Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ethnographic eye/'I' and vulnerable observation

Observation: the ethnographic eye

“Our methodology, defined by the oxymoron ‘participant observation’, is split at the root: act as a participant, but don’t forget to keep your eyes open. Lay down in the mud in Colombia. Put your arms around Omaira Sanchez. But when the grant money runs out, or the summer vacation is over, please stand up, dust yourself off, go to your desk, and write down what you saw and heard. Relate it to something you’ve read by Marx, Weber, Gramsci, or Geertz and you’re on your way to doing anthropology” (Behar 1997: 5).

During my first days working in the streets, all I could see were the external, corporeal aspects of youth sex work...bare skin, exposure...private parts (as typically constructed) made public and commoditized... distant, glazed eyes hiding behind masks of pink, glittery make-up and accessories...empty smiles seeping with shoe glue and quickly fading after the 15-second high subsides and upon re-entrance into their bodies and spatial contexts/street corners....

In providing a so-called 'thick description' of my initial observations of street girls, what have I achieved? In attempting to re-present these young bodies and images, has my ethnographic prose accomplished nothing more than further dehumanization? Is it ethical to leave my words (and representations) subject to re-appropriation and re-subjugation in new and equally exploitative contexts?

One way of addressing these preoccupations surrounding how to re-present Others is, as Behar tells us, through the concept of vulnerability and giving an account of oneSelf.... with the ultimate objective of leveling the social field between self/other; researcher/researched; insider/outsider....

Exposure: the ethnographic 'I'

“Vulnerability doesn’t mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn’t otherwise get to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake. It has to move us beyond the eclipse into inertia...in which we find ourselves identifying so intensely with those whom we are observing that all possibility of reporting is arrested, made inconceivable. It has to persuade us of the wisdom of not leaving the writing pad blank…a personal voice, if creatively used, can lead the reader, not into miniature bubbles of navel-gazing, but into the enormous sea of serious social issues” (Behar 1997: 14).

How much is too much?