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Ethnographic Observation Assignment

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Anthropology 202
Fall 2015
Instructor: Ian Kalman
Written Assignment: Ethnographic Observation
This assignment is an exercise in ethnographic observation. Students are asked to choose a location in the Montreal area for a field site. There, they will spend at least an hour, taking
(hand-written) notes on what they observe. Successful sites are those in which, to some extent, what is considered ‘normal’ differs from the observer’s own sense of normal. In other words, students are asked to go to a place where taken-for-granted knowledge differs from their own and report on their experiences and insights. In doing so, you make something that was previously strange slightly more familiar, and write about it.
Students are then asked to write their papers in two parts, including both a description and analysis of their experience (total 1800 words maximum). Analyses should be no more than 400 words.
Papers will be assigned a grade based on the success with which they, (1) demonstrate they have chosen a site appropriate for anthropological observation, (2) richly describe what they observed, and (3) draw out and support interesting interpretations rooted in their experience.
Assignments count for 30% of the student’s final grade. Unexcused late submissions will be penalized five points per day of lateness.
Papers must be submitted in word format electronically before 2:30PM on Tuesday,
October 20th. Please note that as this is an electronic submission, you will be locked out of the system if you try to submit late.
Listening
Students are asked to describe their experience visiting the site. Tell the reader what you observed. You may want to spend one or two sentences offering context regarding why you chose a particular site. Still, be careful, as your number of words is limited, you will have to be very economical with word choice.
Although Clifford Geertz suggests thick description (including ‘meaning’ in one’s description), as this project is limited in scope, please be explicit when discussing your own perceptions, about how you ‘knew’ what you knew. Although you will inevitably have to include some interpretation and presupposition into your descriptions, generally speaking,
‘showing’ is better than ‘telling’.

Example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’:

“The girl sitting by the lake was very angry at her boyfriend.” (Telling) vs. “A girl sitting by the lake started yelling at the boy whose hand she had been holding.” (Showing)

Example of discussing how you ‘knew’ what you knew:

“The church-goers ate the wafers, which symbolized the body of Christ” (It is unclear how you knew what that meant)

vs. “The church-goers ate the wafers. One later told me that the wafers symbolized the body of Christ”. (It is clear how you knew what that meant)
You should give the reader an impression of ‘being there’ with you at the site. The authority of your analysis will come from the clarity and consistency of your description. Depending on how you want to analyze your experience, you may or may not want to include reflexivity.
Analysis
Students are asked to say something meaningful about what they observed. Analysis can vary based upon theoretical perspectives the student chooses to invoke, or particular objectives of the observation. As this project is very small in scope, try to stick to small, refined observations rather than sweeping statements. I want to see the ways in which your experience challenged, or at least complicated your preconceptions.

Example of refined analysis:

“From my two hours in the McDonalds, I concluded that fast food is the only way people there make themselves happy” (Too sweeping) vs. “From my two hours in the McDonalds, I concluded that the restaurant tried to provide customers with a sense of belonging.” (More limited and accurate)
If you choose to be more reflexive, you may also discuss the relationship between those experiences, perceptions and connections, and your own experience as an observer.
In the analysis section, students must explicitly justify their use of a theory, reading, or thinker, from our lectures and readings. Of the analytical frameworks discussed (or which will be discussed) in class, you may find the following helpful: o Bronislaw Malinowski: Trying to understand the imponderabilia of everyday life or trying to see how facets of culture function to satisfy needs o Ruth Benedict: Culture as connected to particular types of personality o Margaret Mead: Demonstrating what we consider ‘natural’ is in fact ‘cultural’ o Clifford Geertz: Anthropology as an interpretive science in search of meaning o Renato Rosaldo: Anthropology as the repositioning of one’s subjectivity o Paul Rabinow: Anthropology as the comprehension of the self by detour of the ‘other’ o Radcliffe Brown: Anthropology as the study of structural relationships o Erving Goffman: Culture as dramaturgical performance o You may choose another analytic framework from class if you justify it
Locations
Anthropology strives to be an ethical pursuit, especially in the wake of its history of questionable engagement with research subjects. Your project must first and foremost seek to do no harm. If you are asked to leave, you should do so.
The following sites are not allowed: Places of religious worship, places of therapy and/or any sort of mental health. You may not visit Kahnawake, or any other indigenous reserve

territory. If you have doubts or questions about a potential site, please contact the TA or professor beforehand.
You must visit a place with people (no unoccupied spaces) specifically for this class (no writing about previous trips). Ultimately, your choice of site should reflect your own experiences, or lack of experiences, in and around this city. Touristic places are often bad options because the visitors share your unfamiliarity. Some popular sites in previous years:
 Goth club
 Thrift market
 Holt Renfrew (a “haute” department store)
 Strip clubs (note: every year TAs have to grade dozens of accounts of strip clubs, if you choose to go to one, please be wary of this)
 Fast food or coffee shop late at night
 Public spaces, restaurants, or cafes, in neighborhoods distant from the city center or in Chinatown
 Montreal casino
 Protests/Demonstrations
 Montreal mass transit at unconventional hours
 Niche museums or galleries
Assessment
Students will be assigned a numerical grade of up to 30 points. Teaching Assistants will be employing the below rubric in their marking. These requirements are guidelines, and ultimately, criteria will be graded holistically:
Criteria
Requirements
Ethnographic
Description
Setting (5 pts)
Student successfully demonstrates and/or justifies they chose a good site for study (something “strange” for them).
Student does a good job of giving the reader a sense of the location and atmosphere. Listening (10 pts)
Student demonstrates attention to detail
Student offers a rich description of their site
Observation strikes a productive balance between focus and range
Student “shows” rather than “tells”
Analysis
Learning (5 pts)
Student demonstrates they learned something
Student offers a well-thought-out analysis and supports it with evidence.
Student implicitly or explicitly demonstrates that their analysis is consistent with the aims of anthropology as discussed in class. (See above section on analysis for more detail)
Overall Writing (5 pts)
Spelling and Grammar do not interfere with or challenge comprehension of the text.
Writing is clear and concise (word economy is especially important here)
Total (30 pts)…...

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