Module 1: Understanding the Challenges of Ethnography

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By access, we meant gaining permission and consent from people to participate in our
research. We also spoke of access in terms of the availability of time and whether we will be
able to enter the context and observe the phenomena we wish to learn about. Now that we are
in the field, the term takes on a whole new meaning

(Refer Slide Time: 0:48)

Now access means to be accepted by the participants, in a way that they are comfortable with
us being around them and that they feel like sharing their thoughts with us without feeling
like we are there to take something away from them. What does this kind of access look like?
Let me share with you an incident from my fieldwork in Rajasthan, while I was working
with the Kaavad storytellers. Let us watch this short clip of my interaction with storyteller
Let us pause here and reflect on the brief introduction we saw in this clip.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:49)

What does this interaction tell us about the relationship between the participant and the
researcher? I would also like you to consider how this interaction could have gone
badly?And what ensured that it did not? Some of you might have noticed the element of fun
in this engagement. Some others might have guessed that the conversation reflected a spirit of
sharing between the storyteller, Kojaram, and me, the researcher. Both of these answers
reflect that the relationship between us was a comfortable one.
He did not feel compelled to answer my curiosity. These qualities made the conversation
interesting for both of us. But this same conversation could have easily gone wrong. If I had
not known Kojaram too well, I might have felt compelled to simply accept the answer that he
first gave. Or, Kojaram could have taken offence to my rebuttal of his answer.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:54)

Instead, the conversation became an interesting and engaging one for both of us. This is
because the interaction was supported by a relationship of trust and equality. But such a
relationship does not just come about on its own. It takes time and hard work to build.

(Refer Slide Time: 3:10)

Gaining access to our participants is equivalent to gaining their trust. In asking for their time
and their trust, we are asking for something enormous. Let's look at ourselves; we don't invite
everyone home. We take our time getting to know people, meeting first in public places such
as offices, cafes, and so on, getting to know them better over time. We have to trust them
before we can let them 'in'. The same is true for our participants.
This particular moment in the research occurred at a stage in the research where we had spent
a considerable amount of time getting comfortable with each other. The beginning of our
relationship had not been as warm. When I first visited the Kaavad makers in Bassi, I was
viewed with suspicion. The artists and their families wanted to know why I was there. With
all these questions I was asking, about how the Kaavad is made, they wondered whether I
was I going to start my own Kaavad factory.
Even the simplest questions I asked, which I thought we're non-threatening, were perceived
very differently by them. And the situation got no better when I told them I was doing a PhD.
So what will we get out of your PhD? they asked. At one point, I showed them my ID card to
prove the validity of my research. They rejected that too, saying, anyone can print an ID, that
is no proof of anything.
So, when we begin our practice in ethnography, we may think it is only we who are facing
these problems. And we may even doubt our own abilities to engage with people. But let me
say, it is not uncommon to face such challenges. It happens to researchers all the time.

Experienced ethnographers too, when starting work with a new community, may face
difficulties in gaining access.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:08)

Why do you think this is so? Let us discuss this in our next section
There are some common reasons for the difficulties we face in accessing our participants. Let
us discuss some of these and how they may affect our fieldwork.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:14)

It is possible that there are stark, social, cultural and economic differences between
researchers and participants. In such cases, the researcher can appear to the participant as
someone from a different world. Sometimes, researchers are economically better off than
their participants, or are more educated, or speak a language that participants do not
understand. These qualities, and the differences they create, can make the researcher seem
intimidating to the participant.
Research engagements may well take place in spite of these differences and the inequalities.

But they may not be the most comfortable and open of engagements. An awareness of social-
economic differences could cause hesitation or unease to the participant and the researcher. It

may therefore influence their behaviour and ours. The participants may either resent or feel
overwhelmed by our presence.
They may second guess the answers, or give us responses that they think will impress us. Or,
they may agree with us, simply to avoid confrontation. Or worse, they may just want to
antagonise us. In either case, we may not learn very much from them, or hear narratives and

thoughts that really matter to them.
Sometimes, the differences may not be social or economic in nature, but in the beliefs and
values that each of us holds. There may be ideological differences between our participants
and us on religious matters, social practices, or political leanings. In such cases, we need to
be careful about how we respond to their opinions, ideas and beliefs. We must also be
conscious of how we present ours. We need not lie to them and agree for the sake of an
agreeable engagement.
However, we must give them room to express themselves. We must listen to them and
understand where they may be coming from. This is more likely to help us learn from them,
than glossing over a contentious topic or judging them for their beliefs.Our participants'
behaviour towards us is almost always determined by their perception of us. When we are
new to the field, their perception is most easily defined by our appearance- our gender and
age, how we dress, how we speak and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:43)

(Refer Slide Time: 2:48)

All of these convey our social, economic and cultural position, which makes up our identity.
It is this perceived identity to which participants respond when initially interacting with us.
Depending on how they relate to our identity, they may reveal certain things to us and
conceal others. They may explain certain things, and also expect us to understand others
without explanation.
In short, the research engagements we have are determined to a large degree by how others
relate to us and our presence in their space. Let us take an example to understand this some
(Refer Slide Time: 3:31)

This example is from the work of the folklore scholar Hagar Salamon. Salamon is an Israeli
Jewish woman
(Refer Slide Time: 3:40)

She wanted to learn about embroidered Palestinian maps and their representation of
Palestinian territory before its occupation by Israel. Her research associates on the project
were two young Palestinian women. As part of her research, she and her associates
interviewed Palestinian women living in Jerusalem. When speaking to Salamon, her
participants often spoke about the pain of losing their homes and villages. They spoke about
their anger and the anguish of being rendered exiles in their own land.
In contrast, when speaking to the Palestinian researchers, the participants spoke of the
importance of a shared culture and history. And the necessity of keeping it alive through
practices such as the embroidering of maps. Let us reflect for a moment on Salamon's

(Refer Slide Time: 4:35)

In your opinion, what aspect of Salamon's identity were her participants responding to?
And why were their narratives so different for Salamon, and for her Palestinian research
associates? Many of you may have said that the participants were reacting to Salamon's
identity as an Israeli person. That is absolutely correct. But were there also other aspects of
her identity they may have been responding to? Some may have said that she was a woman
researcher. Others may have said she was a Jewish person. All of these are aspects of her
(Refer Slide Time: 5:13)

Every person has multiple identities. Salamon was a woman, an Israeli of Jewish descent, and
a researcher. And consciously, or otherwise, her participants were responding to each of these

aspects. Chances are, they may have spoken quite differently to an Israeli man or to an Israeli
soldier. This is also an assumption on our part. In responding differently to Salamon and her
research associates, her participants were responding to their nationalities.
They may have believed that it was important for an Israeli researcher, to learn about the pain
of displacement and exile faced by Palestinians. Whereas for the Palestinian researchers, they
may have assumed that they would obviously be aware of this narrative. So, to them, the
participants wanted to convey the importance of keeping the Palestinian culture alive. This
experience of Salamon raises another question for the practice of ethnography.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:19)

How can we try to access those aspects of our participants' lives, which are not revealed to us
because of our identity? And is our research, therefore invalidated by not knowing all
aspects? These are very valid questions and require some thought. The primary thing that
these questions point to is the subjective nature of ethnographic research. As we have
emphasised in earlier discussions, the same topic may reveal different things to different
researchers because of who they are.
This does not mean that one study is any more or less valid than another. However, it does
push us to consider how we may access different aspects of our participants' lives and various
phenomenas in their worlds.

(Refer Slide Time: 7:12)

One of our major sources of learning, then, is the experience and knowledge of others. And
so we refer to existing studies that have examined similar topics or contexts. Tapping into
different sources of knowledge or learning from the findings of others is also an important
way to check or triangulate our findings. We can use others' findings to rethink what we have
learnt from our interactions with participants.

(Refer Slide Time: 7:43)

We also learn from the knowledge of various participants who occupy different positions in
the community.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:47)

We often refer to these people as our key participants. This is a relationship that plays a
pivotal role in any research, and we shall soon discuss it in greater detail.There is another
way in which researchers try to access multiple aspects of the participants' world.

(Refer Slide Time: 8:08)

They do their fieldwork in teams made up of a diverse set of people. So, individual
researchers maybe let into different areas in the participants' world. For instance, studies that
are about healthcare, or the body, often employ a mix of male and female researchers. The
reasons are quite simple. Some participants are likely to feel more comfortable talking to men
about their health and bodies. And some, to women. So, in a diverse team, some researchers
may access some participants, based on things they share in common.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:01)

But let us return to our discussion on the challenges of engaging with the other, and gaining
their trust. So far, we have discussed that differences of various kinds between participants and
us can hamper the building of equal and open engagements. But sometimes, regardless of

differences and similarities, participants may feel unsure about the researchers' intentions.
Imagine if someone comes up to you wanting to know all about your life. You may wonder
why they are so interested in you. You may suspect their motives. Participants feel this way
(Refer Slide Time: 9:25)

They may wonder if we are informers! Or agents of the police, the government, perhaps an
NGO! Or they might think we are sympathisers who can bring them monetary support. They
may wonder why we are seeking information about them. And what are we going to do with
it? And what impact could it have on their lives? These are valid concerns. Often,
ethnographers have been strongly criticised for operating from a position of power.
So it is important that we examine our intentions thoroughly, to see if they are fair and
favourable to all. If we are sure that our research will not bring any harm to our participants,
we need to convey this to them.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:09)

Because as long as they cannot understand our intentions or rationalise our presence, they
cannot trust us. This lack of trust keeps them from being transparent and introspective in
conversations with us. And it can be quite frustrating when, in spite of all our efforts and
good intentions, we find our participants to be distant, polite, and mildly suspicious. So how
do we address their fears and doubts? Let us discuss this in our next section.
In our last section, we spoke about the nature of challenges we face in accessing our
participants and gaining their trust. Here, we shall discuss how we may overcome those
(Refer Slide Time: 0:18)

To begin with, we try to become a more familiar face to our participants, by being present and
spending time in their context. We spend time and hang around in their common spaces; we
have informal conversations with them about topics of general interest. In these ways, we
make ourselves familiar to them without being too familiar too soon or intimidating them in
any sense.
Only then, when they find our presence non-threatening, can we begin to establish a
comfortable relationship. This process of building trust takes time, effort.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:58)

While 'hanging around' and simply being present might not seem like very serious work, it
actually is an important part of immersing ourselves in the context. It is through spending
time in their common spaces that we become familiar faces in their worlds, learn about them
and give them a chance to learn about us. Sometimes we are helped in this endeavour by
particular members of the context.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:27)

Someone who is familiar with the context, someone who is a member of the community or
known to them can vouch for the researcher, and based on whose 'word' they might be
accepted in. These are people we refer to as key participants. Like we said earlier, we may not
take someone home when we have barely met them, but we may allow a complete stranger

into our house if they come with a friend who we trust.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:56)

A key participant can be thought of as the researcher's ally on the field. They help us by
answering our basic questions about the context, introducing us to some of its beliefs,
practices and mores. They introduce us to others in the field who are knowledgeable about
various subjects. They might also introduce us to particular settings or people in the context
which we may not be allowed to access on our own.
Key participants also help us interpret our observations, or bring an insider perspective to
our understanding of observed phenomena. They are often aware of the cultural and historical
background of phenomena that we observe, and bring this knowledge to our research.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:45)

There are, however, challenges that complicate this relationship between researchers and their
key participants. This relationship runs the risk of being 'instrumental' and unequal in nature.
The researcher needs the help of the participants for their work. However, participants do not
often stand to gain much from helping the researcher. And while researchers build
relationships of friendship and camaraderie, it can be argued that they do so, only to further
their own ends.
But many researchers, conscious of these possibilities, make an effort to develop equal and
mutually beneficial relationships with key participants. Some of the people I first got to know
in this capacity are friends today, and our friendship continues to grow long after the research
itself has ended.
Another challenge is that these participants themselves may have limited access to different
parts of the context. For instance, male participants might have little or no access to spaces
occupied exclusively by women. We need to be aware of and recognise the limited access of
individual participants in their own world, and refrain from relying on their views alone.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:06)

In entering the field, we sometimes encounter persons who hold a role of importance in that
community and can act as gatekeepers, enabling us, or keeping us from accessing certain
participants and certain parts of the context. The pradhan or the head of a village, the
principal of a school, the most popular person in a group of teenagers, any of these might act
as a gatekeeper.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:31)

M.N.Srinivas, a celebrated Indian ethnographer, encountered a gatekeeper in his research too.
In his early days of conducting ethnography in a village, he was hosted by an important
Brahmin of the village. This itself defined how others in the village saw Srinivas - as an
upper-caste man, not to be approached by lower caste people. His host would tell Srinivas
who to meet, what places to visit and so on, once, even chiding him for speaking to a lower

caste person. In this manner, he tried to direct Srinivas's interactions. Soon enough, Srinivas
felt the need to break away from his influence.
So, we can see, we gain the much-needed support but also encounter challenges in working
with informants and gatekeepers. They often play a crucial role in enabling access, but also
have their own limitations and biases, which may influence our on-field interactions.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:32)

We have a reading here, an essay by anthropologist James Laidlaw about the relationships he
built with his key participants. He writes that these relationships enriched his research and his
participants' understanding of their own context.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:48)

We recommend this as reading for those of you interested in further exploring the
relationships researchers build with their participants. And there is a quiz that you can take,
based on the essay.
Even as we gain familiarity and access to our participants, their doubts about us and our work
may persist. Gaining their trust involves putting these doubts and suspicions to rest.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:18)

For this, we need to present ourselves in a manner that clearly conveys our place in the
context and our reasons for being there. In other words, what is the role and purpose of our
presence in their world? We need to be clear about this, to ourselves, and to our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:38)

Lets speak about this role, and what it entails. What are the responsibilities and relationships
that it comes with? And how do we enact it? Some ethnographers recommend that as we
begin fieldwork, we take on 'the role of the professional researcher'. This means behaving
and conducting ourselves in such a manner that conveys professionalism, dedication and
competence towards the tasks of research.
We may convey such qualities by prioritising research-related activities. And by displaying a
keenness to learn about the other. Being 'professional' does not mean that we have to be all
serious and business-like.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:23)

It simply means we have to be committed to learning from our participants. At the same time,
it is important to maintain certain principles - like respecting the confidentiality and privacy
of our participants.Taking on such a role helps diffuse some concerns about our presence and
our intent.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:44)

So how do we enact this role? Our physical appearance and social behaviour are the most
basic aspects of our self-presentation. This includes how we dress, the language we use, our
manner of speaking, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:01)

The thumb rule is to dress simply, neatly. We should not stand out too much, but we need not
try to dress like our participants either. We are often outsiders anyway!

(Refer Slide Time: 2:14)

Knowing the language of our participants can be a great advantage. While working in Kutch,
I spoke to some artists in Sindhi, a language that one of the community was comfortable with.
This immediately got us off on the right foot. Why? Because it made interactions more
immediate and direct without someone mediating and interpreting.
Equally important is how we speak, the ways in which we address people, how we ask for
their time, and so on. Here, too, knowing the particularities of a culture is important. In some
communities in rural India, for example, interacting with someone over the phone, more than
in-person, can be seen as a sign of arrogance. As a participant in rural Bihar once told a
researcher, someone who wants to talk on the phone, without having an in-person meeting,
comes across as "too haughty".
On the other hand, in many urban communities, we would be expected to "call for an
appointment" before meeting in person. Just showing up for a meeting would be considered
rude even. Through our manner of engaging with participants and their context, we should be
able to demonstrate our interest in their world. This involves Being open and curious about
what we are being exposed to; asking questions about the phenomena that we encounter;
listening patiently and without judgement; and adapting to the climate, food, and ways of
living, to whatever degree possible.

(Refer Slide Time: 3:54)

Such actions represent our commitment to our research and our willingness to learn from
participants. This commitment gives participants a reason to trust us and to work with us.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:06)

Filmmakers-researchers Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar had such an experience while
making their film So Heddan So Hoddan, for which they lived among the pastoral
communities of Kutch. The team's commitment to their work and their subject translated into

their continued presence in an environment which was unfamiliar and perhaps not-all-that-
comfortable. The participants were not oblivious to the efforts of the team and responded by

working with the filmmakers, supporting them in their project.

This sequence from So Heddan, So Hoddan shows us that participants are just as observant
and curious about us as we are about them. As we learn about them, they learn about us and
formulate their analyses just as we do.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:24)

A moving example of this is to be seen in Judith and David MacDougall's film Lorang's Way.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:32)

The film is based among the Turkana people of Uganda. It speaks about the impending
changes to their ways of life, brought about by developments in Uganda, after the country's
independence from British rule. This narrative is told through conversations with Lorang, a
community elder. Having worked in the army and lived in many different places, Lorang

chose to return to the community. And over the years, through hard work and careful
planning, he established a large household and family and became the owner of several herds
of cattle.
In the sequence we are about to see, Lorang speaks to his son, a young man, about the
importance of maintaining their herds through hard work. In advising his son, Lorang speaks
of the changes occurring among the Turkana, and across Uganda. He speaks about the advent
of new forms of knowledge, such as literacy, and the conflict between literacy and traditional
forms of wisdom.
And into this conversation, he brings his understanding of 'white folk', people like the
filmmakers and researchers recording Lorang's conversation with his son.
(Short video is being played from 7:45 to 13:09)
Lorang develops a keen and complex understanding of his 'researchers', even as the
researchers are trying to develop an understanding of him and his community. This curiosity
that participants have about researchers and their research and takes varied forms.
Sometimes, as with Lorang, it is an analytical. Other times, it is a simpler kind of curiosity.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:35)

The film Kitchen Stories, directed by Bent Hamer, articulates this in the most accessible way.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:43)

By actively sharing about ourselves - who we are, where we come from, we address the
curiosity that our participants have about us. In doing so, we make ourselves more
comprehensible to them and enable them to trust us.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:00)

By sharing about ourselves, we also try to build a reciprocal relationship where they can learn
about us just we want to learn about them.In all these ways, we try to be more approachable
and invite dialogue. And in fact, most participants, even when they are questioning us, are
seeking a dialogue. The barrage of questions that the Kaavad makers posed to me was, in fact,
the opening of a dialogue.

By asking me all of these questions, they were giving me a chance to introduce myself and
my world to them, just as I was inviting them to tell me about theirs. These conversations and
engagements are prerequisites for building a relationship where the researcher and the
participant are comfortable with each other.