Emory Report
November 3, 2008
Volume 61, Number 10



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November 3
, 2008
Anthropology class investigates election


The consuming nature of American politics appears to have divided the nation into extremes of red and blue, right and left. But in the middle, the nuances of human behavior are not so starkly black and white, as some anthropology majors are discovering this semester.

The election season has provided plenty of fodder for original research in a course this fall on ethnographic writing taught by Debra Spitulnik, associate professor of anthropology. From documenting casual conversations on the Quad to interviewing campaign workers in rural Georgia, the class is experiencing a deep immersion in the skills and techniques of anthropological fieldwork.

Previous classes have produced individual ethnographic accounts of topics such as the WoodPEC climbing wall, the hospital emergency room, Starbucks and family life, but the election provides a great opportunity for students to do research under a common theme, Spitulnik said.

“Choosing the election was a natural fit. Things are happening everywhere. Nearly everyone is interested and involved in some way,” she says. “There are endless facets of this process that merit ethnographic documentation and examination.”

Students are investigating a range of issues, such as principles of etiquette, disclosure and advocacy within political conversations, nonverbal communication, interaction with media, political displays, social gatherings around political events and the meanings people place on democratic participation. In the process, they’re learning how to document human behavior within the natural unfolding of everyday life and write up an anthropological analysis of their own data, Spitulnik says.

Vadal Bolds, a senior anthropology major, has been listening in to conversations between classes and around campus, conducting interviews and observing how people interact when they’re talking politics. Although she is still conducting research and taking notes everyday, she’s made some interesting observations.

“You would expect a college campus to be more open, but I’m finding that people are a little apprehensive in talking about politics unless they know someone else is a fellow supporter. The conversations tend to be relatively open or they shut down right then and there,” Bolds says.

And as a student, she also is learning that “it’s one thing to read and critique the fieldwork of ethnographers, but when you try to do it yourself, it’s not as easy at it seems. It definitely opens your eyes to other people’s perspectives.”

Field sites have included public spaces on campus, family homes, residence halls, campaign offices, fraternities, meetings and events organized by student organizations such as the Collegiate Society of America and Young Democrats, and even Facebook.

“As a place of human interaction, Facebook is a site where the ethnographer can observe ongoing activities and interactions, including various forms of symbolic display,” says Spitulnik.

Concurrently, Spitulnik is conducting research on young adults’ (ages 18-25) experiences of media and politics. “I’ve been able to share my experiences as an ethnographer alongside theirs, and also push them to further analyze their data in terms of theoretical arguments about citizenship, nation, identity formation, American culture, youth culture, communicative practices and the role of media,” she says.

“First and foremost students are learning how to be ethnographers,” Spitulnik adds. “But at a more profound level, it means that as they become ethnographers, they deepen their understanding of anthropology as a discipline, and in particular they deepen their understanding of what it means to document and analyze a culture, subculture or community from the inside out and the outside in.”