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The Concept of Feminist Ethnography

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Ethnography is a research form that considers the social-cultural dynamics governing different groups of people and the place of such dynamics in the larger context. The ethnographic method is concerned with answering the research question(s) with evidence derived from participating in the research field and sharing in the lived experiences of those being researched. Feminist ethnography places emphasis on gendered aspects of social life and the influence of gender on power and resource distribution. Ethnography depends significantly on the researcher’s relationship with the people being studied. It also depends on the researcher’s ability to analyze data derived from continuous participation in the social setting of the those being observed; which typically helps to contextualize findings from shorter term methods of evidence collection such as interviews and questionnaires. There is a contention as to what differentiates feminist ethnography from ethnography that is not concerned with gendered realities. This paper will attempt to make a case for what qualifies as a feminist ethnography.

Hesse-Bieber (2014) notes three ways in which ethnography can employ a feminist approach; by prioritizing women’s lives and perspectives or considering highly gendered settings, by using methods or writing styles compliant with feminist theories and ethics and making analysis through feminist theoretical lens. This means that ethnography can be feminist if the research question(s) it seeks to answer considers women’s lives or their position in society as a result of gendered distribution of power. For instance, a researcher may be interested in finding out the material conditions of homelessness in a population and conduct ethnographic research in a homeless shelter, on the other hand, a researcher using feminist ethnography may be more concerned with women’s experience of homelessness as a result of domestic violence, such research may be conducted in a transition home.

A feminist ethnography, owing to feminist research principles and ethics, is concerned with subjugated ways of knowing and knowledge production. There is always an attempt to develop more egalitarian approaches to research. This means that the presentation of knowledge derived from the field usually will not comply with the idea ‘scientific objectivity’ but will rather portray those being studied as social actors that are active in shaping their own lives. Feminist ethnographers are interested in social change and transformation as such they aim to collaborate with members of the community in which they conduct research (the field) to empower them and enable create change that benefits their community. For example, an ethnographer who investigates women’s homelessness as a result of domestic violence may collaborate with women who have experienced this issue to create outreach programs targeted at eliminating such issues.

An ethnography may also be considered feminist when the analysis of such research contributes to feminist theory. For instance, an ethnographer who is interested in conducting research on compliance to safety regulations (by employees) in the workplace may focus their study on a trade occupation such as welding and conduct research within a specific company. While this research does not directly consider women’s lives, if the analysis of such study takes a gendered approach, it is feminist because it reflects gendered differences in the workplace adding to the body of knowledge.

While it is may be difficult to clearly define a single-form of feminist ethnography, the objectives and ambitions of a feminist ethnography are to include women’s issues and perspectives in the ethnographic method, develop more egalitarian approaches to the ethnographic process that deviates from circular androcentric methods, create a better understanding of how gendered differences influence and are influenced by social-political context. The main objective, just as in all feminist research, is to keep gender at the center.

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