Engaging with the World Through an Ethnographic Lens
Posted 04/16/2018 05:25PM

Engaging with the World Through an Ethnographic Lens

Upper School History Teacher Sandra Fahy delivers her first Babbott Lecture

In her first lecture as the 2017-9 Babbott Chair of Literature and the Arts, Upper School History Teacher Sandra Fahy spoke about the importance of an "ethnographic lens" in developing a greater appreciation of human diversity.

The Frank L. Babbott Chair of Literature and the Arts was established in 1977 to "recognize excellence in teaching and/or scholarly pursuits which will have a direct benefit to both the recipient and the school."

Sandra came to Packer in 2005 as a History and French teacher and has since served as the faculty advisor for TEACH, Packer's student tutorial program, mentored new faculty, and advised many Packer seniors on their capstone thesis projects.

Head of School Dr. Bruce L. Dennis praised Dr. Fahy's tenure as an educator: "Whether it's a lesson on the Mauryan Empire under the leadership of Chandragupta Maurya or a class delving into the role of women in Islam, she makes her subject come alive for her students and displays impressive command of her subject and the ability to connect it to students' lives."

Sandra will deliver her second Babbott lecture in spring 2019. Read more about Sandra on #KnowYourPelicans.

Read an excerpt of her speech "The Ethnographic Lens: Explorations of Culture and Meaning":

So how does one go about understanding culture with an ethnographic perspective or through an ethnographic lens? Anthropologists would argue that we have a tendency to see our own way of doing things as best or as more "right." It's natural that we would feel pride in or bias towards our own traditions and practices - even as we may recognize that these traditions and practices aren't perfect. This pride doesn't prevent us from questioning our practices or from trying to improve them. If we didn't believe in them, we wouldn't try to improve them, and instead, we would abandon them for something completely new. Questioning our practices highlights the fact that culture is not fixed or unchanging, as we all know from debates we currently are having as Americans, as New Yorkers, and as members of the Packer community.

Nonetheless, we have this tendency to use our own culture as the standard against which everything else is measured. We use our own values and practices as the norm and we see other values and practices as deviating from that norm. Anthropologists call this perspective ethnocentrism, a practice that's not unique to any one particular community. One goal in using an ethnographic perspective is to raise our consciousness about what we do and to become more self-aware. We need to remember that our ways of doing things - however culturally defined - are not universal. Kissing a close friend in public may be normal for us in the US, just as not kissing someone in public may be normal for culturally conservative Iranians. An ethnographic perspective means considering what assumptions we're bringing to our engagement and interaction with others - particularly with others who have cultural traditions different from our own.

Part of being self-aware means developing skills of ethnographic observation. So, what does that actually mean? I often joke that it's a bit like that scene in "The Bourne Identity," when Jason Bourne is sitting in a restaurant with the woman who will become his girlfriend. He says to her, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is in the cab of the gray truck outside... Now why would I know that?" Whenever I see this movie, I always want to respond by saying, you might know that, Jason Bourne, because you're an international spy, but you might also be trained as an anthropologist, using your skills of observation to study the world around you. All joking aside, observation is a difficult skill to develop, not least because it's often hard for us to slow down in our lives, to be fully present, and to take notice of what's happening around us. But it's fundamental if we want to work against an ethnocentric view of the world. Don't confuse ethnographic observation, however, with situational awareness, which might be more in the tradition of international spies who memorize license plates. Situational awareness often is used to mean being aware of our surroundings so we recognize potential dangers. It means seeing that a car is coming as we cross the street with our earbuds in. It means noticing where the closest open deli is if someone is following us down the street. It means, to paraphrase Jason Bourne, knowing where the exits are in case of an emergency. Situational awareness, though, keeps the focus on the self or the ego perspective - a perspective that places us at its center. It focuses on how we fit into our environment and how our environment directly affects us. Observation from an ethnographic perspective requires that we shift the focus away from us, away from our ego perspective, and instead to others, even as it still asks us to pay attention to details.

Observation also includes listening. An ethnographic approach to listening means removing ourselves from the conversation as much as possible. It means really hearing what people are saying, listening to their perspective, while avoiding the urge to comment or add our two cents. It means avoiding comparisons with our own experiences or ways of doing things as much as possible and, above all, avoiding judgment based on our own perspectives.


I'm not up here to argue that an ethnographic perspective has a definitive formula for or a better position on determining who gets to practice what cultural traditions and why. Culture can be messy and complicated. What I would like to propose, however, is that an ethnographic perspective can provide a unique and useful framework for learning about the world and for engaging in conversations with those who are from different cultural traditions - even as I raise questions about the limits of this framework. If we can step out of an ethnocentric worldview; engage our skills of observation and listening; and view cultural practice as shaped also by historical, political, and economic factors, we can develop greater understanding of what cultures and belief systems mean to those who live their traditions and practices. This should allow us to develop a greater appreciation for cultural diversity, and by extension, for human diversity - and hopefully for each other. And that, ultimately, is the goal in using the ethnographic lens.