Peer Ethnography: Practicing the Ethics of Research and Representation

I developed this exercise in response to an informal conversation I once had with Catherine Cole about the best way to teach students about the ethics of ethnography. I also had the good fortune of looking at class notes from one of my peers at Northwestern who took an ethnography seminar with the great Dwight Conquergood, who did something similar on the first day. Finally, I have borrowed the name of the assignment, “Representing the Other,” from Tamara Roberts’ syllabus for her grad seminar on ethnomusicology at Berkeley.

I introduce this exercise on the first day of class for an upper-division undergraduate seminar on research methods in theatre and performance. After we watch excerpts of Dennis O’Rourke’s classic film, Cannibal Tours, we discuss if the filmmaker has represented his “subjects” fairly (both the Papua New Guineans and the tourists). I then explain that they’re going to get the chance to “study” a classmate and “be studied” that week (I let the students choose their own pairings based on whose schedule meshes better with whose, etc.).

When I pass around the prompt, there are always gasps. Students are excited yet apprehensive: how conspicuous will they be following someone around and taking notes? How will it feel to be the one whose every move is observed?

In our next meeting, we present our “findings” to one another conference-style. I explain to them that as ethnographers, we should present papers as sensitively as if the people we are discussing are in the room with us. The only difference is that this week, they actually are! Our follow-up discussion is eye-opening: some students are delighted at their classmates’ insights about them; others state boldly that the other person “got me all wrong.” In most cases, students are won over to ethnography. At the very least, we all remain attentive to the ethics of research and representation throughout the quarter.

Click here for the assignment

Click here for the course syllabus

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