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The Practice of Preparation

by Sara Swenson

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

August 29, 2017
  

Greetings Syracuse students and company!

I am writing from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where I am waiting to start fieldwork in Vietnam in ten days. In many ways, my fieldwork started weeks ago with language review, IRB protocol forms, and visa paperwork. After hearing the wonderful news that I had been awarded the Robert HN Ho Dissertation Research Fellowship in Buddhist Studies, I immediately emailed friends and contacts in Vietnam to let them know I would be returning this fall.

Starting my ethnographic project means starting a long process of changing my personal habits and way of thinking. Ethnography is equal parts research method and lifestyle, noun and verb. I have been practicing listening carefully in conversations and observing details around me that would be easy to overlook. I have also been trying to journal every day, to get in the habit of writing. The biggest change for me was buying a camera. I have never been much of a photographer. This decision was prompted by the realization that if I want to publish images from my fieldwork in the future, they will need to come from a quality camera.

 That said, a quality camera is only good in the hands of a quality photographer. I've been practicing my photography skills at every chance, to make sure my camera has the operator it deserves. I’m learning that photography isn’t an art form. It is a process of negotiation. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and the camera even turns itself off sometimes (in protest to my clumsy thumbs). Either way, it seems I very rarely succeed in taking a picture. Mostly, pictures succeed in taking themselves. I am one thread in a net of circumstances that sometimes captures something beautiful.

The same may be said of ethnography. Ethnographic texts are a product of circumstances and negotiations. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and language sometimes turns itself off – in shock, heartbreak, joy, or protest. As I prepare to start fieldwork, I have also been reviewing a few influential texts on ethnographic methods, to make sure my project has the ethically attentive researcher it deserves. For those who are curious about what this means, I’ll end by including a few helpful and informative resources, here:

  • Alcoff, Linda. 1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” pg. 5-32 in Cultural Critique (20).
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “Five Qualitative Approaches to Inquiry,” pg. 69-110 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “The Process of Designing a Qualitative Study,” pg. 42-68 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • DeVault, Marjorie L. and Glenda Gross. 2006. “Feminist Interviewing: Experience, Talk, and Knowledge,” pg. 173-197 in Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Doing Participant Observation” p. 41-65 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition. Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Informal Interviewing in Participant Observation,” pp. 137-156 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition.  Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Okely, Judith. 2010. "Fieldwork as Free Association and Free Passage," pg. 28-41 in Ethnographic Practice in the Present. Marit Melhuus, Jon P. Mitchell, and Helena Wulff (eds). New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Rodriguez, Dalia. 2010. “Storytelling in the Field; Race, Method, and the Empowerment of Latina College Students,” pg. 491-507 in Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies (10.6). Thousand Oaks: Sage Journals.
  • Stacey, Judith. 1988. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” pg. 21-27 in Women’s Studies International Forum (2.1).

 My next post will come from Vietnam! Until then, be well.

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Contact Information
Sara Swenson