My Google Alerts is driving me nuts! I’m signed up for a variety of words to be funneled my way, one of which is ‘ethnography’. On the non-insane side of things, it feeds me the kind of information that us anthropologists used to get only through conferences, guest lectures and the few issues of our favorite journals each year: new research, findings, ideas, methods, practices, book reviews, social theories, applications of theories from other fields and such. Faster than a speeding copy of American Anthropologist and, because of Internet banter, more reflexive than a dinner with Renato Rosaldo, the rate and regurgitation of information is both fantastic and often messy. On the insane side of things, however, the ease with which some bloggers and so-called practitioners bandy the term about is unsettling and messy, in a not-good way.

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Many of the references to and claims of conducting ethnography drift somewhere between way off, totally incorrect, company hype and pure nonsense. Some can’t be blamed; they’ve learned their ‘ethnography’ from second hand sources online and at work. Others are more culpable, blatant conjurers of the smoke-and-mirrors that keep clients confident that their overpriced agency is up on their best practices game. And a few are just clueless, thinking that a fieldtrip out of the focus group and into a mall or customer home is what it is.

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It isn’t. Ethnography is the art and science of telling stories about people’s stories. In most cases, the words, sentences, themes, plots, dialogue, narrative structure and such of these stories are inspired and guided by degrees of participation and observation of people in places – like malls and homes. But good stories are about lives lived through a lens, they have a depth to them that, if experience is to be captured and transmitted to the reader, requires an understanding of and appreciation for the performative.

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That understanding and appreciation can be cultivated in a whole host of ways: through experiences, experiences of experience, acts of ‘becoming’ those under study skills, basic trial and error, formal training and, perhaps most important of all, a healthy reading list.

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How can you ‘do ethnography’ without having read ‘an ethnography’? You can’t. And if you don’t get the distinction, you haven’t. So, in the spirit of Google Alerts togetherness, a micro reading list of a few  favorites for those who might considering catching up on how ethnography as a best practice is best read, written and conducted.

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