So I’m in the Upper Amazon basin doing ethnography. But just what is ethnography? The study of insects? Close. Ethnography is both what anthropologists do and the writing they produce.
The thing that makes anthropology unique is method: while surveys, archival research, and interviews are still employed, participant observation is what anthropology is all about. In participant observation, one arrives at one’s field site and proceeds to live there for extended amounts of time (months to years, often returning) to come to know something as close to peoples’ personal experiences as possible. Languages are learned, detailed notes are taken, and relationships are forged. Participant observation has two parts, as you cold probably assume: you participate in everyday life, but you are also observing and learning rather than passively slipping into a new life rhythm. Notes and notes and notes are taken.
So what kind of writing comes out of this? Ethnography is, on the whole, thick, detailed, and precise. Details are backed up from field notes (which are copious) documents, recordings, videos. To pick up a well-written ethnography is to be immersed in a rich new setting, while also being slipped critical information through the narrative which the author will call your attention to later.
Of course, there is not just one way to write ethnography. It needn’t even be written. One of the last courses I took was titled “Experimental Ethnography,” in which we explored currents of experimentation and creativity within ethnographic writers.
Anthropologists often turn out to be good fiction writers, and vice versa, because of ethnography: both the writing and the method. In my opinion, it is not only practice at representing people in the written word, but the process of coming to know people so closely in the first place, that makes this transition smooth.
This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month!