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.
The Field, the Border, and I
12 May 2021
Crossing the border was anticlimactic, a 10-minute walk through the old, dusty, and broken road on the Maitri bridge that connects India and Nepal over the Sirsiya river. This was one of many routes that connect the Indian state of Bihar with the city of Birgunj in Nepal, but as the only one with a concrete road, it was the most important. My first steps outside my country were not exactly as majestic as I had anticipated. It was not a big infrastructure that I had to go through to enter the other side. Nor were there any big imposing ‘welcome to Nepal’ or ‘welcome to India’ boards. In a short walk I and others around me moved between the two countries. There were people walking toward India and Nepal on two wheelers, rickshaws, autos, and horse carts. The only time anyone noticed me was when the auto-wallas looked for customers. Otherwise, I was invisible, at least to the borderland. I didn’t look, speak, or move differently and no one cared about me. I was too familiar for them to care, too familiar to pay attention to, and too familiar to worry about. This made my field work unadventurous, far from the spirit of the colonial anthropologist…
“On the edges of the Arauca river”: an ethnographic story
28 April 2021
“The Arauca is like that: it can give or take all from you; that is life here on the border. On one side you can find everything, on the other everything can be lost. It has always has been this way for us.” These were the words of Ramiro, a local who guided me across the border between Venezuela and Colombia in the state of Apure, near the Arauca River…
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.
Confessions of an ethnographer: adapting to the new normal
21 April 2021
Before the pandemic, eating local cuisine was one of the ways I participated in the daily lives of my research subjects. Rice, a variety of fish preparations, curries and the four to five daily cups of chai became a part of my field experience. In the field ‘you never say no to tea’ as denying a cup of tea can be taken as a sign of disrespect to the household, which meant I had tea with every family I visited. After seven to ten days in the field, I would often grumble about the sugary tea and only fish in my meals. But now, a year into the pandemic, my only wish is to return to field interviews, sitting with people as we sip tea and eat delicious fish meals.
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.
Episode 10: In Conversation with Dr. Tahseen Shams
25 April 2021
How are immigrants’ lives shaped by cultural and political dynamics in their homeland, hostland, and “elsewhere” countries whose geopolitical dynamics affect their experiences (such as South Asian Muslims who are affected by post-9/11 and more recent backlash against Middle Eastern nations)? In today’s podcast, we talk with Tahseen Shams, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto-St.George and author of Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World. Tahseen talks about how her own background as a Bangladeshi immigrant to Mississippi inspired her to become an ethnographer, and how her positionality affected her research with other South Asian Immigrants. She describes how she used content analysis of Facebook to overcome her own effect on interviewees and some of the difficulties she had in managing relationships with her participants. Also, in a fascinating discussion of how her female research participants navigated contrasting identity categories of “Good Muslim” and “Moderate Muslim”, she reflects on what she learned from the tensions between what they said in interviews and what she observed them doing. Finally, Tahseen talks about finding inspiration in reading novels and her new research project on inter-ethnic relationships.
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.