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The Joy of Uprooting (One’s Own) Assumptions


Editor’s Note: There’s much to find on the Internet that is either ethnographically-inspired or that may inspire ethnographers.  Here our guest contributor Luisa Beck offers some comments on a blog post and a TED talk. She presents them in the style of the original weblogs that curated good finds from around the Internet. – Jenna

This week, a bit of browsing indulgence led me to discover a blog post and TED talk with a common theme – the delight of having one’s own assumptions undone.  It’s an experience ethnographers often seek out. But it’s refreshing to hear it described by others as something positive, even joyful.

In a recent blogpost, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Civic Media Lab and co-founder of Global Voices, an international blogging platform, describes a trip to Kenya in which he and his students wanted to test out an idea for a piece of hardware designed to help people in nations where electric power is scarce sell power to their neighbors. Once in Kenya, Ethan and his grad students travel to Baba Dogo, an intended industrial area on the outskirts of Nairobi where thousands of people live (the people Ethan talks to call it an “upscale slum”, using terms that have become common in a place where slum tourism is a lucrative business). They discover that their assumptions about power scarcity, people’s reluctance to pay for power, and the effort it would take to convince people to start micro-scale power businesses, were wrong. People living in Baba Dogo had ways of dealing with power scarcity that made sense only in the cultural, social and economic context particular to the place.  “We had to understand that not all commerce in the neighborhood was about the exchange of money for goods or services – often businesses provide favors to one another in complex webs of obligation,” Ethan writes.

Read More… The Joy of Uprooting (One’s Own) Assumptions

A funny film poking fun of ethnography (makes a great teaching tool!)



badethnography has a shared a teaching gem: Walter Wippersberg‘s 1994 Film, Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich Dark, Mysterious Austria.  I am now assigning , to all my students. If you teach qualitative methods, consider including this in your syllabus.

Produced for Austria’s SBS-TV, this films pokes fun at old-school ethnography from anthropologists and the National Geographic-esque like exposes on the exotic Africans and South American natives.

“A team of the All African Television network wanders into the darkest regions of the Eastern Alps. They observe the habits and rituals of the natives and make not one, but two ethnological major break-through discoveries.” IMDB

badethnography tell us that at

“At 5:40, we learn that the team has disproved the theory that Europeans are monogamous; starting at about 7:50, they describe the elaborate costumes and militaristic symbolism of clans of the Tyrol region of Austria; and at 15:00, there’s a great discussion of the curious obsession with “patently useless activities,” such as biking for no other purpose than biking itself.

Aside from the humorous commentary, it’s a great way of illustrating the sociological imagination,  which requires us to step out of our own culture and try to look at it through the eyes of an outsider — and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to recapture the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted.”

Often times ethnography can feel so heavy and serious –  power and culture ad naseum.

But what does power and culture look like? How do you explain exoticism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism? Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich is a wonderful video to start those conversations because it’s silly! Part of why I love ethnography so much is that it is so fun and I think this video is a great reminder for ethnographers to laugh a bit at ourselves. In all of our musings over the practice and theory of ethnography, we’ve got to remember that we live in a wonderfully silly world and how lovely it is that we live in a period where we get to play all day in collecting knowledge of “man,” a la Foucault.

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and btw – I don’t think I could ever visit the Alps of Austria without constantly thinking of this video.

UPDATE: Also check out Kitchen Stories, a Swedish film about an ethnographic study on kitchens. It’s a comedy. You can buy the DVD on amazon and watch 2 clips here. Thanks Leila Takayama for the tip!