“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,

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

she wants them to feel proud. Here are many audiences. An NGO worker asks. For example. Since some college scholarships also require volunteer work. each with its own exigencies.” But when the group goes to the event to receive the award. measuring volunteer hours is important. The youth programs have to count the hours. for many reasons: they’re always scrambling for funds. adults let the teens count the hours double.graduation requirements. and publicize their work to voters who vote for funding for such programs. and government and NGO-sponsored grant application often demand evidence of local grassroots involvement. 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. 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. the audiences are not even there! Some of the most influential audiences are long dead. for having been good community volunteers. and those kids need to measure and publicize their volunteer work. dragging it across the sidewalk. and have to document it in rapidly digestible formats. and publicize the volunteer spirit. Teens “got volunteer hours” for attending meetings deciding how to count volunteer hours. For example. “Would you remember to send it in?” Some of the eight teens in the meeting answer: No. or invisible: ghosts. after having already done the volunteer work. more time in meetings is devoted to the question of how to measure the hours spent volunteering than to any other question. These programs have to make volunteering happen. So.” The adult leader of the teens’ programs is horrified that the teens have seen this. a group of poor youth at a community center wins a city-wide competition. fluff up their CV’s for college applications. because it looks good on their college applications. kids could get credit for each hour in two different programs at once. the teens see on the list of awardees that the award is called an award “for needy youth. not like pathetic recipients of pity for their neediness. If the work was unpleasant. the different audiences’ requirements conflict. 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. 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. their award is supposedly for having done so much “community service. number of people served. not just a woman. Some programs include college bound kids. a guy sees a woman with a heavy suitcase. 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. Sometimes. number of volunteers involved. so that distant publics can assess it quickly: in numbers of hours spent volunteering. a national award for youth who complete 100 hours of volunteer work. 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. tons of food delivered to the needy. get prizes for having done good volunteer work. If he offers her help. in some groups. In fact. that he .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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