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.
(No) Place of Work
Saumya Pandey and Pooja George
11 Feburary 2021
What would we do if we experienced harassment in our workplace, but others didn’t see it happening? We know from history that this happens. We also know about it because as women at some point it has happened to us. By asking nine early-career women from different walks of life, including ourselves, we examine what abuse in the workplace is like, particularly when it is too subtle to be noticed, deeply gendered, and socially embedded as normal in the work culture.
A Place At the Table
3 February 2021
“When it rains, we make sopaipillas,” my abuela (grandmother) says as she begins to roll a large ball of yellow dough on her kitchen table. “Who doesn’t want a small treat when it is so gloomy outside?” she continues, laughing as she uses a cup to swiftly carve out the circular sopaipilla pattern onto the dough that is now flat on the table. My abuela turns to the stovetop, uses a match to light the gas from the burner, and then slides a large, black pan over the flame. I hear the oil inside start to crackle and pop. “In they go,” abuela sings as she sets the sopaipillas in the pan to fry. She looks back at me with a smile, “it will only be a moment now.”
Moving on from Coca in Images, Part III: Livestock
23 February 2021
Their apparent grass-chewing innocence notwithstanding, cows have long been implicated in Colombian rural conflict. As just one example, the FARC’s 1964 founding was largely a response to the monopolization of rural land in massive dairy- and cattle-farming estates, including the military-sponsored eviction of thousands of farmers. More recent processes of rural conflict and dispossession have been at the behest of economies related to coca, mining and energy megaprojects, and large-scale agriculture like bananas and African palm; nonetheless, cattle remain a significant source of wealth for the rural elite. At the same time, however, cattle and other livestock are crucial to the survival of the rural poor.
This Is What Change Looks Likes: scenes from a BLM protest
07 February 2021
I’m realizing that violent conflict deserves a more sustained and nuanced analysis, that even today white violence is viewed as protective or patriotic and Black violence as taboo. Rather than viewing conflict as undesirable or problematic, I’m learning to see it as generative. This is what change looks like. It’s messy, it’s nonlinear, it’s inevitable, it’s necessary.
Baking my way through ethnography: cakey encounters with diabetes during a pandemic
05 March 2021
As it became apparent that my cakes were useful research tools, I began to create encounters – and I wasn’t alone in this endeavour. Cakes were now part of a guessing game that all house guests were subjected to by my parents. My father, who would rarely enter the kitchen, would take it upon himself to cut a slice of cake, microwave it, place it before an unsuspecting visitor with diabetes, and say, “Eat it, it’s keto. No sugar problem. It has no carbs.” After the slice was consumed and the disbelief around its lack of sugar was expressed, my father would smirk and ask, “So, guess what’s in it?” After a spirited exchange, he would then reveal that the cake was made out of zucchini and revel in their expressions of shock. In a very real sense, I had built relationships, routes and worlds through my acts of cooking and gifting food…
Ethnography on the Move: Doing Fieldwork on a Bicycle
Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria
20 January 2021
I wondered, as the stereotypical image of the bicycle as the vehicle of last resort slowly crumbles, is there a space for new meanings, conversations, and ways of inhabiting the city? To answer this question, I first had to understand what the city looks like from the view of a bicycle. I wanted to learn how traffic interacts from the perspective of a bicycle so I can understand how others learn that too. My goal was not to feel what other people feel on a bicycle, but to get as close as possible to other people’s experiences riding bicycles in Mumbai so I would know what questions to ask…
Episode 06: In Conversation with Dr. Deborah Thomas
26 February 2021
How can ethnographers use multimedia presentations of their work to reach new audiences, build different relationships with their participants, and promote new practices of witnessing and representation? On today’s episode we talk with Dr. Deborah Thomas, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She tells us about her collaborative and multimodal project, Tivoli Stories (tivolistories.com), based on the 2010 police and military incursion into a West Kingston community in search of a notorious drug trafficker and community don that left at least 75 dead. The project includes a documentary film titled Four Days in May, a museum exhibit, and the 2019 book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Entanglement, Witnessing, Repair (Duke UP, 2019). Deborah explains how a background in dance led her to become an accidental anthropologist with an interest in both sovereignty and experimental ethnographic practices.
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.