When Ethnography Goes Public
didier fassin
Ethnography has long been regarded essentially as a method, which was char-
acterized by the emblematic approach to fieldwork subsumed under the
phrase “participant observation.” Argonauts of the Western Pacific established
its mythical foundation. Emphasis was later placed on ethnography as writ-
ing, which led to a reflexive stance on what was at stake in the translation of
empirical material into a text that was supposed to represent it. Writing Cul-
ture disenchanted the positivist illusion of a transparent pro cess. In parallel
with this dual dimension, the existential aspect of ethnography, namely the
experience of the ethnographer through interaction with his or her subjects
and the related exercise of introspection, was given more salience, via diaries,
memoirs, or even scientific works, when it became an object of inquiry in
its own right. Tristes tropiques epitomizes the meditative contemplation on
this journey. But whether considered from the perspective of method, writing,
or experience, it seemed relatively self- evident that ethnography ended with
ethnographers going home or, at best, correcting the final proofs of their
manuscript. Most of the time what happened afterward was largely ignored,
as if the only relevant production of knowledge concerned what went on in
the field and how the collected data were or ganized and interpreted.
Yet once a book, an article, or a film is out, a new phase begins for the
ethnographer: the encounter with a public or, better said, multiple encoun-
ters with vari ous publics. Indeed, rare are the ethnographic works that escape
the fate of becoming, at some point, public, whether it is a scholarly piece
known to only a few colleagues or an acclaimed essay arousing wide interest.
The very word “publication” clearly indicates the passage from a private to a
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