I have been taking part to an ethnography panel with Barbara Czarniawska at UTS, on the 12th of November. The panel was good fun, providing some interesting reflections upon ethnographic practice and thought. Here there is my presentation – just some draft, and brief, notes – which can be also downloaded at this link.
Ethnography panel with Barbara Czarniawska
Hi everybody and thanks Nick and CMOS for having organized this, and Barbara for being here. This is my last gig at UTS so I hope to make it right. Before starting, I just want to add a special thank to Stewart, Liisa and all my colleagues, who have tolerated me in the last two years – well done to you.
Now, ethnography. In the 5 minutes I have I would like to say something about three concepts, or words, that are really important to me, for the way I do research – CONTEXT, SUBJECT, SPACE.
I will say something about these words trying to address two of the questions proposed by Nick:
- How do we cope with blurred boundaries between real and virtual, the mundane and the cyber, the subject and the object of research?
- What does this mean for how we conceive the research ‘site’, how we conduct ourselves in the field, and the kind of stories we can tell as ethnographers?
The first question is about coping – how do we cope with the real and the unreal? This question is particularly relevant to me these days. The pictures show my flat yesterday afternoon. My flat could have been a CONTEXT of research, populated by SUBJECTS that are both humans (my partner, the movers, and I) and non-humans – hundreds of books on the floor, clothes inside plastic bags, furniture, rain, daylight, and the OSS’ boxes all around the place. My flat yesterday afternoon changed, it wasn’t my flat anymore, it was a different SPACE thanks to the different alignments of things taking place in there. It was different, yet repeated (in a sense, it still was my flat), yet different and repeated again by mean of flows, movements, organization, and things that can’t be predicted at all – which you can imagine by yourself if you have ever done an international shipment. So, how do we cope? How do we COPE with the intensity of SPACE? With its richness? With its history, its changes, and with the SPACE that is not yet here but is coming?
When I do ethnography the way I cope with this is to look for DIAGRAMS – for relations that can tell me something about how things assemble, get together, and disassemble, falling apart. Diagrams are not pre-constituted. They are not given. They change accordingly to the kind of subjects and contexts that one look at. Moreover, DIAGRAMS are fluid: they can’t be hold still – one needs to be ready to change idea and to let things go, to follow them rather than holding them, to explore, rather than to examine.
My research topics are cities. But I don’t like to represent cities – to put them in categories, to divide their parts and describe them as functional elements depending upon a clear structure. Rather, cities are matters of flows, as much as my flat. One cannot represent a city – one can only non-represent it: describing the momentarily diagrams that hold things together. Cities are mess of passions, politics, agencies – the way I COPE with them is to come at peace with the fact that I will never be able to find the overall key, but only partial points of view.
The other question is about “what does this mean”, how “we conduct ourselves in the field”, and what we can “tell”. I’ll be brief. These are two pictures taken from the contexts I am going to explore pretty soon: Ferentari, the Roma neighbourhood of Bucharest in Romania, and provisional settlements of political refugees in Rome.
These SPACES – with their contextual practices and materialities and their subjects – MEAN to me only one thing: POLITICS. The reason why I want to look within them is political: I want to let them express, to give them a non-judgmental voice, and to engage with the political stakeholders that bear responsibilities upon them. The meaning then is to find the non-evident diagrams of urban marginality in order to challenge both the canonical notions of urban marginality itself, and the policies built upon those canonical framings.
CONDUCT. There are three important things I will not do: I will not pretend to be one of the people I am about to investigate, although I will be living close to them; I will try to do not substitute their voice with mine; and I will not expose people and contexts without knowing that is politically right to do so. In the field I will essentially observe, take stuff, listen, and follow. I will let the field bringing me around: that’s how I will conduct. Perhaps naively, but openly.
TELL: This is the most relevant point to me. I am moving to the UK because I want to tell relevant stories. Both in the form of academic publishing and not – narrative writing and photography are other ways I will do so. This is part of the political meaning of doing ethnographic research. And if you ask me who decides what is relevant and what is not – well, it is me who decides so. All stories are relevant – one needs to find the one relevant to her or him. I feel I belong to those spaces, the marginal ones, or – better said – I feel I have a connection to them. That’s why is relevant to research them and speak about them.
CONTEXT, SUBJECT and SPACE are the three fluids that aliment my ethnographic research. I like to conclude with the following quote from Guattari, where he is referring to the relation between the self (who could be the researcher) and the social context (which is the field we choose to research about):
“The different components conserve their heterogeneity, but are nevertheless captured by a refrain which couples them to the existential Territory of my self”
Ethnography for me is a way to do not reduce the heterogeneity of life, and to capture bits and pieces of those refrains, those diagrams, that somehow hold things together. It is not easy, but it’s good fun. Thanks.