Welcome to the course Understanding Ethnography, a way of engaging with the other. I
am Nina Sabnani. I teach at the IDC School of Design in IIT Bombay. Ethnography is a
qualitative research method that enables us to understand people, their social behaviours
and their cultural practices.
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We spend time with people, in the environments in which they live, observing and
speaking with them. It does seem odd that we have to learn how to do that. Spending time
observing does not that come naturally? Of course, some of it does, but there is a huge
difference between casual observing and the depth and rigour that the ethnographic
approach requires. We derive insights by making observations and by drawing
connections between these observations and theoretical concepts. And this leads us to
make sense of what we perceive.
Few other research methods enable such an understanding of the human world. So far, we
have explained the term ethnography, now let us talk about the other and what we mean
by that. In the context of ethnography, the other is often that person or set of persons who
we see as different from us, and who we attempt to engage with. And who we see as
other changes with changes in context.
In our home country, for instance, we may see someone from another region or
community as the other. But when in a foreign country, anyone from our country, no
matter what region or community they come from, are seen as like us, and those from
other countries are seen as the other. So, before we travel any further or begin to define
anything, let us look at an example that may help in understanding how we practice
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Let me share my own experience of researching a community of storytellers from
Rajasthan. I was interested to learn why the tradition of telling stories with a
Kaavad story box was still alive when people had access to TV and other modes of
entertainment. Did this have to do with the lack of access to electronic media in
remote Rajasthan, or was it performing some other unknown role in their lives? I
wanted to understand what meaning this story box had in the lives of the
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To explore these questions, I spent some time getting to know the community- the
people who made the Kaavads, the storytellers and their patrons, by travelling
together, asking questions, sharing jokes and also making films together.
In the process, I certainly discovered some things that I had expected to find but was
also surprised by so much more. Their world was very different from mine, and so
were their notions of reality. Many of the ideas that the storytellers and their
patrons attached to the Kaavad put several of my assumptions to test.
I had assumed that the kaavadiyas were simply storytellers, but as I engaged with
them, I came to see that they are much more than that. They are genealogists who
map and recite the ancestry of their patrons. They are, in fact, custodians of memory
for their community. [Video being played from 3:56 to 4:21], I came to see that the
story box was more than just about stories or their lineage - it was a pilgrimage.
These insights changed the way I looked at folk traditions.
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I also realised I had a lot to learn about storytelling from my friends. All this came about
because I had the opportunity to engage with them at length and in their context. This
method helped me learn what lay beneath the surface of the colourful Kaavad story box
and its performance. Let us pause here and reflect on some questions.
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In the Kaavad story, who do you think is the other to the researcher? What does the
researcher want to learn from them? Some of you may have answered that the other
here is the Kaavad storyteller. Others might have also noted that the patrons, the
listeners, are the other. Given that we are viewing the sequence from the
perspective of the researcher, then everyone outside the research team is the other.
Some of you may have noted that the researcher wants to learn about the lifestyle of
the Kaavad storytellers. Others may have thought the researcher wants to
understand how the Kaavad story box is faring in the digital age. Both answers are
acceptable. I did enter the research with curiosity about why the Kaavad remains so
popular in some communities?
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But in order to learn about the Kaavad, I had to spend time with the makers and
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And this opened up many questions that my research would go on to address. So, we
could say that the core of this research - as of any ethnographic research - is the
process of being engaged with those who our research is about. And many
ethnographers will vouch that it is actually a most interesting way of doing research.
It emphasises learning about other people by spending time with them, immersing
ourselves in their everyday lives, understanding their context. It is certainly no rocket
science, but it is not casual observing either. It has its methods and its processes and its
fundamental principles, all of which we will discuss as we go through this course.
We will speak about the process at length, but first, there is an old story I would like to
share. It has appeared in many versions, and this one is from the Vishnudharmottara-
purāna, an ancient text from the sixth century that speaks about the arts and the
relationship to each other.
King Vajra is very keen to learn the art of icon making of the deities he worships and
asks the Sage Markandya to take him on as a student. The sage tells him that to
understand the principles of image-making, he must first acquire the knowledge of
painting. The king agrees to be trained in this art but is told that he cannot grasp even the
rudiments of painting unless he is an accomplished dancer.
The king now accepts to learn dancing, but the sage explains that proficiency in dance is
impossible without a keen sense of rhythm or knowledge of instrumental music. The king
requests he be taught music and rhythm. To which the sage says that before he becomes
proficient in instrumental music, a mastery of vocal music is necessary. Finally, the king
goes through all these stages before the sage teaches him the art of iconography.
And so, it is with ethnography too. In order to understand ethnography, we must
understand the fields it comes from – Mainly, sociology and anthropology. And that
is what we will discuss in the next section.
We ended our last session speaking of the need to understand a little bit about sociology
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It is from these domains that ethnography derives its methods as well as its fundamental
concepts. In this session, we will look a little bit into the historical aspect of ethnography
and these disciplines. The term ethnography and its articulation as a research method did
not come about until the 18th century. However, the process of writing about ‘people’ or
‘cultures’ has had a long history.
We have accounts of travellers like Huein Tsang, Marco Polo, Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta who
may be called the pre-ethnographers or proto-ethnographers. Through their travels, they
absorb knowledge about different peoples, cultures and lands.
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They wrote down and spoke about much of what they had observed and learned. These
records were a way to chronicle the worlds and peoples they knew nothing about. Let us
pause the video here and reflect for a moment.
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What do you think drove the pre-ethnographers to travel across continents to unfamiliar
places and cultures? Some of you may have said that it was the desire to learn about
people and ways of being that were different from their own. Some of you may have
answered that they were simply curious about other civilisations. They wanted to
experience the adventures of travel and then share them with their people or rulers back
home. Some others may have guessed that they could have been looking for trade
opportunities. To some degree, each of these factors probably inspired and motivated the
proto-ethnographers. And it was a similar set of factors that came into play in the 1700s.
In this period, another set of traders, scholars, missionaries and travellers, most of them
Europeans, wrote about the various peoples, lands and cultures they encountered. It was
around this time that the term ethnography was coined.
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The choice of the term ethnos, which at that time also denoted ‘race’, was not
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This was a period when European nations were trying to explore unmapped parts of the
world, such as the Arctic coast of Siberia, or the far east. And some of these expeditions
had among them scholars and academics. These people were part of the expedition so that
they could gather knowledge about the newfound lands- their geography, and the people
who lived there. These expeditions, however, were not simply for gaining knowledge.
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This was a period of great competition among European mega-corporations such as the
Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company and others. Each of them was
rivals competing to establish monopolies on trade with Asia, North America and the
Middle East. And many of these rivalries translated into colonisation.
This geopolitics was one of the factors that influenced the kind of ethnographic research
that was commanded. Those who commissioned such research felt the need to not only
‘discover’ but to ‘grasp’ the unfamiliar world they were encountering, owning it
somehow. Some of them did so by writing it, in their own words, through their own ways
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In fact, often, they wrote about these new worlds and the people who occupied them, in
the same ways as they wrote about flora and fauna.
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This kind of ‘scientific’ knowledge was often used by imperialist nations to justify
colonisation and subjugation of local populations. Or sometimes, to suggest that
European colonisation was good for the natives. They even believed that the presence of
white colonisers would help the local culture to move ahead, towards civilisation,
development and modernity.
Our practise of ethnography bears some traces of these ideas and methods. That may be
our legacy, but fortunately, the discipline has evolved a lot since its early days.
Contemporary ethnographers are conscious of the problematic history of the discipline.
And so, they work actively towards a form of research which is more respectful and
empathetic towards participants.
In its long history, ethnography owes much to two major moments. The first of these is
called the Chicago School because that is where it started. And the second is called
British Social Anthropology. Both of these emerged in the late 1800s. The focus on
‘description’ that is a key feature of our practice was propagated by the Chicago School.
And the focus on theory is credited to the British Social Anthropologists. It is this dual
focus that pushes us to construct detailed and nuanced descriptions that lead to an
analytical understanding of our participants’ culture.
Since the 1970s, there have been further upheavals in ethnographic ways of seeing. And
many of these ideas pose a direct challenge to those of ethnography’s colonial originators.
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These include ideas such as post-colonialism and feminism. These approaches insist that
we use ethnography to tell the narratives of people less heard in society. For those of you
who are interested in learning more about the history of ethnography, we have some
reading material that you can refer to. And following that, there’s a quiz to help you
revise and reflect on what you have learnt. Let us pause here and reflect on the question
that appears on the screen.
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Is contemporary ethnography about faraway exotic cultures, familiar contexts, or both a
and b? Some of you may have selected option a). Others may have gone for option b).
The correct answer is c). Ethnographic research may be about any culture or community,
both familiar and unfamiliar. In fact, today, ethnographies are not so much about faraway
‘exotic’ cultures, as they are about familiar contexts- like the home, the family, the
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And often, the focus is on understanding perspectives that have so far been marginalised.
This includes the narratives of women, working-class people, ethnic minorities,
oppressed caste persons, and so on. So, we see that one of the central premises of
ethnography, is this idea of understanding the other, and their notion of reality. On the
face of it, both terms seem simple enough.
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But how do we define the other? How do we understand reality? And what it means to
different people? In our next section, we will look more closely at these terms and
what they could mean.
We have been talking about engaging with the 'other'. Let us try and understand what we
mean by the other. We have seen from our earlier discussion that the other is someone
who is different from us, and this someone as 'other' changes across contexts. So, you see
how the definition of the other is a dynamic one. There is always us and them or me and
In ethnography, the 'other' is the person or the community we engage with. The
terminology we use to refer to the people we are researching tells us how we see those
people. Some of the terms commonly used are user, subject, respondent, participant.
Each of these terms reveals what the 'other' means to the researcher.
If we refer to someone as a 'user,' we enter that relationship with the understanding that
we are to create something that the other will 'use'. The terms 'respondent' or 'subject', are
commonly used in social science research, to refer to the other. In using the term
'respondent, we term the other as someone who is simply responding to questions and
cues provided by the researcher.
The term implies that the researcher alone directs the course of the research, defining
what is to be learned, and the role of the other is to provide answers as required by the
researcher. This terminology somewhat ignores the contribution of the other to the
research. And, it overlooks their ability to make sense of their own world.
The word 'subject' is most commonly used to refer to someone or something being
studied. It somehow implies that the other is a passive entity, unlikely to have much
active participation in the study. This way of seeing also keeps us from recognising and
acknowledging their contribution to our research. In each of these ways of relating to
those who the research is about, we run the risk of 'othering' them.
This may translate into the research having little or no meaning to the people it is about.
It may have no value for them, and may not contribute to their lives in any significant
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Othering creates inequalities between us and those whose worlds we study. Far from
being something harmless and simple, it is an authoritative and complex phenomenon
that is capable of creating distances between individuals, societies and cultures. Over the
years, ethnographers have worked towards building a more inclusive approach. Today,
we refer to those whose worlds we study as participants' or 'contributors' to our research.
In using these terms, we try to acknowledge their contribution and their active role in the
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We see the other as stakeholders in the creation of the knowledge or solutions that emerge
from the research. This shift in terminology symbolises a shift in our relationship with
our participants and in our methods of engaging with them. Let us pause here and think
about the relationship between researchers and their participants. Watch this short video
clip from my engagement with my participant kaavadiya Kojaram as part of my research
on the Kaavad tradition. [Video being played from 3:46 to 4:36].
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From this clip, what do you understand about the relationship between the researcher
and the participant? Some of you may have noticed that there is a sense of comfort
between the two. They speak to each other, as though friends discussing a topic of
common interest. The participant does not respond to the researcher as though she is
more knowledgeable or more important than him.
Nor does the researcher hold a position of authority over the participant. In fact, both of
them seem to be rather relaxed in the other's presence, and in sharing their banter with
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In fact, after this conversation, I realised how our ways of learning are seen by our
participants in relationship to theirs. What we are trying to say here is that we need to
design our research in such a manner that the process of learning from participants is
based on mutual respect and comfort. Developing such a relationship is an important part
of our work, and we will discuss this in our next section.