and rituals occur within a collision of Eastern and Western norms. You can see the many different indigenous, Spanish, Chinese, and American influences in everything from architecture, to food, to language, to religion, to healthcare, and beyond. I often think about places in terms of the ‘heartbeat’ that you feel when moving around the city. I think that Manila has such a friendly, funny and hospitable heartbeat!

Within the US, I love to travel anywhere in the Wisconsin/Minnesota area–some of the nicest people in the US live there. I also have a soft spot for Atlanta and Seattle. Both places where I have conducted oodles of fieldwork, have met lots of people, and eaten lots of good food.

Categories: Ethnography

Tanzanian Journeys: An Ethnographer in the Making

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment

By Rebecca Rea-Holloway, Office Assistant and Transcriptionist at ERI

Hujambo rafiki!

As some of you may know, this summer I went to beautiful Tanzania for 3 weeks with National Geographic Student Expeditions. I did some things I expected (like meeting some wonderful new people) and some things I didn’t (like touching a Black Mamba, the deadliest snake in Africa). I have been to a waterfall, climbed a mountain with Maasai men, seen a Black Rhino on safari, been inside a hollowed out Baobab tree, visited the UAACC (United African Alliance Community Center, founded by former Black Panther members from our own Kansas City), visited an orphanage, played soccer with local children, attended a funeral, visited a leprosy center, bargained in the markets of Arusha, drank goats blood, dug up an old water pipe to make room for the new in our home village of Maji ya Chai (which means tea water in Kiswahili), gotten up at 5:30 to go on a game drive in the Ngorongoro Crater, visited a boma (traditional Maasai dwelling) where a man had 7 wives and 42 children, attended church, and danced with our Maasai guides.

When I signed up to go to Tanzania I knew it was going to be great, but I didn’t really realize the impact it would have on me. One of the main things that makes National Geographic Student Expeditions unique is its emphasis on the “On Assignment” project. I chose photography while some of my friends chose people and cultures. We had three leaders, two of which were photography mentors. We were encouraged to take photographs of anything that inspired us and to try to pick out a pattern in what we found most interesting. I ended up with the theme of “Women Working.” I chose ten pictures, and those ten pictures were then put in a bigger presentation and shown at the UAACC on our last night. It was interesting to me to see what each person came up with and how different they all were.

We also worked on a project to learn about Tanzania and it’s current issues, and we chose the theme of Water. There’s a drought at the moment so it was interesting to interview people about how they use their water, and exactly how they get it. We were a small group, only 14 students and 3 leaders, so it was easy for us to get to know each other. We took turns helping to cook meals, clean the bathroom, etc. A major adjustment was the freezing cold showers, which I tried to avoid if at all possible.

Every morning I would get up and look outside at our compound (complete with pet turkey) and remind myself where I was. At night we would sit around our campfire tended by our askaris (guards), Urio, Godi, And Gili, and look at the stars. There’s no pollution so it’s absolutely amazing how many are visible. The people we met were very kind and friendly to us, often wanting to practice their English and teach us some Kiswahili. It struck me how these children living in rural Tanzania were speaking to me in English spoken remarkably well, and I sit at home not putting in my best efforts to learn French with thousands of resources available to me. I loved, loved, loved every minute of my trip and was very sad to go home.

Categories: Ethnography