Explaining Ethnography in the Field: A Conversation between Pasang Yangjee Sherpa and Carole McGranahan

What is ethnography? In anthropology, ethnography is both something to know and a way of knowing. It is an orientation or epistemology, a type of writing, and also a methodology. As a method, ethnography is an embodied, empirical, and experiential field-based way of knowing centered around participant-observation. This is obvious to anthropologists as it has been our central method for the last century. However, what ethnography is, how it works, and the unique specificity of ethnographic data is not always clear to outsiders, whether they are other researchers, officials, or members of the communities with whom we are working. Why is this, and how do we explain ethnography and its value when we are in the field? In April, we started a conversation about this in person at a conference at Cornell University, emailed back and forth over the summer, and concluded the conversation this month at a conference at the University of Colorado. We cover topics including the context of research, questions of technology, IRBs, being a native anthropologist, the usefulness of ethnography and stories, and ethnographic research as a unique sort of data.

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Carole: What constitutes the field always differs by scholar. Who we are in dialogue with, where, and why depends on one’s research project. However, no matter where we are or who we are, explaining our research topic and method is critical. In your research, with whom are you discussing ethnography as method, and how do you explain it?

Pasang: In my research, I discuss ethnography as method with village residents, diaspora communities, government officials, NGO officials, scientists, youth leaders, students, policy makers, technocrats, and conservation practitioners. These categories often overlap.

My research focuses on human dimensions of climate change, Indigeneity, and development in the Himalayas. I see these topics as intersecting themes that reveal contemporary contexts in the Himalayas. My ethnographic fieldwork thus involves multiple sets of questions, different sets of tools, and ways of explaining. My methodology also evolves, as it should, while conducting fieldwork.

For me, the field constitutes physical location, and virtual space. So far, I have conducted fieldwork among the Sherpas of Nepal, and people living in parts of Uttarkhand in India, and northwest Nepal. In order to study about peoples from these places, I often find myself interviewing in Queens, Boulder, or Kathmandu, outside their mountain villages. I also interact with my ‘informants’ using Facebook, and Apps like Viber and WeChat. The people I study direct my ethnographic approach.

Carole: This is so true. The people with whom we interact in the field are from a range of backgrounds and subject positions. Their thoughts on and responses to the research are situated in these different categories (and experiences), usually multiple and plural rather than some sort of singular “local’ or “villager” or “official” or “refugee” or “activist” perspective. Individuals have varied ways of interpreting our research, and of sharing and participating in it.

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa and Carole McGranahan, Himalayan Studies Conference, University of Colorado, September 2017

Pasang: I once interviewed a middle-aged monk in my village in the Everest region, who had lived in Queens for several years working as a sales person, and who had also actively participated in NGO-organized activities to conserve community forests. As an interviewee, he was formal, and forthcoming. I was able to explain my research project, and inform him about the voluntary participation step-by-step as outlined in the Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines. Another time, I tried to interview a young monk in his early 20s at the village monastery. He just smiled and smiled as I sat there describing the project to him. Once I was done, he ran away. My aunt explained to me (something I was suspecting) that the young monk was too shy to participate in an interview.

Carole: Not everyone is able to engage in this way, whether due to interest, personality, education, or societal prohibitions. I write about this in the context of who gets to narrate their own life history (“Narrative Dispossession”). Scholars tend to take things such as telling one’s story, or sharing one’s thoughts about events and ideas, for granted. IRBs do as well. But it doesn’t always work this way, no matter where one’s fieldwork is located.

Pasang: I agree. I recently turned my ethnographic gaze inward on myself to understand what it means to be a ‘Sherpa,’ ‘Nepali,’ ‘Himalayan,’ ‘South Asian,’ and ‘Asian.’ This process revealed to me how I as an individual, and a member of the society influence, and am influenced by what happens around me. I am fascinated by the uncovered cultural moments from my memory of growing up in Kathmandu in the 1990s that brought light to the many identities I have today. I remember reading about the Sherpas, depicted as people with flat nose and small eyes in our social studies textbook. I also remember how the term ‘backward people’ was used commonly to refer to groups that lived in rural parts of Nepal. For a young girl attending an English medium school in the capital city, it was confusing to hear that by definition I am a member of a backward group with flat nose and small eyes because I did not think I was backward nor did I have flat nose and small eyes.

In your research, how do you go about discussing ethnography as method, and with whom? Where is the field for you?

Carole: It depends on where I’m doing research—with whom and on what topic. Early in my career, in 1992, I did research in the village of Tirkhu in the Chaudabise Khola region east of Jumla. This was in conjunction with Dor Bahadur Bista’s Karnali Institute. Dor was the first Nepali anthropologist, the founder of the Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University, and was my first mentor in 1989 when I did anthropological research in Jhapa. His goal with the Karnali Institute was in part to use the methods of anthropology to encourage development, mostly in the form of education and small-scale economic projects. My role was an ethnographic study with women and girls. What were women’s ideas about what was needed in their community? I explained ethnography as method as having two components: (1) living in the community to learn what life was like there, and (2) talking with the women about what they thought about things. Open-ended. Learning. Listening.

If you asked the women why I was there, I think what they would’ve said is that I wanted to learn the work needed to live in the village (e.g., how to plant rice, how to mill buckwheat or pound corn, etc.), and I asked a lot of questions, and wrote lots of things down. Apart from being an outsider, one from a different country, literacy was a big difference between us. No woman in the village was literate, and in 1992, only one girl from the village attended the local school. She was the first girl to ever do so. My research “findings” were that the women primarily wanted things for their children, especially chances at education and other things that might improve their lives in the future. But, for themselves? They wanted to learn how to write their names. My main contribution was to teach a small group of mothers and grandmothers how to hold a pencil and write their names in Nepali.

Tirkhu, Nepal. March 1992.

I mention literacy because my next research project, which started in 1994 and that continues on today, was very different. It was with Tibetan resistance army veterans, almost all of whom were literate, and if not familiar with anthropology, were often very familiar with historical scholarship and cultures of documentation.

My research was both anthropological and historical, and I usually explained it when first meeting someone, as some version of the following: “The Chushi Gangdrug Army fought against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to defend Tibet and the Dalai Lama. But, histories of the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army aren’t included in Tibetan history. People don’t know these histories. What are they, and why don’t people know them?” I would explain my methodology as reading any and all written sources about the resistance, and also talking to people. Especially talking with people—with important leaders, but also with ordinary people to learn their experiences and thoughts. I would share that I lived with a Tibetan veteran and his family in Kathmandu, and that my research involved traveling to different Tibetan settlements in Nepal and India, and returning again and again to each place. This research-in-motion was very distinctly grounded in the Tibetan community in ways that were obvious and appreciated by the men from whom I learned.

But this was just the ‘first meeting’ sort of explanation of my topic and method I would give. Some of the people with whom I met, I didn’t encounter again, but that was rare. Most of the men (and some of their families) were individuals I came to know, sometimes well, over the course of multiple visits and conversations over the five-year course of my PhD research, as well as the two decades since. So in that sense, peoples’ idea of how I did my research, or of how I learned what I knew, was something that unfolded over time. And, I add: was something I was constantly tested on by some individuals. What did I know and how did I know it?

One thing that comes to mind is that in both of these settings, my research was valued and the methods weren’t questioned. People didn’t debate ethnography with me, and certainly didn’t devalue it. But you’ve had some different experiences, right?

Pasang: I’ve had interesting experiences mainly because of who I am, and where I study.

When working with my fellow villagers, people are happy to welcome me, and even take pride in the work I do. They share what they know with me. They are very supportive in that sense. It helps that I am careful about how I present my research and myself. I am also careful about the cultural etiquettes, and sensibilities. I think this comes naturally for me, and helps in making our conversations comfortable.

Solukhumbu, Nepal.

However, there have been times, when I’ve had difficulty reaching people and conducting interviews. I think it was largely because of my limited social connections in Kathmandu. Being a young-looking Sherpa woman also did not help. It seemed like every time I met someone new I had to explain not just what I was doing but my qualifications too. I had to prove that I am a professional to avoid getting dismissed, and I wasn’t always successful at that.

Exactly a year ago, I was presenting my climate change perception research findings in Kathmandu to a mixed audience (academic and nonacademic). I was a postdoctoral fellow at the New School at the time. Following my presentation, an environmental science professional from the audience shared that all social science presentations on climate change have the same conclusion: Development organizations are exploiting climate change for their own agenda. He was not interested in listening to another talk with the same conclusion. He said the reason he came to my talk was because of my institutional affiliation. He had expected ‘more’ from a New School person’s presentation, something that would challenge the idea of anthropogenic climate change. Instead, I was sharing my ethnographic findings of how people and institutions perceived climate change. [I gently introduced myself as a proud alumna of Washington State University.]

I recently watched your interview for WORLD101x, where you talk about the need to think of ethnographic stories as useful data for problem solving. Can you expand on that?

Carole: Sure. This is a question of what kind of data is ethnography. It is a truly unique form of knowledge. Ethnographic research generates fine-grained, detailed data that gives needed context to big questions or problems. In contrast with “big data,” ethnography is a type of ‘thick data” as Tricia Wang convincingly argues: ethnographic or thick data focuses on what is valuable rather than solely what is measurable.

For me, ethnography (and anthropology more broadly) is a form of theoretical storytelling. We use stories to make conceptual points and theoretical arguments. Professionally, the domain where I most do this outside of academia is in court. I use ethnographic data to make arguments to immigration officials and judges for them to use in decision-making. There is an element of translation involved as well, in terms of presenting ethnographic data as clear and coherent even with all of the contradictions and complications of actual human experiences. The key is in understanding how ethnography might be useful in new domains, whether it is in court, the corporate world (Nokia, in Wang’s case above), or in discussions with forestry or climate change scientists in Nepal. How can ethnography appear as recognizable, useful data in domains outside of anthropology? The conceptual work of translating and presenting ethnography to folks expecting numbers or other sorts of data is our responsibility, especially in this moment that feels so driven by “big data” in many ways. Stories are always needed.

Pasang: I agree. Stories are always needed. Stories are valuable because they help us understand everyday lives of people. Ethnography may involve extraordinary people, and their spectacular stories. They may also involve the ordinary people, and their routine lives. Each is powerful in its own way. Thank you for sharing your stories, and inviting me to share mine.

Nima Sherpa shows coffee beans to Jim Fisher and Pasang Yangjee Sherpa during an interview at Vail Mountain Coffee and Tea. Colorado, September 2017.

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Carole McGranahan is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is an anthropologist and co-director of the Nepal Studies Initiative at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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