Home > Ethnography > Why Alex Wills Loves Ethnography

Why Alex Wills Loves Ethnography

September 28, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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
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