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Good Examples of Bad Ethnographic Experiences?

A student asked me recently for examples of ethnographies in which the anthropologist ‘had a bad time’. He observed that in all of the anthropological writings he has read, the anthropologists generally present themselves and their experiences positively.

I was stumped. The ethnography for the course, a survey of Canada’s first peoples, is Robert Jarvenpa’s Northern Passage. It is about the Han of the Yukon and the Chipewyan of the Northwest Territories. In it, Jarvenpa has a less-than-successful field experience as a young researcher among the Han. But, that experience is tempered by a good experience with the Chipewyan. The result is a trope: fieldwork as personal growth. And, that trope is perfect for an ethnography aimed at undergraduates learning about fieldwork.

All of this has me thinking about why examples of poor ethnographic experiences are hard to find. How about:

  • It is unprofessional to write negatively about one’s research. If nothing else, it sounds like you just can’t do it.
  • It is uncommon to describe one’s field site — and by extension the people one works with — in less-than-positive terms.
  • Bad research experiences don’t become ethnographic publications. Afterall, publications come from successful research experiences.
  • Poor ethnographic research experieces become fodder for the personal growth trope. Poor experieces are simply examples from which to learn.
  • Poor research experiences are used in the classroom as examples for methods classes but don’t see the light of day otherwise.
  • So, to you. Any examples of poor ethnographic research experiences in publication? Good ethographies describing less-than-successful field work? If not, why not?

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    8 Comments

    1. I like your list actually, Tad. I have only one possibility to add, and it is derivative from what you have above: the ethnographer with poor experiences might have been too demoralized to write about the experiences; or, if a grad student, might have become so demoralized that he/she simply dropped out, or was never awarded the degree he/she sought.

      You can write negative comments and confessions about your research experience, and it can come across as charming self deprecation. But you’re right, a thoroughly self-ripping account is not one that I am familiar with.

      Now that’s one more task for my To Do list.

      Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 12:12 am | Permalink
    2. James wrote:

      Chagnon’s early encounters with the Yąnomamö are pretty unpleasant sounding. He still uses the personal growth trope, but there’s lots of “ugh life sucks why am I doing this” in it.

      Richard Mitchell has some pretty ugly stories of his work among survivalists too. I don’t think he plays the growth card as much.

      Asking recent PhD grads in anthropology will turn up plenty of unpleasant fieldwork stories. I think the unpleasant stuff is forgotten over the years, so that tenured professors don’t retain the vivid memories of sitting in the mud and crying while your life falls apart. Our thoughts constantly edit history, after all.

      Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink
    3. Maximilian … agreed. There are probably countless ethnographic research experiences where the researcher does not complete the work. To James’ point, then, the ‘life sucks’ trope rarely comes to publication. And, I do agree, unpleasant fieldwork stories are probably numerous … and they fall away as one gets older out of choice or by conveniently forgetting them.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Tad

      Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 8:06 am | Permalink
    4. perfectly able but unwilling ethnographer wrote:

      I’m not sure I would describe my field experiences (in urban bc) as bad; I was continually surprised by how generous my Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal research consultants were and are. However, my year-and-a-half of fieldwork felt bad the entire time, and made me realize that I did not ultimately want to pursue a research career in anthropology with First Peoples. Part of this was an unwillingness to navigate conflicting demands of research consultants and academic committee members who are not versed in the politics and protocols of research with Aboriginal North American peoples.

      Rather than “unable” or “demoralized,” I have actually found the decision to leave the discipline – though I still live in my field – incredibly empowering. I just felt like chipping that in because we “dropouts” rarely speak up about our experiences, in large part because dominant discourses cast us as unable or demoralized, or as simply not up to snuff.

      Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
    5. perfectly able … thank you for the heart-felt and entirely reasonable comment. I appreciate greatly the idea that not making your fieldwork public is empowering. And, I’m pleased you found a forum here (small as it may be) for your voice and opinion. Tad

      Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 5:57 am | Permalink
    6. perfectly able but unwilling ethnographer wrote:

      i have been able to use some of my ethnographic experiences, principally in the classroom (I’m teaching a course on my specialization at ubc, and have guest lectured on ethnographic methods in other ubc courses), and within my principal scholarly network. In these contexts, I can draw on these selectively to illustrate larger points, without the worry of grounding them in particular literatures, and writing about them in peer reviewable ways.

      Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
    7. Christine wrote:

      I recently read an article by Steven Vaderstay called “One Hundred Dollars and a Dead Man: Ethical Decision Making in Ethnographic Fieldwork” which might be considered of a “bad time” in ethnographic writing, so much so that it took him ten years to publish anything on his research.

      Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
    8. Tad wrote:

      Cool. Thanks for the lead, Christine. –Tad

      Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 8:48 pm | Permalink