Hero Image

What is Anthropology

McGranahan, C. (2015). What is Ethnography? Teaching ethnographic sensibilities without fieldwork. Teaching Anthropology; Vol 4 (2014): Learning by Example. https://doi.org/10.22582/ta.v4i1.421

The primary focus of this paper is a discussion of what seems to be a controversy about how and when to teach ethnography to under-graduates. As such, it's a little peripheral to my needs right now, but there are some very interesting examples of ways to get students thinking ethnographically that I found compelling.

Squatting as Ethnographic Stance

Squatting doesn't only take you out of your typical perspective on the world, it is also a very cultural phenomenon. When McGranahan has her students squat in her class, it not only gives them a new perspective on their immediate surroundings, but it is a very physical experience that is difficult for most North American adults. This difficulty parallels the difficulty of actually coming to embody the culture that is the topic of investigation, but McGranahan argues that it is necessary.

Getting to the Ethnographic

Three new criteria were deemed key by my students. These were, first, a transparency of the ethnographer as researcher. By this they meant not gratuitous reflexivity, but a clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated, and of what the scholar’s relationships with the community were; a twist on the need to show you were there. Second, the students noted the presence of people in the text as characters whom you get to know, people who appear as themselves, as real people. Third, they identified a contemporary need for the author to demonstrate that the topic being studied matters; by this they meant mattered not only in an anthropological sense, but mattered and was relevant to the people in the community.


In conclusion, I want to share the words of anthropologistKirin Narayan who when I asked her “Why ethnography?,” answered the following:

For the discipline of paying attention; for becoming more responsibly aware of inequalities; for better understanding of the social forces causing suffering and how people might somehow find hope; and most generally, for being perpetually pulled beyond the limits of one’s own taken-for-granted world”(Narayan in McGranahan 2014).

Ethnographic knowledge is charged in that it is produced out of real-life encounters between people, most often in the context of meaningful differences between these people. Ethnographic research can be troubled and it requires care and commitment, humility and cooperation, vulnerability and trust, but it is one of the most poignant ways of knowing another and thus, knowing the self. In terms of the teaching I do, I believe in its transformative possibilities.

Photo by