Browsing through books: The ethnographic self – Fieldwork and the representation of identity by Amanda Coffey (1999, SAGE Publishing)

Since last autumn, the Ethnography peer-to-peer Network at the Department of Design in Aalto University (EPN-DoD) has had an active reading group. This spring we read Amanda Coffey’s The ethnographic self – Fieldwork and the representation of identity (1999, SAGE Publishing) and this is a blog post about my impressions.

As the title suggests, the book is about thinking and conceptualising the self in ethnographic fieldwork and writing. Coffey’s writing style is lenghty, but I feel it represents how difficult it is to compartmentalise the notion of ‘self’ that penetrates everything. Indeed, Coffey’s argues that since the ethnographer’s self is inevitably in all ethnographic endeavours, whether or not it is reported in a written ethnography, it is something that all ethnographers should reflect before, during and after their fieldwork.

In addition to Introduction and Consequences and commitments, the book is organised as thematic chapters: locating the self; the interpersonal field; the embodiment of fieldwork; the sex(cal) field; romancing the field; writing the self; and (re)presenting the field. Coffey sums up previous conceptual work in these themes, while offing many examples of Coffey’s and others’ ethnographic work. These examples were reassuring to me: Even the most experienced ethnographers are at times (or most of the times) puzzled, make ‘mistakes’, and feel lost. Moreover, they experience ephiphanies during the process, but these moments are unpredictable. Coffey offers an explanation: Entering and conducting ethnographic fieldwork shapes the identity of the ethnographer. If nothing is evoked by the fieldwork, it is not a successful one. 

In short, this book helped me to gain reassurance that I’m doing fine with my ongoing fieldwork. Yes, it is messy. Yes, it brings up emotions. Yes, it is embodied. Yes, it is about my identity as well. And all of this is perfectly fine. This also provoked me to think two important steps. 

First, I got curios about styles of writing related to the ‘self’ in economic anthropology. That is a field that informs much of my research. While I know many studies, my overall impression of the field is fragmented. This could be a way to probe in the rich literature. 

Second, I was inspired to think about my own writing and other means of representation. Reading this book emphasised my intuition that I want to write a monograph about my ongoing fieldwork and I will start that manuscript sooner than later. In addition, I got encouragement to represent my fieldwork in audio-visual format, the plan I have had all along since the writing of my grant applications. How to do this in practice remains to be decided.

Finally, an obvious observation from the perspective of my intellectual inspirations ecofeminism, environmental social sciences/humanities, and sustainability transitions. The book is completely silent on more-than-human actors. i.e. nonhuman beings. How to theorise the self when taking into consideration more-than-humans, inter-species solidarity and/or nonhuman beings? How is self crafted in these relations?

Despite these questions that are crucial to me, I can recommend this book to anyone interested in ethnographic fieldwork, self and identity. Although this book is from 1999, it deserves to be read. 

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