Marnie Thomson’s opening question “How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories that we tell?” in her article “In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening” opened my eyes to the possibility of misinterpretation in ethnographic writings. When I read an ethnography, what context and details am I missing? How has the author specifically written and interpreted the story so that I (perhaps as someone from a first-world country, or someone who is white) can understand the culture they are studying and writing about? Thomson uses the specific example of the Congolese refugees she was studying to talk about this.
When Thomson shows pictures taken of her friend Nia to her, Nia asks, “What do Americans think of us?” Nia is concerned about the way that she, as a person, is presented to Americans within the context of her culture. A picture provides different context than words on paper do, but both are limited within their representation of people and the culture(s) they exist in. The importance lies in how they are perceived by other cultures.
When reading an ethnography, care needs to be taken to understand that the culture studied might be presented in a specific way so that it can be understood by the culture it is being presented to. What I think of a third world country, or a specific high school, or a people group, depends on how it is presented to me. Anthropologists like to think they present their information in an objective way, but anthropologists are subjective creatures just like any other human being.
Source: In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening by Marnie Thomson
Edit: When the post was originally published the article was incorrectly attributed to Carole McGranahan. The article is now correctly attributed to Marnie Thomson.