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What Does an Ethnographer Do?

The goal is to get “an intimate and authentic representation of the person’s life,” says U of T prof Jooyoung Lee

In January 2010, Jooyoung Lee began conducting interviews at a hospital in Philadelphia with patients who had been shot. Lee, an ethnographer, was interested in learning more about how a shooting injury affected people long after they returned home from the hospital. Would they make a full recovery? Whom would they draw on for support? How would their life have to change? During the interviews, Lee asked the shooting victims if they’d be willing to hang out with him regularly as they went about their day-to-day activities.

Ethnographers are like embedded journalists. They spend hundreds – or even thousands – of hours with their participants, interacting with them, watching and recording. Their goal, says Lee, is to get “an intimate and authentic representation of the person’s life.” One thing ethnographers have learned, he notes, is that there are big differences between what people say about their life and how they actually live.

In the end, Lee observed nine of the 40 people he interviewed at the hospital. On some days, Lee accompanied them for a few hours as they did errands. On others, he spent most of the day with them – or sometimes an evening in a social context. “It wasn’t really structured. It was when I had time, when they had something interesting going on or when they wanted me to come over,” he says.

Lee’s field study ended in late 2011, and he’s now writing a book about gunshot victims, called Ricochet. The title, he says, alludes to the book’s central finding: that a gunshot injury causes difficulties that reverberate through a victim’s life.

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  1. One Response to “ What Does an Ethnographer Do? ”

  2. Adrian Marquez says:

    I am an anthropologist who has worked in restaurants for many years. I have compiled some of the observations I've seen in the field, and I agree with Professor Lee's observation that people live one way but will often say they live another.