[lg policy] book review: Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 22 14:24:27 UTC 2011

Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-3168.html
AUTHORS: Blommaert, Jan & Dong, Jie
TITLE: Ethnographic Fieldwork
SUBTITLE: A Beginner's Guide
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2010

Lal Zimman, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder


This book is a uniquely practical introduction to the realities of ethnographic
fieldwork. Increasing numbers of sociolinguists are making use of ethnography in
order to enrich their linguistic analyses with grounded knowledge about the
social lives of speakers. Yet there are few resources to help students of
language and other novice ethnographers prepare for and implement their own
ethnographic projects. This is partially due to the nature of ethnography: it is
an approach that stresses localized understandings of social (and/or linguistic)
phenomena while rejecting analyst-imposed categories and assumptions based on
the researcher's prior experience in other cultural contexts. Because the
specificities of the community under study -- and the researcher him- or herself
-- shape the ethnographic experience so profoundly, it is difficult to
anticipate the challenges that will be encountered before the research has
begun. But Blommaert and Dong have managed to distill their combined experience
-- the former being a well-seasoned discourse analyst and the latter having just
recently completed her dissertation as a first-time ethnographer -- into
detailed lessons that can be applied to a variety of research contexts.

Ethnography provides a set of methods for collecting data, but it is also a
theoretical paradigm with a particular vantage point on humanity and human
practices. The theoretical perspective in which ethnography is based is
introduced in chapter 2 (following the brief introduction in chapter 1), and
this groundwork is crucial for understanding what ethnography is and why it is
worth pursuing. Historically, ethnography has grown out of the field of
anthropology, situating it within a rather different view of language than
linguists have most often taken since the middle of the 20th century. From an
anthropological perspective, language is a tool for human sociality, and as a
result language always has a social context. This context is not static, but
emergent and complex, and ethnographic research should reflect this fact by
allowing analytic explanations to materialize from holistic observation.
Ethnography therefore involves deep, long-term engagement with a group
(generally) of people across a variety of contexts with the goal of gaining a
holistic picture of how they see their world. This book aims not simply to train
readers in ethnographic methods but also to begin seeing the world through
ethnographic eyes.

The hands-on advice Blommaert and Dong provide, which is the primary
contribution of Ethnographic Fieldwork, is spread out across three chapters that
are arranged chronologically: the pre-fieldwork preparation stage (chapter 3),
the time spent in the field (chapter 4), and the period that follows fieldwork
(chapter 5). Chapter 3 guides readers through the pre-fieldwork phase by
offering short discussions of major tasks that should be accomplished -- or at
least begun -- prior to entering the field. The overall key to this preparation,
however, is that the researcher must begin to adopt an ethnographic perspective
on the work even during research design. This means recognizing the role of
subjectivity in data collection, and being willing to forego claims of
scientific objectivity, generalizability, and replicability. Furthermore,
because context arises not only in the moments a researcher observes, but also
consists of multiple layers that include a nation's history, long-standing
social tensions, and so on, research on these macro-level factors can often be
accomplished in the preparation stage. Context should inform the way a study is
devised as well as how it is conducted and analyzed.

The longest chapter of this short book is Chapter 4, which focuses on the period
of time in which the ethnographer is actively engaged with his or her research
community. For all the planning one may do, it is impossible to know exactly
what will actually be encountered once observation of speakers' everyday lives
begins. Entering a new research environment is often overwhelming because the
researcher is not yet familiar with its daily operations; the goal of
ethnography, according to the authors, is not simply to collect data but to
learn how the members of a community live and how they make sense of their
environment. There are a number of data collection techniques that can help the
analyst document this learning process. Blommaert and Dong discuss the way
successful ethnographers often combine approaches including observation and
recording, written fieldnotes, interviews, and collecting ''rubbish'' (e.g.
flyers, drawings, ads, media reports, and so forth). Observation, though it may
sound like a passive process, is interactively negotiated and must be approached
thoughtfully by researchers. The authors provide advice for dealing with the
observer's paradox; deciding how to record events, talk, and texts;
contextualizing data that has been collected; considering privacy and the
storage of raw data; and practical considerations for making reliable audio
recordings. A section is devoted to fieldnotes, due to their part in recreating
an account of the researcher's learning process. Finally, a considerable amount
of space is devoted to interviews. In the introduction the authors have already
called attention to a quote from Dell Hymes in which he warns against
''assum[ing] that what there is to find out can be found out by asking'' (Hymes
1981:84, quoted on p. 3); Blommaert and Dong are accordingly careful in their
treatment of interviews. They point out that ''there is nothing intrinsically
ethnographic about an interview'' (p. 42), but they also explain how this genre
can most usefully and appropriately be situated within the ethnographic
endeavor: by working to create a comfortable environment for an informal
conversation, by approaching topics with careful wording and appropriate tone,
and by continually being aware of the way each participant contributes to the
development of the interview. As the authors emphasize, even apparently
unsuccessful interviews can be informative examples of what happens when things
go wrong -- so long as they are viewed through an ethnographic lens.

The final chapter, aside from a very brief postscript, deals with how to
transform the data collected during fieldwork into a picture that reflects what
an ethnographer has learned. This picture is necessarily a subjective one, and
Blommaert and Dong again stress the necessity of a reflexive analysis that
acknowledges the researcher's own part in the creation of the data. But their
focus is on the analysis of narrative, which they describe as ''the 'best' data
you could hope for'' (p. 70). The approach they take draws on Hymes' ethnopoetic
treatment of narratives, and centers around the discovery of coherence through
analysis of the relationship between different parts of the narrative to one
another -- e.g. line by line parallelisms, the 'chunking' of narrative sections,
or the way more important parts of a story are distinguished from less important
ones (see pp. 73-74). There is great detail in this section, which includes
numerous examples of narrative analysis using Blommaert's data collected from
African asylum seekers. Rhetorical structure is also considered in a discussion
of how to identify the argumentative patterns in a narrative. In all cases the
authors highlight the range of linguistic resources speakers use to create
narrative coherence.


I expect many readers of Ethnographic Fieldwork will wish they had a book like
this one prior to their own early experiences in the field, and it will no doubt
be of great value to students and others looking for guidance on how to
implement ethnographic principles. Though the book doesn't bill itself as a text
on linguistic anthropology or sociolinguistics, it is of particular use to those
who are interested in the interface of language and culture because of the way
it centers language data and linguistically-oriented analysis. In addition to
helping turn linguists into ethnographers, the book also takes steps to train
social scientists from fields like anthropology and sociology to think more like
linguists by considering not only what people say but how they say it. The text
is highly accessible and easy to read in an afternoon, but it also maintains a
richness through illustrative examples drawn from Blommaert's fieldwork in
Europe and Africa and Dong's in Beijing. Impressively, there is something for
almost everyone in this little book.

Though its length makes it readable and perhaps less intimidating for students
early in their studies, the downside of a short book is that it can only cover
so much material. Some topics are acknowledged briefly but not discussed, as
when the authors mention that transitioning back home after fieldwork can be
difficult but say nothing more about the process, or when they mention some of
the special challenges faced by ethnographers who are members or partial members
of their communities of research but do not go far enough to consider how those
challenges can be dealt with. So many questions populate the mind of the
beginner: how to explain what ethnography is to research participants or
gatekeeping authorities, what ethical issues need to be considered when the
ethnographer is representing marginalized groups, how to manage the friendships
and other relationships that arise in the field, or what to do if you just
really dislike or even feel intimidated by your research participants. Given
that this book is A Beginner's Guide, perhaps intermediate and advanced volumes
would fill in some of these and other gaps.

The aspect of this book most likely to raise objection among a linguistically
trained audience is its emphasis on narrative analysis. As I mentioned above,
Blommaert and Dong claim that stories are ''the 'best' data you could hope for''
(p. 70), writing elsewhere in the book that ''anecdotes [...] are
often your best
and more valued 'facts'. The reason is that in narratives, people produce very
complex sociocultural meanings. It is through an anecdote that we see what
exactly they understand by a particular term, how our questions resonate in
their own life worlds, how relevant it is, how their own life worlds are
structured, which influences they articulate. We also see, by attending to
anecdotes, that they have cognitive, affective (emotional) and argumentative
functions. Telling an anecdote not only provides knowledge and organizes it in a
particular way. It also provides hints at how the storyteller relates to that
knowledge'' (p. 52).

Certainly these traits are characteristic of narratives, but it isn't clear why
narratives are singled out when other forms of interactional speech --
conversation, performance, oratory, ritual -- also produce complex sociocultural
meanings, reveal life worlds, and mark stance. The privileged status given to
stories may stem in part from the expectation that interviews will be a primary
context for audio recording. Compared to other types of speech occurring in an
interview, narratives may indeed be especially rich (as variationist
sociolinguists have long held). But in this case the authors have missed an
opportunity to draw attention to the potential ethnography affords for
collecting speech in a variety of contexts, including talk that occurs during
participants' everyday lives in addition to speech from dyadic interactions with
the researcher.

However, these flaws do not even begin to undermine the fundamental usefulness
of Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide. It is filled with insights for
first-time ethnographers, particularly those concerned with language. Nothing
substitutes for the real thing, but the authors are surely right when suggest
that readers will find themselves ''slightly better prepared for the chaos and
the perceived lack of structure and transparency'' (p. 86) awaiting them out
there in the field.


Hymes, Dell (ed.). 1981. ''In vain I tried to tell you'': Essays in Native
American ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Lal Zimman is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at
the University of Colorado at Boulder. His dissertation is a
sociophonetic and ethnographic study of the vocal changes undergone by
a group of female-to-male transsexuals during their transition from a
female social role to a male one. Prior to this work he has written
about transgender coming out narratives (Gender & Language, 2009), the
discursive construction of biological sex (Language and Identities,
Watt & Llamas, eds., 2009; Queer Excursions, Zimman, Davis & Raclaw,
eds., to appear) and the perception of sexual orientation among trans
and non-trans men (Colorado Research in Linguistics, 2010).

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