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.
There is Smoke in the Distance
6 October 2021
I had lived in _____ before: over the previous few years, for a few weeks at a time, I would rent a room and arrange meetings, interviews, and volunteer with local groups to get familiar with the place and build a community. After three years of visits, my research questions were focused on the intersections of race, history, and climate change, taking place primarily with recent migrants who imagined this town as a kind of utopia. This place was one among many Western desert towns that developed, at the turn of the 20th century, still-powerful booster narratives that enticed white Americans to move there. How, I wanted to know, do we justify living in a place that was built on inequality and displacement and does not have the resources in place to support its own future? How do we justify breathing in smoke when the fire is all around us?
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.
We’re goin’ to the field site, I’m not afraid!
06 January 2022
I was inspired in this reflection by a story I had long been familiar with during my years teaching. Michael Rosen’s “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” seemed to encapsulate that central idea of gathering the tools and equipment one needs for a long journey only to be frightened by what we see at the end. I have borrowed the format of Rosen’s well-known children’s story to create my own version of what I thought I knew about ethnographic fieldwork.
Episode 16: Ethnography of Rural Indonesia: in conversation with Dr. Tania Li
14 January 2022
What can years of ethnographic engagement with rural Indonesia teach us about capitalism, development, and resistance? On this episode of Ethnographic Marginalia, our guest is Dr. Tania Li, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Tania tells us about three decades of research on development programs, local activism, and class formation in rural Indonesia. She talks about her own frustrations as a development practitioner led her to study development programs for the book The Will to Improve. She then describes how research over 20 years on how families’ lives changed with the introduction of capitalist relations in rural Indonesian highlands led to her next book, Land’s End. Finally, she explains the collaborative methodology behind her new book Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone (Duke UP, 2021), co-authored with Pujo Semedi. She talks about the insights that emerged from their different perspectives and positionality, how they used the project to inspire a whole generation of Indonesian anthropologists, and their joint efforts to avoid a colonial dynamic in their writing process.
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.