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Anna Zelenz | Undisciplined, Unruly, and Unmatched: What Ethnography Lends to the Study of Power

March 7, 2019

Anna Zelenz
Zelenz explained how the distinctive features of the ethnographic method were applied in her research.

Anna Zelenz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, UW. She completed a Concentration in the Qualitative Multi-Method Research Initiative (QUAL) in 2018 and has participated in several qualitative research workshops and conferences around the world. Anna’s research focuses primarily on lived experiences in spaces of conflict, and it is conducted ethnographically and interpretatively. In this talk, Zelenz shared her own experiences of ethnographic fieldwork in the Palestinian West Bank.

The Myth of Neutral Unbiased Researcher

Anna Zelenz

Zelenz shared her own experiences of fieldwork in the Palestinian West Bank.

For Zelenz, ethnography holds a specific view on a researcher both in the field and in products of research;  it proactively acknowledges the existence of a researcher not only as an observer but also as a participant in understanding and generating knowledge. What separates ethnography from other types of methods in the social sciences is that in the course of the research, it makes visible and upfront the researchers’ views, interpretations, and participation.  This particular notion of a researcher’s position stems from the view that knowledge and truth cannot be objectively located somewhere other than in the observer’s own perspectives, especially when it comes to the social and political phenomenon. This is in contrast to the view usually adopted by social science disciplines, aiming for rigorous hypothesis testing, which presupposes a neutral unbiased researcher who can run quasi-experiments with social events.

Zelenz further explained the differences between the causal inference approach and ethnographic work.  While methodology for causal inference is prone to creating theories which have higher predictability and generalizability, such goals are not necessarily central to ethnography. Rather, ethnography tries to capture the process of meaning creation, which is both a larger and broader scope than pure prediction based on causal inference. According to Zelenz, understanding people’s lives and social relations, or how the power around them is created and operates is something ethnographic work can do better than other types of methods. This is because many concepts used in traditional political science – such as power, capacity or community – that seek to measure social relations and phenomenon are often boxed into the goals of causal inference, but do not capture what is really going on. 

For Unruly Power, Unruly Ethnography

Anna Zelenz

Zelenz emphasized that the power relations in a conflict-ridden region such as in the West Bank are so unruly and undisciplined that the conventional political concepts are not useful in grasping what is really happening on the ground.

As an example of applying the ethnographic approach, Zelenz shared her own fieldwork experience, working and living in a community in the West Bank. She suggested that the ethnographic method of relying on participant observation was the most appropriate one so as to reveal the power relationship among people in such a conflict-ridden region.

As she experienced, power relationships were not a one-way street. An individual could be situated in convoluted webs of power where he or she found different roles and identities working in opposite directions simultaneously. For example, one may be in a position of power in terms of political status but can be differently placed in terms of race or gender. Unearthing this particular nature of power, which is undisciplined, unruly and unmatched, necessitates one’s own experience of having lived within such social relations. To that end, standardized measures which supposedly cut across different regions and times would not be able to measure what they set out to discover – the layers and textures of power in the West Bank was not something that could be captured by predetermined indicators.

Ethnography as a method and methodology

Anna Zelenz

Zelenz explained how the distinctive features of the ethnographic method were applied in her research.

The technique which ethnographic approach utilizes is participant-observation. This involves a researcher being part of a community and its social relations to experience them first-hand, which in turn, enables self-reflection and to generate certain knowledge. Very often it becomes a collective work of cogenerating knowledge and meaning with people in the community. In this light, ethnography does not end as a method but becomes a methodology, a mode of research. As a mode of research, ethnography represents a particular way of thinking about knowledge production – ethnographic research is in and of itself a process of creating meaning.

Graduate students during Anna Zelenz

Graduate students and faculty discussed how the ethnographic method can also be used with other types of methods.

Zelenz cautioned that ethnography as a method and methodology should not be conflated with a qualitative method in general. In her opinion, ethnography understood as a mere technique of interviewing people, which eventually leads to generating data for rigorous forms of causal inference is a misconception. Instead, ethnography is an independent methodology whose approach toward social phenomenon is fundamentally different from other methodologies, especially whose focus is causal inference with broad generalizability and predictability. Zelenz said that this very misconception is the reason why some believe that ethnographic work on its own is not good enough, or that ethnography is only a complementary strategy to make the data collection process more vigorous and valid.

For sure, Zelenz noted that ethnographic sensibility – a cultivated sense of fluid social relations, power dynamics and so on – can be useful in other types of methods. For example, in doing large-N or big data analysis, constructing data in a certain way with an ethnographic sensibility can correct numerous potential problems.  However, combining different methods should be conducted with a clear awareness of each method’s philosophical base and its different goals.

For more detailed information on ethnography and participant observation method – see the slides from her talk.