‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’

Margaret Mead

ethnography library

Since I started working at the Yunus Centre in 2011 I have been the sole ethnographer/social anthropologist. As the centre has grown I have happily given up this role and I now get to share this with an influx of new colleagues eager to use ethnographic methods within their work. With this in mind, a group of us from the CommonHealth project signed up for a course in Collaborative Ethnography and on Monday we travelled through to Edinburgh to learn more.

I took a lot from the course and could spend a few thousand words describing exactly what Collaborative Ethnography is and all the things I learned. Instead I’ll focus on one of the key issues that is at the heart of Collaborative Ethnography, which raised interesting questions about the ways researchers can engage with communities outside of traditional educational institutions in more meaningful and long lasting ways.

Core to the definition of Collaborative Ethnography is the explicit emphasis on collaboration across all parts of the research process and a shared commitment to the end product– whether that is a film, book, documentary or report. It is this end product that most interested me. Many people might engage in forms of collaborative research, using various methods and it could be argued that most, if not all, forms of qualitative research have an element of collaboration; although this is often limited to the data collection stage. However, within collaborative ethnography the analysis and final write up is a vital part of the process. I found this idea challenging but was keen to hear how it had been done.

The two academics running the course, Elizabeth Campbell and Eric Lassiter, had found ways to make this work and the research they helped initiate had resulted in the production of a highly respected academic text ‘The Other Side of Middletown’. They set up a collaborative ethnographic process in response to a request from a community leader who was concerned with the lack of African American voices in a previous study of the small town of Muncie, aka Middletown. Using resources from the university Elizabeth and Eric were able to set up a course for students at Ball State University who worked alongside community consultants and collaborators to conduct interviews, focus groups and oral histories and eventually write individual chapters that featured in the book. Eric and Elizabeth described to us the ways that drafts of the texts were written and rewritten in response to individual meetings, small focus groups and large community forums. The interpretation of historical events was discussed and details of each chapter pored over until there was agreement over the text, or at least the agreement to disagree. Beyond the production of traditional academic papers, books and presentations the students involved in the study remained involved in the Muncie community. They have helped to produce photo exhibitions, develop multicultural educational programmes, participate in discussions in schools and churches about race relations in Muncie and work with a local mediation team to research specific experiences of racial conflict in the area.

Reflecting on the course and the discussions we had I’m eager to consider how I might apply some of this to my own work. As I write my thesis I know the ship has sailed on using this approach within my PhD but my hope is that the relationships I have formed might serve as a basis for future collaboration. Within the CommonHealth project collaboration with WEvolution has been vital in terms of their involvement as research partners. Yet I’m wondering as I start to enter the final year of my CommonHealth involvement whether the stage is now set for collaboration in the outputs of the research and the consideration of the ways that we can continue to work together beyond the lifecycle of this specific research programme.

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