Collaborative ethnography

Reflections on The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography by Eric Lassiter, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

There’s a lot to read. Often, I’ll read introductions, conclusions and pick and choose from everything in between. But I read this book cover to cover. And got a bit flag-happy — oh, how I love sticky flags!

Lassiter’s vision of collaborative ethnography is one in which the people that he works with are powerful throughout the process; from deciding on what questions are worth investigating through to the conent and style of the ethnographic texts produced as a result of research.

He calls people he works with ‘consultants’ rather than participants, respondents or informants. I quite like it — it’s a more active term, one our (western) community has professional respect for, and acknowledges the fact that the people you work with are providing you with knowledge, not just data. So, here’s what Lassiter has to say about representing Kiowa spiritual belief in academic texts:

“An encounter with daw [spirit] informs belief; not vice versa. We as academics take a leap of faith — or one of disbelief, in David Hufford’s (1982) terms — when we argue otherwise. And when we argue from our position of disbelief, however constructed, we argue from a political position of power, privileging our own voice in our literature”

Lassiter isn’t just committed to research that mimics ‘reflective listening’ (making sure you’ve understood properly by reflecting back to the people you work with what you think they’ve said). That, in his opinion, is still ultimately research that serves the privileged academic elite. Instead Lassiter advocates research that serves the people you’re working with. He sums this up in four principles for practice:

1. ethical and moral commitment to responsibility to consultants;
2. honesty about the fieldwork process;
3. accessible and dialogic writing; and
4. collaborative reading, writing, and co-interpretation of ethnographic texts with consultants.

There are plenty of issues all of this raises, but that’s for another post!


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