Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Ethnography for the 21st Century

(I published this originally at In the Fray)

Ethnography For the 21st Century:

If you have never seen Douglas Rushkoff's documentary Merchant's of Cool check it out online. Its hosted by PBS and was first broadcast on their show Frontline. I've been using it regularly in my college writing courses to explore the media's role in the production of identity. Part of the appeal of the documentary is Rushkoff's balanced, self-reflective (questioning his position and insights) approach to the materials. He is an ethnographer seeking to understand youth culture, media appropriations of these youth cultures, and their attempts at resisting the pervasive infuence of mainstream media cultures. His genius is that always he lets the subjects "speak" for themselves and never simply dismisses them. If they come off as hopeful, predatory, intelligent, foolish or cool, it is because of their acts or thoughts.

For a more predatory group of corporate ethnographers (used very loosely) that exploit young people's desires to voice their opinion and get their cultural efforts noticed stop by the Look-Look website. They are featured in Merchants of Cool, but to get the full sense of what they are about you need to read their statements at their website. It isn't just that they are charging corporations big bucks to find out what the next youth trend will be, its that they couch it in a pose of helping young people achieve a voice in society and to let their concerns be noticed.

Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes in their Temple of Confessions diorama performances reverse this modern ethnographic gaze in order to expose its predatory nature. They critique the dominate culture's power to classify and regulate, by turning stereotypes inside-out, exploding cultural myths and, most importantly, allowing their audiences to reveal their own place in the national narratives. For a detailed analysis of their deconstructive performances visit my Reconstruction Review of the Temple of Confessions performances in Bowling Green, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan. Cultural performers like Gomez-Pena and Sifuentes are restor(y)ing the modernist practice of ethnography in order to reconstruct a 21st century (auto)ethnographic poetics. As Norm Denzin reminds us in his latest book, Performative Ethnography (Sage, 2003) we all perform culture and this is not an innocent practice, with this realization the critical thinker develops a clear and honest statement of their position as a writer-producer of knowledge and re-cognizes their role in the production of ethnographic knowledge.

Moving to the forefront of the development of a 21st century autoethnographic poetics are new websites rich with stories by the people who live these stories. These autoethnographic documents speak for themselves and so I'll leave you with three of my current favorites

Zone Zero: Exposiciones

Home Project

21st Century Neighborhoods

While the world is continuing to speed along in a confusing, chaotic manner, there are those that are taking the time to provide us with glimpses of their particular realities. Won't you do the same? The world benefits from the free exchange of ideas and open dialogue!

Michael Benton

1 comment:

Tara McKenzie said...

I was doing some research for a paper I'm writing (which is basically a critical assessment of the contention that narratives are essentially dialogic in nature), and your blog was one of the hits. I commend you on a very interesting site. I was further impressed in noticing that you're located in Lexington, Kentucky. I'm originally from Ky. (schooled in Pikeville, Kentucky, that is), so it was a bit of a shock to see that you're based there.


---Tara N. McKenzie