In Death without Weeping, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes reminds us that fieldwork “has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really prefer not to go at all and once there doesn’t know how to go about getting out except through writing, which draws others there as well, making them party to the act of witnessing”.
Her words, and particularly the twin rationales of drawing others in and getting ourselves out, sum up much of the rationale for Ethnographic Marginalia.
Ethnographic writing affords us the capacity to document and demonstrate how broader social, political, and economic forces play out in the minutiae of daily social life, and to provide the context and meaning of people’s actions and words. We firmly believe that what makes ethnographic research persuasive, powerful, and perspicacious is that it allows us to draw the reader into fascinating social worlds. Ethnography makes us tell a story.
In the process of ethnographic immersion and doing fieldwork, we become archives of facts and feelings, myths and memories, reports and rumors. However, all too often when we come back from the field, we sit at our drawing boards and try to remind ourselves that we are sociologists. Well-disciplined by our disciplines, we cast our experiences as data with value only insofar as they help us theorize XYZ. We turn reams of experiences into bite-sized, digestible, but rarely delicious chunks of strategic information. And thus, the most interesting and provocative parts of ethnographic writing are discarded in service to academic journals that demand a clear intervention filling a stated gap within the literature or the creation of neat typologies. Instead, we want to provide a space for the building blocks that make ethnographic mansions: the notes, stories, photographs, and conversations that come out of fieldwork.
Through this endeavor, we also hope to build community through dialogue and the sharing of knowledge, techniques, and experiences. After all, ethnographic work is an exercise in getting comfortable with solitude and the field can be a lonely place, even after you return. In this website, we are interested in the raw material of ethnography and we aim to provide space for critical, compassionate, and collective, reflection on what it means to do ethnography, and the travails, the perils, and the joys of this craft.
Holocausto Norte and the Engines of Political Mobilization
17 June 2022
I had become bewildered by the fact that Colombia’s two central parties had almost completely vanished from the political scene after more than a century of dominating national politics. When I looked into other contexts, it turned out that there too parties were extremely weak or in the process of weakening. It seemed to me that since most of the political science literature, the old sociological literature, and a rising gang within sociology thought that parties were crucial—even indispensable—forces within democracies, it would be a good idea to write a dissertation about a context in which parties used to be central, but no longer: if parties were not where mobilization power resided, then where? And just like that I found myself in the field as the 2022 Colombian Congressional and Presidential elections unfolded, running into a collection of different social units that hold mobilization capacity with intriguing variation in their internal characteristics, the way they integrate upwards to “parties,” and downwards to their followers. Holocausto Norte, a group of soccer supporters, is a surprising one, as I will now explain.
Narrow lanes and deeper histories: Reflections from KG Halli
Omkar Nadh Pattela
20 June 2022
While doing fieldwork, the lines of the Telugu poet Goreti Venkanna, which this piece started out with, reverberated in my head and resisted fading out for days after my fieldwork had apparently ended. Venkanna writes, “the lanes are narrow, but the story of the poor residing in this neighbourhood is deep [and] the homes of these people are tinier than a paan dhaabba1”. Every street I wandered and every home I visited for the next few months introduced me to people in this neighbourhood who had a story to tell me, and those stories were indeed profound. In what follows, I share some of these instances and several vignettes that reflect my subjective experience in trying to understand the place of KG Halli. These vignettes are short glimpses into the thoughts and conversations that constituted my fieldwork. They are written with a view to be fleeting scenes, notes from the field that become marginalia as I look for patterns, narratives, and the “big story” of health, poverty and inequality in the city of Bengaluru. These marginalia, I put forth, contain within them stories that sometimes go nowhere at all – an experience every ethnographer can, perhaps, relate to…
i’m not there – A Hyderabad / Philadelphia Parallax
07 September 2021
My ethnographic field site is Hyderabad, in South India and my current home is 8000 miles away in Philadelphia, PA. In this visual essay I explore the implications of this dis-placement. It is an attempt to grapple with the question raised by Anand Pandian, “what might the circumstances of our writing…, share with the environments we write about?” In lieu of verbal commentary, I present sensory juxtapositions of audio and still images from my fieldwork in Hyderabad with video montage of my everyday life in Philadelphia. Through this multimodal form, I wish to push beyond the limitations of the now generic “reflexive gesture” in academic ethnographic writing, which has been reduced to a standard, simplified and easily reproducible template. Inspired by John L. Jackson Jr.’s call for more vulnerable forms of reflexivity, this film highlights the role of my own subjectivity and environment in the writing of ethnographic stories as academic artifacts, while also evoking parallels of human striving and suffering which go beyond the First/Third World divide.
For a Different Academic Politics of Waiting
21 April 2022
Many of us wait for tenure applications to be processed, for contracts to be prolonged, to land the one job which ultimately will offer less precarity – you get the picture. And now comes the staggering news: the waiting will not wane. Yes, academic waiting can have purpose, it can have a goal, you can jump through hoops, send the icon via your daily Zoom interface, there are things to celebrate in academia – but the more fundamental realization is that waiting is part of the job, which is already a wild blend of different jobs (ranging from PowerPoint witch and wizard to public entertainer to empathic pedagogue to therapeutic advisor). Let’s think of academic waiting as politics without teleology, an ever-wavering, ever-exhausting phenomenon that sticks to us. Yet, instead of merely reversing this claim and suggesting the abolition of waiting (which might, however, be intriguing), I want to argue for a different academic politics of waiting.
Episode 19: In Conversation with Dr. Marcos Pérez
31 May 2022
What drives and sustains participation in unemployed workers’ movements in Argentina? Today’s guest, Marcos Perez, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Washington and Lee University and author of the new book, Proletarian Lives. Routines, Identity and Culture in Contentious Politics (Cambridge UP, 2022), Marcos talks about how he came to study “piquetero” organizations that emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s, but have retained their influence for decades. He describes his participation in the organizations’ unremarkable daily tasks, and how he came to understand their importance to the lives of working-class participants who felt like economic collapse had robbed them of their blue-collar routines. He discusses the life history interviews through which he came to understand the importance of participation in the context of the rest of their lives, and finally talks about the books that have inspired him.
Disclaimer: Perhaps it is a function of disciplinary blinders, but it has been brought to our attention that our website shares its name with a series curated by the Society of Cultural Anthropology on their official website. We would like to clarify that this website is not affiliated with Cultural Anthropology but we do share with our accidental namesake a commitment toward making ethnographic writing accessible to a wider public. We see this serendipitous syncing of names as a dovetailing of our vision – one that exceeds disciplinary boundaries.