Engaged Anthropology: Ethics, Documentation, Communication, a CHESS Seminar with Prof. Maple Razsa

The Culture and Heritage in European Societies and Spaces (CHESS) program is pleased to host a seminar with Professor Maple Razsa of Colby College on October 16 at UMass Amherst.

Prof. Razsa is an anthropologist, activist and documentary filmmaker. He is committed to using text, images and sound to embody and explore the experience and political imagination of contemporary social movements. He is the creator of Bastards of Utopia, an ethnographic book/film/multimedia suite.

Participants are asked to explore the following selections before the seminar:

Introduction to the book

Full documentary video

Interactive multimedia archive

Space is limited, so if you plan to attend, please contact me at <kharper@anthro.umass.edu>.

Sticky webs: Research relationships, internal confidentiality and ethnographers in the field

This week’s topic on our CHESS training blog was “the sticky webs of research relationships.” (The CHESS training blog is password-protected and confidential for obvious reasons–students need a place to check in and discuss their research without exposing people in their fieldsites.)

ConfidentialSome students wrote about struggling to navigate conflicts and rivalries between individuals and organizations in their fieldsites. Others wrote about feeling like they are getting the runaround–casual friendliness until would-be participants are “too busy” to be interviewed (possibly true, but it certainly makes research hard). And another student who has great contacts and is immersed in participants’ day-to-day lives in a relatively small community wonders–how will she write about the intimate details of family life in a relatively small community without selling folks out?

This last student’s question expanded my research ethics vocabulary: It’s an issue is called “internal confidentiality” or “deductive disclosure.” What this means is that in most communities, organizations, or workplaces, all it takes is gender + age cohort + another small personal detail, and it becomes possible for an interested insider to narrow down a small set of possible individuals.  Some day, all ethnographers have to write about research participants–and it is almost impossible to provide the rich, ethnographic detail we seek without blowing confidentiality.

While in the field, ethnographers usually try to work on expanding their network beyond initial contacts. In this way, you not only get a larger “n,” you’ll insert a little more doubt in potential “nosy readers” who are knowledgeable about your field site.  You can also head off this problem by talking to research participants about how the data will be used, what health sociologist Karen Kaiser (2009) calls a post-interview consent review.

If that still doesn’t work by the time you are done with fieldwork and writing up, you can also take care in selecting pseudonyms (Guenther 2009). Or consider new journalism techniques like “composite stories” (Zeller 1995) that qualitative researchers sometimes must use to maintain confidentiality when writing up.

A good reminder that the sticky webs and ethical obligations don’t go away just because you’ve physically left your fieldsite!

Coming in June 2015: Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action!

Gubrium_Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action_300Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action

Aline Gubrium, Krista Harper, and Marty Otañez, eds.

Available to preorder from Left Coast Press HERE






Foreword by Phillip Vannini


Introduction, Aline Gubrium, Krista Harper, and Marty Otañez

Digital Storytelling

Darcy Alexandra: Are We Listening Yet? Participatory Knowledge Production through Media Practice: Encounters of Political Listening

Marty Otañez and Andrés Guerrero: Digital Storytelling and the Hepatitis C Virus Project


Ciann Wilson and Sarah Flicker: Picturing Transactional $ex: Ethics, Challenges and Possibilities

Cynthia Selin and Gretchen Gano: Seeing Differently: Enticing Reflexivity in the Futurescape City Tours

Participatory Video

Charles Menzies: In Our Grandmothers’ Garden: An Indigenous Approach to Collaborative Film

Jean Schensul and Campbell Daglish: “A Hard Way Out”: Improvisational Video and Youth Participatory Action Research

Participatory Mapping and GIS

Nick Rattray: Counter-Mapping as Situated Knowledge: Integrating Lay Expertise in Participatory Geographic Research

Simona Perry: Beyond Words: The Transformative Practice (and Politics) of Digital Spatial and Visual Ethnography in a Rural Shale Gas Boomtown

Edward González-Tennant: Resurrecting Rosewood: New Heritage as Applied Visual Anthropology

Participatory Digital Archives and Museums

Catherine Besteman: Ethnography of an Ethnographic Somali Photography Archive in Maine

Madeleine Tudor and Alaka Wali: Showcasing Heritage: Engaging Local Communities through Museum Practice

Natalie Underberg-Goode: PeruDigital:  Ethnographic Storytelling through Iterative Design

Participatory Design Ethnography

Nancy Fried Foster: Participatory Design for the Common Good

Elizabeth Chin, Cayla McCrae, Morgan Marzek, Tina Zeng: Caminemos Juntos: Collaboration, Ethnography and Design in Northeast Los Angeles

Matthew Durington, Samuel Collins, and the Anthropology by the Wire Collective: Games Without Frontiers: App Design as Networked Anthropology




The low-down on co-authoring

Cultural anthropologists have often conducted research and written solo, as “The Lone Ethnographer” (see Renato Rosaldo and also Sally Galman).  But as time goes on, I find that I enjoy working and writing with other people, and certainly the “participatory turn” has dragged many of us solo authors into the world of co-authorship.  Co-authoring mostly depends on the chemistry and dynamics of the people involved–when it works, it really works.  I love being able to work on a project and then bat if off to my co-author, have her/him/them work for a few days, and then have them turn around the draft.

There are team/time management considerations and tools that make this a LOT easier.

1) MANAGING EXPECTATIONS:  Also known as communicating and reflecting.  Before you even start, talk honestly about what your expectations are in terms of the timeline for completion, who does what, and order of authorship–and then periodically revisit these questions as needed.  For scholars from solo-authored traditions, the variety of ways to order authors is befuddling. Most go in order of effort–but that can be hard to establish until further into the project.  Economists go in alphabetical order regardless of contribution, and if asked, they state the percentage effort for each author (Labor economists have even studied the career advantage of an early-alphabet last name!).  Natural scientists have an elaborate hierarchy based on level of effort and who paid for it all with their grant money.  If there are multiple papers expected, folks often make a “you-go, I-go” deal on who gets to be lead author.  The point is, don’t wait until the last minute to discuss it.

2) MANAGING DOCS:  If you are writing the same chapter or article (not “you take this chapter, I’ll take the other”)–USE GOOGLE DOCS! Period.  The amount of time, frustration, and energy saved from tracking changes, merging, etc. is just huge.  If your partner balks, take the time to have an in-person training session to walk them through the process of using GoogleDocs.

3) MANAGING REFERENCES: Early in the process, especially if it is a book, come up with a way of managing the bibliography.  It could be as simple as a GoogleDoc file, but if it’s a co-authored book or a series of articles, it’s smart to invest some time in learning Zotero, RefWorks, Mendeley, on another online reference management system.  My co-author and I used EndNote, but merging files made our bibliography a bit clumsy.

4) MANAGING WORKFLOW, PART I: Whether you are in the same town or on different sides of the world, regularly scheduled check-ins are key.  So schedule a weekly check-in by skype or in person, and use it to come up with a division of labor, do-able tasks, and realistic deadlines.  This is how you stay tuned in to each other’s needs, ideas, and expectations.  You’ll need to be flexible–it’s inevitable that you or your partner may sometimes miss a week because of illness or being overwhelmed with other projects.  That’s fine, but get back in the saddle even for a short time the following week.  Just as in solo writing, chipping away at those little tasks moves you forward.

5) MANAGING WORKFLOW, PART II: Use a project management tool like https://trello.com/–this helps a pair or group of people communicate and coordinate what you need to do, are doing, and have done already.  Trello is amazing discipline for task management.

6) THINKING TOGETHER: A lot of the joy of co-authoring is the escape from your own single perspective, which can become paralyzing in solo writing.  Once in a while, schedule an in-person workday–this might mean staying on an extra day at a conference if your partner lives far away.  It is well worth it to have that face-time for planning, structural edits, or combing through a draft.  If you can’t be in the same place very often, a collaborative visualization tool like https://mural.ly/ allows you to have a shared online whiteboard with post-it notes for brainstorming and re-ordering ideas.
So that’s my advice.  In general, I am all for co-authoring–it’s basically adding a peer review to the writing process and can be a very positive experience. However, two kinds of partnerships that don’t work well:
1) A dynamic that can be tricky for junior faculty is writing with your former advisor and having to assert your grown-up status.  But this very much depends on the specifics of the relationship and being confident enough to state what YOU need.
2) A co-author who rarely works on the project, or who is less invested in publication but gets in the way of the other author.  If you find yourself in this situation, it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your co-author and develop a plan for finishing.  Otherwise, you may need to cut your losses.

Well, that’s all–I’d better get back to writing my draft before my co-author finds out I am blogging instead!

AAA 2014 CFP: “Magic and Enchantment in Post-Communist Europe”

Magic and Enchantment in Post-Communist Europe

The anthropological literature dealing with problems of “transition” out of socialism has shed little light on the accelerating revitalization of “magical practices,”occurring throughout all the former socialist orders in Europe. This is in part because there is little consensus today within Anthropology about the meaning, significance or “functions” of “magical practices. One result of this is that the topic is often deleted from (left out of) most accounts of life today in almost all these nation-states. As in the past then the topic of magic has largely been left to the region’s folklorists and ethnologists. This has particularly been the case for example in Romania where little attention has been paid to the increasingly“normalization” of traditional belief like magic that has occurred since the 1989 Revolution.

It may well be that increases in “magical practices” point to a growing “disenchantment” with all modernist discourses and a concomitant “re-enchantment” of locally defined and positioned identities, cultures and practices. al practices” point to a growing “disenchantment” with all modernist discourses and a concomitant “re-enchantment” of locally defined and positioned identities, cultures and practices. At the same time, this increase in “magical practices” may point to further “universal” commodification (or reinvention) of cultural beliefs and practices that serve elite agendas like “cultural tourism.” This session is seen as an opportunity for scholars interested in magic throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltics to share experiences, create debate and to collaborate.

Please contact the organizer, James Nyce, at .

AAA 2014 CFP: Reframing Europe’s South: Anthropologies across “P.I.G.S.”

CFP: Reframing Europe’s South: Anthropologies across “P.I.G.S.”

This panel ethnographically and theoretically takes Europe’s South as its object. Against the backdrop of centuries of entrenched North/South dynamics and histories of anthropology of and in Europe’s South, we attend to forms of belonging and exclusion and affective alliances that cut across Europe’s Southern periphery in a current moment marked by precarity. Europe’s South has long been writ by stereotypical discourses originating in Europe’s North as Europe’s wayward, sensual, pre-modern, other. Ongoing economic crises since 2008 have both amplified North/South discourses and sharply accentuated center periphery relations within Europe. At the same time, emergent forms of political organizing and solidarity, immigration and migration, and memory and heritage work are re-inflecting the boundaries of belonging across Europe’s South. We place ethnographic case studies in Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain (sometimes referred to in economic discourse with the derogatory acronym “P.I.G.S.”) in productive alignment, examining the political and anthropological efficacies of Europe’s South as an analytic category.

Possible paper themes include: precarity, immigration/migration, tourism, North-South and/or South-South dynamics, anthropological labors in Europe’s South (past and present), the senses, “contagion,” heritage, protest, comparative fascisms (in terms of memory/history projects in the present).

For more information, please contact the organizer: Lila Ellen Gray (Columbia University) at leg2114@columbia.edu

CFP: AAA 2014 panel on “Protest and Resistance in an Era of Austerity: Lessons from Europe”

Protest and Resistance in an Era of Austerity: Lessons from Europe

The prolonged crisis of neoliberal capitalism in Europe has been marked by policies of austerity. These include dramatic reductions in social safety nets; cutbacks in a broad range of entitlements; a decline in access to affordable healthcare services, education and housing; and a lessening of revenue for the development and maintenance of critical infrastructure. At the same time, we have been witness to a significant rise in long-term unemployment, part-time and temporary work and informal labor and overall to an increasing privatization of the public sector as corporate power seeks new terrain in which to cultivate profit and accumulate capital, as David Harvey has observed. This crisis has had manifold social, economic and political implications throughout the continent. Among the most salient have been the formation of social movements across the political spectrum and the emergence of different forms of resistance. This panel focuses on these responses to the crisis, theorizing their origins, illustrating their dimensions from an ethnographic perspective and considering the possible directions in which they may be leading.

If you are interested in participating in this panel, please contact Gerard Weber at Gerard.Weber@bcc.cuny.edu.

Launching my grad course on “Participatory Visual and Digital Methods”

Well, it’s really happening–in fact, we are officially one month into my new grad course on “Participatory Visual and Digital Methods” at UMass.  This Fall, I am team-teaching the course with Gretchen Gano of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at the University.  Our course project is “Futurescape City Tour Springfield,” a participatory technology assessment using techniques adapted from Photovoice, sensory ethnography, and science and technology studies (STS).   We have a dynamic, interdisciplinary team of graduate students from anthropology, public policy, public health, and environmental conservation.  We are recruiting participants for a citizens’ panel of Springfield residents, and soon we will be holding the first participant meeting to begin our discussion of how new and emerging technologies may affect the urban environment and learning about the concerns and expectations Springfield’s residents.  The syllabus with readings is available here.


A visit to HEAT Ethnographic Field School

Last week I had the pleasure of spending two days at the HEAT Summer Ethnographic Field School in Tallahassee. This NSF-supported field school is a partnership between Prof. Lance Gravlee and the Health Equity Alliance of Tallahassee (HEAT) to investigate racial health disparities. The five-week field school trains anthropology graduate students alongside community activists in the theories and practice of community-based participatory research (CBPR). The field school brings in guest anthropologists like Jean and John Schensul and Sarah Szurek to teach units specific methods, and so I visited for several days to guide the group through the basics of Photovoice, one of the methods Aline Gubrium and I discuss in our new book, Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast, 2013).

The visit left me with a renewed conviction in the value of ethnographic field schools.  Traditionally, as Renato Rosaldo once quipped, our discipline idealized the “Lone Ethnographer” heading off to live in a remote community (anthropologist Sally Galman has expanded upon this image in her graphic novel textbook, Shane: The Lone Ethnographer). Although we now are as likely to study urban cultural settings as villages, most cultural anthropologists still do their first fieldwork projects alone.  The field teaches us–but novice ethnographers usually experience the inevitable moments of loneliness, boredom, and self-doubt as personal failure. Anthropologists typically see these moments of failure as a “rite of passage,” a character-building firewalk we pass through to conduct research more authentically.  And certainly ethnographic fieldwork requires a lot of self-discipline and reflection.

But the collective experience of a field school can offer what the solo “rite of passage” model cannot: an optimal environment for what social psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD). Being in Vygotsky’s “Zone” means that when you are working alongside other people who are engaged in the same task, you observe their knowledge and practice in order to build your own capabilities.  Ethnographers Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger applied Vygotsky in their study of how people learn outside of school settings and came up with the now-popular concept of the “community of practice.”  In a field school, students not only learn from the teachers who present formal lessons and coach them, they also pick up new approaches from watching and talking with their peers.  There’s still room for reflecting on the inevitable fieldwork failures, but also support for taking chances and trying again.

In the case of the HEAT Ethnographic Summer Field School, I taught the group Photovoice by modeling it as a CBPR method.  Graduate students and HEAT activists and professionals worked alongside each other to generate a research theme (“Places in Time”), went out and took photos on that theme, and then participated in photo-elicitation group discussions.  They learned this CBPR technique by doing it together, and they may apply these methods later with a wider group of community members in Tallahassee. It was an unusually rich learning space.  We were definitely in the Zone!