Active Ethnography

Robert Ehrenreich (rehrenre@NAS.EDU)
Thu, 13 Jan 1994 15:34:45 EST

I have what is probably a simple question (if there is such a thing) for
the ethnographic community about a book that I am currently reading. The
author discusses the importance of acquiring an ethnographic persona while
doing fieldwork, one that will be acceptable to the individuals being
studied. This makes perfect sense to me. However, the author goes on to
say that it is also important to be politically active in the community
(i.e., join a political group) and attempt to affect its future, otherwise
the ethnographer will not be taken seriously. The author states
emphatically that passive observation is self-defeating. Being an
archaeologist, it has been a long time since I read a purely ethnographic
work, but this seems entirely contrary to everything I ever learned. My
feeling would be that too active a presence to affect change in a society
would result in (1) the subjects telling the ethnographer exactly what s/he
wishes to hear, (2) the observer meeting only those individuals who want
similar changes, and (3) the book being a tautology. I would be grateful
to anyone who can help resolve my confusion.

Robert M. Ehrenreich
National Academy of Sciences
Washington, DC