Eliasoph Moral and Political Ethnography Eliasoph Paper | Ethnography | Ethnicity, Race & Gender

“Moral and Political Ethnography”

Nina Eliasoph
To do “ethnography”—also called “participant-observation,” the researcher both observes and
participates in situations in the research "subjects'" own spaces, during the normal times that the “subjects”
are there, doing whatever it is that they normally do. This kind of research is different from interviewing,
because in an ethnographic study, your subjects are interacting already, whether or not you are there. It is
different from survey research because you cannot test variables, cannot design your hypotheses in advance
and test them, but discover categories as you go; since you are in the field for a while, you can change your
comparisons and categories over time. You are not looking for what is deep and hidden, but for what people
can do and say together, where, with whom. Observation is obviously the central feature of participantobservation, but it works best if the researcher has a role in the setting, so that he or she can feel first hand
what it is like to have to solve the puzzles that participants themselves have to solve.
Studying political or civic involvement through ethnography allows you to ask how people create
everyday places where they can learn about society, learn to care about society, and express their
commitments publicly. Studying social commitment this way includes an implicit theory of citizenship as
inevitably shared and interactive. In contrast, most research on political engagement is more disembodied.
It relies on surveys, interviews, and focus groups: the researcher creates the context, while, for
ethnography, the whole point is to ask how participants themselves imagine and re-imagine their
relationships together: how the participants themselves create contexts. If we imagine democratic or civic
virtues as inhering in people’s heads, as objects that they can carry around with them unused all day, and
just take them out when it’s time to vote, then we would not want to do this kind of research. Interviews
and focus group can approximate the ethnographic method, but they are still very different. A focus group
gives people a chance to talk politics, but the researcher still cannot know how the context of the focus
group differs from the more usual contexts in which interviewees conduct political dialogue.
You are not trying to get to the bottom of things, find out the real reasons why people have their
opinions; you are just observing what they can do or say, where, with whom. If we want to understand
political engagement, we need to understand how and where people create everyday contexts that make
political dialogue possible.
This essay will be very “hands-on,” a “how-to” that gives some pointers about how to study civic
engagement and identities in everyday life. But theorizing is inescapable: the people you are studying have
their own theories about what they are doing together, so you must both reveal their theorizing and compare
it to your own, which may not match theirs. The method is inextricable from theory, so most of this
“hands-on” will be about how to do what some of us call “theory by way of ethnography (Glaeser 2004).”
Most of the essay gives conceptual tools that allow you to practice the art of taking fieldnotes,
since these notes are the heart and soul of an ethnographic study. In that long section on “how to take
fieldnotes,” we highlight ways of organizing your perceptions,

if at all. when you are at work vs. comfortable or uncomfortable furniture.” in fieldnotes. 4. on who the imagined listeners are. For example. funny. You yourself sound very different from one situation to another. such as account books that need to be filled out. visible and invisible. where to write notes. By closely observing the ways that people translate the same experience into different words depending on who the speaker is. luckily for you. By noticing how the stories meet friction in situations where they never perfectly fit.” The first part of this essay takes these items one at a time. and other things that we could call “material” conditions (if that expression did not come with the whole boatload of Marxian baggage). at least. at home. as long as you pay close enough attention to the “unsaid (Jalbert 1994). on what kinds of expectations—For fun? Spiritual fulfilment? Battle?—that participants and other audiences bring to the scene. By focusing just as much on the unsaid. when you are talking to teachers vs. By paying attention to the ways that people tell stories about what they are doing.” but to discover how these are all real in different ways. or how “bureaucracy” works. By treating “social structure” as (provisionally) irrelevant. Next. 7. By noticing key phrases 5. talking to the local grocer. deciphering silence is just as important as deciphering speech. by not presuming to know what racism is or how it works in any situation. this careful way of distinguishing one situation from another is what allows to make your way through life in a world that is complex and plural—a world in which. Any organization is made up of various “stages” with different “audiences. depending on the devices that are in the situation. we will go back to the more nitty-gritty questions of how to select a research site. 3. who the listeners are. These forces will become evident in your fieldsite. Section One: Sensitizing Concepts Translations Communication always involves translation. to keep going. By noticing incongruous. or how political power works behind the scenes. 2. on “what cannot be said” and “what goes without saying” just as much as you focus on “what can and is said. a teen community service club might need to document members’ volunteer-hours. Translations between different audiences. so that members can fulfil .1. how to organize them. Don’t take these stories to be good explanations. or difficult moments (Katz 2001). but do assume that the stories matter to the members.” that each has its own expectations and requirements. you have varied relationships. and asking how it becomes relevant. The point for ethnographers is not to find “the real self. what to tell people about your presence. This is not just hypocrisy. even if you think they are hiding something from themselves. what makes them feel real for people in a situation—real enough. 6. What are some of these “translations” that you might discover in your fieldwork? a.

that he . The youth programs have to count the hours.” The adult leader of the teens’ programs is horrified that the teens have seen this. Here are many audiences. Teens “got volunteer hours” for attending meetings deciding how to count volunteer hours.” But when the group goes to the event to receive the award. after having already done the volunteer work. not just a woman. These programs have to make volunteering happen. For example. for having been good community volunteers. to have to fill out a form? What if you couldn’t find them? How can we distribute them to you? We just want to encourage reflection. in some groups. a group of poor youth at a community center wins a city-wide competition. Sometimes. he has to defend himself against chorus of invisible judges poised to accuse him of sexism: he has to make it clear to her that he would offer help to anyone. What if some of your hours didn’t get recorded? What if you forgot to send in the sheets? Should there be an event mid-year. a guy sees a woman with a heavy suitcase. Since some college scholarships also require volunteer work. Another adult: What if you got a reminder? What if you forgot to sign the form? who’ll pay for copying and postage? Would it just be an extra burden. because it looks good on their college applications. the audiences are not even there! Some of the most influential audiences are long dead. the teens see on the list of awardees that the award is called an award “for needy youth. get prizes for having done good volunteer work. for many reasons: they’re always scrambling for funds. and publicize their work to voters who vote for funding for such programs. and those kids need to measure and publicize their volunteer work. An NGO worker asks. a national award for youth who complete 100 hours of volunteer work.graduation requirements. and government and NGO-sponsored grant application often demand evidence of local grassroots involvement. fluff up their CV’s for college applications. the different audiences’ requirements conflict. measuring volunteer hours is important. number of people served. and publicize the volunteer spirit. dragging it across the sidewalk. or invisible: ghosts. number of volunteers involved. If he offers her help. “Would you remember to send it in?” Some of the eight teens in the meeting answer: No. kids could get credit for each hour in two different programs at once. tons of food delivered to the needy. to give recognition to youth who’ve performed fifty hours of service? 30 hours? 20 hours? Who will record this data? Teens got volunteer hours credit for entering the data about volunteering. Sometimes. For example. she wants them to feel proud. more time in meetings is devoted to the question of how to measure the hours spent volunteering than to any other question. Some programs include college bound kids. so that distant publics can assess it quickly: in numbers of hours spent volunteering. and have to document it in rapidly digestible formats. If the work was unpleasant. each with its own exigencies. their award is supposedly for having done so much “community service. So. adults let the teens count the hours double. In fact. This typical meeting of a county and NGO-sponsored service club is all about the forms that kids have to fill out for “President’s 100 Hour Challenge. not like pathetic recipients of pity for their neediness.

figuring out how. that he is not trying to pick her up or put her down (Viaud-Gayet 2005). At one Martin Luther King Day celebration. knowing that the speaker is not referring to them. for what purpose.” This is necessary for schools that want to measure kids’ progress when the kids do not come in equally privileged. when kids overhear and then repeat the statistics that the program leaders had initially aimed at government agencies that fund programs for low-income youth. I heard one. without making the white kid think that the reason was that black kids are expected to do worse in school? They are. to go back to the earlier example. in practice. that is mostly white and Asian—look at each other. But do not assume that you know what key terms actually mean.” In this and other ways. but could he explain that to a 7 year old without making it sound as if they are expected to be stupid? The translations. to measure charity and “the volunteer spirit. an African American speaker says he’ll want someone who got B’s taking care of him in his old age. the message made sense. most of the audience was made of the kids’ families or the social workers and teachers who worked with them. or when schools receive supplementary funds for teaching kids who are predicted to be more difficult to teach. in your setting. African American kids who were asked to speak in public often referred to themselves as statistical categories: “for African American males such as myself. Only one in four African American males graduate from high school in this city. But a few white teachers and politicians brought their own kids. Once the concept is in the air. “commensurating the incommensurable (Espeland and Mitchell 199x). The kids who are in the honors track at school—in Snowy Prairie. Commensurating the incommesurable can be especially troubling when the measurement seems insulting or demeaning. the stories criss-cross mid-air. The black and Latino kids are his main audience. as well. saying. with what unspoken assumptions . for example. for example. “There’s the problem right there!” People have to translate when they publicize their work. in turn. when people want to accentuate the positive. Noticing Key Phrases You can trace the circulation of concepts by paying close attention to specific key phrases. depending on who is speaking to whom. and learning to play flute. This becomes clear when the speaker chastises some rowdy black boys in the back. What could the father say. the adult program leaders cannot control its entry into the wrong ears. that it is just common decency.is really not going out of his way. The guys are “haunted” by these very-present ghosts. not someone who got D’s. When poor and minority kids at a Martin Luther King Day celebration got awards for getting B’s in school. pointing at them. A common kind of translation involves converting people into statistics. ask his father why it was so amazing that kids got B’s. Sometimes. a boy of about 7. Noticing these ghosts is a big part of the ethnographer’s job. it’s tough. In this same town. To these audiences. It starts to circulate in ways that they did not predict. come back to haunt people. an audience overhears messages that are aimed at another audience. That is one of the beauties of ethnography: you get to hear how the same words absorb very different meanings in different situations.

what it can do. and work by quickly forming and dissolving cool. this is the wrong answer.about “who we are together. Second. and loyal. Different congregations use the same words of Scripture to do different things together. In some societies. for example. first. The stories just told above are funny because they open up doubts that usually stay shut. cold in here” if you want the window closed. or some relationships. A highly qualified Indian librarian is seeking a job as a librarian. you have to learn how the other people in the office work together. “because I need a job. an example. the trick is to ask “what work do they do?” Consider. wear jeans. In this and many other ethnographic and historical studies. . his British interviewees ask him “Why do you want this job?” and he answers. speaking too directly feels wrong. Devices that people have at their disposal in a situation. as a normal participant as well as an ethnographer. takes us inside three high-rise corporate headquarters. to American or British ears. waiting to see what the group “style” is. or judges’ laws. values or interests is certainly not enough. either: employers’ rules. we learn that knowing something about the participants’ shared ideas is not enough. Francesca Poletta (2002) shows that the phrase “participatory democracy” meant very different things in different grassroots groups in the Civil Rights Movement.” A study of congregations finds the same thing: even Lutheran churches that read the same chapters and verses of the Bible and sing all the same sons and have all the same beliefs on paper have different implicit definitions of “who we are and how we do things. When noticing key phrases. but you probably would not say “close the window. or church-goers’ theology would not be enough. The laughter comes not from laughing at the people but at the funny. you might say “Brr. hang back at first.” “fellowship (in church groups).” or “tutelage (in I forget which kind of groups). we learn. Insight enters on the wings of laughter Laughter—yours or your “subjects’”—often tips you off that there is something “funny” going on. tragic situations our society seems to throw before us in such abundance. of South Indians in the UK. something that has somehow ripped open the smooth skin that usually makes people’s co-production of the “real enough” seem a little less smooth. Just because you hear a phrase does not mean that it is doing the work you expected it to do. golf every Saturday with the boss. depending on what implicit cultural “model” for solidarity the group held: “friendship (in student activist groups). network-style. you cannot learn it just by consulting the guide book or rules.” For example. that knowing each individuals’ inner ideas. for example.” Obviously. If you want to know what to do in this bureaucracy this year. family-like paternalistic relationships? These are just two possibilities. we all know that he was supposed to lie. if you are in a cold room with your boss. The ways people form relationships and talk to each other in the group help determine what the group is. You.” (the example comes from Habermas 1985). Do we go by first names. how members in it normally act. intense for a moment relationships? Or will it be suits and ties.” as the church-goers put it (Edgell 1999). from a film made by two anthropologists. Calvin Morrill’s The Executive Way.

People speak without words. tattoos and skateboards. members explore ideas without feeling the need to conclude anything (Mische 2001). that’s why  different offices have such a different “feel” to them (Morrill 1993). but also more subtle items like plastic bags from the 99 cent store.  But people in bureaucracies never simply follow the letter of the law (Blau. and the family. usually. class and  gender inequalities. you can see their footprints. only work for some people but not others. members try hard always to agree and bond and express their feelings.” we usually mean either structures like “race. It is saying that structure is as structure does.  members sharpen their swords with loud debate verging on fights. part of your  job as an ethnographer is to figure out what kinds of ghosts are haunting the situations. You cannot be  a normal and decent member of the bureaucracy.  Or: when underprivileged immigrant youth are sent from Paris to the  tropical island of Madagascar to work as volunteers. iPods. painting and refurbishing a hospital. churches by god. the explicit stories and the devices create each other. the devices make the story-telling hard. in some situations and not others. or whatever. such as when participants  assume that a little citizens’ group like theirs is politically powerless. For example. in other. but it is a mistake. like other stories. civic groups by camaraderie. considering how hard they think their lot in life is (Hamidi 1999). until you know what  . Taken together. the story that members of the youth civic engagement projects wanted to tell. bureaucracy. or the activist group. These. let’s take the “structures” like “bureaucracy” or “government. for example.” or structures like “capitalism. in speech as well as silences. The stories meet friction. some of the boys  in the group spend the whole two weeks lounging under the palms on the beach.”  If  these are in play. A middle aged dad’s skateboard and tattoo says something different from a teenage boys’. Social Structure Cannot be Presumed It is tempting for ethnographers to presume the existence of social structures. in still a third type of activist group  there. about the volunteer spirit. thus implicitly  acknowledging the uphill battle.”  When social researchers say “structure. religious institution. but it is not saying that. Clothes. Some devices help people tell the stories that they want to tell about themselves. black shredded tights.  This will probably be the most controversial suggestion of the essay: it seems to be saying that social  structure does not exist. and sometimes.” In some Brazilian  youth activist groups. families by affection. 1956). it is not clear to them who the recipient of aid should be. or when the black speaker at the  Martin Luther King Day event gave prizes to blacks who got B’s and played flute. meets friction when it has to be counted and measured for public consumption.” Common sense says that  bureaucrats are governed by rules. and these ghosts are often what sociologists call “social structure. and the like. a different “style. music. figuring that they are  finally getting what they deserve. Then. consumer goods “speak” for you— mohawks.

 20 working class homeowners’ associations. jokes.  Anger.” and  ethnography abides by that theory: for the East German officers.  People can act religiously both in and outside of religious organizations (Besecke 1999). and how. Quickly. age. reading bulletin boards.  People in a workplace can can act civicly without being self­described “civic associations”—they can  widen members’ horizons.” But in a  short project. where does it get its money? Where else do people in that site  usually go—does your group often interact with the police. if we are from the East. Another way to discover the “structures” that relate to your fieldsite. open up space for free deliberation. and solve shared problems together. home life was as separate from work life as it is for us. and the taking off of the uniform solidifies this in a convenient device. in major and minor details. or fury are typical signs that someone has  violated the usual group style. for example. and the ghosts do not die (maybe call them zombies?!): for example. you would have to find a big sample of organizations that differ on only one variable—20 upper class homeowners’ associations vs. landlords. it was proper to take it off before leaving the  precinct office. who figure  that an unemployed person is probably just lazy.  watching who comes and goes through the door. . Finally.  For example.  This is a problem—no denying it:  you can’t control your categories in advance. what goes for activists and volunteers goes for “religion” and other institutions. the Westerners and Easterners’ different  presuppositions start to grate on each other: the birth of a poisonous stereotype (Glaeser 2000). while for the former West Germans. gender balance. while only 10% of the females did so.  bureaucrats fall in love with each other). and whatever variables you thought might matter. if we are former Westerners. as its members interact with other organizations in its “field. meeting agendas.  And  conversely. real estate speculators?  Ideally.  But their habits and presuppositions about work and life were all  different. but not so sorry. housing was allocated mainly through a person’s job. you have to ask what the site  is connected to. where the whole concept of poverty and  unemployment was foreign (even for laggards). light teasing. In East Germany. private.   But you can’t usually FIND two groups that differ only on one variable. most religious organizations spend a great deal of effort and time figuring out how to pay rent.the unspoken “group style” is.  How sorry should we feel  for someone who is unemployed.    (Parenthetically. when East and West Germany merged after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”  Ethnographic studies have extreme difficulty  controlling variables:  to so so.  police officers from the former communist East and capitalist West had to get along and forge a new  government body in their new republic. very.  A famous architect once said “God is in the details. you  would follow your group around. Do not try to construct a statistically significant sample and then write “40% of the males in the  group said x. you can get a lot of this by gathering newsletters. people bring ghostly structures with them to new places. in the former West  Germany. who  were otherwise identical by race. home and work were more  separate.  as well. it was normal to take off the  uniform at home.

as being distinct from a table. Forecast theoretical questions that might develop in your final paper. The prospectus should clarify your theoretical questions and categories. You know not to do this because you have a symbol of “chair” and can recognize even an uncomfortable one. so you  discover categories as you go.g.And that’s another beauty of ethnographic research:  you are on site for a long time.” “female. What do you expect to find. you might enter a room and sit on the table.  hypothesis­testing and making causal claims about variables is not the only way to do good social research.  No  category (“bureaucracy.” as Herbert  Blumer put it (in Symbolic Interactionism):  using evidence showing that asking your new questions  sensitize us to issues that we might have otherwise overlooked. “I went in asking all the  wrong questions and here are some better ones. shared ways that people lump some types of activities together—what counts as a volunteer project vs. e.  That is. Of course. even laudable finding. but if you do not know what a chair is. .  This is called asking a “sensitizing question.) or would people categorize those two activities as pretty much opposite one another? Section Two: Some How-To’s that Follow from The Above Writing a prospectus. Changing one's mind is the goal. as they can in Italy (Laville 2001. But you have to have a mind before you can change it.  That is a fine contribution. It would be very rude.  Your writing will inevitably take a dialogic form. what counts as something else? Do members assume that “volunteering” is different from and opposite to “political activism?” Can people make money while volunteering. in fact. the more you are aware of them.  So. 2000. the more you can notice your surprises more clearly. women and men routinely have to work to maintain their status as full­fledged members of their gender  (Butler 19xx). Van Til. if we had not read your study.  because you will be bluntly pointing out what they are excluding when they typify their actions in such­ and­such category. Words bring the chairs into existence.  You final “finding” might be that the categories with which you entered the  field were wrong.” “table”) fully accounts for all the activity that goes on with and around  it.  And you may be wondering if it might be better if people typified their actions some  other way. how they  themselves put names to what they are doing. and here’s why I think they are more interesting” that is a  perfectly respectable. as objects that you can use in a sociallyacceptable way. Not being able to develop fully inclusive categories is not just a possibility: it is inevitable. both as a social researcher and as a regular person with his/her own presuppositions? Writing a short “prospectus” helps make you aware of the assumptions with which you are entering the field. Vitale 2004. a chair or a table exists as a set of molecules. So. The point of clearly outlining the questions and categories is precisely so that you can see how your questions change over the course of the research.  If your essay ends up by saying. the fieldwork will always show how people themselves “typify” their actions. then.   Blast apart your common sense assumption that words are simply representations for things that exist before people named them. part of what you should observe is the common.

 either in your prospectus or elsewhere (your personal diary?). such as you. as the ethnographer. If other people are  taking notes in a gathering. if at all. since you don’t have to work very hard at  “making it strange  (I think this phrase comes from literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov.There are always more things going on in any setting than you could possibly portray. will you tell them you are studying them?  Will you position yourself as  someone who already agrees with them (what if you studying racist fanatics in a “White Aryan Resistance” organization—how far would you go?  What if you turned out to be a really terrific fund­raiser for them?)?  A potential convert?  Curious observer?  There are often good reasons to make it clear to your “subjects”  that you are planning on writing about them: if you do not. It is always interesting to compare what people can say to you vs.g. trying to act like them when you’ve spent your whole life  trying to distinguish yourself from them? How. the usual thing that sociologists do)?  Sideways. how you will introduce yourself. a  former high school geek perhaps. or to a group. complementary positions However you introduce yourself. are you going to address demographic differences  (race. how do you feel.  that is more real than the other selves that the person shows to other people.   Ethnographer and Confidante. age.” whatever that is. is how people manage to keep all the other possible alternate realities at bay when they do. If you do hear  people saying things to you that they would not say elsewhere. Briefly. you should write down your personal and political agendas and questions:  Why would someone who is not a scholar care about your  questions?  What political ax do you have to grind. so you simply cannot set up your categories in advance: they will always be wrong. class. part of what you examine.  but do not assume that you will be like a therapist or counselor who gets deep into the real inner person. . became a member. aside from  the scholarly and possibly political agendas? Are you studying “up” (corporate executives. studying people who obviously were cheerleaders and jocks in high  school? In that latter case. e. much less analyze. you will feel uneasy. take note of what gets screened out. you can. where.”  Write notes as soon as possible after you have been at your site. if any?  Do you have any personal agenda. and they will wonder why  someone “like you. what they can say to someone else. and how the various realities enter into play with one another. Morrill) or  “down” (homeless people. Taking field notes Your first observations are often the most interesting. describing the work  of the novelist…). you might become someone’s confidante. street vendors. The ethnographic method gives less control to the researcher than other methods.   When you meet people. too. for example) between you and the people you are studying? Deciding before you enter.

 and how you know they were shared if they were.Focus especially on interactions that make you laugh. not just one. Did you physically  uncomfortable?  Surprised? bored?  eager to do more? inspired? furious at one member? terrified? feel  guilty not volunteering for enough. Don't wait till you write the paper to do your analysis.  Try to notice and remember as much as  you can.  Record as much as you can of interactions that you do not understand."  (If  something is really worth remembering happens. could you find a place­­the bathroom. or awkward in starting conversations?  And of course. because the  mistakes you make and misinterpretations you have reveal a lot about the expections you had. so write these down. or worried that you’d dropped an  olive on the floor at the elegant event? Describe how you know what your feelings were. Initial contacts are especially interesting. perhaps?­­to go to  write it down while you’re still there?).  Take notes on your processes of selecting and entering a site­­was it difficult?  Upon entry. do it all along the way. “So­and­so flailed his arms in the air and shouted. what members take for granted. your analysis will change each time you go. that  make people angry or confused. if we can say it  again. and where people feel more free or constrained. or were there welcoming soft chairs? How did it smell and sound? What has initially  confused you?  Repelled. interpret an action as a sign of “anger. "he said x. or did they help you get accustomed to group  participation? Was it hard to find the place.  Best is to remember them clearly enough to be able to write. and why you think you had those feelings. Notice  who associates with whom. whether some kinds of ideas or people tend to get ignored. Don’t just say “So­and­so was mad about the new rule.’”  That is. did  you know how to act?  Did other people assume you would. what gets said. then she said y. or hard to get there because of locked doors and forbidding  security guards. This is important  methodologically. frustrated you? What obstacles. too. and whether you  could tell if other people shared them.  Notice whose agenda gets  taken up.” but say. because you might.” but later learn that it was in fact a sign of enthusiasm. etc. always say how you know that the person felt or thought something.  Take notes on every  conversation remotely related to your (ever­changing) question. as you learn more. early on in your research.   Your own feelings as sources of data Your own feelings are valuable sources of insight.  since their meaning will probably become clear later.   Vary the context Try to listen to people before and after the meeting. if any. and just as crucially. that make someone laugh but not you.   Always tie your observations back to your (ever­changing)  theoretical questions. for example!  . what made you laugh? Did you feel awkward with the silverware. charmed.  what DOES NOT get said.  And report and analyze the actual words they used to express their feelings or thoughts. have you faced in contacting the  group? Of course. in a variety of situations.

 participants could  categorize their own actions.    When studying political and civic involvement. at the same time. eg.  And sometimes. Anheier.  Consider this list that  Robert Dahl.  For  one thing. why do we care?  Around the world. when people talk  about the seemingly unpolitical web of everyday life. friendship. 6).  That is. they often recognize that they are simultaneously  talking about politics and justice. the definitions of politics keep expanding.”  But that is a mistake. often.  and also. according to these agencies. family. love. in various ways: the organizations aimed at  redeveloping Belleville act as social work agencies. but their tones. gestures. you expand your sites as you discover how your first site fits into a field. Second. birth. so you should do the same. a one­time slum. work. except  maybe a sociologist!   Selecting a site We can end with what comes first and then comes in the middle and then comes last: selecting  sites. Dekker. as you discover  comparisons.  In a long­lasting ethnographic study. throughout much of the world. also over the past forty or so years. like bakeries and small grocery stores.  . sex. can only happen when people have  worthy employment. legal and political organizations. the selection of a site is theoretically interesting. a preeminent mid­century political scientist. grassroots activism has become inseparable from the work of giant. art.  “grassroots” organizations to establish little businesses. The Good Citizen. these local organizations are sponsored by the political opposition’s party and the government at the same time! Government. shelter. work with dignity (Rius forthcoming?). and each other’s actions. no one expects to know someone after a few minutes. or in the dense web of community development  programs in Belleville. What’s politics? What’s a civic group?  Ethnographic studies of political involvement should not presume to know where "politics" happens. over the past forty or so years. bureaucratically­organized non­governmental organizations. some are funded by government agencies.   This is how participants themselves build up a sense of who they are and how they are attached to one  another. actions. in1961. identity.). for example. social esteem and the like  (cited in Schudson. which. ch. composed.  and some rely on funding and organization from big national or international non­governmental  organizations (NGO’s). governments and the World Bank fund local. of topics that were obviously  NOT politics:  “food. casual neighbors with family­like  relationships. Salomon. and science are obvious candidates. how others interpreted it. as opposed to one that you begin in as a class project. now on the road to gentrification (Cefaï 2004). comfort.  The point is that now. for  example. it is tempting to look for research sites that call  themselves explicitly “political” or “civic.  Politically.Notice not just what people said. play.”  We could add to this list of formerly un­political topics:  nature.  speculate on why you think they talk that way as opposed to another way of addressing the same topic.  But even for a short class project. The point is  to create responsible citizens.  In the youth civic  engagement projects described above. government funding (Marwell. activist groups.

 partly. you violate the normal ways of doing things—from taking care of a child. on how participants talk and act in these places.international aid agency. with all their varied ghosts and  audiences and devices. Sometimes.” showing that people are inadvertently reproducing power and domination. you will miss the ways that judgments. For some social research. the goal is “demystification.” by showing that people are not doing what they think they are doing. not the front. It is primarily. . do it on the side wall. but because people cannot get along without imaginations. and thoughts. feelings.i eating. where ideas transparently describe reality. People. tricked into becoming consumers or racists or reproducing gender inequalities by wearing their Hello Kitty backpacks. If. but it tells only half the story. and to entertain the possibility that they invest some moral value to their everyday practices. it feels physical: “Don’t pick your nose with the same hand you use to grab the meat from the shared platter. Orienting yourself in a social situation requires that you use all your senses. and action connect. but often also disgusting or immoral (Trom 20xx). business. for example.” is the advice given in an etiquette book in 14th century wherever (Norbert Elias). small business. for a good ethnographer. “When pissing on the church wall. That is a fine goal. the feeling of moral violation is so deep. make the road by walking it. commands-. Even the most practical activity is also social and moral.” If you simply “demystify. is not to say that what people are doing is misguided or wrong: they are brainwashed. to show how what people are doing makes sense on their terms. not just because people are irrational. or even driving (Katz 19xx)—people consider it not just incorrect. But society cannot be organized that way. A demystifying approach always points to some imaginary world where nobody is oppressed or dominant. Whenever you are not on an Outward Bound trip eating worms in the wilderness. desires. where words and deeds match. where people are rational. in real life contexts. Finally. to speaking. political party project:  which is  it?  Should we call these “movements?”  Should we call what members do “politics” or “civic?”  That  depends. feelings. you know how to use something only because you know how other people have used it. The ethnographic attitude invites—in fact. shared passions. symbols that tell them whether that four-legged wooden thing is for sitting on or for eating on. grassroots organization. the moral of the story: The point.you to engage in a real dialogue with your subjects’ common sense categories.

or some relationships. if you are in a cold room with your boss. Consider. the right thing to do is lie. cold in here” if you want the window closed. speaking too directly feels wrong.i The literature on cultural differences in speech is vast. as does an Indian applicant in a job interview in England. you might say “Brr.” As all Anglo-Americans know.” (the example comes from Habermas 1985). but you probably would not say “close the window. on how incorrect people in the anglo-American world consider it to be if a person in a job interview to answer the question “Why do you need this job?” by answering. In some societies. for example. an example from a film produced by linguistic anthropologists John Gumperz and Jenny Cook-Gumperz. . “Because I need a job.

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