An excerpt from

The Chicago Guide to

Collaborative Ethnography

Luke Eric Lassiter

Defining a Collaborative Ethnography

To collaborate means, literally, to work together, especially in an intellectual effort. While collaboration is central to the practice of ethnography, realizing a more deliberate and explicit collaborative ethnography implies resituating collaborative practice at every stage of the ethnographic process, from fieldwork to writing and back again. Many ethnographers have done this before, and their collaborative work—regardless of their theoretical trajectories—provide us a point of departure for beginning an in-depth exploration of the history and theory behind a collaborative ethnography.

Essential to participant observation is the need for communication between the investigator and the people being studied, an important distinguishing point between the social and natural sciences. There is no reciprocal personal communication between the physicist and atoms, molecules, or electrons, nor does he become part of the situation studied.
        —Hortense Powdermaker, Stranger and Friend

Ethnography is, by definition, collaborative. In the communities in which we work, study, or practice, we cannot possibly carry out our unique craft without engaging others in the context of their real, everyday lives. Building on these collaborative relationships between the ethnographer and her or his interlocutors, we create our ethnographic texts. To be sure, we all practice collaboration in one form or another when we do ethnography. But collaborative ethnography moves collaboration from its taken-for-granted background and positions it on center stage.

We might sum up collaborative ethnography as an approach to ethnography that deliberately and explicitly emphasizes collaboration at every point in the ethnographic process, without veiling it—from project conceptualization, to fieldwork, and, especially, through the writing process. Collaborative ethnography invites commentary from our consultants and seeks to make that commentary overtly part of the ethnographic text as it develops. In turn, this negotiation is reintegrated back into the fieldwork process itself. Importantly, the process yields texts that are co-conceived or cowritten with local communities of collaborators and consider multiple audiences outside the confines of academic discourse, including local constituencies. These texts can—and often do—include multiple authors; but not exclusively so. Collaborative ethnography, then, is both a theoretical and a methodological approach for doing and writing ethnography.

My meaning of collaborative ethnography here diverges from the definition and elaboration many previous ethnographers have given the term. Many ethnographers have emphasized collaborative relationships between professional researchers, not necessarily between researchers and their collaborators. To be sure, most of the works bearing variations of the term collaborative ethnography in their titles imply just this kind of team approach to doing ethnography.

So what do I mean when I use the term collaborative ethnography? First, I do not intend to entirely differentiate my meaning from the term’s conventional use in the previous literature—after all, collaborations between researchers are in the same family as those between ethnographers and their consultants, even though these professional collaborations can be, and often are, of a very different kind. Moreover, a great number of collaborations between ethnographers and their consultants have yielded coauthored texts that differ very little, if at all, from the intent and spirit of these professional collaborations, although they may differ in form and style. I do, however, mean to distinguish my meaning of collaborative ethnography from earlier meanings in a much wider sense, one that may include the collaboration of multiple authors (professional researchers or otherwise), but that establishes as a main goal the writing of ethnography with local community consultants as active collaborators in that process.

Second, I use the term collaborative ethnography because, simply put, it says what it is. Many ethnographers will surely recognize in my argument currents of theory and practice that run through their own approaches to ethnography, whether ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, or autoethnography. But collaboration is not necessarily intrinsic to these labels—and, indeed, is not always present in their approaches. Glenn Hinson puts the distinction between collaborative ethnography and reciprocal ethnography, for example, this way:

Reciprocation entails an act of return, a giving back for something received. In the ethnographic process, this sets up a model of exchange where one thing granted (e.g., an interview) yields an appropriate reciprocal response (e.g., help planting a garden). What this does not imply is constant ongoing discussion, where the project that yields that interview in the first place is co-conceived by both participating parties. This, to my eyes, is what sets “reciprocation” apart from “collaboration.” The latter implies constant mutual engagement at every step of the process. In other words, it implies what it says: collaboration. There’s little room for error in interpreting this meaning.

While both the label collaborative ethnography and the approach to which it refers is overtly differentiated from other ethnographic approaches, I do not mean to imply that it has no precedents, that it bursts upon the scene now fully formed and entirely untried. Collaborative ethnography pulls together threads of collaboration between ethnographers and their consultants that have found their way into ethnographic field methods and writing since the modernization of anthropology, threads that are now being revisited by postmodern and critical ethnographers with renewed interest and vitality. Although collaborations do indeed remain “less well articulated or recognized” than other experiments in ethnographic writing, they have been present in ethnographic practice and writing all along, albeit in a variety of different forms—from the coproduction of texts by native consultants and ethnographers to the current experiments with reintegrating consultant commentary back into the written ethnographic text as it develops. But these collaborations have generally remained veiled, marginalized, or only briefly heralded in larger discussions of ethnography. Simply put, collaborative ethnography has a rich but marginal heritage. I will turn to that heritage in a moment. But first, a brief vignette.

“we keep what we have by giving it away”

As an undergraduate college student I added sociology and anthropology to my social science major in my junior year with the intention of being and becoming an anthropologist. The next summer I sat with former Kiowa tribal chairman Billy Evans Horse, at his home in Carnegie, Oklahoma, eating dinner. When I announced my newest decision, to do anthropology in Kiowa country, Billy Evans got up from his seat. He removed a book about Kiowas from the bookshelf and tossed it onto the table in front of me. “So now you’re going to be an expert like him?” he asked. The books that anthropologists wrote, he said, had more relevance to other anthropologists than to Kiowas. Volume after volume seemed to engage a discussion among “white people” and not people like him. Just what were the goals of anthropology? he questioned. I rebutted with what I believed to be its goals. “Creating a better understanding of whose culture?” he countered.

My decision to be an anthropologist challenged the friendship between Billy Evans and me, one established before anthropology became the third party of our relationship. Billy Evans knew anthropology and anthropologists well and contended that our friendship could become something quite different if resited in an anthropological frame. While I already knew that the encounter between an ethnographer and his or her interlocutors is at the heart of most ethnographic practice, I had not really thought about how these kinds of relationships formed the base upon which anthropologists built their arguments for and between each other, and how this encounter ultimately served anthropology and its own discussions about culture and meaning. Billy Evans Horse thus forced me to ask: When does anthropology serve the very relationships created and maintained by anthropological practice? How can anthropology become relevant for our consultants?

The following school year, in an ethnography class, I found the answer to my questions—at least partially—when I embarked on a study of Narcotics Anonymous (NA), drug addiction, and recovery. I initially had difficulty finding consultants with whom to work; few people wanted to invest in a “school project.” Then I met Mike at a NA meeting and he agreed to talk to me.

Soon after, I met Mike at his home. We sat down at a small table in his kitchen, drank coffee, and talked about NA. Not long into our conversation, I began to realize that for Mike, choosing to do ethnography with me meant much more than providing a “better understanding of culture.” He genuinely wanted to help me make sense of NA, but he had other reasons for working with me. He wanted to share his story of drug addiction and recovery because it could help other addicts. Mike fancied using my student ethnography as a written document that he could give to others struggling with addiction; he believed that an understanding of the “program,” the NA way of recovery and living clean, might help bring hope to a suffering addict. As I commended his altruism, he explained that his motives were colored more by self-preservation than by selflessness; indeed, his own recovery hinged on helping others to get clean. “We keep what we have by giving it away,” he said.

The ethnographic text I produced with Mike and other consultants eventually came to serve both the discipline, teaching a student to appreciate the power of culture, and the local NA community, as Mike and others used the text for their own purposes. The experience later proved fruitful in my work with Billy Evans Horse as we negotiated doing this kind of collaborative anthropology in Kiowa country too. As a graduate student, I increasingly found myself writing my papers for my Kiowa consultants as much as for my professors and fellow students. I later did the same when I was preparing my PhD dissertation. As Billy Evans Horse, other Kiowa consultants (like Ralph Kotay), and I discussed the texts, these diverse voices enriched my understanding of culture and meaning, instead of diluting or thinning the level of discourse. For me, doing ethnography that could be read, discussed, and used on various levels by both academics and my consultants helped to broaden anthropology’s framework of discussion and, in the process, to narrow the gap between anthropology and the communities in which I studied.

Mike taught me an important lesson: his charge to keep what he has by giving it away speaks aptly to our broader responsibilities as anthropologists to serve others through our work, and this includes our writing. Otherwise, we may face the inverse ofMike’s wisdom: we may lose what we have by keeping it to ourselves.

Ever since my encounter with Mike and Narcotics Anonymous and with Billy Evans Horse and others in the Kiowa community, and ever since writing The Power of Kiowa Song, I have struggled with realizing the potential for a collaborative ethnography in a number of subsequent projects, the most significant of which (for me anyway) are The Jesus Road, a collaborative project on Kiowa Indian hymns coauthored with Ralph Kotay and historian Clyde Ellis; and The Other Side of Middletown, a collaboration between a college and a community involving over seventy-five faculty, students, and community collaborators that looked at the African American community of Muncie, Indiana, the site of the famous “Middletown” studies. I recognize, of course, that these ethnographic projects are limited in their experience and scope, but each venture has taught me something new about realizing a more collaborative ethnography. Along the way, I have learned about the struggles of other ethnographers, both past and present, to put into practice a more deliberate and explicit collaboration. Placing my own bounded ventures within these broader currents has made clear to me that my struggle is not an isolated one. Indeed, the emergent and collective push for a collaborative ethnography is part of a much larger and time-honored effort to construct a more equitable social science. We have only to make it more clearly apparent in our historical mythmaking and our future vision of an engaged anthropology.

my journey to collaborative ethnography

My earliest experience with ethnography is an example. My collaboration with Mike and other NA members took place in the late 1980s and fit in some ways with the so-called new ethnography that I was learning at the time. New ethnography was the label given to studies, first emerging in the 1960s, that focused on elaborating native categories of speech from an entirely “emic” or insider’s point of view; these, in turn, elaborated the larger cognitive patterns, or rules, of culture. Also called ethnoscience (and carrying a host of other labels, such as ethnosemantics), the approach combined earlier emphases on elaborating “the native point of view” with semantic analysis—that is, the exploration of meaningful relationships between and among different domains of speech. Early ethnoscientists argued that ethnography’s ultimate purpose was descriptive and that ethnoscience’s approach provided a methodology for elaborating emic-based theories of knowledge and meaning through close attention to language and communication.

My own introduction to ethnoscience came via James P. Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview, which along with his Participant Observation , are perhaps among the most widely used manuals for doing undergraduate ethnography even today. At the time I had no real understanding of how Spradley’s approach represented a larger effort in anthropology to reconceptualize ethnography, not to mention the movement to extend the method to inexperienced undergraduate ethnographers like me. I also had little appreciation for the approach’s limitations. As a young student I regularly wondered about what the hell I was going to do with an anthropology degree and constantly second-guessed my decision to pursue that course of study, and Spradley’s writing hit me with considerable force. This extended passage was particularly meaningful:

In many places we can no longer collect cultural information from people merely to fill the bank of scientific knowledge. Informants are asking, even demanding, “Ethnography for what? Do you want to study our culture to build your theories of poverty? Can’t you see that our children go hungry? Do you want to study folk beliefs about water- witching? What about the new nuclear power plant that contaminates our drinking water with radioactive wastes? Do you want to study kinship terms to build ever more esoteric theories? What about our elderly kinsmen who live in poverty and loneliness? Do you want to study our schools to propose new theories of learning? Our most pressing need is for schools that serve our children’s needs in the language they understand.”

One way to synchronize the needs of people and the goals of ethnography is to consult with informants to determine urgent research topics. Instead of beginning with theoretical problems, the ethnographer can begin with informant-expressed needs, then develop a research agenda to relate these topics to the enduring concerns within social science. Surely the needs of informants should have equal weight with “scientific interest” in setting ethnographic priorities. More often than not, informants can identify urgent research more clearly than the ethnographer. In my own study of skid row men, for example, I began with an interest in the social structure of an alcoholism treatment center. My informants, long-time drunks who were spending life sentences on the installment plan in the Seattle city jail, suggested more urgent research possibilities. “Why don’t you study what goes on in that jail?” they would ask. And so I shifted my goals to studying the culture of the jail, the social structure of inmates, and how drunks were oppressed by the jail system. My theoretical and scholarly interests could have been served by either project; the needs of the tramps were best served by studying the oppression in the jail.

My own experiences studying song in the Kiowa community and drug addiction and recovery in Narcotics Anonymous, I believed, fit squarely with Spradley’s experience studying skid row men. Although Spradley only hinted at developing a collaborative practice between ethnographer and “informant,” the collaborative spirit of his admonitions to coconceptualize ethnographic projects and to put the needs of informants first was enough for me. No other ethnographies I had read to this point called for such involvement of our collaborators in the ethnographic process. When Spradley’s ideas were juxtaposed to my discussions with Mike and with Billy Evans Horse, anthropology suddenly made a lot more sense. Indeed, this was why I had been drawn to anthropology in the first place: if we weren’t doing ethnography for others, for whom were we doing it? Mike was absolutely right, I thought, and so was Spradley.

In that the ethnoscientific approach to ethnography called for paying closer attention to what informants were actually saying so as to build emic-based maps of vocabulary, knowledge, and experience, it did not seem a far stretch for ethnographers to more closely involve their interlocutors in the actual process of conceptualizing and writing ethnography. Spradley’s ethnography on skid row men, You Owe Yourself a Drunk, which he references in the excerpt above, is an example. A significant portion of this ethnography includes excerpts from letters and dairy entries written by William R. Tanner (a pseudonym) about his experience in and out of jail. “Dear Jim,” Tanner writes in a letter dated 14 August 1967, “In all sincerity (as far as I’m able to be so) I’ll be happy to write my own thoughts and you can sift thru the garbage and use whatever you wish. My only desire is that it would perhaps help some other in this bedlam.” Importantly, Spradley used these writings, in addition to conversations and interviews with Tanner, to frame his discussion of skid row men and how law enforcement agencies oppress them.

If You Owe Yourself a Drunk alluded to a collaborative approach to doing and writing ethnography, then Spradley and Mann’s The Cocktail Waitress made Spradley’s inclination toward collaboration much more evident. After his student and research assistant Brenda Mann got a job as a waitress at a local bar, Spradley began interviewing Mann about her experiences on the job with the intention of doing a study on bar culture. After an initial period as Spradley’s “key informant,” Mann began collaborating with Spradley as a co-researcher, with Mann representing an emic-based perspective, or insider’s view, and Spradley an etic-based perspective, or outsider’s view. A coauthored effort, theirs was undoubtedly a “team ethnography,” but Mann’s role was considerably blurred: she was both an informant and, having interviewed her coworkers, a participant observer.

In each of these works Spradley made a clear distinction between etic and emic viewpoints and argued for an objective distance from the subjectivities of fieldwork in line with the rest of ethnoscience. But his particular approach to ethnography—which obviously straddled both applied and academic perspectives— perhaps corresponded more to other emergent ethnographic experiments of the day, which were beginning to increase in number. Indeed, Spradley’s work represented the best of what many collaborative approaches offer, regardless of theoretical orientation: throughout his career, he undauntedly “insisted on the clear preservation of the informant’s perspective in the actual version of what constituted cultural knowledge.”

Spradley was not alone. Other ethnoscientists were doing similar collaborative work. Oswald Werner’s many co-conceptualized and coauthored works with Navajo consultants on Navajo culture and language and Dennis Michael Warren’s efforts to link “indigenous knowledge systems” to development in West Africa immediately come to mind. To be sure, ethnoscience and the larger field of which it was a part, cognitive anthropology, seemed to especially foster collaboration between ethnographers and interlocutors. Importantly, such collaborations helped to reconceptualize ethnography and to resituate how ethnographers thought about the role of the so-called informant in ethnographic research. In fact, ethnoscientists, following anthropological linguists such as C. F. Voegelin, were among the first ethnographers to begin using the term consultant, marking an important change in how ethnographers viewed their ethnographic interlocutors: as co-intellectuals who, together with the ethnographer, undertook the elaboration of native categories, their relationships, and their meanings.

These collaborative leanings, however, were not a central component of the debates surrounding ethnoscience and componential analysis in the 1960s and 1970s. Critics, such as Marvin Harris and Clifford Geertz, focused predominantly on the scientific claims of the new ethnography to objectively elaborate the “native point of view.” Geertz in particular insisted that the wider ethnographic enterprise was an interpretive undertaking, not a purely scientific one, and that fieldwork understandings should be placed within the more fluid continuum of experience and dialogue instead of within the presumably rigid dichotomy between the objective researcher (the “etic”) and the subjective informant (the “emic”). This critique firmly established an interpretive approach to fieldwork and writing, an approach that has dominated ethnography ever since.

While the cross-cultural, theoretical findings of ethnoscience were gradually integrated into cognitive and psychological anthropology, and parts of its methods into applied anthropology and developmental theory, the approach’s potential for a more deliberate and explicit collaborative ethnography— as exemplified by Spradley and others—was seemingly forgotten by mainstream ethnographers. But it wasn’t the first time that such collaborative approaches were put on hold.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 15-24 of The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography by Luke Eric Lassiter, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Luke Eric Lassiter
The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography
©2005, 216 pages
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-46889-5
Paper $12.00 ISBN: 0-226-46890-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography.

See also: