Written by Moriah Lavey
Observing the 16th International Society of Ethnobiology was my first experience with
ethnography outside of an undergraduate research methods class. And what a time it was. I
came face to face both with the challenges of collaborative event ethnography in general, as
well as some context specific issues that arose institutionally at the ISE.
Collaborative event ethnography as a methodology, is challenging. Though valuable, it is
difficult to take on a field site that is temporally constrained and incredibly jam packed. The
four days of the conference were the only opportunities we had to collect data and make observations. For example, on day three, I was tired, frustrated about the language barrier, and a bit distracted due to some personal concerns that arose, and I know it impacted the way I collected data. The events that I attended on day three will not happen again, so the pictures I did not take will remain undocumented, and that is unfortunate. Additionally, even with the five of us spending multiple hours a day within the conference, there is so much that occurred that was beyond our reach. Especially in the first three days, I was consistently doubting myself, feeling like I was not seeing nor doing enough,
despite the entirety of my days being spent observing and participating. Thankfully at a team
meeting, Laura affirmed that this sentiment is common in doing CEE’s. Not to mention it
certainly is tiring to invest the majority of your waking hours physically, mentally, and
emotionally invested in the goings on of the ISE.
Doing the field work was demanding, but also rewarding. To be documenting the ISE was certainly enjoyable. The events that I observed, and especially the ones I could linguistically understand, were fascinating, and the conference itself was a historic event. But outside of the challenges inherent within collaborative event ethnography, the ISE itself posed its own obstacles.
As a team, I believe we underestimated the extent to which the three members who did
not speak Portuguese were excluded from the events at the conference. Of the twelve events
that I went to, only one was explicitly in English, while three were equipped with translation
services. This limitation certainly created obstacles to my ethnographic observation,
understanding, and analysis of the events that I witnessed. Not to undervalue context clues like
vocal tone, volume, body language, and materials like slides and videos, but to be disconnected
from what was actually being discussed, and especially from the conversations that were had in
event question and answer sessions, barred me from a lot of content. Not speaking the
language, however, did provide us with a powerful experiential viewpoint, that of being a
participant unable to access the common language of the space. It cannot be understated how
this linguistic difference impacts the ability to participate and contribute to the events.
All in all, being part of a collaborative event ethnography at the ISE in Belém has been a
powerful learning experience, challenging me both in ways that I anticipated and in ways that
caught me by surprise. Through this experience, however, I feel myself to have grown as a
person and as an ethnographer.
COP21 Paris 2015 & WCC 2016
Follow our team as we cover international environmental policy making meetings.
Dr. Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Dr. Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
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