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Is this ethnography? The Role of labels in contemporary qualitative research

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Kenney, Phoenix 


In this reflexive piece from the field, I explore possible answers to the question: is my current doctoral project ethnography? Furthermore, I question the necessity of finding and claiming a pre-established label for my emergent work. I first provide a brief overview of my current research based in Kathmandu, Nepal and the personal and institutional challenges I faced in preparing for fieldwork. Ambiguity, though disliked by institutions, comfortably occupies space within my research paradigm. It takes deep reflexivity of positionality and power to navigate different perspectives – mine, institutions’, and the peoples’ I interact with in the field. Each interaction, though argued in academia as laden with dynamics of power, doesn’t always feel that powerful. Some moments, in fact, feel really boring. However, in my approach to research, these moments add up overtime to reveal patterns. Recognizing the value I place on the momentary and the emotional, I come to the main question of this article: is my work ethnography? Rather than develop a specific answer, I review the academic boxes I’ve checked that could suggest what labels I can place on this work. However, after considering Creighton’s (1920) definition of “catchwords”, I argue the process of labelling, rather than pushing us deeper into our research, becomes a test, a gauging of our willingness to fit into traditionally accepted scholarship. From the field, I argue it is more important to focus on making choices rather than labelling them.



Ethnography, reflexivity, positionality, moments, fieldwork

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CERJ, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

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