Instructor: Ian Kalman
Written Assignment: Ethnographic Observation
This assignment is an exercise in ethnographic observation. Students are asked to choose a
location in the Montreal area for a field site. There, they will spend at least an hour, taking
(hand-written) notes on what they observe. Successful sites are those in which, to some
extent, what is considered ‘normal’ differs from the observer’s own sense of normal. In
other words, students are asked to go to a place where taken-for-granted knowledge differs
from their own and report on their experiences and insights. In doing so, you make
something that was previously strange slightly more ...view middle of the document...
Although you will inevitably have to
include some interpretation and presupposition into your descriptions, generally speaking,
‘showing’ is better than ‘telling’.
Example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’:
“The girl sitting by the lake was very angry at her boyfriend.” (Telling)
vs. “A girl sitting by the lake started yelling at the boy whose hand she had been holding.” (Showing)
Example of discussing how you ‘knew’ what you knew:
“The church-goers ate the wafers, which symbolized the body of Christ” (It is unclear how you knew what
vs. “The church-goers ate the wafers. One later told me that the wafers symbolized the body of Christ”. (It is
clear how you knew what that meant)
You should give the reader an impression of ‘being there’ with you at the site. The authority
of your analysis will come from the clarity and consistency of your description. Depending
on how you want to analyze your experience, you may or may not want to include reflexivity.
Students are asked to say something meaningful about what they observed. Analysis can
vary based upon theoretical perspectives the student chooses to invoke, or particular
objectives of the observation. As this project is very small in scope, try to stick to small,
refined observations rather than sweeping statements. I want to see the ways in which your
experience challenged, or at least complicated your preconceptions.
Example of refined analysis:
“From my two hours in the McDonalds, I concluded that fast food is the only way people there make
themselves happy” (Too sweeping)
“From my two hours in the McDonalds, I concluded that the restaurant tried to provide customers with a
sense of belonging.” (More limited and accurate)
If you choose to be more reflexive, you may also discuss the relationship between those
experiences, perceptions and connections, and your own experience as an observer.
In the analysis section, students must explicitly justify their use of a theory, reading, or
thinker, from our lectures and readings. Of the analytical frameworks discussed (or which
will be discussed) in class, you may find the following helpful:
o Bronislaw Malinowski: Trying to understand the imponderabilia of everyday
life or trying to see how facets of culture function to satisfy needs
o Ruth Benedict: Culture as connected to particular types of personality
o Margaret Mead: Demonstrating what we consider ‘natural’ is in fact ‘cultural’
o Clifford Geertz: Anthropology as an interpretive science in search of
o Renato Rosaldo: Anthropology as the repositioning of one’s subjectivity
o Paul Rabinow: Anthropology as the comprehension of the self by detour of
o Radcliffe Brown: Anthropology as the study of structural...