“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,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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