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The Case for Collaborative Ethnography


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  • 1. The Case for Collaborative Ethnography Holly Cavanaugh Spring 2013 Anthropology 410Abstract Collaboration is becoming increasingly important for anthropologists in the field -especially in and ethnographic context. Ethnographic fieldwork is no longer just aboutrecording and learning about another culture, but what are the implications of theresearch? Collaborative ethnography has deep American roots, and until recently, hasbeen on the back burner in anthropology. I believe collaborative methods are some ofthe most important and necessary tools for the modern ethnographer, especially insustainable community development research. By working with and includingcommunity members in research, an ethnographer can facilitate actual change withinmarginalized communities, while still contributing research to academia. Collaborativeethnography is waiting for anthropologists to seize it and will become a primaryresearch tool in the very near future.
  • 2. The Case for Collaborative Ethnography “Only a few of us will ever have the opportunity to write widely read books or engage in activisms that have far-ranging effects on the public at large. But most of us, faculty, students, and practitioners alike, will have opportunity to more systematically involve the various publics with whom we work in collaborative research partnerships, many of which will transpire on a local level.” (Lassiter 2008:73)The Beginning of Collaborative Ethnography Collaboration in ethnography is not a recent endeavor. Early Americanethnographers, such as Franz Boas and Lewis Henry Morgan, were early on conductingethnography in direct collaboration with Native American populations. Morganʼs studiesand writings influenced the creation of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) andmany of the early ethnographies to come from the BAE shaped the waysʻethnographers went about describing Native America.ʼ (Lassiter 2005b:86) As a resultof these collaborations, many of the Native Americans involved in various projectsbecame BAE ethnologists and ethnographers themselves. Once anthropology began to gain more academic credibility, collaborativeethnographic work fell to the side. Ethnography now required university training, and theexpectations of publishing were of a ʻsingle-authoredʼ work - the sole anthropologist.Collaboration in ethnography was ʻput on hold,ʼ (2005b:89) and was easy to set asidefor a more ʻEuropeanʼ way of doing ethnography, compiling data to create a single storyof the culture or society being researched.
  • 3. Today, we (specifically cultural anthropologists) are slowly, and possiblyunknowingly, turning back to the ideas and methods of collaborative ethnography, as therealization that a ʻsingle storyʼ is not representative of virtually any culture. In order tofully understand the cultures anthropologists study, all of which are greatly complex, theethnographer is increasingly needing to collaborate with the peoples of these cultures.A modern example of collaboration within anthropology and ethnography is sustainablecommunity development research. Sustainable community development research and programs are quicklybecoming an effective and efficient way of solving problems of development throughoutthe globe. Ethnographers switch between the role of the researcher and the facilitator;while they are researching development-related issues, they are simultaneously workingwith the people to some up with solutions to alleviate the pressures and struggles thathave resulted form the many years of developmental practices. I will discusssustainable community development and itʼs relationship with collaborative ethnographylater in this paper.Defining Collaborative Ethnography One of, if not the, the most prominent advocates of modern collaborativeethnographic practices, is Luke Eric Lassiter of Marshall University Graduate College.Lassiter has researched, written, and spoken about collaborative ethnography in greatdetail since his first publication, The Power of Kiowa Song: A Collaborative Ethnographywas released in 1998.
  • 4. In The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, Lassiter definesʻcollaborative ethnographyʼ as an approach that “deliberately and explicitly emphasizescollaboration at every point in the ethnographic process, without veiling it- from projectconceptualization, to fieldwork, and, especially, through the writing process.” (2005a:16)He outlines the different names that ʻcollaborative researchʼ falls under: community-based research, action research, participatory research, and participatory communityresearch. (2008:73) Collaborative ethnography is guided by all the ethical commitmentsby which traditional ethnography is undertaken, but often collaboration calls for othercautions. Because there is much more involvement on behalf of the ʻparticipantsʼ or ʻco-researchers,ʼ the ethnographer must make sure to constantly check with and involve theparticipants in all aspects of the research. One of the key aspects of collaborative ethnography is what Lassiter calls the“collaborative reading, writing, and co-interpretation.” (Lassiter 2005a: 133) Theacknowledgement of a particular audience one is writing to, is always necessary to beconsidered when writing anthropologically. Collaborative ethnography should beaccessible to a greater audience, not just academia, and specifically to those whoparticipated in the research, who should have access to read, edit and fully understandthe final product. Lassiter lays out numerous strategies to accomplish this, such asusing principle participants as readers and editors, conducting focus groups forfeedback, or forming an editorial board of appointed community members to ensureaccurate depiction. Refraining from using jargon and other forms of academic languageis also a way to make sure the content is readable.
  • 5. I agree with Lassiterʼs view that the ʻwhole pointʼ of conducting collaborativeethnography, is to “realize along with [participants] both the collaborative meanings andcollaborative actions.” (Lassiter 2008:78) One of the most important roles of ananthropologist is to undertake research that has a sense of worth. What would be thepoint of months and sometimes years of diligent research if nothing was accomplished,but an academic publication? Anthropologists need to be involving their ethnographicparticipants in their inquiries; not simply ʻresearchingʼ for the sake of research. Thisinvolvement of community members is has the potential to inspire what early BAEmembers were inspired to do - to undertake their own studies. Anthropology has adefinite place in academia, but I believe it needs to also step outside of this spectrum -and into the hands of the cultures and peoples themselves.Limitations of Collaborative Ethnography Even with the potential benefits, collaborative ethnography does indeed havelimitations and risks associated to it, ones that are similar and at times more cautionary,than those of traditional ethnography. Limitations that cross over with both traditionaland collaborative ethnography include, but are not limited to, the range of the fieldexperience, the peoples being studied, and angle the research is undertaken.Collaborative ethnography is further limited simply by the greater involvement of theparticipants. By involving the participants in the research process, the ethnographeraccepts the risk of losing control over the project, if it is not performed properly.
  • 6. It is always necessary for the ethnographer to be honest and upfront about theresearch being proposed1 and its possible limitations. While all ethnographies requiresome form of collaboration, it is necessary to understand that collaborative ethnographyis not appropriate for all projects. Another important limitation to acknowledge is theconstant negotiation that is needed in conducting collaborative ethnography.Negotiations in the moral, ethnical, and political spheres are just a few that need to bekept in mind. Many limitations in collaborative ethnography are project-specific. In Lassiterʼscollaboration with students from Ball State University and citizens of Muncie, Indiana forthe publication, The Other Side of Middletown, limitations consisted of a short timeconstraint (4 months) and access to community members, who ended up being older,retired citizens who had the available time to participate fully. Having said this, thevarious limitations greatly outweigh the possibilities presented by this collaborativeethnography. I would argue that the majority of collaborative ethnographies, only the ʻtipof the icebergʼ is really reached. Ethnography only scratches the surface of the culture itis researching, usually concluding with one or two ʻfindings.ʼ Collaboration opens thedoors to many new research angles and uses of ethnography, most notably inmarginalized communities. Ethnography is no longer limited to going into strange andforeign cultures to study ʻthe other;ʼ itʼs becoming more common for anthropologist tostudy culture close to home - whether the culture is marginalized in a greater context, oris in our American backyards. Ethnography is more important than ever, not only to1 however, it is important to note that this is necessary for all kinds of ethnographers
  • 7. contribute to academia, but to make small, lasting differences in the field, and withparticipants.Applications of Collaborative Ethnography There are many ways in which collaboration can be applied in ethnographicmethods. Ethnography itself always contains some sort of collaboration, whether its agreat or small amount. What I see as the main application of collaborative ethnography,is whenever ethnographic research is being used to assess and/or better a currentsituation- whether it be in creating a more sustainable way to farm in a third worldcountry, or improving school lunches in a metropolitan American city. Lassiter has provided much guidance and examples of collaborativeethnography, on American soil, but I was introduced to this idea of greater collaborationin ethnography, through an article based on ethnographic research conducted inScandinavia titled, “Nordic Childrenʼs Foodscapes” (Johansson, Barbo, et al., 2009).This project utilizes numerous collaborative methods, the most important two being: aresearch team (rather than a sole individual) and the main participants (Scandinavianchildren) who were treated as ʻco-researchersʼ rather than subjects. The research teamincluded the children in two ways: first by giving them each disposable cameras andinstructing them what to take pictures of, and second by facilitating group discussionsabout the pictures and other topics that arose from these conversations. By doing thesetwo things, the research team was able to really include the children in a way thatwasnʼt as alienating, as a traditional ethnography may have done. The goal of thisparticular project was to learn how children view their own ʻfoodscapesʼ and to analyze
  • 8. them in order to find themes and patterns within the different children and theirfoodscapes. Another application of collaborative ethnography is within sustainable communitydevelopment research, which in some regions is already in practice. A ʻworkingʼdefinition of sustainable community development is “a way of improving or advancingcommunities in ways that can be maintained over the long run.” (Chiras and Herman,1997: 108) Workshops are one of the most efficient ways of practicing collaboration inthe context of sustainable community development, the role of an ethnographer beingflexible and somewhat interchangeable with the role of facilitator. This type of research would, more often than not, lead to a longer duration in thefield, compared with a traditional ethnography, since the ethnographer would not only beresearching for the sake of academia, but contributing to solutions to improve thespecific community - in the ways community members see most fit The workshops playan important part in the community members assessing what they feel needs to beimproved in their community- thus not having this ʻdevelopmentʼ be defined (as it has inthe past) by western, industrialized ideals. Nancy Scheper-Hughes also seems to utilize collaborative methods within herresearch, mostly due to her role of being a ʻwitnessʼ while in the field. Instead of goinginto the field as strictly a researcher, Scheper-Hughes urges field anthropologists to be“responsive, reflexive, and morally committed being[s]... who will ʻtake sidesʼ and makejudgements” (Scheper-Hughes, 1995: 419) rather than maintain the ʻnon-involvementʼpersona typically aimed for. She asks what will become of anthropology, a field of
  • 9. knowledge or a field of action? (1995: 419) This is where I connect Scheper-Hughes tocollaborative ethnography in developmental practices. Ethnographers (and Anthropologists in general) are tools to be used indevelopmental practices, in order to hammer out the problems created by pastdevelopers while at the same time being able to acknowledge their own limitations.“Anthropology can expose the limitations of so much which is done in the name ofdevelopment, while at the same time offering ideas for challenging constructively theworld of development and suggesting how this can be changed.” (Gardner and Lewis,2005: 358) Anthropology is being called to action, so to speak, in that, we (asanthropologists) have the necessary tools to combat past detrimental developmentalpractices, and why not use them?Collaborative Ethnography in my Anthropological Future There are two possible applications of collaborative ethnography I couldpotentially utilize in my anthropological future - within these two previously discussedspectrums: sustainable community development research and culinary anthropologyresearch. These two somewhat differing spectrums have been introduced to me onseparate occasions, but it wasnʼt until recently I began to realize possible connections.Conducting collaborative ethnographic research in a sustainable communitydevelopment project through a culinary lens is probably one of the most fascinatingprospective fields of inquiry I hope to dive into in the future. Applying collaborative ethnographic methods to food-related issues inmarginalized communities can procure different affects. As I previously mentioned,
  • 10. workshops are one of the tools used in sustainable community development projects,and through these workshops, I, as the ethnographic researcher and facilitator, couldhelp guide the community in finding solutions to their issues. One inquiry I would be interested in my anthropological future is the possibility ofassessing and reworking food systems in rural American schools. By collaborating withthe school children, faculty, and food suppliers, I could get an idea on what changeswere needed to revitalize the current food system. Early nutritional necessities are beingpushed aside for faster and cheaper solutions, but this is leaving elementary and middleschool children more vulnerable to obesity - which is already a growing problem inAmerica. One of the prominent voices in this national, and somewhat global, discussion ofchildhood obesity being related to childhood nutrition is Jamie Oliver. Oliver is a chef bytrade, but has become one of the prominent advocates for the revitalization of schoollunches throughout America and other western countries. Although Oliver is not ananthropologist or an ethnographer, he has laid down the groundwork for potentialcollaborative ethnographic research. He was able to revitalize one schoolʼs food systemto be healthier and more efficient through collaboration with the community and settingup a long term, sustainable plan to keep the changes in place. Using Oliverʼs work as a takeoff, I would want to research rural (and urban) foodsystems in American schools, through collaborative ethnography. This is one project Ihope to build off of in my future anthropological career, there are certainly many othersthat could be closely related to these fields of sustainable community development andculinary anthropology.
  • 11. Collaborative ethnography has come a long way since its humble beginnings inNative American landscapes, and its relatively recent revival in the last few decades. Isee collaboration in all anthropological fields to grow in the near future, with greaterneeds to work together, rather than apart. And in following the footsteps of manyinfluential anthropologists, such as Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Franz Boas, and Luke EricLassiter, I hope to make a small difference in the world - whether it is in a rural Americanschool cafeteria, or in a developing nationʼs agricultural fields - not only deepenacademiaʼs anthropological discussions, but to make a positive and lasting difference ina community. I depart with Lassiterʼs words in mind, “Indeed, this was why I was drawn to anthropology in the first place: if we werenʼt doing ethnography for others, for whom were we doing it?” (Lassiter 2005a: 22)
  • 12. BibliographyAudirac, Ivonne. - 1997 Rural Sustainable Development in America. New York: John Wiley & Sons. - Chapter 6: “Sustainable Community Development: A Systems Approach.” by Daniel D. Chiras and Julie Herman - Chapter 12: “Community-based Workshops: Building a Partnership for Community Vitality.” by James A. SegedyEdelman, Marc and Haugeurd, Angelique. - 2005 The Anthropology of Development and Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell. - Chapter 27: “Beyond Development” by Katy Gardner and David LewisJohansson, Barbo, et al. - 2009 “Nordic Childrenʼs Foodscapes: Images and Reflections.” Food, Culture & Society. Vol. 12 No. 1: 25-51.Lassiter, Luke Eric. - 2004a “Collaborative Ethnography.” AnthroNotes. Vol. 25 No. 1: 1-9. - 2004b “Teacherʼs Corner: Doing Collaborative Ethnography.” AnthroNotes. Vol. 25 No. 1: 10-14. - 2005a The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. University of Chicago Press. - 2005b “Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 46 No. 1: 83-106. - 2008 “Moving Past Public Anthropology and Doing Collaborative Research.” NAPA Bulletin. Vol. 29: 70-86.Oliver, Jamie. - 2010. “Jamie Oliverʼs TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food.” Retrieved from
  • 13. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. - 1995 “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 36 No. 3: 409-440.