Home > context, Ethnography, Process > How do you become an ethnographer?

How do you become an ethnographer?

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been a professional ethnographer for more than a decade and there are recurring themes in the questions I’m asked about my work.  When I tell people what I do for a living, the first response is generally ‘I didn’t know that job existed.’  This is usually followed by ‘exactly how does someone becomes an ethnographer?’  It is true, ethnography is not a common career choice, but my path toward this work was perfectly logical.

I was always a nosy kid and now I’m a nosy adult.  I like to know the details. The details about what is going on.  The details about what people are doing.  The details about why they are doing it.  The details about their thoughts and feelings.  This sometimes makes me a little bit difficult to live with, but makes me ideally suited to be an ethnographer.

There were several key moments leading to my eventual career.  I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a sociologist, but I do remember the exact moment I got the label for what I wanted to be.  I was in my 11th grade sociology class and my teacher, Marcellus Reed, was explaining social stratification.  A light bulb went on and I remember thinking ‘oh, I want to be a sociologist’.  From that point on, I never waivered in my career choice.  I started college and immediately declared myself a sociology major.  I finished undergraduate school without ever considering a change.  I went to graduate school and held fast in my decision.  Never mind that EVERYONE was asking what I planned to do with a degree in sociology.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make a living ‘doing sociology’, I just knew I was supposed to be a sociologist.

I had noted a glimpse of my eventual career when I was taking an undergraduate qualitative methods class.  We were assigned an ethnographic research project and I decided to do mine on local police officers.  The assignment was some participant observation for a few weeks and then a written report.  But I was having so much fun, so I continued fieldwork for a couple of years.  I thought at the time ‘this is what I should be doing for a living.’  But that thought was quickly followed by ‘no one will ever pay me to do this, so I better have a back up plan.’

Once I got to graduate school, I realized I could teach and do ethnographic research on the side so that became my plan.  I would work in academia and do ethnographic research for fun.  I got my masters degree and then decided to go for my PhD.  Things had changed a little bit and I was gravitating more toward applied work.  I began doing ethnographic research projects in the not-for-profit arena and found that people WOULD pay me to do ethnography.  So I revised my plan.  I would still teach and do ethnographic research on the side, but I now knew that I could use ethnography to supplement my income.  Eventually, my not-for-profit work segued into full time ethnographic research for big corporations.

I tell my kids that their most important job is to identify their dharma.  They should try to find the thing that they are ideally suited to do and they should do that for a living.  Doing ethnographic research is my dharma.  How lucky am I? I have the coolest job in the world. I get to be nosy for a living.  I get to ask the ‘what is going on’ question about everyday, and not only do I not get in trouble for it (well, rarely), I get paid to do it.

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Categories: context, Ethnography, Process
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