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.
Theatre of the Moving Markets: inside the Mumbai Local
15 June 2021
In this text, I use the medium of a theater scene to frame my field notes to showcase the appearing and disappearing of moving train vendor markets. Once the main actors enter the stage of performance, the ladies compartment, they begin to play out roles of the shrewd seller, the old and known friend, the aggressive bargainer, and the observing researcher. Each move feels learned and rehearsed and yet needs improvisation during each performance. Conversations between vendors and customers unfold as if on cue, each playing off the dialogic moves made by the other. This is not to indicate that vendors and customers are engaging in a ruse or putting up a facade. These scripts and their rehearsed anger and playfulness are part of learning to participate in the life of a ladies’ compartment and sustain its social and economic rhythms.
Two Arms: an excerpt from “Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness”
10 June 2021
Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness takes place in and around a 24/7 harbourside café in a Greek town. It tells the story of the Egyptian immigrants who work as fishermen on the trawlers and other outcasts who hang around the café and the harbour. Each chapter is a stand-alone short story and each story is a step further into the darkness and light of a novel where the Egyptian fishermen, the beggars, the café’s servers, the prostitutes and the spat-upon homosexuals become the grotty heroes of the everyday. Find here an excerpt from the book. This excerpt is from the section titled “Two Arms”.
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.
Absence in the Time of Covid
27 May 2021
Absence tends to create disregard especially when the ethnographer is socially advantaged relative to her research subjects (which is almost always the case). Disparate levels of privilege and social realities encase the three years I will be separated from the place and people I study. I live in Canada, a welfare state with universal healthcare and paid parental leave. I have a tenure track job and earn a decent salary. I am rarely physically vulnerable or emotionally distressed. Perhaps Sextus lived in a world where Roman culture and Roman institutions were so ubiquitous, he could move anywhere in the empire and still be surrounded by the sounds, smells, food, sociality, daily routines, and basic expectations that surrounded him when he was physically close to his beloved. Maybe that’s why he was able to muster up the requisite love (and go further, aggrandize it!) while he was away. I frankly know very little about ancient Rome, so I am unable to verify this supposition…
My Time with the Anons: Making My Digital Self with Conspiracy Theorists
20 May 2021
When I told my advisor that I was going to pursue a broader study of QAnon, one that would require befriending many more conspiracy theorists online, she (understandably) offered cautionary advice and asked that I take the necessary precautions to not get harassed or put myself in unnecessary danger. In a sudden episode of paranoia, I decided that anonymity, not complete transparency, would be my friend. Anonymity was the primary safeguard against doxxing — the tactic of uncovering an online user’s personal information and leaking it to those who could target my university, employer, or friends and family with harassment and threats. My fears weren’t entirely unfounded…
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.
Episode 11: Talking Ethnographic Fiction with Alexandros Plasatis
10 June 2021
What does ethnography look like when presented as fiction? In this episode, we talk with Alexandros Plasatis, author of the new book Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021) a linked book of short stories based on the lives of Egyptian immigrant fishermen and other marginalized residents of a Greek town. Alexandros describes the fieldwork he conducted as a waiter in his family’s all-night café with a diverse clientele before explaining how and why he transitioned from studying anthropology to creative writing. He tells us how his fieldwork provided the basis for his novel, drawing on his conversations and experiences with the café’s clients to write semi-fictional stories that ring true. Finally, he describes how he uses writing to work with immigrant communities in England, including “the other side of hope”, a new print and online literary magazine dedicated to the stories of immigrants and refugees. Read an excerpt from Alexandros’ book here.
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.