LINGUIST List 22.1330

Mon Mar 21 2011

Review: Anthropological Ling; Socioling: Blommaert & Dong (2010)

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        1.     Lal Zimman , Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide

Message 1: Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide
Date: 21-Mar-2011
From: Lal Zimman <>
Subject: Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide
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AUTHORS: Blommaert, Jan & Dong, JieTITLE: Ethnographic FieldworkSUBTITLE: A Beginner's GuidePUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2010

Lal Zimman, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder


This book is a uniquely practical introduction to the realities of ethnographicfieldwork. Increasing numbers of sociolinguists are making use of ethnography inorder to enrich their linguistic analyses with grounded knowledge about thesocial lives of speakers. Yet there are few resources to help students oflanguage and other novice ethnographers prepare for and implement their ownethnographic projects. This is partially due to the nature of ethnography: it isan approach that stresses localized understandings of social (and/or linguistic)phenomena while rejecting analyst-imposed categories and assumptions based onthe researcher's prior experience in other cultural contexts. Because thespecificities of the community under study -- and the researcher him- or herself-- shape the ethnographic experience so profoundly, it is difficult toanticipate the challenges that will be encountered before the research hasbegun. But Blommaert and Dong have managed to distill their combined experience-- the former being a well-seasoned discourse analyst and the latter having justrecently completed her dissertation as a first-time ethnographer -- intodetailed lessons that can be applied to a variety of research contexts.

Ethnography provides a set of methods for collecting data, but it is also atheoretical paradigm with a particular vantage point on humanity and humanpractices. The theoretical perspective in which ethnography is based isintroduced in chapter 2 (following the brief introduction in chapter 1), andthis groundwork is crucial for understanding what ethnography is and why it isworth pursuing. Historically, ethnography has grown out of the field ofanthropology, situating it within a rather different view of language thanlinguists have most often taken since the middle of the 20th century. From ananthropological perspective, language is a tool for human sociality, and as aresult language always has a social context. This context is not static, butemergent and complex, and ethnographic research should reflect this fact byallowing 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 aholistic picture of how they see their world. This book aims not simply to trainreaders in ethnographic methods but also to begin seeing the world throughethnographic eyes.

The hands-on advice Blommaert and Dong provide, which is the primarycontribution of Ethnographic Fieldwork, is spread out across three chapters thatare 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 byoffering short discussions of major tasks that should be accomplished -- or atleast begun -- prior to entering the field. The overall key to this preparation,however, is that the researcher must begin to adopt an ethnographic perspectiveon the work even during research design. This means recognizing the role ofsubjectivity in data collection, and being willing to forego claims ofscientific objectivity, generalizability, and replicability. Furthermore,because context arises not only in the moments a researcher observes, but alsoconsists of multiple layers that include a nation's history, long-standingsocial tensions, and so on, research on these macro-level factors can often beaccomplished in the preparation stage. Context should inform the way a study isdevised as well as how it is conducted and analyzed.

The longest chapter of this short book is Chapter 4, which focuses on the periodof time in which the ethnographer is actively engaged with his or her researchcommunity. For all the planning one may do, it is impossible to know exactlywhat will actually be encountered once observation of speakers' everyday livesbegins. Entering a new research environment is often overwhelming because theresearcher is not yet familiar with its daily operations; the goal ofethnography, according to the authors, is not simply to collect data but tolearn how the members of a community live and how they make sense of theirenvironment. There are a number of data collection techniques that can help theanalyst document this learning process. Blommaert and Dong discuss the waysuccessful ethnographers often combine approaches including observation andrecording, written fieldnotes, interviews, and collecting ''rubbish'' (e.g.flyers, drawings, ads, media reports, and so forth). Observation, though it maysound like a passive process, is interactively negotiated and must be approachedthoughtfully by researchers. The authors provide advice for dealing with theobserver's paradox; deciding how to record events, talk, and texts;contextualizing data that has been collected; considering privacy and thestorage of raw data; and practical considerations for making reliable audiorecordings. A section is devoted to fieldnotes, due to their part in recreatingan account of the researcher's learning process. Finally, a considerable amountof space is devoted to interviews. In the introduction the authors have alreadycalled 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'' (Hymes1981:84, quoted on p. 3); Blommaert and Dong are accordingly careful in theirtreatment of interviews. They point out that ''there is nothing intrinsicallyethnographic about an interview'' (p. 42), but they also explain how this genrecan most usefully and appropriately be situated within the ethnographicendeavor: by working to create a comfortable environment for an informalconversation, by approaching topics with careful wording and appropriate tone,and by continually being aware of the way each participant contributes to thedevelopment of the interview. As the authors emphasize, even apparentlyunsuccessful interviews can be informative examples of what happens when thingsgo wrong -- so long as they are viewed through an ethnographic lens.

The final chapter, aside from a very brief postscript, deals with how totransform the data collected during fieldwork into a picture that reflects whatan ethnographer has learned. This picture is necessarily a subjective one, andBlommaert and Dong again stress the necessity of a reflexive analysis thatacknowledges the researcher's own part in the creation of the data. But theirfocus is on the analysis of narrative, which they describe as ''the 'best' datayou could hope for'' (p. 70). The approach they take draws on Hymes' ethnopoetictreatment of narratives, and centers around the discovery of coherence throughanalysis of the relationship between different parts of the narrative to oneanother -- e.g. line by line parallelisms, the 'chunking' of narrative sections,or the way more important parts of a story are distinguished from less importantones (see pp. 73-74). There is great detail in this section, which includesnumerous examples of narrative analysis using Blommaert's data collected fromAfrican asylum seekers. Rhetorical structure is also considered in a discussionof how to identify the argumentative patterns in a narrative. In all cases theauthors highlight the range of linguistic resources speakers use to createnarrative coherence.


I expect many readers of Ethnographic Fieldwork will wish they had a book likethis one prior to their own early experiences in the field, and it will no doubtbe of great value to students and others looking for guidance on how toimplement ethnographic principles. Though the book doesn't bill itself as a texton linguistic anthropology or sociolinguistics, it is of particular use to thosewho are interested in the interface of language and culture because of the wayit centers language data and linguistically-oriented analysis. In addition tohelping turn linguists into ethnographers, the book also takes steps to trainsocial scientists from fields like anthropology and sociology to think more likelinguists by considering not only what people say but how they say it. The textis highly accessible and easy to read in an afternoon, but it also maintains arichness through illustrative examples drawn from Blommaert's fieldwork inEurope and Africa and Dong's in Beijing. Impressively, there is something foralmost everyone in this little book.

Though its length makes it readable and perhaps less intimidating for studentsearly in their studies, the downside of a short book is that it can only coverso much material. Some topics are acknowledged briefly but not discussed, aswhen the authors mention that transitioning back home after fieldwork can bedifficult but say nothing more about the process, or when they mention some ofthe special challenges faced by ethnographers who are members or partial membersof their communities of research but do not go far enough to consider how thosechallenges can be dealt with. So many questions populate the mind of thebeginner: how to explain what ethnography is to research participants orgatekeeping authorities, what ethical issues need to be considered when theethnographer is representing marginalized groups, how to manage the friendshipsand other relationships that arise in the field, or what to do if you justreally dislike or even feel intimidated by your research participants. Giventhat this book is A Beginner's Guide, perhaps intermediate and advanced volumeswould fill in some of these and other gaps.

The aspect of this book most likely to raise objection among a linguisticallytrained 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 bestand more valued 'facts'. The reason is that in narratives, people produce verycomplex sociocultural meanings. It is through an anecdote that we see whatexactly they understand by a particular term, how our questions resonate intheir own life worlds, how relevant it is, how their own life worlds arestructured, which influences they articulate. We also see, by attending toanecdotes, that they have cognitive, affective (emotional) and argumentativefunctions. Telling an anecdote not only provides knowledge and organizes it in aparticular way. It also provides hints at how the storyteller relates to thatknowledge'' (p. 52).

Certainly these traits are characteristic of narratives, but it isn't clear whynarratives are singled out when other forms of interactional speech --conversation, performance, oratory, ritual -- also produce complex socioculturalmeanings, reveal life worlds, and mark stance. The privileged status given tostories may stem in part from the expectation that interviews will be a primarycontext for audio recording. Compared to other types of speech occurring in aninterview, narratives may indeed be especially rich (as variationistsociolinguists have long held). But in this case the authors have missed anopportunity to draw attention to the potential ethnography affords forcollecting speech in a variety of contexts, including talk that occurs duringparticipants' everyday lives in addition to speech from dyadic interactions withthe researcher.

However, these flaws do not even begin to undermine the fundamental usefulnessof Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner's Guide. It is filled with insights forfirst-time ethnographers, particularly those concerned with language. Nothingsubstitutes for the real thing, but the authors are surely right when suggestthat readers will find themselves ''slightly better prepared for the chaos andthe perceived lack of structure and transparency'' (p. 86) awaiting them outthere in the field.

Hymes, Dell (ed.). 1981. ''In vain I tried to tell you'': Essays in NativeAmerican ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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).

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Page Updated: 21-Mar-2011