An Ethnographer Is More than a Lab Rat with a Notebook or a Lab Bat with a Hard Drive. Who Is an Ethnographer?

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Ethnography is hot. Many are quick to claim that they do ethnography by observing people. It is like saying anyone who drives a taxi in NY is a screenwriter. Or anyone who knows how to operate a camera can be a photojournalist.


Who is an ethnographer? First an ethnographer needs to have some idea about what he thinks he is doing (Spindler and Spindler), without a unique subject matter as well as a methodology, there is no discipline. It is just people watching people.

The strength of the discipline must depend partly on its adaptability and flexibility, as well as openness to different ways of working; there must be some professional practices. Cultures are extremely complex and multi-faceted and using different lenses show different things. It is hard to determine a beginning and an end to fieldwork and who knows when participants have exhausted the topic relevance to the research. It is like a film director deciding what is a good take, an ethnographer will keep watching, listening, questioning, and so on until he feels he have enough to make sense of what is going on. A lot of real time sensemaking is required and this is the art of ethnography.

Well think about it, who you are affects what topic you choose and the methods you like best. Here’s the picture in your head: A lab rat taking notes on you or a lab bat watching you at night. People are being observed. People are being stereotyped. People are being analyzed. You are approximately in as much control of what other people think of you as your subjects are of your research. And you thought it was a problem when folks ran around with their camera equipped cell phones? The best ethnographer doesn’t need a camera, he is the camera. He records what he sees, hears, experiences in a journal or field book.

Here’s a great idea. The folks at MIT have developed a fabric made of a mesh of light-sensitive fibers that collectively act like a rudimentary camera. The fibers, which each can detect two frequencies of light, produced signals that when amplified and processed by a computer reproduced an image of a smiley face near the mesh. According to Yoel Fink, a prof in materials science at MIT, "This is the first time that anybody has demonstrated that a single plane of fibers, or ‘fabric,’ can collect images just like a camera but without a lens". You can imagine if an ethnographer just walk around wearing a jacket camera and interact naturally with people around him/her and how useful such as tool can become. 

The technology uses fibers less than a millimeter in diameter, stretched into thin form from a thicker cylinder. Within the fibers are two cylindrical shells of semiconductor material, each connected to the outside world with four built-in metal electrodes. Another application would be for reporters and security forces. So instead of installing tens of thousands of CCTV like what they did in London, we can have hundreds of people wearing the jacket and walking around in NYC? In a few years, you don’t need to bring a camera with you for your vacation, just the Leica M9 jacket.

The photo abvove shows two rings of light-sensitive semiconductor material in the fiber. Photo: MIT

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