The ethnographer as guest

Ethnographic and interview methods are, by their nature, interactive. But that means researchers have to account for a unique variable: themselves.

Even physicists complain about the observer’s paradox — the act of observing changes the thing being observed. And it’s only truer when the thing being observed is not a thing but a person.

Have you ever thrown a dinner party? If you have, you probably know that adding one person to the mix can completely change the social dynamics. And that’s what ethnographic researchers have to contend with, every time — we’re that extra person.

Fieldwork and the self

Ethnographic fieldwork is a research method where the researcher immerses themself in a community and participates in it, often for quite a long period of time. It requires not only heightened self-monitoring but also an attempt to suspend your own criteria for normative evaluation and sense-making. Simply put, fieldwork is an attempt to live up to social standards that do not come naturally.

For my dissertation, I conducted research with indigenous Mexican Jehovah’s Witnesses for the better part of a year. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things about me that affected the data I collected:

  1. I speak Spanish very well: I was able to ask detailed questions and understand the nuances of the answers. If my Spanish were less good, I might have missed out on some of the subtleties. And if I’d had to work with an interpreter, that would have altered social behavior in totally different ways.
  2. I’m White and relatively well-to-do, but not Mexican: It was immediately obvious that I have relatively high status, which was largely a boon. It meant that spending time with me was desirable. And I didn’t have the kind of high status that would have created a challenge for building rapport: for historical reasons, indigenous communities tend to be distrustful of well-to-do Mexicans.
  3. I’m a woman, and a fairly young one: I was able to spend time alone with women without arousing suspicion. In a conservative community, it would have been very difficult for a man to spend time alone with women.
  4. I was introduced to the community by an archaeologist who had worked there for 10 years: I had been vouched for, which made people more trusting.
  5. I’m not a Witness: Because converting outsiders is central to Witnesses’ religious practice, people went out of their way to talk to me and to answer any questions I had about the religion.[1]
  6. I dressed conservatively: In doing so, I communicated that I shared values with the Witnesses I spent time with.

Some of these things were completely beyond my control, while others (especially the last one) were fully within it. That’s a major reason why it’s so important to be mindful: so we can make conscious choices about our self-presentation. Presenting ourselves as relative insiders or outsiders will affect the data we get, and that can be useful. Are we looking for the kinds of explanations usually reserved for those who aren’t in the know? Do we want to unpack the things that are taken for granted in communication with other insiders?

The things we can and can’t change

We can, and do, deliberately present ourselves in some way to make a certain impression.

Various scholars have described it as “impression management.” For instance, Gerald Berreman talks about the small lies he told for the sake of building rapport in his research: he hid such “alien” behaviors as his use of toilet paper and his dislike of the local liquor. And Erving Goffman goes a step further. According to Goffman, we can’t have social interaction at all without deliberate impression management. That is, we always choose how to represent ourselves to others, and those others will evaluate us based on local standards. (Whether those local standards are native to us or foreign to us is of no concern … except that we’re more likely to get it wrong!)

By Goffman’s logic, fieldwork isn’t even really a special case. After all, you don’t present yourself the same way in the office as you do on a date: you don’t dress the same, talk about the same things, or use the same body language. (Well, maybe you do, but I certainly don’t.) And most of the time, we do this without having to think about it. Sure, we may agonize about what to wear on that date, or how to present at that meeting — but we’re not agonizing about the difference between the two. We take it for granted that different situations have different behavioral standards, and we do our best to meet them.

There are lots of reasons why we try to meet those standards, even if we don’t agree with them. A certain amount of realism about power structures is one: you may agree that professionalism is classist and racist (and and and), but if you need to eat, you’re still going to play by those rules. And politeness is another.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a thought experiment: You are going to the home of a friend’s parents for the first time, and you know those parents have particularly strong cultural and/or religious ideas about appropriate and inappropriate clothing. What do you wear?

Good ethnographers are good guests

Visiting a friend’s parents is a good starting point, because as ethnographers, we are guests. We’re guests in other people’s homes; we’re guests in the communities where we spend time. In the field, we need to remember that.

There are three basic guidelines:

  • Be flexible: Being a good guest means inconveniencing your hosts as little as possible.
  • Accept restrictions: If your host’s rules are more restrictive than your own, follow them as best as you are able. (And if you have good reason not to, be respectful in disagreeing.)
  • Be grateful: Thank your hosts, with your words and deeds. (Take on chores that are appropriate. Help out financially or with gifts if there’s a way to do so.)

Simpler still, I return time and again to the single principle of good guest behavior I learned as a child: their roof, their rules.


The Nerdy Stuff

Further reading

  • Berreman, Gerald D. 2012[1972]. Behind Many Masks: Ethnography and Impression Management. In Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader, Second Edition. A. C. G. M. Robben and J. A. Sluka, eds. Pp. 153-174. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

  • Goffman, Erving. 1990[1959]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday.


[1] In “Behind Many Masks,” Gerald Berreman notes that because anthropologists are so foreign, people can only situate us socially by our association with other people who are “more conventional and hence comprehensible as a person.” Where I lived and who I spent time with had a significant impact on my research — I lived in a Witness household and spent most of my time with Witnesses. Folks in the town who followed other religions assumed I was a Witness, although the questions I asked made it quickly apparent to Witnesses that I was not.