An ethnographer’s work is metaphorically embodied; eye for detail and ear for story, to start, are crucial to writing about culture. Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of Folklore Studies in the English Department, shows us that ethnography also requires heart and nerve. Heart allows scholars to listen empathically to the perspectives and opinions of the people being written about, enriching scholarship with insider perspective; nerve for advocating social change makes scholarship ever relevant to the service of humanity.
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
Going far beyond maps, as one might presume, “Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” explains Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor of Geography at MU. The discipline as a whole covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion and weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, to understand the interactions between humans and the environment), and something called human geography, a subfield that focuses on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions. Human geographers cast their eyes on “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as “the impact of human activity on the environment.” Within human geography Larsen specializes in cultural geography. While traditionally that may have entailed mapping the distribution of various cultural traits to track changes over space and time, cultural geography today is much more process-focused, drawing heavily upon the methodologies and theories of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
After she wrote about women in the pulpit, Dr. Lawless spent several months conducting ethnographic research in a domestic violence shelter.
Dr. Elaine Lawless describes how she uses reciprocal ethnography and advocates for its use in other ethnographic research.
VanPool talks about her undergraduate research at Eastern New Mexico University where she studied several cultural groups to understand their different birthing practices.
With her background interest in women’s health, it was no surprise to find Carver collaborating with Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of English. After adapting some of the survivor stories for performance, in 2003 they formed the Troubling Violence Performance Project “to create a venue for people to communicate about intimate partner violence.” While they began performing stories from Lawless’ book, the stories soon emerged from elsewhere: “People starting coming up to us after the performances and asking if they could give us their stories,” many of which were then incorporated into subsequent performances. “If one out of every four women likely to suffer some kind of intimate partner abuse, then we need to really speak out. We don’t think we’re going to come in and perform and all violence is going to end. We just know that if people don’t talk about it…it’s going to be swept under the carpet.”
Larsen gathers his data through a variety of different methods ranging from ethnographic field research to content analysis and GIS. But the method he prefers is called “participant observation,” an approach in which “you go and live with the people for an extended period of time, so you can start to learn how they think and feel and act.” In fact, Larsen considers participant observation to be a base line for all the research he does because “you gain an insight by participating in the culture.”