SFA’s Ethnographic Fieldschool has connected the dots of many cultural experiences since its inception four years ago. With the Sonoran Desert its natural classroom, the SFA program broadens active learning into enthusiastic experience, with nothing escaping relevance. During the March 2016 Fieldschool, participants engaged in cultural documentation about the geography, stories and traditions of the Ajo tri-cultural region.
After enjoying and extracting learning from their field work, participants utilized a folklorist’s toolbox to deconstruct notes and probe lecture data. The following field notes by one SFA Ajo Field School participant, Sarah Rachelle Renkert, illustrate the richness of the experience:
Reflections on Ethnography
By Sarah Rachelle Renkert
On more than one occasion, I have been asked what an “ethnographic fieldschool” actually is. As a graduate student studying sociocultural anthropology, “ethnography” feels like a common sense word. However, I know that to describe the purpose of the fieldschool, I must first be able understand and explain ethnography to an audience beyond the confined space of my own mind. While I could certainly cite several scholars who have offered insightful definitions of the practice, I want to use this space to develop my own interpretation of what ethnography and being an ethnographer mean for me.
Participating in the Southwest Folklife Alliance’s (SFA) Fieldschool has allowed me to dive into ethnography’s meaning, both in theory and practice. Drawing on experiences from our time in Ajo and on the Tohono O’odham Nation throughout the fieldschool, I want to use both written reflections and photos to try and describe how I interpret the core components of ethnography.
Ethnography is first and foremost about respect. All people, places, materials, or processes an ethnographer researches or engages with, must be treated with the upmost respect and care.
Ethnographers are researchers who are embedded in a human context, which explores one of the infinite aspects of “culture” or “society.” Whether in their own neighborhood or that of another, ethnographers attempt to explore a research interest or question in depth by getting to know people, understanding their lives, and asking questions which attempt to uncover deeply embedded meaning and understanding. Anybody has the potential to be an ethnographic researcher, not only those who find themselves in the world of academia.
Ethnographic research is usually qualitative, but it can include quantitative data. That being said, ethnographers should avoid abstracting people. It is about pursuing research where people are made to be real, sentient beings, who are navigating the complexities of everyday life.
Ethnography is about being a diligent researcher. It is about writing, reflecting, questioning, listening, observing, learning, and interacting, while embracing creativity and curiosity.
Ethnography is about forming meaningful relationships and friendships, based on mutual trust.
Ethnography is about dedication. To be an ethnographer, a researcher should spend an extended period of time in a place. In this sense, the fieldschool offered us tools to become better ethnographers, but we only began to practice ethnography.
Ethnography is not just about observation, it must always include engagement. Without engaging, only the surface of any context can be scratched.
SFA Fieldschool scholarships are supported through a grant from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, which supports university and community partnerships to find solutions to social and environmental challenges. Additional support made by the Marshall Foundation.