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Ethnography and Travel: It’s not just about the final destination

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

We tell our clients that ethnography brings us up close and personal with their consumers and allows us to journey into their lives–be it for a week or more, a day or a few hours. Travel is an ethnographic necessity. Lucky for us, it’s not only utilitarian (and therefore a budgetary obligation) but also an opportunity for lots of contextual understandings about whatever it is that we’re studying.

Over the years we’ve been all over the world, visiting multiple cities in Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, England, Sweden, France, Germany and the Philipines, not to mention countless U.S. cities.

Transport helps us connect with the people we visit and enhances whatever we learn during fieldwork. Several years ago we traveled to Manila to learn more about how women approach infant nutrition. After navigating the streets of Manila from our hotel, we crammed ourselves onto local Jeepneys, probably the most popular form of public transportation in the Philipines. Hot, kind of dangerous and exceedingly full, the Jeepneys brought to life the narratives of our participants around working and caring for their families, adding watercolors to our existing sketch of their daily life. When we rode the train, we better understood the role of gender in Filipino culture. Did you know the trains are segregated by gender, and while women are permitted to enter the man’s side, the men are not permitted to enter the woman’s side?

Whether it’s the on tube in London or at Gate B12 in Boston, we have ongoing access to the men, women and children who make up our consumer culture. We’re not going up to random strangers and doing impromptu interviews with them about our topic of study. No, that’s not necessary. What we are doing is observing them as they go about their daily lives, and we, ours. So it’s not always in our best interest to be checking our email, because then we miss out on the action!

Not all of us at ERI talk to strangers when we aren’t in the field. But some of us do. And when we do it ethnographically, we learn all kinds of things from our flight attendants, row companions and taxi drivers. Just yesterday we learned about a flight attendant who has lived in Spain, Turkey, Latvia and soon Greece with her boyfriend who plays in the European basketball league; about the pastor from Ghana who lived in Germany for 25 years and now resides in a small town in Ohio and has four highly educated and successful children; and, about maternal death in Pakistan and Israel-Palestine water conflicts from a Middle Eastern frequency radio station in a local taxi.

And really, now that we think about it, who better to study airline travel than us? We are constant participant observers when it comes to that. We can tell you which airports have the best TSA (Buffalo), which airlines give the best service (Midwest), who has the most comfortable economy seats (Midwest and Southwest), who makes it easiest if you miss your connecting flight (Delta), who has the best standby policy (US Airways), and on and on.

Getting there is just as interesting as being there. And as far as doing ethnography, it’s just as fruitful.

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Categories: Ethnography, Travel