Module 1: Understanding the Challenges of Ethnography

Study Reminders
Text Version

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday




























So far, we have been discussing how we may gain our participants' trust. In this section, I
would like to emphasise the limits of access. Like all other aspects of ethnographic practice,
the process of gaining access and building relationships is fluid and ever-evolving. The
degree of access we are given could change from one conversation to the other, or from one
day to the next.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:33)

Once, while visiting a traditional bakery in Goa, I had a great conversation with the owner. I
wanted to document the process of pao making in the traditional oven, and he seemed very
welcoming towards the idea. But when I returned the next day, he seemed to have changed
his mind. He was cordial with me, but far from warm, and his excitement for my project had
vanished. I was really taken aback and did not understand this sudden shift in his behaviour.
I learnt later from another informant that I had made the mistake of not paying any attention
to the other workers at the bakery. Apparently, this led them to mistrust me and share their
mistrust with the owner. As he was employed in a government job, he was told to be cautious
of me as I could be there to check if he was moonlighting. I then realised that I had assumed
it was enough to get permission from the owner. And further, I had not given enough time for
all the other people working at the bakery to trust me.

They were obviously watching out for him because I was just this stranger who turned up one
day with so many questions that made them suspicious. Sometimes, it may happen, that
people agree to talk to us, and then, for reasons of their own are unable, or unwilling to. We
might turn up, with team and equipment, at the house of a participant, who had promised to
speak to us. And learn that he had to go out of town for some urgent work.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:10)

This is not an uncommon feature of fieldwork. It may be important for our project that we
speak to our participants. But for them, talking to us may be less important than many other
tasks and commitments in their lives. The uncertainties of fieldwork often arise from this
difference in priorities. As we attempt to gain people's trust, there are multiple challenges we
may face.
These challenges are not always barriers. They are, in their own way, engagements; some
difficult and some confusing ones. In trying to make sense of these, we learn about the norms
and the sociality of our participants. We also learn what we could be doing differently.
Sometimes finding a different route or an innovative way helps. Here's an example:

(Refer Slide Time: 3:02)

Stephen Moore, an American sociologist, wanted to study youth culture among a group of
youngsters who 'hung around' street corners in a mid-western American town. He was
conscious of the considerable age gap between the young people and himself. He realised that
they may not be very comfortable and candid with him. Nor would he be able to engage in
some of their activities. So, he put together a team of young researchers who could conduct
the fieldwork on his behalf.
Sometimes, researchers use tools and devices in unique ways to build familiarity with
participants. Some ethnographers use photography, offering to take pictures of participants
and giving them copies of their photos. Others use drawing in a similar way. These
techniques have their advantages. They put the participants at ease with the researcher. And,
they help the researcher learn about the participants.

(Refer Slide Time: 4:01)

We find a great example of this in the work of visual ethnographer Sarah Pink. Pink has done
much of her fieldwork in Spain, where she used photography as a way of getting to know her
(Refer Slide Time: 4:15)

She says: "Much of my fieldwork in Cordoba in southern Spain was at social events, festivities, and
celebration, but it was difficult for my informants to comprehend what I was doing as work. Thus, I
frequently took ethnographic photographs while socialising. For me, these photographs are
ethnographic because I was interested in people's visual self-representation. And I usually
photographed informants on their request."

Pink was interested in how people like to represent themselves. As her participants requested
her to take pictures of them, she learned about how people wanted to be seen and represented
(Refer Slide Time: 4:54)

Their instructions to her on how to photograph them, and the photographs themselves,
became important ethnographic records. And for her participants, these photographs became
precious memories. The process of taking the pictures and sharing them helped Pink build
comfort and familiarity with her participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:24)

Important as it is for us to gain access to participants, it is just as important to know our
boundaries. Access for our research should not come at the cost of their comfort. Sometimes

people simply do not want to let us in, with or without rational reasons, just like sometimes,
we do not want to have certain conversations or meet with certain people. We need to
understand and respect this.
The process that we have been discussing so far, of building relationships with participants is
an important aspect of fieldwork. It is sometimes referred to as 'building rapport'. It is a
crucial part of immersion, which is what we will discuss in our next section.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:04)

For those of you who want to explore this process some more, we have some readings for
you. And a quiz to help you reflect and revise.
In our last section, we discussed what role we might play in the world of our participants.
While we discussed taking on the role of the professional researcher, one need not stick to
that throughout fieldwork. Sometimes by just being a researcher, we serve little purpose in
the lives of our participants and their community. Thus, researchers often choose to engage in
a manner that is mutually rewarding. It contributes to their research and to the lives of their
(Refer Slide Time: 0:35)

A great example of this is the work of Verrier Elwin, a well-known ethnographer who spent
much part of his life working with tribal communities in central India. Elwin started work
among his participant communities as a researcher.

(Refer Slide Time: 0:50)

As his relationship with his participants and his understanding of their world developed, he
realised it was important to safeguard their ways of life from non-tribal communities. For
this, he came to believe; they required education and literacy.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:07)

And so, he took the initiative of literacy programs for the Gonds. His role shifted from being
just a researcher, to being a researcher and an educator among his participants. Taking on
such a role enabled him to become a part of the community and contribute to their lives. This
form of engagement made his work non-transactional and mutually beneficial. It is important
to note that the shift in Elwin's role among the Gonds was not something he could have
accomplished without the acceptance and cooperation of his participants.

We could say that his role as educator and researcher was co-created by him and his
participants. In fact, this may be true for any role that we take on in the field. Whether it is the
role of a professional researcher, collaborator, educator, or any other,
(Refer Slide Time: 2:03)

our on-field role is defined by us, our participants, and the circumstances in which we engage
with each other.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:12)

Take for instance, the case of Laura Ring, whose work we had discussed in our last module.
She entered the community of apartment dwellers in Karachi as a researcher. The women
residents of the building who were her participants were aware of her role. But as she spent

time living in the building, they started to see her more and more as a neighbour, and as a
mother, and a wife, much like themselves.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:46)

The role assigned to her became that of neighbour, friend, fellow woman, who happened to
be doing research on life in the building.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:49)

Whatever role we take on, or are assigned to by our participants, the intention is to be a part
of the community, to immerse ourselves in the context.

(Refer Slide Time: 2:59)

To immerse ourself in the context means to become a member of our participant community.
It is to absorb and inculcate behaviours that are common in the community, by spending a
considerable period of time in their environment. To immerse ourselves in the context means
to be an insider as well as an outsider in the community. It means to be familiar with the
phenomena that occur in the context and to look at them afresh so as to analyse them. In
immersing ourselves, we participate in the context but also step back and observe it, as
though from a slight distance.
This dual nature of immersion is core to ethnography. It is the tension between these dualities
that makes ethnography a particularly interesting and unique method of research.

As you know from our previous discussions, immersion is given great emphasis in
ethnographic practice. This importance is based on the belief that by spending time and living
as our participants do, we understand them at a deeper level. Through immersion in their
culture and society, we learn their interactions, relationships and behaviours. And we learn
the structures and beliefs that shape these. So how do we immerse ourselves in this manner?

(Refer Slide Time: 5:01)

There is no fixed or prescribed way to do this. But broadly speaking, and for the sake of
explanation, we can say that there are at least three different 'degrees of immersion'.So there
is Complete membership, active membership and the peripheral membership. A complete
membership means a total immersion in the other's culture, where we participate in all the
activities of the community, just as any other member would. We are accepted as part of the
community. We relate to our participants as equals and share in their activities and
experiences. This also makes us subject to the social and cultural norms of the context. Let us
reflect on this for a moment.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:41)

Recollect the two example of immersion we have just discussed. Verrier Elwin's work with

the Gonds, and Laura Ring's work in an apartment building in Karachi. Which one of these is
an example of complete membership? Some of you may have identified Verrier Elwin's work
with the Gonds as a classic example of complete membership. You are so right. Elwin's work
qualifies as complete membership because he spent several years of his life living in a Gond
village, building a house and starting a family among the community.
Others may have said Laura Ring's work is an example of complete membership. This, too, is
correct. Even though she did not spend many years in the context, during the period of her
research, she participated as an equal member in the life of the apartment building. And she
was a member of her participants' lives as a neighbour and a friend. Thus, for a limited
duration of time, she had complete membership in the community. So both Elwin and Ring
are examples of complete membership.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:54)

An active membership is only slightly less involved than a complete membership. Here too,
the researcher is considered a part of the community but is not involved in all activities. My
work with the Kaavad makers and storytellers is an example of active membership. I spent
time with them and learning from them, but did not become a Kaavad maker or learn the art
of Kaavad performance from them. I was a welcome and frequent visitor, living in their
surroundings for short stretches of time, participating in their rituals and performances.
However, my engagement with them was limited to activities that related to Kaavad making
and Kaavad performance alone, which was only one part of their lives.The third position one
could take is that of peripheral membership, which, as the name suggests, is marginal

involvement, where the researcher, though welcome, is more an observer than a participant
(Refer Slide Time: 7:54)

An example of this is my work with the embroidery artists in Kutch where I visited them
every day for the duration of the project, got to know them, their narratives and their art
intimately, but did not attempt in any way to situate myself in their daily lives or their
community.The nature and degree of immersion is also defined by the kind of time we spend
in the field. This is dependent on the phenomenon we are studying.
Some subjects may require us to spend a continuous stretch of time, ranging from a few
months to a year, in close proximity with our participants. This would be the case if we were
studying phenomena related to everyday life.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:37)

This could include studies on the daily activities of persons. Or studies about relationships
and identities, which manifest in everyday behaviours and interactions. Laura Ring's work in
Karachi is an example of that.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:53)

We also need to spend considerable time in the context if we are studying phenomena that
last for a long time. Say, if we were studying the life of a farming community, we would want
to understand their lives across at least one cycle of different agricultural seasons. Or if we
were studying the life of a school or its students, we would want to go across an academic
cycle or at least a semester from beginning to end.

Studying such phenomena requires us to have an overview of our participants' lives over a
particular time cycle. But not all studies require such extended engagement.(Refer Slide
Time: 9:31)

Can you think of two examples, of phenomena that we could study, which would require us
to be present in the context only for a limited period of time? Did you think of phenomena
like rituals, performances and festivals? Yes, of course, these require us to be present for a
limited period.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:52)

For example, the Kumbh Mela, or a wedding, or a film shoot. In these kinds of studies, we
can be present for a period just before the event, then during the event, and a period after

when it is over. We may not need to spend an entire year in Allahabad, but we need to be
there when its preparation begins, and its aftermath once the Mela is over.
Now suppose we want to just study the process of art direction in filmmaking. Then does it
make sense to being present for the phases of post-production where no art direction activities
are taking place? It may not contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon, right?
However, being present after an event has ended where rituals were performed, or a festival
took place could add or bring new knowledge.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:50)

Whatever intensity and duration of our engagement, ethnographic encounters are always a
blend of distant observation and intimate participation. This mix informs our primary way of
learning. In our next module, we will discuss how the tension between the processes of
observation and participation, helps us learn from our participants.Before we move on to participating and observing, we would like to deliberate a question we
had touched upon earlier in our discussion. As we engage with our participants, we are often
faced with several dilemmas.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:24)

These may be about the nature of our relationship with them, the intent behind our
engagements, the ways in which we engage, and the impact of our work on them.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:33)

Are we building these relationships only for the sake of our research? Are these relationships
professional or personal? Are they instrumental or mutually rewarding? And what do
participants gain from contributing their knowledge and narratives to our projects? Often, as
we go about our fieldwork, we encounter questions and situations that push us to consider the
implications of our work.
In pondering these questions, we reflect on our own practice and the ethics of our research. In
ethnographic interactions, it is common for us to ask people to reveal their narratives, desires
and opinions. This is perhaps the most basic way in which we learn from them. But
sometimes, such a sharing unexpectedly triggers intense emotions and memories. This can
make a participant feel very vulnerable.
And to speak about something deeply personal to a someone who is 'researching' your
context makes the situation a little worse. This is where disclosure or sharing on the part of
the researcher plays an important role.

(Refer Slide Time: 01:50)

By sharing our narratives with our participants, we make ourselves vulnerable to them. And
thus try to create a relationship that is more equal and an environment of sharing that feels
secure. Sometimes it is participants who do the questioning, putting ethnographers in an
uncomfortable spot.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:14)

Let us take an example here, from the work of ethnographers Fran and Jasper Ingersoll. The
Ingersoll's' fieldwork was based in a village in Thailand. Their research was about the ways in
which life had changed in the village as modern infrastructure and government policies had
entered people's lives. Often, their questions were about the material conditions of people's
lives, their social and economic situations, changes in income, and so on. And as Americans

in a developing country, they too, were subject to much questioning. They were often asked
questions about how much money they make.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:55)

Often these questions were concerning money. How much money do you make? How much does it
cost to go to America? How much did this that thing cost? As you might imagine, the persistence of
these questions felt uncomfortable at first, but they also presented a dilemma. Can we avoid
answering questions that we ourselves ask of our participants? Does that not make our relationship
with them unequal? The Ingersoll had to make the decision of engaging with or ignoring these
questions; they decided to reflect on them.

(Refer Slide Time: 03:36)

Reflecting on those questions sensitised us to how they looked at us, and how this differed from the
way we looked at ourselves. This act of reflection helped them gain insight into how their participants
understood material wealth and economic prosperity. They were also able to see how they were
perceived by their participants. Often in our engagements, we face the dilemma of how much to
disclose about ourselves to our participants.
The Ingersoll's' decision to share and learn from their participants' curiosity helped their
research. We learn from them that critically reflecting on our research engagements and their
impact can reveal knowledge about the participants' worlds and about our practice of

(Refer Slide Time: 04:27)

Practising self-reflexivity contributes to the ethics rigour in research. But the decision to
share our narratives and opinions with our participants must be considered carefully. If it
makes us feel uncomfortable even after considering the value of sharing, it might be best to
refrain from sharing.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:53)

Similarly, we must consider the comfort of our participants as we ask them to share their
narratives. This often depends on the nature of our relationship with them, and on the subject,
we are discussing. If we expect to be discussing something that people usually don't talk
about, then we must be all the more careful in approaching it. And if it makes our participants
feel too uncomfortable or vulnerable, it is better to just drop it. Sharing and disclosing can

have very tangible impacts on the lives of our participants. Especially, considering that we
might hope to publish our research or make it public in some way or the other.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:34)

Publishing our research makes the personal opinions and narratives of our participants open
to public scrutiny. And so, in some cases, it becomes important to protect the identities of our
participants, particularly when we are working with communities who are considered
vulnerable, like sex workers, or Dalit landless workers.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:01)

So researchers follow procedures such as taking informed consent from participants or
anonymising them in their writings. This also impacts the methods through which we engage
with them.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:15)

. For instance, if participants want anonymity, we should not take photographs of them. We
should use pseudonyms instead of their actual names. And we should not disclose any
specific details such as phone number, addresses, place of work, and so on. Ethical conduct
also includes a consideration of how we respond to our participants' narratives.

Should we take whatever they choose to share with us? Or should we probe further? And
what happens when we disagree with something our participants share with us, whether it is
fact or opinion? In such a situation, should we correct them, or present our ideas? Think
about this for a bit.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:57)

Imagine you are conducting an ethnographic interview.
Your participant has stated her opinion about an observation you had made. What would
you do next?
Would you take their opinion at face value and move on to the next question?
Or would you present your disagreement, and discuss why you disagree with them.

(Refer Slide Time: 07:20)

So, which option did you choose? To those who chose option a), to simply accept an answer
that we think is incorrect or which we do not agree with might be patronising. On the other
hand, for those of you who chose option b., to probe further, or to present counter facts might
be seen as disrespectful. It could put off the participant and impact our future interaction with
them. A bit of a dilemma, isn't it? How to choose one or the other?
(Refer Slide Time: 07:57)

Let us take another example here. From the work of Alessandro Portelli, a researcher and oral
historian. Portelli was researching the history of workers' movement in Italy. For his research,
he was interviewing multiple workers who had been involved in the movement, asking them
to remember particular moments from their history of protest. In any of the accounts he

heard, one incident featured prominently.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:25)

This was the death of Luigi Trastulli, a 21-year-old worker, in the city of Terni. Trastulli had
been killed in a scuffle between protestors and police, during a protest by workers. However,
the persons who recounted the incident placed it in different years, and indifferent protests.
Some said he was killed in a protest opposing Italy's involvement in NATO, in 1949.
Many others said he was killed in protests against mass lay-offs of factory workers in Terni. One
worker, Amerigo Matthew described a huge protest that followed the lay-offs of 2700 workers from a
steel factory in Terni in October 1953. And it is here that he placed Trastulli's death.

(Refer Slide Time: 09:23)

When the workers walked out of the factory, they came out in groups because the jeeps were
lined up outside. Viale Brin, you know Viale Brin what it looks like? From the Valnerina gate
on up. It was all a storming of jeeps, cops carrying clubs. Anyway, I came out the way
workers do.
Exasperated with worry about losing their jobs, but somehow disciplined, thinking they were
going to a rally. Everyone worker thought he was going to a rally, to hear a speech in the
square about what was going on, to make public opinion aware of what was going on.
Instead, things turned out different, out came one group, then two groups, then three groups,
at a certain moment there was gunfire. Gunfire, while this poor guy was walking out 21 year
old kid, he was mowed down by a volley that left a streak all across the wall.
His description of the event is a faithful one. However, this was not the event at which Trustalli was
killed; he had been killed at the anti-NATO protests in 1949. So how was Portelli to work with
information which he knew was incorrect

(Refer Slide Time: 11:00)

? He could have given up on his participants as misremembering the event and moved on to other
parts of his research, but he decided instead to explore these Mis-rememberings. Through his
explorations, he came to understand that many of his participants were deeply affected by the mass
lay-offs that took place, and that many workers and the workers' movement had been shocked by
Trustlli's death. In an attempt to make sense of these two events to come to terms with them, many of
his participants were linking the two.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:27)

Trustulli's death was such a dramatic shock that it created a need for adequate circumstances, causes
and consequences. It was difficult to accept it as an accident which occurred during a minor scuffle in
a routine political protest. Since the firing of nearly 3000 workers in 1952-53 is the most important
dramatic event in the town's working-class history and in the personal lives of literally thousands of
It is only appropriate that most tragic episode should find its place in this context. It also makes sense
that if a worker is killed, this ought to be when there is widespread fighting going on.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:15)

For Portelli, the accuracy of his participants accounts was not of primary importance. He was
interested in learning the meanings embedded in their narratives. Like the Ingersoll Portelli
lays out an important lesson for us in engaging with our participants, our responsibilities
extend much beyond building a relationship of trust, or protecting their identity.
Ethical conduct includes respecting what is shared with us. It extends to the ways in which
we interact with them, learn from them, and make sense of what is shared with us. And so we
need to practice self-reflexivity in every aspect of our engagement with participants.