I’m once again in that stage of a project where the client is working through the process of ‘getting it’. Explaining ethnography isn’t easy, especially when, in the first few meetings, you’re introduced as the archaeologist. That’s cool, because I started my anthro career with every intention of becoming an archaeologist. After falling asleep on my first dig in the dirt of a 15th Century Iroquoian village  and then realizing my future might be more about cataloging fragments of wood than Aztec gold, I changed routes. It’s also cool because, after a week of being referred to as Idea Couture’s archaeologist, I came to the realization that my next hire for a secondary fieldwork specialist would indeed be one. More on that when it happens. But back to explaining ethnography.

I usually start by telling clients that ethnography is the art and science of telling stories about other people’s stories. How people tell their stories, what they tell about, how I choose what parts of that telling to narrate and so on all fit into the final story that, hopefully, is insightful enough and compelling enough to spark some ideas. Good stories should do that, something I learned by osmosis as my dad clattered away on his Underwood in the dining room during the years he was a freelance writer from home and I was a kid recovering at home from the flu or some other school-less malady.

As an undergrad and grad student, the specter of journalism always haunted my anthropology papers. On more than one occasion, comments in red from a professor admonished me for being journalistic. Part of that tendency, I think, was the rush to tell the story, to cut through the lit review, the theory and the politics of academic writing in order to get to the (and my) ideas. So it’s sort of ironic that when clients and co-workers ask about ethnography, I’ve taken to turning them on to Generation Kill.

The HBO show based on the book by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright and adapted for TV by David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire fame follows the Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as they invade Iraq in 2003. What makes Generation Kill such a compelling and effective story is how it captures the boundaries between journalism and ethnography. Unlike The Wire, where the viewer rolls into B’More through the eyes of so many squad cars, police stations, schools and re-ups, Generation Kill unfolds primarily through the participant-observational lens of Wright. Like an anthropologist, he tasks himself with listening more than talking, understanding rather than judging. As a result, the audience ‘gets’ the social hierarchies, kinships, language, rituals, processes, tasks, duties, fears, funs and more of what is was/is to be a soldier in that time and place. That the story is ultimately so co-constructed between Simon, Burns, Wright and the soldiers he rolled with, makes it that much more ethnographic.

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