Native/Applied Mini-Ethnographies Introduction

What chiefly distinguishes ethnography from journalism is the avoidance, on the part of good ethnographers, of injecting any form of judgement, critique, or advocacy in their descriptions, no matter how "dramatic" their content. This relates to "cultural relativism"--or the attempt at understanding any aspect of human behavior in relation to the cultural context in which it emerges--which is arguably the foundational dogma of modern cultural anthropology. Adopting cultural relativism, by trying to carefully balance outsider/insider perspectives in fieldwork, becomes particularly challenging, though, when doing anthropology "at home," and especially when engaging in the study of problematic aspects of one's own culture. By guiding students in addressing ethnographically some features of their own lived experience, the issue of cultural relativism vs. social engagement is constructively explored.

This is particularly important because, in the last quarter century, various factors have led both to the adoption of "ethnographic" methods of research in a number of disciplinary fields quite unrelated to anthropology, and to the increasing difficulty for cultural anthropologist to engage in their typical research projects--requiring long-term total immersion in a foreign culture. Also, traditional employment opportunities for American cultural anthropologists--in universities and museums--have diminished quite dramatically, stimulating attempts by many new professionals at marketing themselves as "applied anthropologists"--i.e., as experts in the use of anthropological research approaches to address practical issues in health and human services, in education and organizational behavior, in marketing, development, the media, and even in diplomacy and military intelligence.

As a consequence of these trends there is more and more "native" and "applied" research in anthropology being done, and this can be useful for undergraduate training. In fact, undergraduate students have always had very limited opportunities for a taste of "real" research in cultural anthropology (see the next two sections for a further discussion of this issue), but the basic principles and techniques of ethnography can be taught by assigning projects leading to the production of "mini-ethnographies"--small-scale exercises in focused observation, investigation, and description that can be conducted locally and rapidly. The most successful among these exercises are of two types: self-ethnographies (in which students use themselves as "native informants" in reference to issues central in their life and identity--such as health, sexuality, personality, or ethnicity), and social-problem ethnographies (in which students focus their research on issues they perceive as problematic in American society--such as poverty, discrimination, inequality, or deviance).

Self-ethnography exercises have been very effective assignments in ANTH/SOCL214 ("US Racial and Cultural Minorities") as well as in ANTH/SOCL309 ("Culture and Personality") and in ANTH329 ("Medical Anthropology"). But because of privacy issues, no exemplars can be used for publication. On the other hand, because of their complexity, "applied" mini-ethnographies rarely emerge from the classes in which they could: ANTH/SOCL345 ("Ethnographic Methods") and ANTH445 ("Culture Analysis Seminar"). Instead, they are often the focus of another assignment which is typically used for both of these classes: the Research (or Grant) Proposal. In this exercise, the students often end up selecting a social-problem issue they would like to study in depth and build a research project around it. Frequently this is precisely because they have personal experience of the issue, and this makes the exercise of zeroing in on how to study it ethnographically all the more useful. Furthermore, the Research Proposal is in itself a particular writing genre in the social science, and one with which even pre-professional students definitely benefit from familiarizing themselves. The two pieces selected to illustrate this section provide good examples of research-project development at different stages of completion, and implicitly highlight the time-and-resources demands of any valuable ethnographic study.

Food Pantry Misunderstandings
by Linda Harrison

Gender Bias in American Video Gaming
by Samantha R. Miller


Return to the table of contents for 3.1 Writing for Cultural Anthropology