Being Ethnographic. A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography.
By Raymond Madden
Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC: Sage. 2010
Pp: ix + 197
Price: A$51.95, NZ$69.00
Field work and the ethnographic experience are the anthropologist's rite of passage. As central a practice as it is for anthropology and other social sciences, it is almost impossible to convey through conventional teaching methods. Regardless of how many manuals, study aids or handbooks you read before, a true understanding of fieldwork is only achieved through its practice. In that sense Raymond Madden's title Being Ethnographic is a fitting introduction to the practices and theories of ethnography.
The purpose of the book is to highlight the ongoing relevance of ethnographic research for the social sciences even 'in our diffuse global world system' (p.l). The book is intended as a guide for 'budding ethnographers as they take on ethnographic projects of their own'. It is meant to be 'more than a text book': a critical conversation on being ethnographic (p. 11). As a practical guide it falls somewhat short, although this may be precisely due to the difficult nature of conveying the experience of ethnography. Ethnography has to be practised in person to be fully understood--and this means doing the fieldwork preparation, as well as research and writing stages, as they are all equally constitutive experiences of ethnographic being. Notwithstanding its practical shortcomings, someone going to the field for the first time will definitely find use in this book.
The structure of the book follows the stages of an ethnographic project. Section 1 deals with 'Key concepts and theoretical frameworks', the first obstacle for a budding ethnographer, who has to ipsofacto define his or her ethnographic field and pertinent theories without having a real sense of what the project will turn out to be. This section provides an overview of the whole ethnographic project: definitions, methods, methodology, applications and ethics. It is one of the weaker chapters, as students commencing an ethnographic project could benefit from more detailed understanding of ethics committees, choice of methodology
before going into the field, its implications, and practical preparations that these choices imply in simple matters such as packing appropriate gear, preparing consent forms, etc. Some field sites will not allow for forgetfulness of technological devices or even paper. The second chapter of this section, on fieldwork at home, is immensely more useful because it is based on the author's own experience--where being ethnographic is more eloquently conveyed.
Section two deals with the actual field work experience: talking to people, being with people and looking at people. Important issues such as language use, conversation, interviewing, participant observation and images are discussed in this section. As someone barely back from the field, I found that I appreciate the nuances of these issues only post facto, and had I read the book before fieldwork I probably would not have understood the complex implications of these issues. Advice such as 'the usual character of ethnographic conversations lies in the tension between the "naturalness" of good ethnographic conversation and the "instrumentality" embedded in the ethnographic endeavour' (p.65) would have meant nothing before experiencing the awkward silence of a sloppy informal interview. Previous awareness of some of the difficulties of fieldwork, however, would have certainly given me some comfort that I was not the only one struggling with the same questions.
Section three is perhaps the most useful section. The description of field notes, notebooks, diagrams, photographs and film provides concrete advice on techniques and strategies informed by the self-reflexive retrospective experiences of the author. Moreover, the consideration of the different stages of post-fieldwork processes provides the budding ethnographer with a strategy to follow after the hectic experience of fieldwork. Madden explores the processes of writing: analysis and interpretation as writing 'out' and writing 'up' 'a storied reality' of the experience of fieldwork. These subtle differences of intellectual activity are not always immediately understood by students of ethnography, and yet they represent the essence of a critical anthropological understanding of another's lived reality.
The final section deals with 'Expanding ethnography', and it revisits the book's initial purpose of highlighting the importance of ethnography within changing social relations. Madden considers examples of ethnographies of social relations in cyber space, such as Second Life, and non-human ethnographies, where social relations are between people and companion animals. Although I agree with the insistence that ethnography cannot be circumscribed to the isolated field of Malinowski, ethnographic horizons have already been expanding to accommodate the complex global connections at play in today's world. Moreover, I would also argue that neither cyberspace nor human-animal relations require a dramatically altered ethnographic method. After all, humans are still at the core of the relationship and participant observation can still be carried out on real interactions--regardless of whether they happen in cyberspace or the leash-free park.
In spite of the difficulties of conveying the ethnographic experience, Madden has produced a useful guide for anyone venturing into the multiple fields of ethnography for the first time. The scattered personal accounts of the author's own ethnographic experience were specifically enlightening, and there could have been more of them. The summaries at the end of each section, questions and suggested further readings are useful study guides for students of ethnography. I sometimes wished the list of suggested readings was more extensive, and directed the reader towards good ethnographic material besides other study manuals, but therein lies the job of the budding ethnographer: to become ethnographic by research and good practice. To this purpose, Being Ethnographic is a valuable contribution for students and teachers of ethnography.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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