ETHNOGRAPHY AND THEORY
Benjamin Shestakofsky - University of Pennsylvania
Upon being asked to contribute a reflection on how theory plays a role in my ethnographic research, I began to ponder whether there is any aspect of my work—and the work of ethnographers more generally—in which theory does not play a role.
Ethnographers dwell in the time and space of others. Using our bodies as research instruments, we participate in and observe social action, inscribing our interpretations to the page. Some researchers caution that ethnographers must be careful to undertake such activities without allowing theoretical presuppositions to color their observations. In practice, however, ethnographers can never escape theory, which may take the form of either explicit or tacit models of activity in the social world. Other scholars’ research and our own personal experiences inform our interest in the topics we choose to study. Once ethnographers have entered a social setting, we find that the field is an infinite manifold. It is theory that focuses our attention on particular aspects of the activities we observe. As we begin to gather data, we cannot help but draw it into dialogue with existing concepts as we develop insights and repeatedly return to the field to test our assumptions. Analysis of data is informed by reflections on how one’s positionality shapes one’s observations. And our writing requires us to make decisions about whose voices will be included or suppressed as we weigh considerations of audience and genre.