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.
My autorickshaw rides: a smorgasbord for the senses
30 March 2021
The internet describes an autorickshaw as a motorized, three-wheeled rickshaw for public hire, but that doesn’t justify what all it means to me. The definition is bland, perfunctory even, excluding the warmth, mood and comfort that an auto brought to my life. Whenever I took an auto ride amid the rains, the bokeh print of the city, visible through the windshield would be my antidote to all things beyond control. It added a bounce to my step each time I saw the city lights coalesce with the evening sky through the visor of an auto in any part of the country. Listening to a particular love ballad on the earphones, riding in an auto, while watching the world whizz by was my way to relax after a day of long, tiring hours. Everything made sense, once I sat in an auto and looked out at the city presenting its best self to me through it. In this essay, I write a paean, a clichéd love letter if you will, to autos and how they electrified my mundane commute.
Seguridad Privada: ethnographic poetry from Guatemala
29 March 2021
I lived in Quetzaltenango for five years, where I worked for a non-profit organization. My colleagues and I consciously employed ethnographic methodology to better understand the communities in which we worked. One day, I was slowly observing and wandering through the streets of a neighborhood where we were beginning a new clean-water project. I was struck by a (relatively normal) image—a man on a motorcycle in a security guard’s outfit with a shotgun and lunchbox secured behind him. It was evening and I presumed that he was on his way for a night shift guarding some shop, restaurant, or hotel. The image had an impact, and I sat there for a few minutes considering the gravity of such a job. I sensed I was not alone and looked down to see a street dog sitting at my feet and also looking in the direction of the motorcycle. I was struck by the similarities between them—both facing daily risks in an environment where they had fallen through the cracks of poverty and failing bureaucracy. This is a poem I wrote to capture that moment, a moment of ethnographic empathy, a sacred moment of considering the lives of those who we observe.
Caught in the cyclone: Why ethnographers must break the law, sometimes
10 March 2021
Walking out with her bag full of jeans would make myself directly complicit in breaking legal regulations, right under the eyes of the police. According to my formal research guidelines, I was on thin ice. Yet in retrospect, I think I instantly knew what I had to do, not only in the name of maintaining the trust of my study participants, but more acutely out of concern for the wellbeing of my interlocutor. Like other vendors who stood on the lowest rung of Cuba’s private sector, Luz was already scrambling to get by. If she were caught selling contraband, she faced a potential fine of several hundred dollars, and could lose not only the bag of jeans, but also her job at the market and her license as a vendor…
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.
Playing a Different Game of Ball: Postdoc Memories
29 March 2021
In this contribution, I trace the three years in which I worked, thought and changed within academia as a postdoc. Via a variety of poetic vignettes, I unpack feelings, thoughts and mo(ve)ments of irritation, growth, collaboration, success and failure within institutional structures of interdisciplinarity, intersectionality and different degrees of precarity. While these postdoc memories very much stem from my own lived experience, hopefully, they also stick and resonate with other academic workers such as postdocs-to-be, post-postdocs, or possibly postdoc supervisors. This poetic intervention gives insights into the working and living conditions of the many different postdoc positionalities, and aims to visibilize some of the stories, concerns and challenges that emerging academics struggle with.
Writing Pandemics: A COVID Autoethnography
06 March 2021
And yet, somehow, the incalculability of the pandemic had rendered most of us numb to its emotional life. My friends were unstoppable, launching new research projects, conducting interviews, writing historical essays, and studying epidemiological patterns. I, on the other hand, felt I was frozen in place – surrounded by an accelerating deluge of analysis. The pandemic had given social scientists new urgency, new relevance, new dynamics for investigation. Yet here I was: my expertise had failed, the virus had found me, and I had nothing to say…
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…
Episode 09: In Conversation with Dr. Victoria Reyes and Dr. Marco Garrido
8 April 2021
How can Sociology be nudged away from its traditional parochialism to embrace empirical work that focuses on the global south? Marco Garrido (assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago) and Victoria Reyes (assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside) are the editors of a recent special issue of Contexts magazine, New Ethnographies of the Global South, that brings together scholars doing fieldwork outside of the US and Europe. Marco and Victoria tell us about how they came to do ethnographic research on the Philippines and describe how the special issue emerged as part of a broader shift towards studying the Global South. We also talk with them about why and how there are pressures against overseas scholarship from within graduate programs and academic journals, how Global South ethnographers must translate their work for US audiences, and how younger scholars can pursue their interests while also positioning themselves for success.
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.