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.
Rising Pressure: Housing Costs in the Face of COVID-19
18 March 2022
As Amazon packages piled up in apartment building hallways for those who were working from home and clicking ‘add to cart’ rather than risking exposure in stores, Marcos made a spray bottle with sanitizer in preparation of returning to work, so he could sanitize his clothing after packing similar orders in the crowded warehouse. Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are disproportionately high among Hispanic residents in Colorado (Podewils et al, 2020), and in Denver, Westwood was hardest hit among neighborhoods by COVID-19 (Colorado Health Institute, 2021). Marcos knew that his asthma continued to put him at increased risk for severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19.
Becoming a Preventionist
23 February 2022
I don’t know where I am or how to get where I am going. The GPS delivers me through construction and haze to a high school on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a sprawling complex of concrete wrapped in chain-link. I follow signs to the front office, where the woman behind the counter nods over to a sign-in sheet, hands me a visitor sticker, and I go in. I ask an adult, walking briskly, for directions. “You have to go the wrong way to go the right way,” she says. There is an elevated walkway over the street; on the other side, in the middle of the teachers’ parking lot sits a prefabricated one-room building. Students meet at the locked gate at the edge of campus at the bell and a teacher leads them over the quiet street. Students are told that if they run late then they will be left on the wrong side of the road…
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 17: In Conversation with Dr. Jason de Leon
25 March 2022
How can you integrate archaeology and photography with ethnographic research to understand the experiences of clandestine migrants? Today we talk with Jason de Leon, professor of Anthropology and Chicano/a Studies at UCLA, Director of the Undocumented Migration Project. Jason talks about how he drew on a mixture of ethnography, interviews, forensics, and archaeology of the objects left behind by migrants to write The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (U California Press, 2015). He then explains how he shifted to studying Honduran human smugglers for Soldiers and Kings, his current project. Finally, he talks about how he integrated photography into this more recent research, reflecting on the potential for integrating still images into ethnographic work.
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.