The observer effect – Week 6

I’m taking Physics 3, introductory physics, along with LACS20. And in physics, there exists the ‘observer effect’ that states: a phenomenon cannot be observed without being altered by the observational method. For example, even inserting a thermometer into warm water to take its temperature will absorb some of the heat. By measuring the water, the temperature is decreased even if by a miniscule degree.

How does this relate to ethnography? Well, no matter how much time and energy I invest to knowing another community, as an outsider, I will always influence their interactions with me. Especially as a foreigner, obvious by both appearance and by culture, there will be barriers to my interactions with others. Interviews, observations, none of it would be truly natural. Even if I were to spend a long amount of time and become a part of a community, I would unintentionally influence the community with my culture and ideas.

This doesn’t mean that ethnography is all a pretense. But knowing this, I should remember that I cannot assume anything about the people of different cultures that I meet, whether as an ethnographer or just as a tourist. There are ways, though, to conduct ethnography in an ethical manner. I’ve learned to consider important things such as my own cultural influence, compensation for their time, and avoiding a confirmation bias (a tendency to look for or present data that confirms my previous bias). On conducting ethnography, I’ve learned that it’s a complicated process that demands its complication. Without it, we have the danger of creating a single story. Below is a link to a TED Talk about this danger in literature. Writing stories aren’t too different from conducting an ethnography, and more than anything, ethnography should be about telling all of the stories, all of the truth.