Community Ethnography Toolkit: Hope Gives Rise to More Ethnographies and Collective Discovery

April 11, 2017 / By: Mackenzie Burke, SCP Intern


Dr. Maria Dahmus, Assistant Director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, and Dr. Todd Lawrence, professor of spring semester’s Ethnography Writing class, share their insights on the ethnographic toolkit project now underway. In this interview, Dahmus and Lawrence discuss the definition and history of ethnography, their partnership with East Side Freedom Library, and their goals for the interest and application of an ethnography toolkit.  

What is ethnography?

Lawrence (L): Ethnography, most generally speaking, is a kind of qualitative research. Basically in ethnography, what we’re doing is writing about groups of people. It could mean writing to represent the culture of a group of people. It could mean, like for my class, focusing on the experiences of people, the traditions of people, the beliefs and ideas of people, the practices of people.

L: The history of ethnography is very colonial and very imperialist. It’s this supposedly objective colonialist eye going out and looking at people who live on islands in the south. So, part of what we do over the course of the semester is engage more progressive approaches to ethnography: feminist ethnography, auto ethnography, reflective ethnography. Reflexive ethnography simply means acknowledging your own position and presence in ethnography. A contemporary ethnographer would talk about their experience as part of the ethnography. So you don’t deny those things, you really think about them and engage them.

What is your project?

L: We have a partner, which is the East Side Freedom Library. They are helping us to identify people who will become our research collaborators who will work with us on the research. We will begin our research in sessions at East Side Freedom Library by interviewing people and then maybe moving beyond that to visit their houses or whatever it might be that students will do.

L: Initially, because [East Side Freedom Library] knows a lot of restaurant owners on the East Side (chefs and people who run markets), we thought it would be great to work with [them]. They are mostly from immigrant backgrounds- first or second generation immigrants. I want to get a cross section of the East Side neighborhood, so it doesn’t have to all be chefs and cooks. I want it to be people who cook at their house. You know, everybody eats food. Food is not just the domain of people who have chef in front of their name. I want to get just regular people too.

Dahmus (D): Food systems are related to sustainability, so we thought it was good theme to carry on from last year's SCP project with urban agriculture.  The idea of studying immigrant food ways was something we proposed to the East Side Freedom Library because they create archives of immigrant experiences or archives about history of different people. We were thinking it could be in partnership with ESFL because they have connection with the community and an archive that they would like to have contributions to.

D: Throughout the semester, students will apply the toolkit, or portions of it, to guide their ethnographic work. They will also reflect on the process and provide feedback on the toolkit, which Dr. Lawrence will use improve the toolkit.  We’ll then provide the toolkit to communities as a resource to guide their own community ethnographies. Also, at the end of the semester, students will participate in a community event at the East Side Freedom Library to share their data and writing from the project. The East Side Freedom Library will keep the interviews in an archive documenting traditional food practices of East Side community members.

What benefit did you see for the community?

L: That’s part of thinking about ethnography. When it comes to what we are doing for the community, I think the community in some sense ends up dictating what you’re doing for them. You can’t go in and think “well we’re going to do x, y, and z.”

L: The next step is not to go in with a preordained idea of what’s going to happen or what we want to do but go in and listen to what the community is telling us. Who knows, we want to do this archive but maybe it’ll become obvious that nobody cares and we should do something else. With this [project] we will be able to give them their data and allow them do what they want with this data.

L: We’re even trying to change the language. I don’t know if many people use “research collaborator” as the term but I like it. I sort of decided to use it because I hate “informant” or “subject.” It’s so subject- object, it’s like “we’re looking at you, give us something.” I don’t want it to be that way, so I try to use a language that levels that and acknowledges the position of the person who you’re working with. You can’t do it without them.

Why a toolkit? What is the goal?

L: I really like the idea of doing ethnography in a way that gives rise to more ethnography. I think ethnography can be really useful not just for researchers but for communities themselves. There are terms and ways of thinking about research that is designed to let communities be in charge of whatever research is happening- that’s accessible and even driven by them.

D: So, this community ethnography guide- creating that, distributing that and providing it as a resource- is a way to achieve that goal. The first draft of it, which [Dr. Lawrence] has done, is based on his knowledge of the practice of ethnography, and also informed by his experience working with his students in last year’s SCP Urban Agriculture Ethnography Project with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization  in his graduate course. So, we thought well if we can do this with another course, then these students can actually try out the guide.

D: They’ll have the guide as they do their ethnography-- and they can identify pieces that are missing, or how to clarify the instructions for how to do community ethnography.  They’ll give [Dr. Lawrence] feedback about it as well, “This part was unclear,” or “I think you should change this or add this” to make it easier for the person doing the ethnography. Eventually, someone from the community can have that tool to do it for themselves. They don’t have to follow it exactly at all, but it’s a resource to motivate and prompt that way of collecting stories and engaging around issues of the community.

D: Another goal of the toolkit is to help find solutions to different issues today. The more you understand the community, the strengths of the community, you can also better understand what solutions there might be. Who knows what will happen when someone starts engaging with ethnography.  They need a topic like food ways, urban agriculture, it might be a local park, it could be how people like to engage with their own yard or neighborhood spaces. It really just depends on what that community wants to look at. It’s really a tool that could empower communities to explore issues that are important to them. Whether it’s to celebrate something, or to try to understand a problem, or to emphasize a community strength, there are different ways, but it’s really an empowerment tool.