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!