On Muslim Ethnography
Jenna Hartel, a guest lecturer for one of my classes, talked about the ethnographic method and its implications on the study of information and people. Her expertise is in information phenomena in the hobby of gourmet cooking, and she talked about the experience of sitting with her interviewees and hearing them talk about their passion, their recipe collections, and how they organized them. She brought in the importance of keeping “In my head, I’m hearing ‘Organization systems! Classification schemes!’” she said. But she had to hold that part of herself back and not impose that perspective on that respondent. She listened, absorbed, collected a huge, huge amount of data, and then went on to recreate a picture of the information structures that were created and cemented in the course of pursuing this hobby.
In discussing her lecture with other students, I found that a lot of people saw this kind of work as a self-defeating process that seeks to speak for the “other,” or at best being nothing more than journalism with a bit of academic flair. I could not disagree more, and my reasons can be traced back to my own experiences with the ethnographic method.
I have done ethnographic research as a part of a research assistantship that I did in the aftermath of completing my undergraduate studies. My work included both observer and participant observation as well as in-depth, hours-long unstructured interviews with women who talked about their lives, their hopes, and their dreams.
Hartel’s talk reminded me of what I love most about the ethnographic method. It’s a deliberate practice, a full fruition of the ethic of respect. Absurd as it may seem to spell it out, I feel that I need to do so because this is an ethic that does not always get practiced: respect is, quite simply, the genuine understanding that others don’t see the world as you do. And I feel that ethnography is the closest you can get to seeing how others within a specific context see and experience things.
The way Hartel spoke about listening to her respondents made me think of the way Muslims’ minds work when they are exposed to matters in a certain way. I’ve been nursing a growing interest in personal development, and when I read a blog talk about oneness and unity in one’s purpose and living, my mind, of course, screamed “Tawhid!” Although my mind is in ecstasy over the delight of having formed this connection, I put it aside to continue and understand what is being said in its original context, from the person’s original perspective. I don’t always succeed. But I strive to accord respect to the greatest of my ability.
The Muslim ethnographer may be the odd Muslim anthropology student who uses their familiarity with religious organizations to gain access to a field and be a participant observer in religious practices like sermons and prayers. Important and wonderful as such an endeavor is, ethnography isn’t meant to be relegated to obscure academic publications, journals, and conferences. What I’m wondering is how ethnography can teach Muslims to develop a sensitivity to and awareness of experiences in a manner that makes them more conscientious, Godly people who see these experiences as ways of knowing.
We should all be ethnographers. We should all be participatory observers to what we think is outside of us. Does being able to do so make one less of a Muslim? That’s for our spiritual counselor and therapist (i.e. God) to decide. But perhaps our intentions will avail us. If we seek to embody respect, understanding, and a healthy willingness to embrace others as they are as a means to becoming better people of faith, perhaps there can be baraka in opening our minds and hearts to the human experience.