Guiding students through the process of reading ethnography can be tricky, but rewarding. The first instinct of students is often to try to memorize an ethnography as if it is a text assigned for rote learning, leading them only to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Instead, we need to steer students in the direction of analyzing and understanding an ethnography. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Ethnographies are the result of years of research and thus present useful and detailed information about people, cultures and societies. Have students focus on one aspect of an ethnography at a time until they become more versed in the subject of anthropology. For example, how is kinship or family important to those with whom the anthropologist studied? Or how is the religion of a group relevant to their interactions with tourists? You might decide to draw on past IB exam questions to help you define an initial focus.
2. While anthropology is a science, we recognize its findings as ‘interpreted’. Part of the student’s job is to recognize this and understand the perspective(s) of the author.
3. Ask students to distinguish between ‘description’ and ‘analysis’ – when is an ethnographer describing something and when is s/he analyzing it? In most instances, the ethnographer will be doing both simultaneously (even the way an ethnography is organized is part of the analysis). However, by going through this exercise, students will appreciate the more theoretical aspects of the text.
4. Ask students to read an ethnographer in ‘chunks’ (e.g. chapters or sections divided by sub-heading). Ask them, after each section, to stop and think – What do I think the most interesting bits of information are from this chapter? What message do I think the ethnographer is trying to convey? How does this section or chapter link or compare to other ethnographies, theories and concepts I have read? How does the information presented relate to the main themes or ideas of the ethnography? Do I have questions I would like to ask other students or my teacher after reading this chapter? The answers to these questions are the things of which students should take note.
5. For more ideas see:
- Jacobson, D. (1991). Reading Ethnography. State University of New York Press.
- Blasco, Gay and Wardle, H. (2007). How to read ethnography. Routledge.
- Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.