Discuss the impact of the relationship between the ethnographer and the people he works with on the written ethnography.

This essay looks at how the relationship between ethnographer and the people they encounter in his fieldwork is central to the making of an ethnography. It will be looking at ethnographies in their modern form, as pioneered by Malinowski at the beginning of the 20th century pioneered. His aim, which made his work distinguishable from other works of the time, was to collect data directly focusing on everyday social life (Atkinson and Hammersley, 1994: 249). This type of ethnography implies more than, in it’s literal sense, the writing of a culture: it is the “collection” of qualitative data through, a new concept at the time, participant observation. However objective the ethnographer wants to be in their description of the culture, the relationship they have through their participation and observation will always be unique (Galani-Moutafi, 2000:207). Therefore, the ethnography should be read as a particular encounter in time and space of which the substance depends on who the ethnographer is, what he or she wants to do, who they meet and how they respond to the encounter.

When writing the ethnography, the ethnographer will then choose to (as is the case of Crapanzano and Jackson), or not to (as is the case of Bringa), describe the experience of the encounter and the building of relationships. This essay argues that, as this relationship exists, ignoring it in the writing will impact on the reader’s understanding of the ethnographer’s experience of the society and therefore on their understanding of the society.

Bringa meets the women of Dolina


In 1987, Tone Bringa spent two years in a catholic-Muslim village in Bosnia, where she focused on the Muslim identity of the village (Bringa, 1995:xi). As a woman, she spends a lot of time with the women, which she slowly starts describing as being key to the community’s unity. For example, the women are in charge of going to see their neighbours once a week (69, 92)[1] and  represent the household when important events, such as weddings or births, happen in other families (92). Whatever the woman does outside the house (89) – who she has coffee with, who she talks with when walking back from the bus stop (101), … – will affect the image of the household. It is the mother-in-law’s duty to make sure that her daughter-in-law keeps up to the standards when they share a house (48). The women’s role is also symbolized when the bride crosses the threshold of her new house with a loaf of bread and the Qur’an. Indeed, this symbolizes the fertility and the spiritual health that she has to maintain in the house (158). For example, it is expected of woman but not of men to fast during Ramadan (163).

All of these facts collected by Bringa show the importance of women in representing the household, in keeping the honour of the family unit unspoiled and in socializing with other households. The Muslim identity, through religious practice, dress code (62) and behaviour, is expected to be seen in women more than in men. Through her various encounters with women, Bringa depicts women in charge of the safekeeping and the reproduction of Muslim identity (5). If she would have been a man, her relation to the village would have probably been different, and the Muslim identity she describes might have also been different, which allows us to question the notion of objectivity in anthropology. This is a recurrent questioning in anthropology and feminists, for instance, pointed an accusing finger to many ethnographies labeled as objective even though their authors over-emphasized the role and the importance of men (Atkinson and Hammersley, 1994: 252). Even though it is clear that her theory emanates from the specific relationships she builds, Bringa tends to describe her observations without mentioning her involvement, maybe giving impressions of more objectivity than she can has. Indeed, the only time she mentions herself is at the beginning of the book in the introduction. Her ethnography is none-the-less very precise and she doesn’t seem to be using the people to prove theories she had beforehand, letting them guide her in their society. The old man she lives with tells her  “when you are among people who know better than you, do not speak but listen” and throughout her ethnography, she quite clearly does that ( xvi).

The demons encounter Crapanzano


Crapanzano sees the encounter as being central not only to the fieldwork but to the ethnography as he defines an ethnography as being “a particular confrontation between two or more individuals” (Crapanzano, 1977: 69). Crapanzano’s book is a criticism of ethnographers who pretend not to exist in their ethnography (Sakatomo, 2005: 2). He makes his encounter with the person he works with, Tuhami, the centre of his book, even though his initial project was different. Tuhami initially became an informant because of his knowledge on demons, saints and the Hamashda brotherhood, the topic that first took the ethnographer there (Crapanzano, 1980: 17, 144).

For the encounter to be successful, Crapanzano and Tuhami both make an active move towards understanding each other. When they realize that they speak different languages (Crapanzano wants raw information but Tuhami answers with evocations) they start building a common ground (1980: 14).  The different steps that lead to this common ground later become the main theoretical contributions of the fieldwork. For example, Crapanzano realizes that Tuhami’s truths may not correspond to his realities, and slowly learns that whether something is true or real are two different questions (23, 80). For instance, the she-demon to whom Tuhami is married truly affects him a lot, even though she may not have the biology of Crapanzano’s “real world” (15).

In her analysis of dialogic principles, Page writes about the negotiations that lead to this common ground (Page, 1988: 163). She reflects on her attitude when, in her first fieldwork, she found it hard to take into account that the people felt uncomfortable with her methods, recordings and the personal questions that she pressurized them to answer (Page, 1988: 171). They slowly made it clear that they would not co-operate if she didn’t change her approach (Page, 1988: 172). She depicts her relation with them as evolving into a control struggle (Page, 1988: 175) and concludes that a productive relationship in the ethnographical context has to be “governed by dual agency” (Page, 1988: 180), the terms of the encounter have to be agreed by both sides.

This dual agency may very well be destabilizing, and Crapanzano doesn’t deny it (1980: 139). However, he is in search of what “the Other” means, intrigued by the making of boundaries between self and other and realizes their impact on the framing of the ethnographies and theories anthropologists write, however real these boundaries may be. He realizes that the Other is a needed category, which – by the opposition it creates- gives substance to the self, and, as any other metaphors, collects a whole range of symbolisms (9). Crapanzano also sees the aim of objectively describing, which guides many ethnographers, as a protection against the unknown and incomprehensible (137). However, to “experience the Other (…) is an active granting of importance – importance to oneself – of the Other’s subjectivity” (141). Instead of hiding behind this objectivity, Crapanzano embraces his subjectivity and makes full use of it (Loeb, 1981: 465). He describes how the boundaries – boundaries embodied by the professional methodology and his translator- cease to count and how Tuhami starts to matter to him as a person (142).

The ethnographer is not a participant observer anymore, but an active participant in Tuhami’s life (Crapanzano, 1980: 160) and inversely, Tuhami enters the ethnographer’s life (152). The symbolically powerful picture (with which this book ends) of Crapanzano giving a real knife to his informant so that he may fight the demons that truly poison his life (162) summarizes neatly the common language they have developed through their encounters, and the common ground they have found by crossing the boundaries that separated them before these encounters. They start making the ethnography together.

Jackson finally finds home


The relation Crapanzano builds with Tuhami is nearly exclusively based on weekly interviews (Crapanzano, 1980: 13).  As Crapanzano points out, interviews are not part of everyday life and the Tuhami that he meets in the interviews is not the same as the one he would have met in other contexts. Michael Jackson’s ethnography on Warlpiri aboriginals of Australia gives us insights on another type of relationship. The answers he finds in his quest on the meaning of home (Jackson, 2000: 4), are found because of the relations he builds through reciprocity and engaged communal living with the Warlpiri.

The land is a recurrent theme in his book. When Jackson chooses to help in the fight for aboriginal land rights (18) he follows the rules of reciprocity necessary to mutual recognition, rules which many white men before him refused to follow (117, 170). The land related stories that they tell him to help him fight their cause shows him how the land creates the people (36, 48), keeps memories and ancestors alive (56) and is part of their identity and their home (139). When he helps them in his fight, it is not only a deal to get data, but also because he personally disagrees with the way this topic has been treated in the past (12). This raises the issue that is also present in Crapanzano’s book: the ethical in anthropology, or, as Schepper-Hughes argues in her article, “the Primacy of the Ethical”. Her article argues controversially that anthropology should stop keeping haughty distances in critical situations (Schepper-Hughes, 1995: 414). Regardless of whether she is right or not, this article shows that encounters with the Other are destabilizing because they force the ethnographer to re-consider what his role and aim are.

Jackson also takes part in every day exchanges, for examples by driving them to distant places (Jackson, 2000: 83). This enables him to be part of their communal life, and to balance the stories about the Dreaming, the land, the sacred places, the genealogies and so on, with lived experiences that eventually make him live their meaning of home. In an article cited above, Page recounts how one of the issues that made her relationship with her “subjects” difficult was her obsession with “decontextualising information that was meaningful to them only in context”(Page, 1988: 168).  Experiencing communal life is destabilizing at first for him, for example when he realizes that walls don’t bring intimacy in the Warlpiri society (Jackson, 1980: 27). He gets used to it and understands that walls and the intimacy they bring aren’t compulsory features of the home.

From the beginning, it is clear that the author feels comfortable in this desert and amongst these people (16) and, slowly, one gets the sense that he starts feeling at home through his relationship with the people. For example, the Warlpiri names that he and his wife are given enable them to find a place within the local kin groups (20). Furthermore, he starts telling the reader his dreams and relating them to the land and his present, to his past, somehow mixing his dreams and his identity to the Warlpiri land and Dreaming (51, 137). It is through his interaction with the people and the land that he realizes the flexibility in the formation and boundaries around kinship relations (64). The Warlpiri home he finds is not just a place, but also a group of people without whom “your life would cease to have meaning” (66). Towards the end of his ethnography he describes home as being a “lived relationship” (122).

Eventually, as his encounters make him live the knowledge of the land that is shared with him, he realize how meaningless anthropological theories are if they are just the result of “our craving to know how to know” (163). The home that he lives amongst the Warlpiri is a home without boundaries, constantly in the making (149). This helps him develop his theory of an anthropology of experience (160) based on a “craving to know how to live” (163).

I summarize my encounters with these stories


            This essay shows that it is the relationships, the compromises they involve and the involvement they demand that make the substance of the ethnography. As a woman, Bringa builds relations with the women around her and starts to see their world as evolving around them. The household, the community ties, the spirituality and, most importantly in this ethnography, the Muslim identity are all created and reproduced by women. However, she does not narrate her engagement in the encounters. Crapanzano shows from the beginning that he is influenced by the relationship by making it the core of his ethnography. The negotiations towards a mutual comprehension, the call into question of the boundaries between ethnographer and informant and the destabilizing closeness become important theoretical material for his ethnography. Jackson doesn’t only record stories but lives the home that he is determined to find, however, he may be so determined that he forgets that it is the people who should be at the centre of an ethnography, not the ethnographer. It is through his lived relationships to the people and the land, a relationship that he bases on a wide spectrum of mediums ranging from activism to dreams, that he finds the answer to his quest.




  • Atkinson, P. and Hammersley, M. (1994) ‘Ethnography and Participant Observation’ in Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S., Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousands Oaks (Calif): Sage Publications.
  • Bringa, T. (1995) Being Muslim the Bosnian Way, Princeton (New Jersey):Princeton University Press.
  • Crapanzano, V. (1977) ‘On the writing of ethnography’ in Dialectical Anthropology, 2, pp.69-73.
  • Crapanzano, V. (1980) Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Galani-Moutafi, V. (2000), ‘The Self and the Other: Traveller, Ethnographer, Tourist’ in Annals of Tourism Research, 27:1, pp.203-224.
  • Jackson, M. 2000. At Home in the World, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  • Loeb, L. (1981) Review ‘Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan’ in American Anthropologist, 83:2, pp. 465-466.
  • Page, H.E. (1988) ‘Dialogic Principles of Interactive Learning in the Ethnographic Relationship’ in Journal of Anthropological Research, 44:2, pp.163-181.
  • Schepper-Hughes, N. (1995) ‘The primacy of the ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropologyin Current Anthropology, 36:3, pp.409-440.
  • Sakamoto, T. (2005) ‘Writing Culture: The dynamics and Ambiguity of Ethnographic Production’ in Ritsumeikan Social Science Review, 40:4, pp.1-17.

[1] When referencing the same book several times in a row, only the page used shall be referenced.