Ethnographic Poems

Ethnographic research, which usually involves prolonged and in-depth engagement with a particular social group, brings with it certain dangers to do with the historical association of ethnography with colonialism, the up-close-and-personal nature of fieldwork, the interpretations made by the researcher, who is usually an outsider, and with the representation of these interpretations after the event.

One of the responsibilities of the ethnographer is to engage in an ongoing reflection with events in the field, always questioning interpretations, always making truth claims with caution, and always searching for traces of oppressive regimes being reproduced through their actions.

The poems reprinted on these pages were part of this process for me, during my PhD research, which regularly took me across the country between my home and my research sites. Sitting on the train, ‘gazing out the window’ provided a productive metaphor for the research gaze I was taking into my fieldwork, and the verses below littered with the familiar images of train travel and the things seen and felt along the way. If you would like to read something in a bit more of a conventional academic vein on the promises and dangers of ethnographic research then you can do so here and here.

These poems are sketches, scribbled down on notepaper, improvised. Please don’t expect them to scan, nor to convey any straightforward meaning. While I offer no interpretation of them here, there are various recurring images and themes, such as loss, harm, exposure, betrayal and capture, and these are all dangers worth interrogating if you are engaged in ethnographic research. On reading them again I am also struck by the tone, like some kind of heroic martyr, or fallen angel. As far as I know I have managed to keep my published output free of such tones, so perhaps that is one function of these little endeavours.

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