Ethnographer’s Identity

The main issue pointed out by Robben and Sluka (2012) is how ethnographers’ reflexivity is involved in the ways they interpret reality and further how they transcribe their findings. According to articles written by several scholars such as Hortense Powdermaker, Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, Paul Spencer and also Walter Williams, ethnography fieldwork is considered difficult to exclude from researcher’s own personal identities. Therefore, these identities often consolidate and eventually are seen as an advantage while doing the fieldwork.

Powdermaker explained that her gender identity as a female ethnographer was considered to be beneficial when she was not only involved in women’s group in Melanesian society but also penetrated the men’s ritual ceremonies. It enabled her to participate in certain roles within the culture. This advantage might not have occurred if the ethnographer was male. However, while she felt her role as a female ‘outsider’ was welcomed by the society, sometimes she also carried by her emotional aspect while faced by certain conditions within the culture. This facts influenced how she interpreted the data. Moreover, she also felt no matter how she maintained a close relationship with the society she will never be an actual member of that society and will always be an outsider.

A similar case also happened with Shaery-Eisenlohr when she conducted her study on how the Lebanese Shiite groups identify their politico-religious connection with Iran. Her own identity as an Iranian woman without wearing a hijab, while being a married woman without a child who conducted a research unaccompanied by her husband, influenced how the informants answered her questions. While sometimes this issue became an obstacle, at some points her identity helped her to gain further information that she needed.

In a different case, Paul Spencer identified that ethnographer’s personal identity will create subjectivity within the fieldwork. According to Spencer, a researcher can never completely capture anothers’ culture since what he/she wrote was merely created by a conversation between informants and the researcher. This process of construction of conversation also can never be detached from ethnographer’s autobiography. Meanwhile, Walter Williams in his study about gay culture in the Native American tribes also found that he was more welcomed after he revealed his sexual orientation as a homosexual. The informants saw Williams’ gay identity as a  ‘prerequisite’ condition because they could not reveal this ‘taboo’ to an outsider. Therefore, to share this taboo to a gay ethnographer was not considered as revealing information to an outsider. In a similar study in Mayan society he also found that his gay identity was beneficial to conducting research.

Generally, identity or personal values always plays a significant part in the conversation between the ethnographer and the informants. Since these examples shows the conditions where revealing our personal identities such as gender, sexual orientation, race, or political ideology is unavoidable within the fieldwork and even seen as an advantage for the study, I think it might not be applicable in all societal and cultural contexts. Moreover, since I am more aware of how the observed society would influence our own identity, is there any ideal prevention to this issue? Or in reverse, how can we guarantee that our presence in those societies will not leave many residual effects when we apply our detachment with them?


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