A little of what I said about ‘Gaining an ethnographic understanding of an urban place’

Today I (nervously) gave a paper at a methodology conference (RC33). I wanted to give a paper to justify that it should still be okay to study places, to point out that time in a place is valuable for understanding, and to suggest that such understandings both provide ‘data’ and hints as to what some of the limits of the data are. Following are some abridged excerpts from the paper. I have a terrible habit of abandoning power point conventions, and so in this presentation I started with a short story from somebody else’s research.

Susan F. Harding, on the way back to her motel from an interview with a Baptist preacher, drives into an intersection and is nearly wiped out by another car. “What is God trying to tell me?” she asks herself (1987: 169). This experience, of the interview and travelling through urban space, contributes to her understanding. She does not believe in God, but her experiences with people from, and from spending time in, these congregations, ripple out into this instance of travelling through the city. They also become a medium through which readers can develop their understandings of the subject of her enquiries.

As a PhD candidate, I set out to understand something of social relationships in an inner suburb of Melbourne using ethnographic methods. My own methodological training formally consisted of a subject during my honours year in anthropology. For my doctoral studies in the School of Health Sciences (Social Work), I was largely left to my own devices to read and explore. It has been remarked that students in anthropology receive little instruction in how to undertake ethnographic research (e.g. Hammersley & Atkinson 2007: 20). However, my contact with other students and a couple of academics has provided an opportunity for us to learn what it is probably not possible to teach anyway. This experience could be used to illustrate Rancière’s presupposition of equality – of the potential capacity of every person – found throughout his work, especially as presented through his account of Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Rancière 1991). To explain is to presume that somebody cannot understand on their own*.

Multiple methods used to access overlapping groups in the same place do go some way to increasing rigour and confidence in the absence of verified measurement tools. However, they do this through contributing to the researcher’s understandings, not by catching out the subjects of research. Ethnographic methods can allow what feels like a more collaborative approach to research. However, the subjects of social research are not people who need to be emancipated; even spectators are already active (Rancière 2009- also, Sherry Ortner, an anthropologist, points out that the subjects of research will always push up against the work of researchers (2006: 61). ).

As part of my project, I set up Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as a project blog, to direct people towards the information in my Plain Language Statement and to share some of my reflections. Of course, not everybody uses the internet and those people who do use the internet do not use it in the same way. In order to avoid leaving people out, a couple of times instead of posting reflections online I would take them to the volunteer group they were about and read them out during a suitable break.

The small number of comments on my blog, and very little interaction online, may suggest that it was not particularly successful. However, I was engaged in a small number of face to face conversations in response to blog posts and the other descriptive pieces I shared in the field. Social media was part of my ethical commitment to being transparent in regards to my engagement with Port Melbourne, it assisted in relationship development and allowed for some triangulation.

Sharing my reflections problematised the distinction between the field and the university. This takes up the challenge for research I find in Rancière’s work. The capacity of anybody to understand is acknowledged in the sharing of my reflections. Furthermore, my audacity to have reflections without anybody really teaching me how, suggests that in ethnographic methods I was an emancipated student researcher.

* ‘And this ‘origin of inequality’ is reiterated in every explanation; every explanation is a fiction of inequality. I explain a sentence to someone because I assume that he would not understand it if I did not explain it to him. … I explain to him, in short, that he is less intelligent than I am, and that that [sic] is why he deserves to be where he is and I deserve to be where I am. … Explanation turns all wishing to say into a scholar’s secret; rhetoric turns all wishing to hear into knowing how to hear.’ (Rancière 1995: 83)


Hammersley, M. and P. Atkinson (2007). Ethnography : principles in practice. London ; New York, Routledge.

Harding, S. F. (1987). “Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist conversion.” American Ethnologist14(1): 167-181.

Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster : five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.

Rancière, J. (1995). On the shores of politics. London ; New York, Verso.

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2 Responses to A little of what I said about ‘Gaining an ethnographic understanding of an urban place’

  1. michael says:

    man/woman were made for life not thought as we are for earth not water.Though we may travel far in our thoughts, we have bartered the water for the earth and one day eventually drown,(Herman Hesse) Your reflection; (furthermore my audacity to have reflections without anybody really teaching me how, etc) has the essence, the soul,if you like of the creative, which i already read in some of what you call plain language. Do you think that we have such a desire to remain going up a communication “staircase” that inequality is now negligible? I breathed a sigh of relief when i read ” A little of what i said” Thank you, Michael


    • Tracey says:

      Thanks for the comment. Even the extra long version of this paper does not speak to the interesting points you raise, which has given me some ideas for what I could consider in future writing.

      I do not not think that inequality is negligible so much as that the challenge I have taken up from Ranciere’s work is to treat all people as having the capacity to be equal. Following from this, I have been thinking about how society MAKES people unequal.

      I had never come across Herman Hesse before- thanks for that! It is quite different to approaches to thought I have been reading a little bit about lately (e.g. Nigel Thrift), where thought and practice are not so clearly separated.

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