6 Student-directed Ethnographic Research: Sharing Knowledge

Dr. Dara Culhane

SA 402: The Practice of Anthropology

In The Practice of Anthropology, students learn how to conceptualize, design, and conduct an anthropological/ ethnographic research project and how to represent and communicate their results directly to an invited audience. This fourth-year course enrols 20–25 students, mainly sociology and anthropology majors along with some participants from other humanities and social sciences. Several different Anthropology faculty members and sessional instructors teach the course, and content and pedagogical methods vary accordingly. I teach this course regularly, and the course description and syllabus described here reflect my pedagogical design and methods. In the outline, I summarize the course like this:

This course invites students to participate in an ethnographic project, to learn by doing. The subject of our inquiries will be “home” (as concept, as place, as meaning, as experienced, as imagined). Considering knowledge as “situated”—created and communicated among emplaced, embodied persons living in particular historical contexts shaped by relations of power—we will explore experiences, meanings, possibilities, and politics of “home” through examples of ethnographic research represented in readings, films, performances, and discussions. Each student will be supported in designing, carrying out, obtaining ethical permission for, and presenting an ethnographic inquiry into “home.” We will investigate a variety of forms of representation and communication of ethnographic research including conventional and unconventional textual forms, images, sounds, performances, exhibits, and installations. The second part of the course will consist of workshops in which students will collaboratively develop their projects to completion, and present them. Some graded work will be completed in class: attendance is required at each class in its entirety, including the first.


I will begin with a few working definitions: Anthropology is concerned with social relationships, with human similarities and differences contextualized over time and across space. Ethnography is a methodology—a process of inquiry into meaning-making and knowledge co-creation in the context of social relationships, including those between researchers and research subjects. Sensory ethnography includes sensory experience as a terrain of inquiry, proceeding from the premise that as human beings we learn, experience, and communicate relationships with each other and with our environments through our minds, feelings, and bodies. I teach this class as a practice-based course in sensory ethnography in which the subject of our inquiries is “home” as concept, as place, as memory, as relationship, and as experience.

Student presenting at mini-conference
Student presenting at mini-conference

How the course runs

During the first half of the course we investigate how scholars, writers, and artists have addressed the subject of “home.” In designing the course, I draw principally on theoretical and methodological contributions offered by Indigenous and feminist scholars actively exploring experiential knowledge, and on research I have conducted in this field focusing on life storytelling, memory, and relationships with places.

In the second half of the course students carry out an independent research project in collaboration with a research participant they invite. Carrying out an ethnographic research project requires student researchers to tack back and forth between studying other researchers’ works, conducting their own research, learning about the experiences of the research participants they work with, critically reflecting on and analyzing their own experiences as human beings and as researchers, and designing appropriate strategies for representing and communicating their research findings to an audience. Lived experience is, therefore, simultaneously subject, object, and practice in ethnographic research that is, thus, an experiential research methodology and learning process.

In the first class we brainstorm the word “home.” This simple exercise generates multiple meanings, some that students for the most part share, and others that they radically do not share. We move on to exploring “home” through readings, watching films, attending performances and exhibitions, viewing art, and participating in discussions. In particular, we study materials that draw our attention to varied historical and contemporary political and cultural contexts that shape peoples’ diverse experiences of “home.”

Some notes from class discussion
Some notes from class discussion

During these first six weeks, students engage in reflexive exercises that accompany the readings and viewings. The first of these exercises asks students to document, for one week, where and when they encounter the word “home” in their everyday lives (for example, in conversations or while watching news, listening to music, and reading) and to contribute a short reflection on this work to the course blog. Students continue their inquiries by integrating analytic readings, sensory experience, and their reflective blog entries. We pay close attention to, and isolate, each of the five senses recognized by conventional Western scholarship: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Readings, films, contributions from students’ own diverse experiences, and analytic insights, ensure on-going and dynamic written and conversational critiques of the limitations and potentialities of any culturally specific approach to “home.” We conclude these exercises by discussing multi-sensory and culturally diverse experiences of inclusion/exclusion, dislocation and relocation, belonging and exile: feeling at “home,” and not feeling at “home.”

Student-directed research

During the second half of the course each student carries out an independent research project informed by the readings, films, and exercises we have engaged in during the first six weeks. Students articulate questions pertaining to “home” that intrigue them and design a research project that includes one other person as a research participant. Research methods include observant participation (whereby the research participant is the subject, but also provides observations about what is going on), interviewing, transcribing and maintaining a fieldwork journal, and strategies for analyzing and communicating findings. Before setting out, students must satisfy Simon Fraser University’s Office of Research Ethics (ORE) that their work will be conducted in accordance with ORE regulations. This step offers students an opportunity both to learn the institutional and legal requirements of informed consent for research with human subjects and to implement these regulations in practice.

Students in SA 402 have chosen to conduct a wide range of projects, such as interviewing family members about leaving “home” and making “home”; transitions between childhood “homes” and adult “homes”; transnational migration and allegiances to multiple “homes”; experiences in institutional and care “homes”; memories of “home” as represented by photographs and memorabilia, songs, dances, and stories; participation in cultural organizations maintaining ties to “homes”; experiences of fleeing “homes” devastated by war and environmental disasters; creating “homes” in exile; conditions of “home”lessness; and relationships with friends as “home.”

Students carry out both conventional interviews and walking interviews to explore relationships among “home,” places, and memories. They participate with research subjects in shopping, meal preparation, and sharing food. They join in cultural celebrations, political activism, dancing, singing, and gardening.

The guiding objectives are to explore research participants’ experiences and meanings of “home,” articulations among participants’ stories and scholarly literature on “home,” relationships among participants’ experiences of “home,” and student researchers’ experiences of this shared process of ethnographic inquiry. In this way, students explore how they and their invited research participant experience “home” and how ethnographer and research participant together make meaning and create knowledge that critically respects embodied, sensory experience as a source of knowledge.

Poster for community event- student attended with observer participant
Poster for community event- student attended with observer participant

During the final four weeks of the course students analyze their research findings and create forms of presentation to communicate what they have learned about “home.” They also reflect on the process of conducting research about participants’ experiences. During these weeks, students use the class time to collaboratively develop their projects to completion, and they offer and receive peer feedback. The course concludes with a “mini-conference” to which students have invited other students, faculty, staff, research participants, friends, and family. Students present their work in multiple forms, such as reading conference papers, presenting posters, delivering narrated slide shows, mounting small exhibits, leading interactive sessions involving audience participation, and presenting live performances of songs, dances, monologues, or short plays.

In this way—through lived experience and analytic reflection on experience as a source of knowledge—students explore relationships of similarities and differences between their own experiences of “home” and those of others. They investigate how meanings of “home” are interrelated with diverse historical, political, and cultural contexts. They learn how to conduct rigorous scholarly inquiry into these questions and how to represent and communicate such knowledge to particular audiences.

Students’ perspectives

Students report having been struck by how this process challenges them to contextualize their understandings of their own experiences and assumptions and to be open to learning that others’ experiences and interpretations of experience may be very different from their own. They report being motivated by the process of integrating their own life experience with critical theoretical perspectives on experiential knowledge, creating their own collaborative project, and devising creative/scholarly presentations. They comment on the value of sharing what they have learned, and about how exciting and productive it can be to engage in “making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.”

Students also report feeling apprehensive at first. This is, indeed, a demanding course. Once students become engaged in the experience of “learning through doing,” however, fear turns to excitement and they rise to the challenge. They produce work that often surpasses their own expectations of themselves and report that they have learned rigorous research skills that they can apply in a wide range of future projects.

Concluding reflections

A survey of experiential courses at Simon Fraser University describes the principles and goals of “experiential learning” as we aspire to practice this pedagogy:

Experiential learning is the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom. (p. 12, The State of Course Based Experiential Education at SFU)

My experience of teaching SA 402 within this framework has been inspiring. I learn a great deal from my students that helps to inform my teaching and research; the research interests in the fields of sensory studies and experimental ethnography are necessarily inextricably interrelated with experiential teaching and learning. I look forward to exploring many exciting pedagogical possibilities with colleagues and students in this and other courses in the future.


DaraCulhaneDr. Dara Culhane, Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, culhane@sfu.ca




Dara Culhane. Performance Studies for Teaching and Practicing Ethnography


Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Dara Culhane. All Rights Reserved.


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