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Multivocal Ethnography Essay

In our culture, (assuming here Western, American, capitalist) we often interpret experience with respect to what we identify as Cartesian thought, a process by which we organize data into binary oppositions:  good/bad; light/dark, right/wrong, civilized/savage, young/old, smart/dumb, insider/outsider.  Rather than presenting data in terms of two-sided notions, ethnographic writing works to multiply the levels of possibility, to confound the binary divisions in our culture.  It is when we fall into the pattern of binary thought that we have the tendency to judge others.  We see that which is not like us, that which is different as wrong.  We think of arguments as having two sides, the pro and the con, usually ascribing the pro position for ourselves regardless of the argument.

An example here would be the rhetorical difference between the Pro-Choice and Right to Life movements.  Each side sees their perspective from the “pro” position.  Those who take a Pro-Choice stance often describe the “other side” as the Anti-Abortion Movement.  Likewise, those who accept a Right-to-Life stance are often heard to be Anti-Children.  The point is that when we have only two positions from which to choose, we are often led to make judgments since it is human nature to consider our own perspective as the “right” one.  In a final ethnographic essay, you will not be asked to argue one “side” or the other, or present any two aspects of a particular issue  Ethnographic writing does not answer questions as much as it explores the many ways people have of answering them.  It doesn’t argue a position, in as much as it presents an observation for consideration.

But, while resisting the binary is an element of ethnographic writing, it isn’t necessarily a rhetorical strategy.  In examining this list, you will note elements that may be understood as characteristics of ethnographic writing—in other words, identifying markers of possible examples of ethnographic writing—and elements that can be understood as rhetorical strategies, the actual means for producing the ethnographic writing.  The list itself has no particular order, but it may be reorganized into two categories as follows:

Characteristics of Ethnographic Writing

  • Ethnographic writing investigates how it is we make meaning and what this meaning might be.
  • Ethnographic writing is reflexive.
  • Ethnographic writing does not make judgments.
  • Ethnographic writing highlights complexity; resists Cartesian thought and binary oppositions.
  • Ethnographic writing illustrates a writing relationship between primary field research and secondary source ideas.
  • Ethnographic writing is evocative.
  • Ethnographic writing grabs the reader’s attention and works to sustain genuine interest.
  • Ethnographic writing is an approach rather than a prescription.

Rhetorical Strategies of Ethnographic Writing

  • Ethnographic writing explores ALL senses.
  • Ethnographic writing is personal writing.

If you noted that on the heels of stating that ethnographic writing resists the binary, another binary was created—one that seems to compare and contrast characteristics of ethnographic writing with rhetorical strategies for ethnographic writing–you are well on your way to thinking like an ethnographer, thinking in terms of questions, rather than answers.  If you did not notice this, do not worry.  You, like so many students before you, have been trained to simply read their textbooks, not to question the logic, veracity or accuracy of their content.

The point here is not to create a binary, to encourage you to be able to recall which elements are characteristics and which are rhetorical strategies.  Rather, the point is to illustrate that it is often much easier to provide a list that we might use to determine whether a piece might be labeled as ethnographic writing rather than to provide you with specifics as to how to produce ethnographic writing.  Expressly because ethnographic writing investigates how we make meaning, resists binaries and evokes interest, there can be no set formula, no specific set of rhetorical strategies that will ensure that one produces ethnographic writing.

Ethnographic writing emerges from a process, one that involves connection between researcher and their project, the creation of a proposal, ethical fieldwork, fieldnote writing, creative exploration with multi-modal and multi-vocal writing, and even experimental representation of findings.  Figuring out how to do this can, as suggested above, be reduced to a list of skills, skills that are identifiable and translatable to any number of other academic fields or disciplines.  Emerging Cultures provides guidance with respect to what ethnographic writing may be, but, in the end, understanding ethnographic writing depends upon your experience conducting research, working to translate what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell into words.  Any instructor can tell you that ethnographic writing is valuable, but your belief in the process depends upon your own efforts, successes and revelations following the process.

Three years ago I worked as a field researcher for a commercial real estate company. The job wasn’t as glamourous as the title makes it sound: the “research” consisted mainly in gathering the names and phone numbers of companies who rented office space throughout downtown Toronto. But in a way this was also the job’s biggest perk. My days were spent exploring streets and entering countless buildings, all the while observing the everyday, scheduled lives of thousands of strangers. I didn’t realize it then but while I was simply acquainting myself with the city, for all those others this was their place.

Over the next semester, I’ll be taking part in a seminar entitled “The Anthropology of Space, Place, and Landscape” and sharing some blog posts on select readings. The first article I’ll be looking at is Margaret Rodman’s “Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality.” Rodman (now Critchlow) teaches at York University and has extensively researched the concept of place and how it is constructed. In this essay, she argues that “attention to multilocality as well as multivocality can empower place conceptually and encourage understanding of the complex social construction of spatial meaning” (Rodman 1992:640).

But what does she mean by multilocality and multivocality? Before delving into these terms, it’s important to understand Rodman’s underlying concern that “insufficient attention has been paid to conceptualizing place in anthropology as something other than a physical setting or a passive target for primordial sentiments of attachment” (Rodamn 1992:641). In other words, Rodman is suspicious of the tendency to understand place as simply a single location with a single meaning. Such one-dimensional narratives disregard the multiplicity of forces that engender place.

Historically, anthropology and ethnography has authorized this “problem of place” by suggesting that the conclusions they reach “represent the essence of certain places” (Rodman 1992:643). Under this authoritative stance, place becomes “an entirely anthropological creation, a metonymic prison that incarcerates natives” (Rodman 1992:644). Thus, single narratives of place seem to function within a familiar colonialist logic, applying Western conceptions of place onto others’ perspectives. As Rodman succinctly states: “Rather than places becoming exemplars of our concepts, they should be seen as, to varying degrees, socially constructed products of others’ interests (material as well as ideational) and as mnemonics of others’ experiences” (Rodman 1992:644).

Returning then to multilocality, Rodman sketches out this concept as a new mode of experiencing place. She lists four dimensions of multilocality:

1. Multilocality is “a decentered analysis,” a constructed perspective built from multiple vantage points, both non-Western and Eurocentric (Rodman 1992:646). In this way, it acknowledges the perspective of others while simultaneously recognizing the openness of the other’s position.

2. Multilocality takes into account “comparative or contingent analyses of place” (Rodman 1992:646). In other words, it considers how the actions of many individuals come to construct a network of places.

3. Multilocality is a reflexive relationship – it works to construct meanings of place through a comparison between the familiar and the unfamiliar (Rodman 1992:647).

4. Multilocality allows for the expression of “polysemic meanings of place for different users” (Rodman 1992:647).

This last dimension links to the idea of multivocality. Rodman’s own research into the people of Vanuatu highlights the ways in which uniquely personal perspectives can give birth to a range of differing definitions of the same physical place. By listening to several members of varying social statuses in Vanuatu society, Rodman concludes that there “are often overlapping narratives of place” (Rodman 1992:652). Each narrative stresses social and geographical aspects which are significant only to the individual in their specific social context. Naturally, these narratives may compete and contest one another, but such contestation further supports the multiple dimensions of place.

Reading Rodman’s essay, I wondered how multilocal places could be seen in our own urban environments. Rodman would be the first to note that these concepts are not solely applicable to “primitive” or non-Western societies. All places are constructed multilocally and multivocally. And this fact is something we can potentially witness in our everyday activities. Watching people go about their day, one can notice individuals giving varying degrees of attention to manifold structures, settings, and situations – all in the same “place.”

Works Cited

Rodman, Margaret (1992) Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality. American Anthropologist 94(3): 640-656.

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