Ethnographies are tomes. Although often the writing style lets people read them quickly, when one gets assigned to a class, at first there’s always an audible groan.
Ethnographies also often seem rather mysterious. We idealize the process of going out into the field. Honestly, we can’t help doing that because the writing itself is often sanitized of all of the messy starts, all of the days of problems. So much so that it often seems like you have to be the right type of person to write an ethnography or include ethnographic work within your research. When I was taking my Advanced Interviewing and Ethnography seminar with Cameron Macdonald, she told us of a famous sociologist who would send students out into the field with little training: “Most of you will fail, some of you are ethnographers.”
Yes, ethnographic observation and interviewing are skills. They have to be taught and they have to be practiced. But they aren’t character traits that either someone has or they don’t. I’m an ethnographer because it is the style of work that I enjoy, fits within my sociological theoretical philosophies, and because I have done over a hundred interviews. My first project—essays that I begged people to write—certainly did not have the best questions nor was it analyzed using the most accurate techniques. After 5 graduate classes on methodology and 4 more projects, I can say though that I’m much more aware of what the “more correct” things to do are.
Ethnography needs to be easier to consume. There is a place now in the world for multiple lengths of media. What once was only the purview of long manuscripts, now I want to cut down to smaller lengths. The end goal of this project is still going to be a book, because that will be the best venue to present some of the stories that I am collecting. A book will also let me interconnect ideas between chapters, creating a “sense” of Boystown by consuming the whole.
This blog though can also give a sense of Boystown. It can respond quicker to events, like my post on Bakhtin and the When in Boystown tumblr . I can write assuming that I’m going to have an academic audience and non-sociologists reading. For instance, I think just reading my piece on my night at Circuit night club can give one a sense of that space and moving through Boystown in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily get from a book.
There are problems though with creating a research blog. First, everyone always asks me if I’m afraid of people stealing my work. I think that this is a real issue, but internet etiquette has also evolved to the point that it might be overblown. Just because something is written on the internet does not mean that it is free game. Lots of news stories are published on the internet. There are cases of the work being stolen, like this one about an editor pulling a news story off of someone’s personal blog. However, as that story shows, the man marched down to the editor’s office and demanded payment for his writing. I’m making a smiliar move by having my “How to Cite this Blog” page down at the bottom.
The second problem is trickier. There is a real concern that by publishing bits of information as I go along that I could accidentally reveal someone that would enable people to figure out who my participants are. In a normal publishing situation, I would be able to run certain bits of possibly identifying information by the pariticpants and get their go ahead and this is something that they would be ok with me including. In this situation, I make a judgment call that the pseudonyms and removal of certain identifying characteristics will be enough. Over time though as I quote people extensively or include them in settings that we met together at, that may become more difficult.
Ultimately though, a research blog about ethnography is a benefit to research. I’d rather spend part of each week writing posts that communicate my on-going thoughts to a wider audience than horde that knowledge and only release it at the end. There are going to be times when doing so means that I’ve revealed something incorrect. I might see a theme on the basis of a few interviews that changes when I have more: like how in my master’s thesis a strategy that I thought was central to the coming out experience turned out to be just one of several. But that will help demystify ethnography. There are times when you’re wrong. There are times when I go out and learn nothing.
But there are other times when I feel energized and lucky that I’m getting to write and learn about such an important issue in my community. Race in queer communities needs to be discussed more. This blog is my step towards continuing a conversation.