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Methods and Materials for South/Southeast Asian Studies: Ethnography

Introduction to methods, materials, and recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences within South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Ideal Examples of Ethnographic Research

Defining Ethnography and Immersive Methods

Ethnography is a method that, like many of its practitioners, avoids certainty and hard truth statements with an intellectual ferocity and considered pluralism. Ethnography is any and all of the following: 1) a method for collecting data; 2) a sensibility and/or ontological/epistemological supposition; 3) a style of scholarly writing. Despite the kind of wonderful ambiguity that surrounds this method, especially within Anthropology, where it truly reigns supreme, for our purposes we might think about ethnography as a set of interrelated methods with participant-observation standing out as particularly important.

Participant-Observation, or “deep hanging out” (my personal favorite), is “the systematic description of events, behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for study” (Marshall and Rossman 1989). In other words, it involves the observation and participation into life within a chosen fieldsite or fieldsites. Many ethnographers spend two years or more (or less) immersed in the social, political, religious, economic life of their fieldsites. For example, for a study of urban politics in Imphal, Manipur, the researcher’s primary source of data would be her own observations living in Imphal and interacting with its diverse residents to understand their lives and critically engage with those observations during the subsequent write up of the research.

As you can probably guess, ethnographic researchers make copious notes of their experiences in the field. These field notes have an almost sacred status amongst many researchers, where their daily observations, interactions, and changing impressions of their sites and populations become essential for their careers, and, sometimes quite comically, a source of great anxiety and paranoia. (Having lost some of my notebooks in the Delhi Airport, let me tell you, I know the feeling, even if I eventually found them in the lost and found a month later).  

Ethnography as a writing style is slightly less important for our purposes in the LibGuide. However, that ethnographic sensibility that I mentioned above? Yeah, that’s super important! While there are positivist social scientists that use ethnographic methods, the majority of practitioners are expressly not interested in simple causal models (where variable X directly causes phenomenon Y), and are not interested in the creation of theoretical models that make claims to universality across all times and space. Indeed, much of ethnography, like its parent discipline contemporary Anthropology, is non-positivist, by which I mean that they do not believe in a constant underlying truth and causality out there to be discovered separate from the observer. Rather, they emphasize that social reality is viewed and interpreted through certain social, cultural, economic, geographic and even temporal lenses. Confused? Good, you should be. These are big questions in the philosophy of science and deserve considerable contemplation and debate throughout your academic and professional career. These are also questions best covered in your coursework as well!

I would recommend reading this account from a prominent anthropologist to start getting a feel for what “ethnographic” sensibility entails with regard to ontology and epistemology.

Preparing for Fieldwork, Language Study, and Field Notes

Since ethnography is fieldwork based you might think that the Library is not as important for your research. You would be WRONG!

Area and subject specialist librarians are a valuable resource for planning your pre-fieldwork preparation, help connect you with resources when you’re on the ground, and assist with your write-up and post-fieldwork research to help bridge any gaps as you develop your argument. Area studies librarians often have extensive field research experience of their own to help you along the way, including your friendly Librarian for South and Southeast Asian Studies! I mean, I did design this LibGuide, didn’t I?

Of course, I also recommend taking a class on ethnographic methods during your time at Yale to really get a feel for the methodology. Ethnography is hard work, so pulling from as many resources as possible and bracing yourself for an enlightening, but challenging time in the field is essential. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

Librarian for South and Southeast Asian Studies