Music Journalism 101b. Ethnography.

Ethnography is properly from the science of anthropology. In relatively recent years, the practice of ethnography has grown well beyond its original uses. These days, ethnographers are not just academics and researchers, but also essayists and nonfiction writers: people who go out into uncomfortable or odd situations and then write about their experiences afterwards. Others work in organisational communication, participating in a culture, writing about it, analysing it, to see how it could be improved and how knowledge can best be retained and used. Still others are in marketing – and there’s a whole field of enthography online now too (it’s called netnography, where the focus is on online communities).

One of the primary focuses of ethnography is on analysis through story, pattern recognition, and the awfully worded but reasonably apt notion of ‘transformation of the self’. The idea with the latter is that as an ethnographer, you can participate in an event (or community, or organisation) and that you will not be the same when you come out, as when you went in.

Ethnography is also self-reflexive practice. That is, it’s a style of work where you are continually reflecting on what you’re doing. You reflect on your own participation, on your own reactions to things, on your own style of being within that community. Even if such reflexivity is not written down formally, ethnographers use the reflection when they’re writing their work; it creates a rich, textured fabric of prose, such that the reader gets an instant, real sense of place, people, and times, and knows that it’s faithful.

At the same time, reflexivity allows the ethnographer to write him- or herself into the piece. This results in a piece of work that is not distant or seemingly “unauthored”, and gives the writing a sense of someone having been there, whether or not the reflective notions are written in.

In some ways, one could potentially approach music journalism – particularly when one is covering events – as though one might approach a ‘text’ in the sense that Fairclough might have. This would mean that a gig as a whole would be one ‘text’, the beer garden might be a ‘text’ within that one, and so on. One might feel inclined to examine the interaction observed between people’s roles, between texts, contexts, subtexts, and so on.

There have been various anthropological documentaries in the past few years that evaluate the culture and the notions behind the metal scene, but that is a whole separate issue, and one that is not relevant for the purposes of Music Journalism 101.

It is with the so-called ‘new’ ethnographies that we are concerned here. The ‘new’ ethnographies are creative narratives, focused more on the writer’s experience than on a particular culture. In terms of music journalism, this type of ethnography is really important. The idea of ‘participant observer’ is a key one, and the idea of being able to turn onto everything all at once and be able to get it down effectively is essential.

Lloyd Goodall put it well, when he wrote about the new ethnographies:

Unlike other methods of inquiry and writing, simply acquiring the knowledge and applying the processes involved doesn’t make you an ethnographer.

To become an ethnographer who writes new ethnographies requires habits of being in the world, of being able to talk and listen to people, and of being able to write – habits that are beyond method. These ethnographic practices involve a craft that anyone can learn, but there is also an art to it, a confluence made out of the person and the process, one that separates those who know about and can theorize new ethnography from those who know about, theorize about, and do it.

It is a difference that emerges on the written page.

Which is to say: New ethnographers are not researchers who learn how to “write it up,” but writers who learn how to use their research and how they write to “get it down”.

The key notion from Goodall’s work is that of ‘doing’ ethnography. It’s something you have to actively be aware of doing; it’s not passive work. It takes considerable conscious effort to do it well.

Doing a ‘new ethnography’ in the field of metal music journalism requires the habit of being a part of the metal community, the habit of being able to talk and listen to lots of different people on a common subject (music/metal) and as a peer. But you still need to be able to write, and to have a habit of writing – and if you can do this creatively, so much the better. As a metal music journo/ethnographer, you need to be able to “get it down” while you can, and flesh it out and create some new monster out of it when you’re no longer wrapped up in that show, or this festival, or that party. Making more out of your notes requires solid observational skills and the ability to recall elements effectively: the latter comes with conscious awareness.

Of course, what underpins all of these habits is the habit of observation. It is surprising how few people really understand or see what goes on around them, and how many fewer can recall it later on. The key is to practice your observational skills.

This lecture from Mark Rouncefield at Lancaster University includes notes on how to “do” organisational ethnography; lots of it is relevant to the present notion of ethnography as journalism and there are some excellent points he raises. With a bit of creative thought you can apply some of the principles to your own work.

The next instalment of this course will discuss doing ethnography at gigs and festivals in more detail.

Things to practice and key tasks

TASK ONE: Practice observation without taking notes

For the time being, your key task is to practice your observational skills. It doesn’t matter how or where you do this. You can do it in a park, in the supermarket, at your mate’s house, at a restaurant… wherever. Take notice of everything that goes on around you. You also need to participate as normal in whatever situation you’re in, without staring, without asking pointed questions; in short, you need to just do your thing.

Take notice of conversations, environment, smells, sounds… everything. Then, once you are outside the environment, write down as much of it as you can remember. Can you create a creative, interesting piece out of it? If you can write, this should be easy. Remember to include yourself in your environment – this part is essential.

TASK TWO: Honing your skills – observation and note-taking

Do the same as for task one, but periodically scratch some notes to yourself. If you’re out for dinner, a good way to do this is when you go to the toilet – but don’t do it so often that people think you’ve got diarrhoea! 🙂 Once you’ve done it, take your notes and what you remember, and write it up as creatively as you can.

Reflect on the process of observation and how it worked for you. What would you change, and why? What elements of the situation did you miss?

Reflect on the way you write up your work. How can you turn it into an interesting, richly textured nonfiction piece? What would you need to flesh out, what sort of different notes would you need to take?

Could you give your piece to someone else and have them “experience” the situation as well? Why or why not, and what would you need to do differently?

Do you find yourself getting distant, staring, or not participating fully in the situation or interaction? What sort of reaction did you get? Did you find people changing their behaviours? What could you do about this?

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