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Ethnosense: A “young ethnographers” project

27 May, 2011

I’m delighted to have just become aware of a relatively new blogging project that a group of “young ethnographers” have set up. At least one of these is a former student of the MAA program, Carlos Palacios, who is now doing his PhD at Macquarie Uni’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion (CRSI).

The project is called “Ethnosense” and seems to be a group of students who have experienced working in cross-cultural settings. They don’t all necessarily seem to be anthropology students, but they share an enthusiasm for the power of ethnography, and fieldwork-like experiences more generally, to a new appreciation of difference. With a sort of evangelical enthusiasm their blog sets out to convey to the uninitiated the possibilities of doing ethnography, the insights it provides as well as some of the pitfalls. As the title of the blog suggests, the key is not learning a methodology by rote, but developing a particular sensibility to cultural difference.

An ethno-sense is something that you cannot develop in a quick trip to a developing country or in a short course of intercultural communication. It’s an integral understanding of why people do what they do in a certain way and not in other – especially when it’s not done in our way – an understanding that is most of the times either unspoken, hidden or encoded across multiple layers of cultural meaning and social life. Languages, customs, rituals and manners all belong to a cultural code that is hard to penetrate and that takes time to learn.

So, you must be thinking, “ethnographic sounds complicated”, and to a certain degree it is. Not everyone has an ethno-sense.  An ethno-sense is more than understanding another culture, it’s also understanding that one’s common sense is part of a culture, as strange and particular as any other. But it is still possible for anyone to develop such a sensibility. Currently, many people are in fact doing that through different cross-cultural programs of international aid, development tourism, volunteering abroad, educational tours, etc. And even if you have not gone through any of this sort of programs, but you have been able to reflect critically about what is considered to be “normal” among your peers, if you have thought at some point that your own customs, routines, beliefs and even values are somewhat peculiar or even exotic, in other words, if you have been able to defamiliarize your own culture, then, you have for sure started to develop an ethno-sense.

Most of the posts seem to be written from the perspective of personal experience, reflections on the process of cultural immersion and disengagement and so on. As a method of both working through their own experiences and giving readers a “sense” of what it is to do anthropology, I think it’s a really great project.

One small gripe that I have with the project is that the posters generally make use of their online tags or pseudonyms rather than being up front about who they are. Maybe they’re taking a leaf out of Third Tone Devil or Ali Adolf Wu’s book, but I would really like to see them using their real IDs. They’re writing good, interesting stuff there and should be proud to put their real names to it. Just saying.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 May, 2011 12:38 pm

    First, great blog. I’m looking forward to following your posts.

    This sounds like a great project. This Fall I’m a teaching assistant for an introductory course on ethnography at Claremont Graduate University. I’ll definitely pass this link onto the students.

  2. 28 May, 2011 6:18 pm

    Thanks very much rh. I agree it would be a terrific resource to get students switched on to anthropology.

  3. Amulya Mandava permalink
    15 June, 2011 11:35 am

    Checked this out based on the recommendation and was extremely disappointed.

    Carlos Palacios’s descriptions under the main headers of the blog are promising, and well-directed towards a new reader who is unfamiliar with, as Carlos puts it, what it means to have an “ethnosense” and “defamiliarize” one’s own culture. I’ll grant that some posts are interesting in that they allow the reader to follow how the students are awakening to a sense of of cultural difference and trying to make meaning out of international volunteering experiences and the greater project of intl development. However, in working through these issues, several students wrote posts that amounted to uncritical reflections about culture, often reductionist and stereotyped. A few examples from the first few pages that speak for themselves:

    “To me Australia seemed materialistic, unfriendly, selfish, racist and above all, had completely lost sight of what was important. In developing countries people have nothing but life is always centred around family, friends and community [...] In Cambodia people don’t have genre identities to cling too.”

    ” The reason why I emphasise maiden is because I had seen the decay of promiscuity in Swaziland. A friend once said to me, “when living in the rural areas there’s nothing to do but have sex, there are no community activities, no sports, no tv etc, what else do you do for fun?” ”

    ” If police cannot solve a crime, they commonly resort to witch doctors to provide mutti (mixture of herbs etc) used to ‘help’ the case! Talk about backwards! ”

    **
    Everyone is entitled to his own personal narrative, and it’s great that students have a place to freely reflect on their experiences.

    But it’s unclear to me why this warrants the label of “ethnographic” and not simply “young volunteers’ personal narrative travel blog”. It is certainly terrifying that Ethnosense is being touted here as giving readers “a sense of what it is to do anthropology”. The blog is by students who seem to be just beginning to develop an “ethnosense”, and it’s a place for them to work out their experiences, but that doesn’t make it very productive for a reader unfamiliar with anthropology (or familiar with anthro, for that matter!)–the posts demonstrate only the beginnings of critical thinking regarding culture, and often still fall into stereotyping east/west, developing/developed, white/brown, rich/poor, backwards/modern, etc.

    I’d be worried if a student who was new to anthropology received this as her first introduction to what’s possible. There are so many other great blogs and ethnographies out there! Again–it seems that this is a project to give young people doing volunteer work in developing countries a chance to reflect on their experiences with other cultures and their own culture. It should be represented as such. I’m disappointed that it’s instead being represented as exemplary of young ethnographic engagement and recommended as a good teaching resource for potential anthropologists/ethnographers.

  4. 29 June, 2011 7:34 pm

    Amulya, thank you for taking the time to write your comments and I’m sorry that I haven’t replied sooner. On reflection, I have to admit that your criticisms of my post are perfectly justified. Although I made some qualifications in my post — e.g. mentioning that not all students were doing anthropology and putting “young ethnographers” in quotes — my statement that Ethnosense provides “a sense of what it is to do anthropology” is admittedly a poor choice of words. Perhaps a more accurate way of expressing what I was trying to say would be that the blog gives a sense of how encounters with difference can provoke new sensibilities and insights, something which is an aspect of doing anthropology, but not capital-A Anthropology as such.

    What appealed to me about the project was more the sense of a freshly acquired, emergent appreciation of difference that was evident in many of the posts rather than the sophistication of the statements that the students were making. You’re right that the statements you quoted above are stereotyping and essentialising, and I have to admit that I cringed reading them. But I also think that it is important to acknowledge that this is the place from which a lot of the most enthusiastic students of anthropology come into the discipline. I don’t think this place should be denigrated so much as treated as a starting point. I know from my own experience and that of many of my friends that an initial interest in anthropology was founded in some pretty exoticising notions. It was through the practice of studying and doing anthropology that I developed a more nuanced sense of difference and its paradoxes. This is a slow, incremental process (and admittedly it is still ongoing for me and probably always will be).

    As I see it, one of the difficult things about conveying what anthropology is about to the uninitiated is that it’s so much of a sensibility thing rather than just being a body of knowledge that can be acquired in a straightforward manner. I think that “Ethnosense” shows students who are in the midst of having that “a-ha” moment which may form the basis of a deeper appreciation of cultural difference, and I think the blog can help to convey that experience to others. This is where I see the value of the project. But you’re right; this is not an example of doing anthropology in the fully-fledged sense and it was misleading for me to imply that it was.

  5. 12 August, 2011 5:47 pm

    For some reason I didn’t come across this post before (I probably was too absorbed by ethnosense), but I think it was better this way. I definitely agree with the words of Jovan, who I thank immensely for giving this academic visibility to the blog, and one of my main motivations to create this blog was precisely to take ethnography, and anthropology as a whole, to a more public level, mainly inspired, I won’t deny, by what I learned in my MAA. I would love to write an entire post telling the whole story of the project, but I think it is better if I do it once it’s finished. But I do want to respond to the couple of critiques that Jovan and Amulya have mentioned.

    First the easy one. Using a real ID was optional, evidently, but figuring out who they are is easy enough in many cases. To be honest, I didn’t discuss this at great length with everyone, but it did come up with some of them. Writing as a volunteer is tricky because you tend to adopt the identity of the organization, at least during the time you’re volunteering. And speaking so openly about your volunteer experience and your inner thoughts is, as we anthropologists well know, not always easy and deserves a kind of Malinowskian “private diary”. But this leads me to the second point that Amulya raised with so much clarity and strength.

    The truth is that a good part of my vision for ethnosense came as a reaction to the traditional anthropological stance that takes the rejection of “stereotyping” to an extreme. I obviously agree with the need to problematize essentialist accounts and reject racist commentaries, but to say that any generalizing insight is anti-anthropological, is just to equally stereotype what doing anthropology or ethnography is. Clearly, what these bloggers are doing is not academic anthropology and, in any case, to demand such rigor from a public blog is simply unrealistic and, I would dare add, pedagogically misleading. I’m not going to say that these students don’t say outrageous things once in a while, but the point of a public anthropology should be precisely to engage with an open discussion of cultural perceptions, instead of attacking or dismissing any comment that seems somewhat overblown or at least sloppy. Still, in the shocking quotes that Amulya presented there were important omissions. The bloggers in those same posts continue saying things like:

    “Despite this all, the practices of the minority did not in any way tarnish the reputation and love and respect I still hold for the majority. What I believe is that tradition and culture are positives, but are only useful and relevant today if they contribute to the society we live in now.”

    Or

    “I still love Australians and when I travel it’s always the people I miss most. I think if more Australians did some volunteer work abroad or even at home we might be more of a compassionate nation”.

    I actually like how open, and even sloppy sometimes, these bloggers are (which might be different if they all used their real names), because I don’t think that an obsessive fight with stereotypes or an excessively correct language will take us beyond things like racism or eurocentrism. The only way to make out of ethnography an actual everyday sensibility for a general public is, I think, by encouraging people to find in their own way what cultural difference means to them. That is real “critical thinking regarding culture” as far as I’m concerned. Isn’t anthropology about making people think in cultural terms? As I see it, the point of ethnography is not to tell you what the “right way” of interpreting culture is, but to make you realize that whatever way you find to do it, it is always tied to your experience, which could have easily gone in different ways.

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