Research Bleg: Collaboration Against Ethnography

For my next paper I’m exploring a case in which the will to do ethnography runs up against the desire to work collaboratively and ethically with one’s informants. It is not uncommon for ethnographers to agree not to talk about certain subjects for fear that doing so might cause their subjects harm, or because the subjects themselves were able to set certain ground rules for the research. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing, as the reasons for the refusal might be even more revealing about the lived experience of the subjects than the topic the anthropologist wanted to write about (or film) in the first place. It does pose some unique problems however, such as how to write about what you can’t write about without writing about it? Because of just this problem I don’t want to go into any more detail about my own paper just yet. But I would like to solicit references to books and articles which discuss this problem in interesting ways. This could mean anything from recent books on the topic of collaborative ethnography or ethnographic film which include discussions of this issue, to specific case studies from researchers who ran into similar problems and dealt with it in interesting ways. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

11 thoughts on “Research Bleg: Collaboration Against Ethnography

  1. Kay Warren’s Indigenous Movements and their Critics has an interesting take on indigenous revisionism and the problem it presents for ‘ethnography.’

  2. I ran into this very problem with behaviour considered not only illegal but highly offensive, but on which on the basis of my evidence anyway I was persuaded that public policy on the issue was not only doing more social harm than good, but was actually exacerbating the problem itself.

    My way around it has been to write the issues into fiction; novels and short stories, as a way of elaborating on the circumstances and social condition of the people concerned toward developing an understanding of what was actually taking place in these people’s lives.

  3. You might find the debate of the Human Terrain System and anthropologists’ involvement very interesting, considering the subject matter of your debate.

  4. Thanks @s.e. and @JonEP for the suggestions.

    @Gil Yes, that is one way we are thinking of dealing with it – as a collaborative project as well. Although with some of the material even a fictionalized representation would be unacceptable…

    @BLynn One of the many problems with HTS is precisely that it is impossible to work collaboratively when one side is carrying guns.

  5. There’s something amusing about the fact that the same ethnographers who will read you the Riot Act regarding the broader political implications of the term ‘informant’ tend to be blind to the fact that saying, “We collaborate!” also carries some historical baggage.

  6. Hmm I think a lot of Pacific Islanders have pointed out the unsavory nature of that term actually….

    You know if you think of the ethnographic tradition blossoming with Street Corner Society rather than Argonauts of the Western Pacific, then this issue is a foundational one in ethnographic research.

  7. I recently gave a paper (at the Imaging Identity conference in Canberra, Australia) about fictionalisation strategies as a way of dealing with relational ethics in collaborative photography/ethnography projects in Mexico and Australia that is relevant… happy to send you a copy if you are interested…

  8. Some savage mind readers would be. Is your offer directed at Kerim specifically, or at the whole public of this blog ? In which case, would you consider putting your whole paper online ?

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