A Brief Reflection on Learning and Doing Ethnography

I’m not big on business clichés and recycled quotes. However, I found an interesting statement by someone describing Bruce Lee’s method. It’s pointless in isolation, but when I applied it to thinking about ethnography, it made me consider the value of learning and doing “classic” ethnography (immersion and long-term participant observation). Doing so is a luxury. But it is significant in one’s development as an ethnographer.

Much ethnography today is rapid and its methods are designed to meet market demands. Professions far from anthropology have adopted it. In this cooption, it has been cherry picked apart often rendering practices unrecognizable. But at its best, this process has produced in some interesting and useful offspring. At its worse, I’ve seen focus groups or semi-structured interviews alone being touted as “ethnographic research.” They are not.

There are important spaces for “paraprofessional ethnography.” However, there is something about deeper engagements (slow ethnography) and how these experiences shape the ethnographer’s future engagement in high-speed, improvised research. Here’s the quote (taken from a StockTwits newsletter):

Bruce Lee had this figured out. His theory of martial arts was to learn as much traditional style as he could, so he had the tools to improvise any situation he needed. He was never winging it. And he was never following the textbook. He used traditional style… as a guideline, with the understanding that unique situations require unique strategies. “The truth is outside of all fixed patterns,” he said.

Learn the textbook, the often abstruse theories and methods, the critical paradigms, the classic patterns, and the fetishized objects of anthropological fascination. Then comes the greater confidence to improvise, condense, and transform these slow approaches into their faster cousins. Ideally, with this foundation, one will bring more substance, meaning, and insight into future, higher speed ethnographic inquiries.

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and my other essays here

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