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.
Mystical Encounter: Order, Power, and Anarchy in Arkadia
N. Bucky Stanton
30 July 2021
Part of the machine is me — I am working as part of the topographical survey team for my dissertation research. Now in my second summer, my narrow investigation of the tools and procedures of archaeology has transformed into a far deeper engagement with not only the practices, but the social and cultural politics of historical knowledge. The excavation does not only contribute to the accumulation of material artifacts but also represents and enacts collective desires of what is legitimate evidence and valuable knowledge of the past. Yet, for many, including some archaeologists, it is as simple as digging old stuff up. As an anthropologist, however, the social and historical dynamics of the many practices, discourses, and sociotechnical systems which create the Greek past, and future, inspire a different appreciation. For me, archaeology creates, dismantles, and moves through many worlds of meaning. The critical questions are who gets to shape these worlds, and why?
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…
Episode 13: Violence, Gender, and Policing in Colombia
16 July 2021
In today’s interview, we speak with Dr. Jon Gordon, incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University, who tells us about his research with criminalized men in an armed group in a marginal neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia. Jon tells us how his experiences as a teacher in both Chicago and Medellín got him interested in studying gangs and violence. He explains how doing 45 months of fieldwork allowed him to track changes in the group he studied and talks about the value—and marginalization—of long-term ethnographic fieldwork. He also reflects on how he dealt with the psychological toll of witnessing violence, and how the men he studied subverted traditional gender roles in surprising ways. Finally, he describes what happened when his mother and partner entered his field site, and the ethnographic importance of a bologna sandwich.
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.