Excerpts – 3: On Writing/Authority/Ethnography


The word “ethnography” can be loosely broken down into “ethno” and “graphy”. “Ethno-” is the more difficult word element to define. (Word elements are generally borrowed from longer words.) Online accounts define it as people – but intuitively the notion of “ethno-” is different from “anthro-”. “Ethno” refers more strongly to notions of race and culture. From the root ethnos, “ethno-” refers to “people, nation, class, caste, tribe; a number of people accustomed to live together.” (There is something inherently categorical, or criteria-specific about the word ethnos  – there is a notion of groups being defined, bordered, circumscribed along particular criteria related to ways of life and ways of knowing.)  “-Graphy” can be thought of as the “process of writing or recording” or “a writing, recording, or description”. The root is graphia, from the Greek, and means “description of”. Of particular relevance is that graphia in turn comes from graphein, which originally meant “to scrape, scratch (on clay stylus with a stylus)” or “to carve”. So ethnography can be loosely first understood as involving processes of writing, and more specifically: ascribing meaning to actions, people, and gestures by inscribing ideas on paper. (Even the notions of ascription, inscription, description, prescription, and subscription are rooted strongly with “script” and “scribe” – writing is fundamental to these processes, no matter how loosely we use them in every day speech!) And writing is always more than “just” words. I pay closer attention now to what I write in marginalia – those scribbles are important seeds of ideas! Indeed, I am almost sure that the word “scribble” also borrows from “script” and “scribe”.

To Geertz, ethnographic “data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to…the ethnographer “inscribes” social discourse; he writes it down.” I would go further and say the ethnographer not only writes “it” down – the ethnographer writes “it” into. The ideas we have about culture, that ethnographers and researchers have about culture, whether particular or general, are written down on paper but also into people such that people are also read as texts. As an example outside the literature (but prevalent in our lives) discourses on “terrorism” are strongly linked with notions of Islam, radicalization, brown skin, and the “third world”. Arab and Muslim men are read in particular ways such that notions of terrorism are not just ideas on a page, ascribed to particular groups – these notions are, functionally, ideas we use to represent people.  It is this notion of representation, of writing ideas about people down, and in doing so, etching notions and meaning into people’s actions, behaviours, and skin, that I feel has often been the purpose of ethnography. And with this notion of writing into is the idea of doing the writing, of having and exercising power – authors may represent research participants in ways research participants do not identify with, in ways where they are cast as inferior compared to people doing the writing. Ethnography, the writing down of ideas about people/the writing of ideas into people, can be viewed as a subsection in anthropology, the study of people.

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