The Possibilities And Limitations Of Ethnography In Covid-19 Pandemic

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Ethnography relies on participant observation as it is the key data collection method and that makes it a qualitative research method coming from ethnography discipline but applicable to other disciplines. The essay will argue on the possibilities and limits of ethnography in this time of COVID 19 pandemic looking at what ethnography is as a method. There will be integrated debates around ethnography and explanation on how COVID 19 limited ethnography and provided it with opportunities.

The debate begins on what the term ethnography means as it lies in anthropology and other anthropologists misuse the term ethnography. According to Naidoo (2012) ethnography emerged from anthropology and was adopted by sociologists. She describes it as a qualitative methodology that lends itself to the study of the beliefs, social interactions, and behaviours of small societies, involving participation and observation over a period of time, and the interpretation of the data collected. Brewer (2003) argues that Ethnography can be defined as the study of people occurring in natural settings or fields by means of methods which capture their social meanings and ordinary activities, involving the researcher participating directly in the setting if not always the activities in order to collect data in a systematic manner, but without meaning being imposed on them externally.

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It is said that ethnography as a method is when peoples behaviour is studied in everyday context rather than under experimental conditions created by the researcher. Data is gathered from arrange of sources where the observation or relative informational conversation are the main source. Ethnography is a holistic, thick description of the interactive processes involving the discovery of important recurring variables in the society as they relate to one another, under specified conditions, and as they affect or produce certain results and outcomes in the society. It differs from a case study, which narrowly focuses on a single issue, or a field survey that seeks previously specified data, or a brief encounter for a few hours each day for a year, or 12 hours a day for a few months with some group. Therefore, those types of research are ethnographic but not ethnography (Lutz, 2012).

The ethnographer’s approach to data collection is unstructured in such a way that it does not involve a detailed plan follow up at the beginning, it happens that there are no categories used for interpreting what people say and do pre-given of fixed. This does not mean that the research is unsystematic, but it means that the data was initially collected in as raw a form and on as wide a front as feasible argued Burns (2020). She also said the on ethnography they usually focus on a single setting or group of small scale, it can even be a single individual. As for analysis of data it involves the interpretations of the meaning and functions of the human actions and mainly takes the form of description and explanation with quantification and statically analysis

Narayan (1993) argues on how native ethnography is by saying although many of the terms of anthropological discourse remain largely set by the West, anthropology is currently practiced by members or partial members of previously colonized societies that now constitute the so-called Third World. He said that the scholars like Gupta, Ferguson and Clifford often have institutional bases in the Third World, but some have also migrated to Europe and the United States. Furthermore, in the First World, minority anthropologists also hold university positions and their contributions to ongoing discourse have helped to realign, if not overthrow, some of the discipline’s ethnocentric assumptions.

In Ethnography, the writer is his own chronicler and the historian at the same time, while his sources are no doubt easily accessible, but also supremely elusive and complex; they are not embodied in fixed, material documents, but in the behaviour and in the memory of living men. In Ethnography, the distance is often enormous between the brute material of information—as it is presented to the student in his own observations, in native statement, in the kaleidoscope of tribal life— and the final authoritative presentation of the results. The Ethnographer has to traverse this distance in the laborious years between the moment when he sets foot upon a native beach, and makes his first attempts to get into touch with the natives, and the time when he writes down the final version of his result

The pandemic COVID 19 completely changed the world and limited ethnography. We think of these as cues, rather than research questions, because thinking ethnographically about (and during) this pandemic seems to us a slow exercise in distinguishing sound from noise. It may be too early to identify patterns of discourse or behavior that will prove enduring and significant, or to pinpoint those which are ephemeral (and what that ephemerality means). Even so, much ethnographic research relies on using intuition and careful attention to sense patterns in social interaction, which subsequently underpin formal research questions. To this end, we suggest three themes that anthropologists might attune ourselves to in this period of global disruption. The emerging differentiations between work that can be performed through digital technology and work which cannot invite ethnographic attention.

For many under stay-at-home orders, interactions with social and digital media (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, online journalism, etc.) have taken on outsized importance for social interaction and learning. Within these emerge forms of collective imaginative production: videos of Covid-19 patients being released from hospitals to the applause and tears of health care workers; images of wildlife “retaking” iconic urban environments; images of armed civilians protesting stay-at-home orders in state capitols; or counter protests from healthcare workers. These media form the basis for meaning-making, the development of collectively understood narratives about what is happening, how, and why.

As ethnographers, we can notice and document the emergence of shared and contested forms of worlding under pandemic conditions. In this pursuit, social media offer platforms to track where meaning-making congeals around particular events and ideas, and how articulations of their significance diverge. Different platforms, different algorithms, and different people may enact distinct versions of this crisis, in ways that are simultaneously ideational and material. These distinctions emerge from and perform real work in the world, and in the process, may well generate more-than-ideational multiplicities.

But even while the Covid-19 pandemic opens opportunities for connections across geographic space, it also foregrounds the “local,” and the material, embodied experiences of locality. The spread of the virus requires physical encounter. These encounters link human lives not only with each other, but also with the more-than-human, including microorganisms, bats, pangolins, and our shared, non-living mediums of existence, like air, water, and surfaces. The importance of locality is also reflected in representations of lived experience. Epidemiological data, for example, focuses attention on state- and county-level case and death numbers, and government advisories and recommendations. Images shared on social media underscore unfamiliar experiences of familiar environments (like streets, monuments, and mountain ranges) seen through newly clean air, and absent of people.

Digital technologies, including physical devices, apps, and social media platforms are already playing a role in how these events are developing, and in how they are communicated, interpreted, and enrolled in other projects. This role may not be entirely negative; indeed, if used well, these platforms may enable more just and effective public health interventions, widen the reach of social safety nets, or amplify voices of protest. Even in this moment when the classic research designs and methodologies of ethnography are disrupted, we have the opportunity to track new phenomena as they emerge by turning our ethnographic attention to these digital platforms and their intersections with lives offline. Such a shift may be vital for the survival of our scholarship and enable us to make crucial contributions to the new worlds already unfolding within and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ethnographers can provide accounts that start from first-person experiences of otherwise-global phenomena, like changing rainfall patterns and frequent, high-intensity wildfires, and demonstrate how these layer into other lived encounters with sociality and infrastructure, like supply-chain ruptures, ventilator shortages, vaccine distribution, and digital contact tracing. Exceptional lessons from the “panic” response to COVID-19 are in motion. The first is that people can change behavior quickly when presented with institutional mandates to do so. The empty shelves in shops provide evidence that worldwide, people are washing their hands on a regular basis, that is, among people who can afford disinfectants. People are bumping elbows instead of hugging, kissing, or shaking hands. Embodied knowledge seems to be more flexible than often theorized in medical anthropology.

People are slowing down and moving to virtual classrooms and conferences. People are stockpiling toilet paper and tinned foods. And in some circles, people are starting to question the sustainability of global capitalism. University systems, museums, and theaters everywhere are shutting down; increasingly, it seems, entire cities are doing so. Even so, we are seeing that some people who may be infected are going about their daily routines, either because their jobs do not provide paid time off or because of systemic failures in our privatized and public health care systems. The capacity to respond is thus uneven along the predictable fault lines of class, race, and gender.

In conclusion while COVID-19 has proven that people can care for one another through “social” distancing, people ensnared by structural violence face limited access to water, modern sanitation systems, or safe homes with ventilation. The pandemic also closed doors for ethnographers.

Reference List

  1. Naidoo, L. 2012, Ethnography: An introduction to definition and method, Western Sydney University, DOI: 10.5772.
  2. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” The Interpretation of Cultures. (New York: Basic Books), pages 3-30.
  3. Nader, L. 2013. “Ethnography as Theory.” In Culture and Dignity: Dialogues Between the Middle East and the West. (West Sussex, England: J. Wiley), pages. 51-79.
  4. Gupta, A, and Ferguson J. 1997. “Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology,” in Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. (Berkeley: University of California Press) pages. 1-46.
  5. Narayan, K. 1993. “How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?” American Anthropologist 95(3): 671-686.
  6. Emerson, R.M, Fretz, R.I. and Shaw, L.L. 2011. WRITINGETHNOGRAPHIC FIELDNOTES: SECOND EDITION. The University of Chicago press • Chicago and London.
  7. Manderson L. and Levine S. 2020. COVID-19, Risk, Fear, and Fall-out, Medical Anthropology, 39(5) 367-370, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2020.1746301.
  8. Hammersley M. 2018. What is ethnography? Can it survive? Should it? Ethnography and Education, 13(1)1-17, DOI: 10.1080/17457823.2017.1298458.


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