Ethnography, anthropology and appropriation:
reflections from within and beyond the discipline.

Paul Green

University of Melbourne

Abstract: Anthropologists have become increasingly critical of the ways in which ‘their’ ethnographic research method is being utilised and appropriated by a range of non-academic and academic practioners in Other disciplines. Based on experiences within and beyond anthropological corridors this paper questions the relevance of temporal boundaries in this debate and the extent to which such concerns deflect attention away from attempts within the  discipline to adapt to the challenges of conducting ethnographic research in urban fieldsites. Drawing on experiences of life and work in a science department I illustrate the extent to which ‘appropriation’ and subsequent imaginings of ‘Other’ research methods can inspire a form of intimate, person-centred ethnography and through this, provide an analytical basis to challenge the relevance of individual interview data and communal observations in contemporary anthropological field projects. 




In June 2008 I presented a version of this paper at a small conference organised by members of the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. The two-day gathering gave consideration to the ways in which ethnography, as a research method, was now being utilised by a range of practitioners in academic circles, market research companies, government departments and industry. The event was particularly well attended by anthropologists. This group included tenured academics, PhD candidates and lecturers on fixed-term contracts. There were also a significant number of participants trained in the discipline yet employed, through choice or compulsion, in other academic departments, the Ministry of Defence and business schools, for example. Several participants in the workshop, therefore, were in a position to discuss the contemporary and trans-disciplinary relevance of ethnographic fieldwork from a particular inside/outside perspective.

A striking feature of the conference, however, was the extent to which such people remained deeply committed to their disciplinary roots. Anthropologists in the audience more generally viewed ethnography as a core, if not unique, aspect of their disciplinary endeavour (Marcus and Okely 2007: 353). Ethnography, on these proprietary terms, was first and foremost defined through the importance given to intensive, long-term fieldwork. Drawing on unspoken genealogical links to Malinowski at LSE, an alpha anthropologist in the ranks spoke of the importance in anthropology of ‘ethnographic fundamentalism.’ This concept implicated time (ideally 18 months) as a key symbolic marker of authentic ethnography. It also served to communicate a more subtle point to a largely biased audience that only anthropologists (read: authentic fieldworkers) knew how to actually spend time in a time-intensive field. On these terms, therefore, time was appropriated to distinguish between real, pure or ‘authentic’ ethnography and the forms of drive-by, short-term or para-research methods (Holmes and Marcus 2006) now being supposedly (mis) used by non-anthropologists based in other disciplines and non-academic institutions.

Of course the distinction between authentic long-term fieldwork and contemporary ‘drive-by’ ethnography is somewhat misleading. Anthropologists may trace their methodological roots to Malinowski (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 11), arguing that ‘historical time’ underpins their claims to authenticity and time-intensive fieldwork. The use of ethnography by Others, however, is hardly a new phenomenon. There is a long-standing appreciation of long-term fieldwork in the sociology of education and the multi-disciplinary field of health care research, for example (Willis 2010: 557). Anthropologists in academic positions, meanwhile, face structural constraints in their attempts to embody the ‘unique time’ of their doctoral youth. Time-intensive fieldwork is increasingly viewed by funding bodies as unlikely to justify ‘value for money criteria’ (Jeffrey and Troman 2004: 535). As Marcus argues, it is also important to, ‘displace the mythos of fieldwork’ in anthropology and view ethnography as an incomplete and open-ended research process which on one level may be defined by fragmented periods of time and frequent revisits to one’s evolving field site/s (in Marcus and Okely 2007: 356).

In this paper I would like to draw on my experiences as a PhD candidate in anthropology and my subsequent involvement in an applied research project involving several colleagues, undergraduates and video diaries in a science department. Through this journey I aim, in important ways, to turn the debate about what constitutes ‘authentic’ and ‘para’ ethnography on its head. As I suggest here, there are significant challenges in the process of working with researchers who may have little experience of engaging with anthropology as a discipline and/or ethnography as a research method. Yet I argue that anthropologists can also learn from the ways in which such people draw on their disciplinarily filters and work practices to then construct imagined boundaries between ethnography and research methods relevant to their field. Through their eyes we can be reminded of distinctive strengths in ethnographic research that are not only or necessarily determined by a concept of ‘time’ spent in the field.

Indeed, whilst anthropologists may have valid concerns about the positioning of ethnography in a contemporary research economy I argue that a focus on temporality and external boundaries deflects attention away from the discipline’s ongoing attempts to adapt (or otherwise) to the challenges of conducting ethnographic fieldwork in contemporary social settings and fieldsites. The focus on the ‘timeless’ quality of the discipline’s core research method, I suggest, reifies the concept of ethnography and ensures that few, if any questions are asked, about what it is that anthropologists actually do in practice during their regulative 12 or 18 months in the field. Better, it seems, to engage with this normative understanding of time than question whether the various methods being employed during that time are of an appropriate, rigorous and intensive quality in and of themselves. As I suggest in the following section, the question of how and on what terms anthropologists conduct ethnographic fieldwork in practice is crucial, if we are to reflect on both the challenges of conducting fieldwork in large-scale urban settings and the broader implications of these challenges for understanding important links between method, theory and writing.


Fieldwork in Japan


My PhD focused on the lives of Brazilian nationals living in Japan. Many of these migrants are of Japanese descent and thanks to a revised immigration law established in 1990 are able to live and work in Japan (Tsuda 2003: 91). During my initial weeks of fieldwork I struggled to establish contact with such people. I would often stand on the balcony of my 11th floor apartment in Nagoya, observing the vast urban sprawl in view and wonder if I could recruit even a small number of participants to the project. Several, experienced researchers have similarly struggled in Japan to connect with busy, overworked migrants who have little time for themselves, let alone strangers involved in academia. Daniel Linger lived on a housing estate with 1,600 invisible Brazilians. “Brazilians lived there,” he notes, “but they were phantoms. On weekdays, and even Saturdays, everybody was working. On Sundays people shopped, or went on an excursion, or slept, or lounged around their apartment” (2001: 97). Lili Kawamura, a Brazilian Professor of Sociology, was unable to recruit a sufficient number of interviewees for her project. She resorted to conducting focus groups with migrants on Sundays in an international community centre (1999).

As Amit (2002) suggests, the challenge of conducting fieldwork in large-scale urban spaces feeds directly into the ways in which anthropologists theorise, conceptualise and write about their subject matter. With ethnographic subjects potentially scattered across given cities and/or nation-states anthropologists, she argues, have become increasingly adept in anchoring their research in the conceptual haven of a bounded group or concept of community. In fact, as Amit suggests, the anchor of collective identity plays a crucial role in delimiting and determining the location of a given transnational or urban fieldsite (Amit 2002: 3). The result is to disenfranchise people from the very social relationships that were at the heart of traditional understandings of culture-rooted communities. In, “stretching an old idea to accommodate new circumstances” (Amit 2002: 18) the category or label becomes superordinate to embodied experience (Kapferer 1995: 84). The conflation of category with social group ensures that ‘community’ is an imagined and observable ‘idea of sociality’ rather than an actualised social form (Amit 2002: 3). The notion of community becomes doused in symbolic rather than social meaning.

Studies of Brazilian nationals in Japan similarly focus on the importance of community and collective identity in the lives of their research participants (see for example: Carvalho 2003; Linger 2001; Roth 2002; Tsuda 2003; Yamanaka 1996, 2000). Community represents the primary agent of sociality in such studies and as such can explain why Brazilian nationals wish to settle in Japan (Roth 2002: 96). Evidence of community in such studies tends, however, to be based on the observation of public displays of samba dancing, festivals and a ‘community’ infrastructure of services and national consumption practices. The very presence of (Brazilian) flower shops, hairdressers and DVD stores, in other words, is evidence that such people, “have established communities over a very short period of time” (Carvalho 2003: 113). Visible evidence of such communities thus absolves researchers from engaging with the more challenging task of understanding how community may operate or otherwise in the context of social relationships and networks.  The lack of focus on social relationships also ensures that little attention is given to the potential relevance of kinship ties, which at best are viewed as the most important group within community (Tsuda 2003: 378).

This is not to suggest that anthropologists have not had access to household or people’s living spaces in Japan. Indeed, anthropologists may locate the boundaries of their urban fieldsite in a hazy, abstract concept of community (Amit 2002: 3). The linchpin of their field data, however, can be found in their encounters with individual interviewees. Many researchers in this research field have relied or chosen to rely on the use of semi-structure and/or open-ended interviews (see for example: Carvalho 2003; Kawamura 1999; Linger 2001; Tsuda 2003; Yamanaka 1996, 2000). The use of such methods is becoming increasingly common in urban field projects , to the extent that they may now be referred to as ‘ethnographic interviews’ (Baldassar 2007: 387).

The shift from talking about semi-structured to ethnographic interviews represents and reflects a change in anthropology’s research culture in which it becomes increasingly acceptable to build research projects around social encounters with ‘ethnographic interviewees.’ As Hammersley argues, “in recent times an increasing amount of work, selflabelled as ethnographic or as qualitative, has relied very heavily, or even entirely, on interviews” (2006: 9).

I question the extent to which anthropologists are able to establish an ‘and’ between ‘I’ and ‘they’ (Dumont 1992) when it becomes standard, particular with the use of snowball sampling, to meet relative strangers for 2 or 3 hours and never see them again. The anthropologist similarly gains little insight into the ways in which ‘they’ are embedded in, defined by and talked about in a network of intimate social and kin ties (Brubaker and Cooper 2000: 15). A further result of this process is that the anthropologist imposes a research agenda on participants that, beyond the “gatekeeping encounter” (Jenkins 1994: 213) of the interview, may be of little relevance in their everyday lives. Indeed, whilst researchers of Brazilian nationals in Japan have contributed significantly to understandings of migrant identity and community, there is a range of relevant literature based on studies in Brazil and beyond that questions the specific and universal applicability of such discourses and concepts (see for example: Brubaker and Cooper 2000; DaMatta 1991; Kapferer 1989; Margolis 1994).

The primary focus on individual and collective identities in such studies is significantly shaped and reinforced by specific approaches to ethnographic research. Whilst such anthropologists can confidently point to having spent a year or more in the field in Japan, there is a danger that such methods may offer less insight into issues, concerns and relationships at the heart of people’s everyday lives. It is important of course to reiterate and recognise the challenges and constraints facing researchers in such circumstances. I argue, however, that there is a need for anthropologists to consider ways of overcoming these challenges and a simultaneous over reliance on the use of interview data. Thanks to an initial use of friendship sites on the internet I overcame my early struggles. Spending time with the same informants, their friends and kin over several months or more facilitated important insights into the relevance of family and kinship in their lives, in ways that transcended any sense of belonging in a Brazilian community in Japan (Green 2008, 2010, 2011). Similarly, I learnt of the importance of culturally specific ideals of personhood and notions of sociality that did not conform to a universal framework of individual and collective identities. In short, my methodological approach inspired a fresh approach to and understanding of these everyday migrant experiences.

Ethnography and scientists

After completing my PhD I faced the daunting task of entering an employment market with few opportunities available in anthropology, particularly in the UK. As I mentioned above, there were a significant number of people with similar qualifications at the conference in Oxford who had chosen or were forced to seek employment under the guise of other disciplines. In my case and with the needs of a family to consider, I was fortunate to land a fixed term contract in a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) within a science department at a University in the UK. I was primarily employed to provide social science input to an increasing and varied range of research projects in the department. One of these projects, which had started some months before my arrival, focused on the experiences of 1st year undergraduate bioscience students. Initially 20 students were recruited to the project. They were provided with small, hand held video cameras and asked to submit a weekly video diary of approximately 10 minutes about their new life at University (and beyond).

            When I arrived in this post I was soon asked to lead this project and formulate a strategy to analyse the video diary data. The research team, all with science backgrounds, had understandably struggled in the process of interpreting and collate this data. I effectively had several months of data to ‘catch up’ on – with new diaries, some being 30-40 minutes in length, arriving each week. I was reminded of Heider’s pessimistic comments about ‘real salvage jobs’ in which ethnographically naive people bring cans of film to an anthropologist to see what can be done (2006: 113). In most cases, he argues, the footage is a total loss. The experience was a real learning curve for me on various levels. Most of my colleagues had little understanding of my specific training as an anthropologist and for the most part I was simply viewed as a ‘non-scientist’. Similarly, there was little understanding of just how much time was required to sift through, or rather play catch up, with hours of ethnographic film. As I suggest I was also involved in several other research projects and work duties.

As I started to sift through the video diary data, however, I soon realised that the supposed ethnographic naivety at play here was also a strength. During my time in the department several colleagues would reveal their own imaginings of the distinction between their research methods and those at the heart of the video diary project. Scientists, it was argued, did research in tightly controlled lab environments; in contrast the video diary project was envisioned and imagined as a symbolic opposite – as a metaphorically free flowing project based on a complete lackof control. Thus, when students were recruited to the project they were informed that they were free to focus on and discuss any aspect of their life at University and beyond. Whilst a small number of students may have benefited from some guidance these instructions facilitated a range of diverse but overlapping insights into the social spaces and relations at the heart of the students’ lives (Green et al 2009). Given the students a basis to make sense of the project on their terms led to the emergence of narratives and visual data in ways that may not have been possible if certain boundaries or notions of control had dominated the initial research agenda.

The project continued to evolve, challenging the general consensus of anthropologists at the conference in  Oxford in two important ways. Firstly, it is dangerously over simplistic to suggest that Other’ forms of ethnography represent a symbolic inversion of the supposedly authentic forms of time-intensive fieldwork carried out by anthropologists. At the start of the academic year in 2008, a second cohort of 1st year undergraduates had been recruited to the project. Some of the first cohort had dropped out of the project at this point but some remained committed and continued to submit video diaries about their social and student experiences until they left the University in 2010. The project, in other words, represents an example of ethnographic research that extends well beyond the general (one year) and elite (18 months) perception amongst anthropologists as to what constitutes an acceptable amount of time in the field. The irony is that this example may become part of a growing, institutional trend. Whilst funding bodies may question the utility and ‘value for money’ relevance of anthropologists spending significant periods of time in the field they may view similar applications submitted by academics in Other disciplines through a more contemporary and favourable lens of ‘multi-disciplinary innovation.’

Finally, the project challenged understandings of time and authenticity on a more subtle level. The incredible commitment of some students to the project was partly a reflection and result of the relationships that had developed between students and the research team over the course of more than two years. Building such relations over a significant period of time, I suggest, provided students with a platform to feel comfortable and candid in the sharing of their life on camera and ensure that they felt valued in terms of their contribution to the project. In some cases, this level of intimacy is being lost in attempts by anthropologists to impose a sense of control, in terms of their over-reliance on ‘individual’interview data and ‘communal’ observations,’ over their research projects. Establishing a sense of relatedness with research participants over a significant period of time in such field sites may prove extremely difficult at times but without this contact some anthropologists may have much to lose in the longer term and the post-field experience of making sense, through writing, of research methods, fieldwork and human experience.



My attendance at the conference in Oxford offered important insight into concerns within anthropology about the use and appropriation of ‘the’ ethnographic research method by researchers involved in Other disciplines and non-academic institutions. Whilst such concerns may be valid in some cases, there is a need to recognise aspects of social change within the discipline and consider how anthropologists are actually spending time and participating in life in contemporary fieldsites. Instead of focusing on the importance of time-intensive fieldwork in itself, anthropologists would benefit from recognising that a core and distinctive strength of the discipline lies in its ability to engage with and mutually construct a sense of intimacy with ‘they’ in the field. The video diary project, constructed on imaginings of ‘Other’ research methods, illustrates the extent to which ‘appropriation’ may facilitate important and intimate insights into the realities of everyday social experience in ways that are being compromised in the context of anthropological fieldwork in urban field sites. 


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