“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,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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