Mindful Ethnography
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Mindful Ethnography

Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

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eBook - ePub

Mindful Ethnography

Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

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Ethnography, with all its limitations, has as its strongest impulse the quest to see and understand "others" on their own terms and to step out of our own viewpoints in order to do so. Conjoining ethnography with mindfulness, this book aims to support the best aspects of ethnography by enhancing the capacity to listen more deeply, see more expansively, keep a check on our biases and connect more compassionately with others.

Mindful Ethnography addresses a central dilemma of ethnography: the relationship of self and other. It suggests ways of viewing the world from different perspectives, getting beyond the categories of our culture and working with our own thoughts and feelings even as we aim to understand those of our participants. Chapters address various stages of ethnographic research: entering a field and seeing it for the first time, immersing in ongoing participant observation, writing up elaborated fieldnotes, analysis, the re-presentation of results and letting it go. It offers illustrations and activities for researchers to try.

The book is aimed at students and researchers who are stepping into the craft of ethnography or looking for new ways in and through ethnographic research. It is for researchers who want to integrate scholarship, social activism and spiritual pursuits in order to do research that is deeply engaged with and transformative of the world.

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Ethnography, epistemology, mindfulness and non-duality
The intellect cannot reveal the self beyond the duality of subject and object…. The unitive state cannot be attained through words, thoughts, or through the eye. 1
(The Upanishads)
This chapter raises epistemological and axiological concerns that will serve as a foundation for the chapters that follow. What do contemplative traditions offer to the particular challenges and dilemmas of ethnography? This takes us into epistemological and axiological questions: How do our beliefs about what can be known (by whom, in what ways) shape our work? What are the limits on our knowledge claims? And what moral and ethical responsibilities follow from this? My aim is not necessarily to answer all these questions but to consider how the unification of mind, heart and activity might lead us to new ways of understanding them and facilitate the doing of mindful and transformative social research.

Moving beyond limiting perspectives

How do we know what we know? This question has been debated with countless words throughout the ages. It will not be settled by anything I have to say about mindful ethnography. What a mindful perspective may offer, however, is more awareness of how we all can easily become attached to our own ways of seeing the world and dismiss the truths that other people hold dear. It may help us to expand ways of thinking, moving beyond the limits that are imposed by disciplines, fields, ideologies and identities or that we have set for ourselves, and opening up new possibilities – with greater discernment, reflectiveness, clarity, non-defensiveness and consciousness.

Truth in an era of “alternative facts”

At the time I write this, the world seems to have moved into a strange direction. We are in an era of alternative facts, with competing news sources and information wars.2 People circulate ideas that back our own pre-established beliefs like sharing a bottle of wine at a dinner party: intoxicating ourselves as we build camaraderie with those we assume are “like us” and forget the world outside our little circles.3
On the one hand, a search for truth – and a belief that there is a truth that can be separated from the knower – strongly persists, permeating both popular culture and the research world. On the other hand, we may dismiss ideas on the basis of their sources, on the belief that some people or groups have access to “truth” that others do not and on the thought that some are deliberately spreading “fake news.” Many people – both in the larger culture and in academia – readily accept claims made by people or groups that we already agree with, and align or affiliate with, and reject those made by people who operate with different frameworks, values and worldviews, without really examining either closely. Often, we don’t have direct access to primary evidence, so we may have to base our trust on what we know about the sources. But whom do we trust, and distrust? There is a growing body of cognitive science research that confirms that beliefs are shaped by our emotions: that we are not the rational beings we might like to think we are.4
Some have blamed the “post-truth” crisis on postmodernists and critical realists, seeing this as the logical extension of the recognition that frameworks matter for how we interpret any facts and that the same data can be interpreted to mean different things. Eduardo Kohn, in a fascinating project to imagine an “anthropology beyond the human,” argues that the “fundamental belief that social science’s greatest contributions – the recognition and delimitation of a separate domain of socially constructed reality – is also its greatest curse” and that “finding ways to move beyond this problem is one of the most important challenges facing critical thought today.5
What would it take to move beyond perspectives that keep us divided, separated and, perhaps, trapped – yet without discarding all criteria for knowing, and for taking principled stances in the world? I explore this by examining key epistemological and axiological questions that have been addressed in discussions of ethnography and suggest how contemplative practices – and the non-dualistic thrust that undergirds these ancient traditions – might offer a different way through epistemological impasses.

The relationship between the knower and the known

Joel Sprague,6 in a comprehensive edited volume on reflexive methodology in social science research edited by Wendy Luttrell,7 posits that there are three elements of epistemology: the knower, the known and the process of knowing. Various research approaches have addressed the relationship between these elements in different ways. Some forms push to maximize the distance between the knower and the known; others dissolve the barrier. Still others call for recognizing the influence of the knower on the known, raising critical questions about how knowledge production is shaped by the subject positions of researchers.
Positivist approaches to research, which arose and assumed power during the period of Western European history known, perhaps ironically, as the Enlightenment,8 dichotomize the knower and the known most sharply and tend to overlook or minimize the critical dimension of the processes of knowing. These ideas are premised on the notion that such a separation is both possible and necessary in order to get at “objective” truth: knowledge about the world that is independent of knowing subjects (and their processes of knowing). Arguably, this belief is deeply entrenched in the modern research world, even in approaches that recognize the permeability of the objective/subjective divide and even as the world has moved from modernity into postmodernism, and toward the current, strange “post-truth” era. Indeed, Valerie Malhoutra Bentz and Jeremy Shapiro9 refer to the lingering “after-life” of positivism in postmodern thinking.
Radical social constructivism (using Joel Sprague’s label), or postmodernism/post-structuralism, moves far from the presumption that it is possible to separate the knower from the known but lands us on the opposite side of the binaries. In these views, all knowledge is socially constructed. The objectivity/subjectivity divide is impossible to surmount, and there are no totalizing narratives or universal truth claims that can be separated from the one who makes the claims. As Michel Foucault argued,10 science creates official standards for what can be known, how and by whom, and we discipline ourselves into those ways of knowing. Thus, even our own subjectivities are a social construction.

The self-other relationship in ethnography

In ethnographic research, the relationship between the knower and the known takes on a particular shape, and questions of who can know what loom large. Ethnography, after all, is centrally bound up in the study of “the other.” Even auto-ethnographers and “insiders” studying “their own” cultural experiences11 strive to make the familiar strange in order to see in new ways.
The most offensive approaches to the self-other distinction can be found in anthropology’s sordid colonialist history, in which mostly white, male anthropologists descended upon distant villages and non-Westernized communities, attempting to understand and then explain the practices of “exotic” groups to Western audiences.12 The original anthropologists didn’t try to explain themselves to the “others” they studied; nor did they seem to consider how their own values, beliefs, epistemological stances and assumptions shaped their understanding of what they saw. Arguably, they didn’t really even recognize that they had a standpoint or that their search for “truth” was shaped by their own values and beliefs.13
How this relationship is addressed in methodology texts varies. Some scholars suggest that it is possible to achieve some kind of insider-outsider integration. For example, Ray Madden,14 in his book Being ethnographic, calls on ethnographers to “manage the tension between objectivity and subjectivity in order to produce better portraits of the human condition.” Madden calls for “synthesis” rather than a balance between insider and outsider perspectives. He implores researchers to get “close but not too close” to their subjects and research contexts, by engaging in “step-in, step-out” ethnography: immersing in the field, then stepping away. He emphasizes a dance-like quality of “being ethnographic,” even as he, like many other guides, calls for systematicity and rigor as ways of securing the validity of our knowledge claims.
Others go further in recognizing that it is not at all easy to arrive at such syntheses and that rigor and systematicity may not be enough to check one’s own biases or challenge one’s own assumptions or even to be aware of the assumptions one makes. Wendy Luttrell,15 for example, presents ethnography as an approach to research that “bridges art and science, spontaneity and discipline, emotional engagement and detached analysis.” She argues that reflexivity demands more than just self-conscious awareness of ourselves as researchers but a willingness to make our own process and decision-making visible at multiple levels: being aware and sharing that awareness with others. By becoming more conscious of how we are interpreting what we see, we may avoid the most egregious errors. This is nicely aligned with contemplative practices. It is in cultivating such awareness that a mindful approach can be of support.

Insider/outsider positionalities

Given the colonialist history of anthropology, ethnographers have grappled actively with ways of studying “others.” How can we understand “insider” perspectives when we are not insiders ourselves? This is a challenge even for those studying communities that researchers identify with or originate in, because being researchers almost invariably means that the person is differently positioned on important dimensions of power than those we study.
Feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding16 go beyond arguing that our experiences shape what and how we see; they claim that some subject positions allow for a greater grasp of reality, or truth, than do others. This is because we all tend to see the world in ways that do not threaten our own values, beliefs, choices and positions. People who are in positions of power and privilege don’t have the same incentive for seeing the world as do people who suffer from its inequities. Thus, social processes can be more clearly apprehended by those who do not stand to benefit from them.
In her most recent formulation of standpoint theory, Sandra Harding17 modifies the claim that any singular subject position can necessarily make stronger claims on “truth” than others, suggesting instead that all subject positions offer some better angles of vision but also some blinders. Hers is a cal...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication Page
  7. List of Figures
  8. List of Boxes
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Introduction
  11. 1 Conceptual framings: ethnography, epistemology, mindfulness and non-duality
  12. 2 Entering the field with open hearts and minds
  13. 3 Getting in and along: connecting with clarity and compassion
  14. 4 Being there again, now: writing up field notes
  15. 5 Analysis: let it settle itself
  16. 6 Re-presentations
  17. 7 Letting go
  18. Index
Zitierstile für Mindful Ethnography

APA 6 Citation

Orellana, M. F. (2019). Mindful Ethnography (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1520864/mindful-ethnography-mind-heart-and-activity-for-transformative-social-research-pdf (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich. (2019) 2019. Mindful Ethnography. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1520864/mindful-ethnography-mind-heart-and-activity-for-transformative-social-research-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Orellana, M. F. (2019) Mindful Ethnography. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1520864/mindful-ethnography-mind-heart-and-activity-for-transformative-social-research-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich. Mindful Ethnography. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.