How Can We Represent Social Life in Ethnographic Writing?

This month we published Voices of a City Market: An Ethnography by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese. In this post the authors explain how they put the book together.

Which differences are salient to people when they interact in contexts of social and linguistic diversity? How are these differences made resourceful in communication as people draw on their biographies, histories, education, language backgrounds, and economic capital? We examined these questions by conducting ethnographic observations in the Bull Ring market in Birmingham, as part of a four-year AHRC-funded research project, ‘Translation and Translanguaging. Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities’.

In the market we observed interactions between butchers and their customers as they haggled, bartered, argued, and joked. We wrote field notes, audio-recorded service interactions, interviewed market traders, took photographs, video-recorded, and collected messages on WeChat and WhatsApp. Communication in the market was characterized by translanguaging, an orientation to difference in which people were willing to make use of whatever resources were available to make themselves understood. Not that everything in the market hall was convivial – everyday sexism and casual racism also raised their heads.

The material we collected was carefully analysed. Transcripts and translations were pored over and annotated, audio-recordings listened to, video-recordings repeatedly watched, online and digital messages scrutinized, photographs examined, discussions held. Reports were authored, academic articles published. However, content is only half of the story. We were concerned that conventional academic writing may not adequately represent the complexity and richness of the discourse of the superdiverse market. So we stripped away analysis, explanation, and exegesis, leaving the voices of traders, shoppers, and researchers to speak for themselves. Rather than structure the ethnography around big ideas and grand theories, we represented the world of the market as an assemblage of ethnographic material, a polyphonic collage of everyday voices and social practices.

In the book the life of the market is framed by a discussion in which a cast of nine characters debates the representation of social life. Two butchers, a photographer, a professor, a dramaturg, an entrepreneur, a researcher, a documentary novelist, and a poet rehearse many of the debates that surfaced in our research team over more than four years. Referring to the artistic production of the world of the market, their voices are thoughtful, opinionated, generous, biased, indignant, and collaborative. The same characters return at the end of the book to reflect on the text.

The assemblage of ethnographic material creates a polyphony of beliefs, commitments, and ideologies. The form of the text, at once poetic and scientific, represents the fragmented yet orderly cacophony of the market. Artistic form, argues Bakhtin (1984: 43), does not shape already prepared and found content, “but rather permits content to be found and seen for the first time”. In the terms of photographer Dorothea Lange (1965), calling attention to the mundane, the everyday, the familiar, enables people to see, as if for the first time, what they have passed by a thousand times. We hope to achieve something of this sort in Voices of a City Market: An Ethnography.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Edited and translated by C. Emerson). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Lange, D. (1965) Under the Trees. KQED for National Educational Television (NET).

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.

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