Tag Archives: Nepal

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.


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. Continue reading

Writing Good Anthropology in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Heather Hindman. Heather is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book Mediating the Global: Expatrias Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu (Stanford University Press, 2013) explores the employment practices and daily lives of elite aid workers and diplomats over the last several decades of changes in the development industry, with a critical analysis of human resources management and cross-cultural communication. She is also co-editor of Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers (Kumarian Press, 2011). Her recent publications explore Nepals elite migration practices, the rise of voluntourism and the shifting interests of aid donors in Nepal. Currently, she is researching youth activism and labor, particularly among elites with overseas experience.]

How do scholars balance the need to write quickly and the need to write well? Pressures to “publish or perish” and the rise of “visibility indices” have led many of us to write in ways that will be recognized by our institutions, rather than in the other ways we also think and reflect. Some academics now are calling for a turn to slow scholarship, but this may be a luxury only the elite can afford. In a time of crisis, writing slowly does not work; instead, we need to write swiftly. Recently, I and many people who have conducted research in Nepal found ourselves under pressure to write quickly while still maintaining our academic integrity.

Organizing relief AYON Bijaya
AYON/Association of Youth Organizations Nepal organizing earthquake relief. Photo by Bijaya Raj Poudel.


The April 25th earthquake in Nepal proved devastating for the country and spurred many in the anthropological world to action and comment. In the days after the quake, and propelled forward by the major May 12th aftershock, academics in the US, Europe and Asia found themselves overwhelmed by requests for interviews and op-eds, and many of us were eager to do something. I felt paralyzed and incompetent, sitting in Austin, Texas, trying to finish the semester, working closely with local student groups and NRN (Non-Resident Nepali) organizations and operating at a high level of distraction. Social media was afire with check-ins of who had survived, where the greatest damage had occurred and what resources were needed to keep people alive on a day-to-day basis. I found myself pulled into the social media world and addicted to email and messaging as I had never been before. Many of us sought to raise funds and awareness in our own communities, to establish contact with those we care about in Nepal, and to write brief articles as we felt able for media venues. After the initial flurry of media contacts, several of those who had written about the disaster were contacted by Anthropology News to write an article for their online forum. We hoped to get someone familiar with facts on the ground, yet many anthropologists who were in Nepal were dealing with everyday needs of seeking shelter, looking out for loved ones and trying to provide basic relief as they were able. AN Managing Editor Amy Goldenberg posted a brief piece that collected links to essays written by North American-based anthropologists for other venues, and there were promises from others to write more substantive articles when more research and reflection was possible. Then, Anthropology News—an official publication of the American Anthropological Association—found a respondent in anthropologist David Beine, Professor of World Missions and Evangelism at Moody Bible Institute. Continue reading

Gone: The Earthquake in Nepal

Gone. This one word is in heavy use right now. Heavy as in frequent, and heavy as in weighty. Gone are homes. Gone are temples. Gone are entire villages. Gone are animals. Gone are the thousands of people who died in the 7.8 earthquake which rocked central Nepal midday on Saturday, April 25. Felt across Nepal and into Bangladesh, India, and Tibet, the earthquake is still not over. There are people being rescued alive in rubble. There are still tremors and aftershocks. There are landslides and avalanches. There are still entire regions from whom we have not heard, about which we do not know their status. We do not yet know. It is not over.

Langtang village, now gone
Kyangjin Gompa in the Langtang Valley survived the earthquake.
Before the earthquake this was Langtang village. Now gone.
Before the earthquake this was Langtang village. Now it is gone.

What we did know was that a big earthquake was coming. One had long been predicted for Nepal. Despite this, emergency preparedness mostly took the form of prayer, of hoping it wouldn’t happen or that it wouldn’t be too bad. It did happen and it was bad. Continue reading

On Unreliable Narrators

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Sienna R. Craig as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sienna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In addition to her 2012 book Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, she is also author of the lush ethnographic memoir Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas.)

The idea of a decision is a decision.

We build arguments around impermanence

But are not the sort of people to admit

To inconstancies.

—Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, from In the Absent Everyday

I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the “unreliable narrator” these days, and what it might mean for us ethnographers, careful raconteurs of others’ stories, intertwined as they are with our own. The idea of the unreliable narrator emerges in literature, theatre, and film as a tool of craft that plays with senses of credibility or believability, sometimes to trick the reader or the audience, other times to push the boundaries of a genre or challenge the cognitive strategies a reader might employ to make sense of the story she is being told. Although unreliable narrators may materialize through a third person frame, they are most commonly first person renderings. In the most facile sense, an unreliable narrator is biased, makes mistakes, lacks self-awareness, tells lies not of substance but of form. The device can also be used in a revelatory vein: to twist an expected ending, to demand that readers reconsider a point of view, to leave an audience wondering. Like our anthropological propensity to classify, literary theorists have done the same for the interlocutors of our imaginations. Types of unreliable narrators include the Madman, the Clown, and the Naif, to name a few. Others posit that the unreliable narrator as a device is best understood to fall along a spectrum of fallibility, beginning with the contours of trust and ending with specters of capriciousness (Olson 2003). This is the shape of a character as she defies the expectations of a reader, who then may well pass judgment on this scripted self. Continue reading