Photo/stories from the field: portrait of an ethnographer

A pirate-detective in Athens


Earlier this summer we ran a three-day workshop, introducing ethnographic research methods, to a group of 18 researchers based in India. It is hard to cram everything that might be important to communicate about what ethnography is and does in three days. The workshop, as with previous workshops we have run, was designed around experiential learning, an opportunity for hands on engagement with ethnography and an opportunity to hear about doing ethnography from other researchers, ourselves included. In introducing ethnography to novices we decided to focus on the ‘role of the ethnographer’ and to give sense of who the ethnographer might be, or perhaps how one becomes an ethnographer. The workshop gave us, Christos and Melissa, the opportunity to revisit an ongoing conversation we’ve been having over the last four years about who we were and what we were doing.

Who are you and what are you doing (here), were questions we were often asked by our children interlocutors, their parents, our colleagues, our friends and family during the fieldwork. Indeed, we went to great lengths to explain to our interlocutors what it is that we are doing there and how and why we were in their homes, and what we’ll do after spending time together. Such conversations weren’t a one off but continued throughout the research as children, and sometimes their parents, tried to get their heads around who and what an ethnographer is.

Convincing some children that being an ethnographer was a legitimate occupation was sometimes hard, as Melissa found out early in her fieldwork when one London girl told her that hanging out with children wasn’t ‘a proper job’ and Christos by being asked by two interlocutors in Athens separately what his real job was. Some parents’ reactions to our visits – e.g. leaving us in loco parentis while they went out to run errands or grab a much-needed break, while communicating trust in us, also suggested we were more than ethnographers. Other parents sometimes asked us to evaluate their children’s learning and/or mental health, demands we had to diplomatically or not so diplomatically resist, but which provided opportunities to remind parents who we were and what are roles as researchers were.

Such existential conversations also often left us wondering ‘who are we’ and ‘what are we doing’?! Particularly after long sessions of meeting up with children, having played the entire time and not being able to articulate a single question or research task, we also wondered about what it was exactly that we were doing. Who is the ethnographer? Who am I/we?

We recently discovered a transcript of a talk given by Erving Goffman in 1974 at the Pacific Sociological Association, in an issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography from the late 1980s, where he reflects on this very question. It is a rather off-the-cuff, charming, wise, albeit problematic in places, reflection on what fieldwork is and who the ethnographer is. He describes the ethnographer as a ‘fink’, who is willing to make a ‘horse’s ass’ of themselves and who is preferably ‘young’ because ‘it’s harder to be an ass when you’re old’ (p. 128).

While ethical discussions have moved on and convert ethnographies, which might land the ethnographer with the description of ‘fink’, are largely frowned upon, the candour of the rest of his comments made us laugh, not least because of their resonance with our own experience (although we might have chosen different words to describe those experiences). As we’ve written elsewhere [here and here] we often lost the many games we played with the children, got made fun off for taking too many pictures, for our handwriting, for repeating ourselves, for our occasional lack of knowledge on state of the art cartoon movies and lots more.

But Goffman also writes about the ways in which participant-observation happens through “a tuning-up” of the body, a wonderfully playful metaphor of bodies as musical instruments, and sensory organs for picking up major and minor gestures, atmospheric timbres and tones. In “tuning-up” the ethnographer also signs up to becoming something of a shape-shifter.

In our respective fieldwork sites, we experienced such “tuning-up” to “tune in” through play. On this blog, we have, on various occasions, written about how we would be dragged into children’s play and how play eventually led us ‘to become other’. All the play we were recruited into involved our adult professional bodies (and here maybe Goffman had a point about ‘youth’!). Gendered bodies. Tired bodies. Bodies in pain. Hungry bodies. Bodies occupying that ethnographic present and yet having a past (of ie. not having slept properly at night because of a toddler) and a future (of ie. the same toddler waiting back home to play with us). Adult bodies, with professional researcher identities, wondering amidst epic on-going battles of Lego star-wars, dragon quests and medieval wars with moats and castles, Hot Wheels car racers, trampoline jumping championships and much, much more. When, we often wondered, would it be appropriate to gently interject, for a third or fourth time, to remind the child about that question you asked in their bedroom/living room/garden today? Or do we surrender to these other worlds and acknowledge the enjoyment of being spirited away, our own bodies with their own desires, playful beyond the professional, lost in the battles that were ragging in front of us? Doing otherwise would indeed leave us in Goffman’s “horse’s ass” position, another game lost as we absent-mindedly, occupied ourselves with research questions instead of better defence strategies.

A seal in London

Well, we think that it’s not the one or the other. An important thing that we found out three and a half years in the field is that, just like the messiness of everyday life, thus also the fluidity of identities doesn’t switch off during fieldwork hours. The liminal tropes of play are, in fact, very good reminders of this. As we realized, identities in play, particularly in deep and engaged play are not set in stone but rather fluid and interchangeable. One can be Darth Vader in one moment and Obi-Wan Kenobi the next, and then be both Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi simultaneously, just before transforming once again into a dozen Stormtroopers. Or, as was the case on the two separate occasions documented in the pictures above, it might just take a moment for one to turn from a detective to a pirate, a researcher to a seal, and accordingly for a lollipop to turn from a detective’s magnifying glass into a pirate’s eyepatch, a piece of cloth into a fur coat.

This multiplicity, plurality and interchangeability of identities in play has led us to re-think our own professional and personal positionalities, and alongside, our own epistemologies. If you can’t beat them, join them and so rather than resisting children’s play, we not only engaged but have also reflectively fed our learning from it into our research practices and written about it candidly. Our initial puzzlement, embarrassment and even despair at times at being dragged into play, has given way to a radical rethinking of the research practice which we are currently setting out in a forthcoming book, in which among other things we attempt to theorize aspects of play in relation to their radical world-makings and un-makings and in return their significance for rethinking pre-figurative political theories and other political categories (publics, commoning).

So, let it be said again: during fieldwork, we found ourselves playing a lot with our children interlocutors. It made us feel awkward, threw us into existential crises, it made us squint and sometimes squirm and eventually see the world different. Ultimately, that’s what was necessary, and what it means to be an ethnographer.

This blog post is co-authored by Christos Varvantakis and Melissa Nolas.


Further reading

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.