Methodologies II: Constructing an Ethnography

Constructing an ethnographical study is no easy task, but if I had to craft a study on “A Year in the Life of Africana Studies at Williams College,” I first would identify my players. Being that I enjoy video production more so than traditional essay writing, I would allow my cast/participants dictate the flow of the narrative rather than box them in by a rigid thesis. As I gather information through formal interviews and casual conversation, I would piece together certain themes and at last make my presentation on life in Africana studies at Williams.

That being said, I would want two different informants on the Africana studies culture: a professor and a student. Though I am technically an insider to this group, therefore establishing an emic perspective, the informants would give me both a sort of removed structural look at the field, and an immersed perspective of the student. Professors take on a natural role as teacher (Murchison, 90), and therefore would be best suited for this role. However they cannot truly know what it is like to be a student of their own teachings, furthermore a student in the discipline at Williams College. Senior and junior students would be necessary to round out this full picture of habitual study.

But the question is what is habitual study in the Africana field at Williams? What does it entail? Beyond the late nights of writing and the pondering of a dossier, what is the stuff that defines Africana study? Is it the interconnectedness that the small space of Williams allows? Are the courses underscoring students’ lives on campus? I would be pursuing questions that give a sort of texturing, a dynamism to this life.

After all I wouldn’t want it to be boring. “A Year in the Life of Africana Studies at Williams College” would need to be as colorful as the 20-some odd people that make up the discipline at our particular location. To truly encapsulate the almost inexplicable texturing that makes up this field, I would need multiple participants that have a long memory of what the field was like in the past and now. Aside from analytical questions, which have the danger of damaging native language of the informer (Spradley, 93), I would also seek information deemed banal such as: schedules, which classes are highly sought after, what is a typical day like in class. Questions that make up the everyday. These questions broad and specific would be needed to deliver a snippet of this world to an audience.

In a perfect world the video ethnography would be a great medium to give this cursory look at Africana at Williams, however issues of consent, privacy, and scheduling complicate the matter. Therefore outside of leaning on casual conversation and recruiting friends, I would possibly ‘table’ (advertise the making of my film at a open table) in Paresky Center. There not only would I have contracts of agreements, stipulations of my study including the purpose of my study and agreeing to have one’s likeness reproduced on film (either aural or visual), but also time slots of when I could meet with possible willing participants. This method would largely attract students in an open and honest way. Professors would prove more difficult, but if confronted with the possibility of keeping this video for posterity and an analysis of Africana at Williams, with their consent, their interest would be peaked.

Lastly outside of scheduled interviews and filmings, I would ask to audit classes to observe the dynamics, and gather that texturing that one can only experience.

Ultimately the video ethnography would be one encompassing the experience of all seasoned members of the field but would be in the perspective of the student.

The college experience is made up of many members but it’s heart lies in the student.


Works Cited

Murchison, Julian. “What is Ethnography” and “Participant Observation,”

Spradley, James. “Informants” and “Locating an Interviewing an Informant”

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