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AUTHORS: Blommaert, Jan & Dong, Jie TITLE: Ethnographic Fieldwork SUBTITLE: A Beginner's Guide PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2010
Lal Zimman, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder
This book is a uniquely practical introduction to the realities of ethnographic fieldwork. Increasing numbers of sociolinguists are making use of ethnography in order to enrich their linguistic analyses with grounded knowledge about the social lives of speakers. Yet there are few resources to help students of language and other novice ethnographers prepare for and implement their own ethnographic projects. This is partially due to the nature of ethnography: it is an approach that stresses localized understandings of social (and/or linguistic) phenomena while rejecting analyst-imposed categories and assumptions based on the researcher's prior experience in other cultural contexts. Because the specificities of the community under study -- and the researcher him- or herself -- shape the ethnographic experience so profoundly, it is difficult to anticipate the challenges that will be encountered before the research has begun. But Blommaert and Dong have managed to distill their combined experience -- the former being a well-seasoned discourse analyst and the latter having just recently completed her dissertation as a first-time ethnographer -- into detailed lessons that can be applied to a variety of research contexts.
Ethnography provides a set of methods for collecting data, but it is also a theoretical paradigm with a particular vantage point on humanity and human practices. The theoretical perspective in which ethnography is based is introduced in chapter 2 (following the brief introduction in chapter 1), and this groundwork is crucial for understanding what ethnography is and why it is worth pursuing. Historically, ethnography has grown out of the field of anthropology, situating it within a rather different view of language than linguists have most often taken since the middle of the 20th century. From an anthropological perspective, language is a tool for human sociality, and as a result language always has a social context. This context is not static, but emergent and complex, and ethnographic research should reflect this fact by allowing analytic explanations to materialize from holistic observation. Ethnography therefore involves deep, long-term engagement with a group (generally) of people across a variety of contexts with the goal of gaining a holistic picture of how they see their world. This book aims not simply to train readers in ethnographic methods but also to begin seeing the world through ethnographic eyes.
The hands-on advice Blommaert and Dong provide, which is the primary contribution of Ethnographic Fieldwork, is spread out across three chapters that are arranged chronologically: the pre-fieldwork preparation stage (chapter 3), the time spent in the field (chapter 4), and the period that follows fieldwork (chapter 5). Chapter 3 guides readers through the pre-fieldwork phase by offering short discussions of major tasks that should be accomplished -- or at least begun -- prior to entering the field. The overall key to this preparation, however, is that the researcher must begin to adopt an ethnographic perspective on the work even during research design. This means recognizing the role of subjectivity in data collection, and being willing to forego claims of scientific objectivity, generalizability, and replicability. Furthermore, because context arises not only in the moments a researcher observes, but also consists of multiple layers that include a nation's history, long-standing social tensions, and so on, research on these macro-level factors can often be accomplished in the preparation stage. Context should inform the way a study is devised as well as how it is conducted and analyzed.
The longest chapter of this short book is Chapter 4, which focuses on the period of time in which the ethnographer is actively engaged with his or her research community. For all the planning one may do, it is impossible to know exactly what will actually be encountered once observation of speakers' everyday lives begins. Entering a new research environment is often overwhelming because the researcher is not yet familiar with its daily operations; the goal of ethnography, according to the authors, is not simply to collect data but to learn how the members of a community live and how they make sense of their environment. There are a number of data collection techniques that can help the analyst document this learning process. Blommaert and Dong discuss the way successful ethnographers often combine approaches including observation and recording, written fieldnotes, interviews, and collecting ''rubbish'' (e.g. flyers, drawings, ads, media reports, and so forth). Observation, though it may sound like a passive process, is interactively negotiated and must be approached thoughtfully by researchers. The authors provide advice for dealing with the observer's paradox; deciding how to record events, talk, and texts; contextualizing data that has been collected; considering privacy and the storage of raw data; and practical considerations for making reliable audio recordings. A section is devoted to fieldnotes, due to their part in recreating an account of the researcher's learning process. Finally, a considerable amount of space is devoted to interviews. In the introduction the authors have already called attention to a quote from Dell Hymes in which he warns against ''assum[ing] that what there is to find out can be found out by asking'' (Hymes 1981:84, quoted on p. 3); Blommaert and Dong are accordingly careful in their treatment of interviews. They point out that ''there is nothing intrinsically ethnographic about an interview'' (p. 42), but they also explain how this genre can most usefully and appropriately be situated within the ethnographic endeavor: by working to create a comfortable environment for an informal conversation, by approaching topics with careful wording and appropriate tone, and by continually being aware of the way each participant contributes to the development of the interview. As the authors emphasize, even apparently unsuccessful interviews can be informative examples of what happens when things go wrong -- so long as they are viewed through an ethnographic lens.
The final chapter, aside from a very brief postscript, deals with how to transform the data collected during fieldwork into a picture that reflects what an ethnographer has learned. This picture is necessarily a subjective one, and Blommaert and Dong again stress the necessity of a reflexive analysis that acknowledges the researcher's own part in the creation of the data. But their focus is on the analysis of narrative, which they describe as ''the 'best' data you could hope for'' (p. 70). The approach they take draws on Hymes' ethnopoetic treatment of narratives, and centers around the discovery of coherence through analysis of the relationship between different parts of the narrative to one another -- e.g. line by line parallelisms, the 'chunking' of narrative sections, or the way more important parts of a story are distinguished from less important ones (see pp. 73-74). There is great detail in this section, which includes numerous examples of narrative analysis using Blommaert's data collected from African asylum seekers. Rhetorical structure is also considered in a discussion of how to identify the argumentative patterns in a narrative. In all cases the authors highlight the range of linguistic resources speakers use to create narrative coherence.
I expect many readers of Ethnographic Fieldwork will wish they had a book like this one prior to their own early experiences in the field, and it will no doubt be of great value to students and others looking for guidance on how to implement ethnographic principles. Though the book doesn't bill itself as a text on linguistic anthropology or sociolinguistics, it is of particular use to those who are interested in the interface of language and culture because of the way it centers language data and linguistically-oriented analysis. In addition to helping turn linguists into ethnographers, the book also takes steps to train social scientists from fields like anthropology and sociology to think more like linguists by considering not only what people say but how they say it. The text is highly accessible and easy to read in an afternoon, but it also maintains a richness through illustrative examples drawn from Blommaert's fieldwork in Europe and Africa and Dong's in Beijing. Impressively, there is something for almost everyone in this little book.
Though its length makes it readable and perhaps less intimidating for students early in their studies, the downside of a short book is that it can only cover so much material. Some topics are acknowledged briefly but not discussed, as when the authors mention that transitioning back home after fieldwork can be difficult but say nothing more about the process, or when they mention some of the special challenges faced by ethnographers who are members or partial members of their communities of research but do not go far enough to consider how those challenges can be dealt with. So many questions populate the mind of the beginner: how to explain what ethnography is to research participants or gatekeeping authorities, what ethical issues need to be considered when the ethnographer is representing marginalized groups, how to manage the friendships and other relationships that arise in the field, or what to do if you just really dislike or even feel intimidated by your research participants. Given that this book is A Beginner's Guide, perhaps intermediate and advanced volumes would fill in some of these and other gaps.
The aspect of this book most likely to raise objection among a linguistically trained audience is its emphasis on narrative analysis. As I mentioned above, Blommaert and Dong claim that stories are ''the 'best' data you could hope for'' (p. 70), writing elsewhere in the book that ''anecdotes [...] are often your best and more valued 'facts'. The reason is that in narratives, people produce very complex sociocultural meanings. It is through an anecdote that we see what exactly they understand by a particular term, how our questions resonate in their own life worlds, how relevant it is, how their own life worlds are structured, which influences they articulate. We also see, by attending to anecdotes, that they have cognitive, affective (emotional) and argumentative functions. Telling an anecdote not only provides knowledge and organizes it in a particular way. It also provides hints at how the storyteller relates to that knowledge'' (p. 52).
Certainly these traits are characteristic of narratives, but it isn't clear why narratives are singled out when other forms of interactional speech -- conversation, performance, oratory, ritual -- also produce complex sociocultural meanings, reveal life worlds, and mark stance. The privileged status given to stories may stem in part from the expectation that interviews will be a primary context for audio recording. Compared to other types of speech occurring in an interview, narratives may indeed be especially rich (as variationist sociolinguists have long held). But in this case the authors have missed an opportunity to draw attention to the potential ethnography affords for collecting speech in a variety of contexts, including talk that occurs during participants' everyday lives in addition to speech from dyadic interactions with the researcher.
However, these flaws do not even begin to undermine the fundamental usefulness of Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide. It is filled with insights for first-time ethnographers, particularly those concerned with language. Nothing substitutes for the real thing, but the authors are surely right when suggest that readers will find themselves ''slightly better prepared for the chaos and the perceived lack of structure and transparency'' (p. 86) awaiting them out there in the field.
Hymes, Dell (ed.). 1981. ''In vain I tried to tell you'': Essays in Native American ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Lal Zimman is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the
University of Colorado at Boulder. His dissertation is a sociophonetic and
ethnographic study of the vocal changes undergone by a group of
female-to-male transsexuals during their transition from a female social
role to a male one. Prior to this work he has written about transgender
coming out narratives (Gender & Language, 2009), the discursive
construction of biological sex (Language and Identities, Watt & Llamas,
eds., 2009; Queer Excursions, Zimman, Davis & Raclaw, eds., to appear) and
the perception of sexual orientation among trans and non-trans men
(Colorado Research in Linguistics, 2010).