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Rachel Spronk is an Associate professor at the anthropology department of the University of Amsterdam. She is trained as an anthropologist and doing interdisciplinary research on culture, gender and sexuality. Her research focuses primarily on the intersection of three scholarly fields - anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, and African studies. Her various research projects evidence a concern with the historical trajectories that have shaped the present, the production of knowledge about gender and sexuality and, ultimately, how the lived experiences of people inform our theoretical models. Overall, she investigates the interface between sexuality and the middle class in Ghana and Kenya, examining problematic assumptions behind both terms. Page: https://www.uva.nl/profiel/s/p/r.spronk/r.spronk.html

 

Why use ethnography?

When asked about her method, Spronk defines ethnography as a way to connect personal experiences to larger structures, from personal sensibilities to the political economy. Clarifying what qualifies as ethnography, she proposes that the nature of research that can be called ethnography has two important foundations: long term engagement and learning local languages. Long term engagement is costly yet key for researchers because it enables them to immerse themselves in people’s daily lives and experiences. “Getting to know the place, the local issues, the humor, the tacit daily sensibilities, the tensions and pleasures, relations and interactions between people, so as to know your research group from their perspective”. The main goal of the ethnographic method is to make sense of daily life and its vicissitudes. 

 

According to Spronk’s article, it was ethnographic investigation of young urban adults’ love and sex lives in Nairobi that led her to identify the experience of sex as, “first, an important bodily-pleasure, and through that, second, as perceptual knowledge that affirms their specific position in Kenyan society”(Spronk, 2014, p. 3). The first may seem self-evident as we are all engaged in sex in one way or another (also by abstaining), but the majority of sexuality research focuses on the discourse of sexuality. Ethnography allowed Spronk to study the tacit, the unspoken, something that is not possible by other means such as interviews. When people study sexuality, she explained in our interview, they usually focuson the politics of sexuality, the power relations between groups or within groups and how sexuality is played out. She was interested, however, in “this very tacit knowledge of feelings and emotions. Issues that you know are there but that you can hardly bring into words”. This type of research requires a “piecing together” of different information of personal realities and the larger structures in order to “recognize the tacit ways of the social world, so as to make interpretations”. “Just going there and interviewing” she explains, “wouldn't help me or wouldn't get me to the information that I need”.

Finally, ethnography is important in the process of creating knowledge because it enables researchers to find contradictions and paradoxes. “For an ethnographer nobody is a liar”, Spronk advises. “If someone says A on that day but says B on that day, it is not a lie, it is very informative why these things are different”. By connecting to informants during a longer period of time and participating in their daily lives “you will come to see where the contradictions come from or what the logicof paradoxes are”. These tensions, she explains, arise “because life is not clear cut, life is extremely messy for us and also for our interlocutors”. Thus, ethnography helps researchers to bring this “messiness” into perspective, instead of doing away with it. 

Is ethnography generalizable? 

Spronk believes that ethnography is generalizable because it is an open-ended approach that can be applied to different topics. “Whether you depend more on observations, whether you depend more on informal talks or maybe life histories” will depend on the topic its key notions will remain the same.

Globalization research and ethnography 

In line with this perspective, Spronk believes that ethnographic research can contribute to globalization studies bymaking visible how people all over the world encounter very similar processes, but they cope with them in different ways.Globalization, she describes, “is a huge process that impacts of course the whole world, but it is embedded, or it finds ground in very particular ways, and that is the locality of it”. 

Ethnography can help researchers make sense of the “the more nitty gritty, the more subtle ways” in which globalization is operating. It does so by placing things “into the local context, which has its own history”. Thus, researchers must take into account that in local contexts “you have different tastes, different motivations, different ways of approaching the world”. In this sense, ethnography allows globalization studies to put “the larger global processes into conversation with very local cultural histories”. Certain cultural expressions may seem the same, “but it is never quite the same because it is appropriated in many different ways”. By approaching your object from an ethnographic perspective, Spronk proposes, “you connect these huge global processes and structures to very mundane and daily life practices and experiences and emotions”.

What are ethnography’s challenges?

When asked about her method’s challenges, Spronk explained that “the limitations are that it is small scale”. “You can only do so much with ethnography”, she said, “in terms of meeting so many people and interviewing so many people so the numbers that you are working with are very small”. Consequently, the author explains, researchers must always focus on a group, which is always a selection, and researchers must be very reflexive of this selection.“You do not represent larger things easily, such as "the nation state” she explained, “you focus on smaller groups that are part of this large structure and you show how this group relates to this structure”.

Another challenge that comes up when doing ethnography is that the information that you access as a researcher depends on your social profile in terms of gender, age, race and cultural background, and more. These factors, Spronk explains, will shape the information that is made available to you, “so you have to be reflexive as a researcher there is no clean data out there that you just find, no, it is really the interaction between you and the research field”. She believes, however, that when these issues and tensions are properly addressed, ethnography’s reliance on intersubjectivity as a way to access data can be seen as a strength, not a limitation. This is “because that means that certain people can probe deeper into certain areas because of their social profile”. 

Is reflexivity important when doing ethnographic research?

Reflecting on her own role as a researcher, Spronk explains that she had to be very conscious of how her own social profile shapes her access to information, “because your own biography matters a lot”. 

No researchercan be neutral. “Your own position as a researcher absolutely has an impact on what you study and we should see that as an asset and not as a problem”, she suggests. In this respect, Spronk believes that the impact of the researcher’s social profile calls for more team work in social sciences and the humanities. “I have now a research team with different with backgrounds, from different places, different genders and different ages, different marital states and so on... It is wonderful to come together and bring data together and in conversation.”

Should ethnography be combined with other methods?

Regarding the use of mixed methods, Spronk considers that the approach used should be informed by “the argument that you want to make”. Per argument, she suggested, “you employ a different methodology”. Hence, the use of mixed methods will depend on the research design and scholars must reflect on where their approaches do “meet and where are they different”. 

Therefore, she believes that “mixed methods are interesting for ethnographers because they provide complementary data”. She recalls that, for instance, she has used data from surveys in her own work, “to see how within a population there are differences, how groups differ”. These methods thus provide anthropologists with “interesting patterns to think with”, but they need to be complemented with research on the ground to understand why and how do these groups differ in their ideas and practices. Essentially, she concludes, “we have to work complimentary, we don’t have to be good in all, no, we have to be very good in our own issues and then see where we can benefit from each other.”

 

Spronk, R. (2014). Sexuality and subjectivity: erotic practices and the question of bodily sensations. Social Anthropology22(1), 3-21.