Discussion of what I perceive to be key weaknesses in classical approaches to cultural anthropology along with an ethnographic solution.
I’ll flesh out Informal Ethnographer as time goes on, but let’s get a few things out of the way, ASAP. Think of it as an FAQ (though no question has been asked).
It’s a copy of a page I posted today. That page will probably change.
My name’s Alexandre Enkerli but you can call me “Alex.” You can find out more about me on my main blog, especially in the About section of that blog. You can also search for “Enkerli” just about anywhere online. My last name is quite rare and, with very few exceptions, any content with that name has to do with me.
For the past little while, I’ve been defining myself as a semi-nomadic French-speaking ethnographer from Montreal.
I’m also into:
- Coffee I roast coffee beans at home and I’ve served as a judge at barista championships
- Beer I homebrew and I consider myself a beer geek
- Music I’m a sax player and I’ve been working on music for a while
- Social Media I’ve been online for a while and I usually participate in every social media activity I can think of.
Well, yeah… Professionally and academically, it’s probably the best title I can find. So I stick to it.
One reason I like the term “ethnographer” so much is that it brings together most things I’ve been doing.
I’m an anthropologist specialized in linguistic, cultural, musical, symbolic, and social dimensions of the field. All these specializations can be described as “ethnographic.” I also teach a number of things: linguistic anthropology, cultural anthropology, ethnomusicology, symbolic anthropology, sociology, folkloristics, African studies, the anthropology of religion, and material culture. With all of these, I use an ethnographic approach. So, I feel pretty comfortable calling myself an “ethnographer.” I do ethnography, I teach it, and I think about it in different contexts.
Something I like about “ethnographer” instead of “anthropologist” is that it’s both more precise and less restrictive. I hold two degrees in anthropology (bachelor’s and master’s, both from Université de Montréal), but I’ve worked outside of anthropology. At the same time, I don’t do much that has to do with archæology or human biology, which are important dimensions of anthropology as an academic discipline in North American.
What’s very cool about the term “ethnographer” in my case is that it’s now my official title. I started signing contracts in which I’m described as a “freelance ethnographer.” I think it’s very fitting.
Besides, some people think that calling yourself an “anthropologist” is presumptuous since they see anthropology as something floating above the work we do. It’d be like a physicist calling herself a “philosopher” because she has a “Ph.D.” or a hospital attendant calling himself a “health specialist” because his work has to do with health. I don’t necessarily agree with that view, and “anthropologist” is used by most people who have at least a graduate degree in anthropology. But it’s interesting to think about.
From experience, I could also say that “anthropologist” is often more confusing than anything else. If I don’t get a blank look when I mention “anthropology,” I get cautious: people who think they know what anthropology is often mistake it for something else. It’s actually a big problem.
With “ethnographer,” I get more blank looks, which is actually a good thing because it allows me to define what I do.
Which brings me to the obvious question:
Ah-ha! Excellent question! Glad you asked.
One purpose of this site is to clear up some possible confusion about ethnography.
As is often the case with just about any term, “ethnography” has different meanings for different people. At the same time, there’s enough in common in different definitions that, sometimes, the distinctions aren’t so clear.
Here’s my own working definition (drumroll…):
Ethnography is a descriptive approach to cultural diversity.
Taking this definition apart:
- Approach This is probably where my definition is the furthest from usual definitions. Instead of saying that ethnography is a research method or a set of research methods. I say it’s an “approach” because it really is a way to “get closer to” a specific subject. “Approach” is one of those terms I like to use because it’s meaningful, complex, and clear all at the same time.
- Descriptive We don’t necessarily try to predict, try out, compare, experiment with, transform, explain the cause of, or sell our subject. We just try to say how things seem to be. Sure, it can be a step in a given direction, and that’s where ethnography is understood as method. But we still focus on describing. That’s where the “-graph-” part comes in.
- Diversity We don’t just have a clear-cut object that we take apart, dissect, simplify. We have a whole field of subtle differences. Our subject isn’t monolithic, static, or countable. It’s more about nuances and fluidity.
- Cultural This is probably the most complicated part and it’s our core object: culture. We come from (and frequently refer to) the nature/nurture debate, we’re on the side of nurture. Not that we think nature doesn’t count. Just that we focus on the other side.
A number of things, actually.
One thing which might be kinda clear, by this point, is that I’m not very formal in the way I write, here. Sure, it probably doesn’t sound as informal as if we were having a conversation in a café or a pub. But it’s a far cry from a peer-reviewed academic journal, a report for a major corporation, or even an article in a mainstream newspaper. I’ve been using a more informal style because it fits. At the same time, I’m not trying to do anything too “cute” or fake. I’m just writing in a way that makes sense to me.
Which has a lot to do with the kind of guy I am. I don’t think I’m fussy or stuffy about pretty much anything. I like to be casual in just about everything I do. This site is a part of that: I want to be myself.
Besides, this site is meant as social media and social media stuff is usually pretty informal. There are some people who complain but the way normal people (as opposed to, say, news organizations) write things online can be found in different styles, from l33tspeak to lolspeak. I probably won’t use IMspeak here, but that’s mostly because I don’t do much IM.
This site is also informal in that it’s not supposed to be academic. I have formal training in academic disciplines and I’ve been teaching in a number of universities, but this isn’t a university site. It’s my own personal site about something I love.
Moreover, I’m not doing any formal research that I will make public, here. Ethnographic projects in which I may be involved are in the background, but I don’t wish to talk about them on this site, partly because it can get tricky in terms of confidentiality. There are ways to solve these issues, but I don’t feel like dealing with those issues too directly.
In other words, this site and any of its content aren’t meant to be reliable, valid, vetted, or even that serious.
So far, not much. I’m in the process of adding more stuff on here and I want to keep this site dynamic. But apart from this page, there’s not a lot of content on this site so far.
Still, I want Informal Ethnographer to have a few things:
- Blog I’ve created a blog through WordPress.com and I plan on posting a few things on it, on occasion. I call it Headnotes: The Informal Ethnographer Blog (or HIEB for short).
- Podcast Through that blog, I’ll host an audio podcast, with monthly episodes on different themes. I call it Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast (or RIEP for short).
- Pages Apart from the blog and podcast, this site is built through Google Apps. Like anything found in the left-hand “Navigation” section (such as the Acronyms page), the page you’re reading is built in Google Sites, “a free and easy way to create and share webpages.” I want to use it to post some content related to ethnography and I already have a number of ideas of what could be added.
- Gadgets Still through Google Apps, I’m getting a few neat tools, some of which could be put to good use on a site about ethnography. No big promises here, but I can already see a few cool uses for these tools.
Actually, yes, you can. The tools I use allow for collaborative work and I can already imagine myself having podcast cohosts, podcast guests, and guest writers. If you’re interested in contributing, contact me.