The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography

The ethnographic compositions of researchers Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, authors of Righteous Dopefiend, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, exemplify the way that qualitative research can radically help to understand major public health concerns. While the authors believe that ethnographic research is a powerful vehicle for understanding transcultural issues, especially among vulnerable populations, their convictions about ethnographically is fundamentally different, which is reflected in the respective author’s choice of methods and voice in the text. Ethnography, in a very basic sense, is the integration of investigative journalism and scientific method. In his essay Anthropology and epidemiology on drugs: the challenges of cross-methodological and theoretical dialogue, Philippe Bourgois emphasizes the importance of discourse between epidemiologists and ethnographers in order to advance public health sectors among vulnerable populations. Although the health science field is dominated by quantitative work, Bourgois suggests that integrating qualitative work and mixed-methods can offer critical insight into the social structures and individual behaviors that give rise to illness (Bourgois 2002: 260). The power of language in ethnographic writing is also extremely critical to accurately portray the experiences of the research subjects. Susan Sontag, a 20th century writer known for her essays Illness as Metaphor and Aids as Metaphor, argues that language produces meaning, guides conceptual thought, and is a central structural force. Sontag suggests that this power is often detrimental because it incites harmful stigma and stereotyping against individuals based on the cultural assumptions embedded in the language we use. One goal of ethnography writing, therefore, should be to present objective observations unprejudiced by embedded assumptions within the language. While the authors of Righteous Dopefiend and Evicted differ in their scientific methods and ethnographic narrative, they both strongly insist that the power of well-written, articulated ethnographic research is undeniably necessary to engage with texts and offer accurate, non-partisan insight of the ethnographic subject. Righteous Dopefiend focuses on injection-drug users living in homeless encampments in San Francisco.

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The primary goal presented by Bourgois and Schonberg is to understand how institutional structural agents, like government and family, manifest in individuals facing drug-addiction and extreme poverty. For Bourgois and Schonberg, ethnographic research should accurately reflect the zeitgeist, sentiments, and hardships of the subject, but without glorification or aggrandization. Researching severely stigmatized demographics necessitates careful attention to methodology, especially in the extent of participant observation, without encroaching upon analytical and professional boundaries. In the case of observing the Edgewater Homeless, Bourgois and Schonberg had to assert their boundaries definitively so as not to be relied upon for money, transportation, or other services. At the same time, however, the authors express the importance of understanding the moral economy in order to gage the underlying social structures that propagate the social norms and health outcomes among individuals in the demographic. For individuals living in non-market economies, the moral economy sustains and drives communities through exchanges in the universal pursuit of survival. As presented in Righteous Dopefiend, the moral economy was driven by the cotton exchange, which created a sort of informal insurance policy against heroin withdrawal in the form of sharing. Bourgois and Schonberg suggest that their participation in the moral economy was necessary for accurate data collection and insight into the mechanics of the factors governing individual and interpersonal behavior. For the authors, engaging in the moral economy often meant offering blankets, food, or transportation, which is exemplified when Bourgois offered a ride to Tina in exchange for an informal interview.

According to Bourgois and Schonberg, the anthropological notion of cultural relativism is an important vehicle to be able to digest the extremely complex, often distressing, experiences of vulnerable populations. The authors write learning about life on the street in the United States requires the reader to keep an open mind and, at least provisionally, to suspend judgement, (Bourgois, 2009: 7) demonstrating that observing the upsetting, even shocking, experiences of marginalized populations requires a degree of cultural relativism. Bourgois and Schonberg also address the ethical dilemmas of ethnography. They discuss their initial concerns, especially among marginalized populations, that their presence might arouse local law enforcement, causing negative repercussions for their subjects and thus blight their objective of observing by the least-intrusive methods possible. Informed consent, respect, and privacy is critical, according to Bourgois and Schonberg, from a legalistic human rights perspective, and also to preserve the dignity of their subjects without reifying stigmatization and negative images. The controversial nature of illicit drug use, sex work, and violence, in combination with apparent racism and sexism makes Bourgois and Schonberg’s research particularly susceptible to reification of existing social stigma. The difficulty of ethnographic research, as stated by Bourgois and Schonberg, is the contentious, often difficult, balance of being present in one’s environment, while also refining an analytical understanding of the subjects. The power of participant observation is that it forces academics out of their ivory tower and compels them to violate the boundaries of class and cultural segregation, (Bourgois, 2009: 14) implying that ethnography creates an intimacy that fosters precious insight into research subjects that quantitative work simply cannot provide.

In a similar sense, Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, argues that ethnographic research is critical to providing accurate and non-partisan insight of the ethnographic subjects, but he varies greatly in his analytical approach. Evicted focuses on poverty-stricken individuals living in low-income neighborhoods of Milwaukee, who face economic exploitation and structural violence embedded in the private housing market. Desmond conducts his ethnographic research in correspondence with quantitative research collected through surveys. In his discussion of ethnography, Desmond’s main argument revolves around the decision to write in the third-person, despite acknowledging that ethnographic writing is typically dominated by first-person narratives. Ethnographic work, in a general sense, favors a first-person narrative because it offers an intimate look into the lives of the research subjects and furnishes evidence that the researcher was on site, directly interacting with the subjects, reinforcing scientific credibility. Desmond critiques first-person accounts by saying ethnographers shrink themselves in the field but enlarge themselves on the page because first-person accounts convey experience–and experience, authority, (Desmond 2016, 334) illustrating that the egocentric nature of first-person is far too focused on the researcher and his or her personal responses to their observations. According to Desmond, the reality of extreme poverty, unequal wealth-distribution, and racism in America is far too pressing an issue to veer the attention away from the subject to focus on the ethnographer’s subjective experience. Stylistically, third-person narratives are harder to prove scientifically authentic because the researcher does not directly insert themselves and their work in the text. This narrative style also risks appearing sensationalist or hyperbolic, which can negatively distort the way the research subject is perceived.

However, third-person is less methodological and naturally evokes depth and meaning because the ethnographer is using prose. The purpose of Desmond’s research, with the aid of the third-person narrative, is to foster an objective understanding of the extreme inequality and poverty rampantly spreading across America through the lens of his subject’s unfiltered stories and experiences. Evicted also discusses the logistical and ethical dilemmas of ethnographic research. In stating that your race and gender, where and how you were raised, your temperament and disposition–can influence whom you meet, what is confided to you, what you are shown and how you interpret what you see, (Desmond 2016: 325) Desmond suggests that an ethnographer’s state of mind and personal qualities deeply affect the data that is collected. Furthermore, like Bourgois and Schonberg, Desmond illustrates his experience with the moral economy of exchange through food sharing and small favors, while also reflecting the need to definitively assert boundaries by refusing to giving out large amounts of money. As Bourgois and Schonberg argued the need for cultural relativism to handle the upsetting, even shocking, observations of marginalized populations, Desmond discusses his own affliction with prolonged depression in the wake of observing the heartbreaking trauma experienced by his research subjects. While Desmond describes that he ultimately was able to conceal his distress, he still felt underlying guilt for the apparent socioeconomic disparity between himself and his subjects. Desmond describes this experience when he writes: the more difficult ethical dilemma is not how to respond when asked to help but how to respond when you are given too much (Desmond 2016: 336).

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