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Explorations in Ethnography: resistance, studies of resistance, and hope?

During the first week of April 2023, the 9th conference for Explorations in Ethnography, Language and Communication conference (EELC9) took place in London. In this post, Venla reflects on the conference, its presentations and her relationship to ethnography and social change.

My registration for the EELC conference was very last minute. I had been drowning in teaching and other work, ending up deleting all possible invitations, calls and proposals that kept appearing in my mailbox. In February I was finally free to fully focus on the PhD. I felt excited, inspired, and motivated and therefore, when my contact from my previous university, University College London (UCL), told me “EELC9 is the place for you to be”, I was ready to pack my bags and get on the plane to London.

Explorations in Ethnography is a biannual conference organised by the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) and its Linguistic Ethnography Forum (LEF). This year the hosting university was UCL. It is a two-day event that consists of key notes, workshops, panel discussions and individual presentations. The presentations were diverse regarding their foci: from detailed interactional analysis of everyday interactions to discussions on the role of ethnography and the ethnographers in constructing the (social) world we live in. The contexts were from different continents and topics included e.g., education, labour market, festivals and events, migration, popular culture, and politics. Furthermore, the presentations were seemingly loyal to the conference theme: “Language, Inequality and the everyday (un)making of alliances”.

Institute of Education, UCL

Ethnographic (field-) work – who is it for?

In ethnography the role and position of the researcher and their relationship to the research participants is always a topic for debate. Spending significant time, sometimes years, studying (often minority and underprivileged) communities without “giving much back” has been problematised in the field already a long time ago. In many cases researchers have arrived, requested a lot of time from the participants and then just left without ever returning or even sharing the results.

As one solution to this, using more collaborative/participatory/inclusive research methods have been suggested. On the first conference day, I followed a panel organised by Equiling project based in Spain. In this participatory action research, the researchers had spent a significant time developing methods to enhance linguistic agency and to raise awareness among university students and participants of a cultural association. The development work had been done in collaboration with the participants who were called co-researchers. In addition, they had been invited to do research themselves as part of the project.

Daniel Silva gave the first keynote, in which he also spoke about co-creation of knowledge. He used his fieldwork experience in Brazilian favelas as a starting point to introduce both critical and encouraging examples of how ethnographers can both work together with participants and share or co-publish the results of analysis with them. In his presentation, Silva also pondered upon the ways that can help to convey the fieldwork experience in academic (or other) contexts, such as poetic or multisensory registers in reporting the research.

Is change possible?

As suggested by the conference theme, social change and social justice were key topics across the presentations. Some of the presentations discussed this from the perspective of possibilities: contexts and practices that have enabled or enhanced equal opportunities. Some discussed cases in which the institutional or other practices restricted or violated people’s rights and possibilities. For example, in a panel organised around categories and categorisation, Mi-Cha Flubacher, Petra Neuhold and Alfonso Del Percio demonstrated through three examples of how labelling (or not labelling!) groups of people and then framing the created labels in a certain way can be used for political and economic purposes in a harmful and excluding way.

Now when I am on my way back home, a question that arose at the end of that session seems to be stuck in my head. Based on my (short) experience among (linguistic) ethnographers and many other applied linguists, there seems to be a strive for social justice and making the world a (tiny bit) better place. For the last 20 minutes the presenters and the audience discussed whether creating change, either through new types of categorisations or ethnographic work or science more generally, is possible in the first place.

Many of the conference participants seemed to be very concerned of the recent events and phenomena around the world, and so am I. I have also wanted to believe that a difference can be made through analysing the world and raising awareness on inequalities. Especially now after the EELC9 conference, I am less certain. How much can the opposition do if the ruling party has had the power for centuries? To paraphrase Beatriz P. Lorente in her workshop on reflexivity, we need to (at least) be very careful on how to represent and generate collaboration and change in our work as ethnographers and applied linguists.

On the other hand, the presentations of EELC9 seem to (very cautiously) suggest that through collaboration, epistemic alliances and solidarity micro-level change is possible. Ethnography might not be able to undo the inequitable and unfair discourses and categories, but it can shed light on the complexity within those lines. Perhaps doing ethnography is not resistance in itself, but it can act as a tool for resistance.

Venla Rantanen

The writer is a doctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. She identifies as an ethnographer, an idealist & a humanitarian.

Russell Square, London

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