Ethnography: The Stranger Effect and Gift Giving

Anyone who has conducted ethnographic research understands the importance of the participant-observer methodology.

When gathering information, it is essential to have an informant that is able to assist in obtaining accurate, first-hand information in order to analyze cultural values, ideas, forms and processes.

The relationship between the researcher and informant(s) critically impacts the authenticity of the information and it takes time, patience, and navigational skill to build trusting relationships. Otherwise, the information gathered can be compromised by ulterior motives or interests. On the other hand, if a researcher is fortunate enough to have reliable informants, a whole world of enigmatic, symbolic processes can be opened to them. Trustworthy informants can give the researcher information and  provide direction that they might not have otherwise been able to obtain.

Many researchers will agree that fieldwork lies at the core of ethnographic research. Yet, fieldwork has many different dimensions and is something that is very difficult to teach. It is more like something one is initiated into without any initiator; it is not formalized knowledge in a sense but at the same time it is another form of knowing. In many instances, fieldwork is subjected to a form of the Hegelian Dialectic, that is, it is interpretive and relative to a paradigm but can be opposed by an equally apparent contradiction being reconciled only by a higher or third level of truth. When we consider the complexities of the “Stranger Effect and Gift-Giving” we will find that it is both a very insightful and privileged position but at the same time a very difficult process to analyze. On one hand, the stranger understands better in some respects what is going on in a society precisely because they stand outside of that community. Yet, on the other hand, the stranger is also very ignorant of a lot of things that are going on in that society or community and is therefore subjected to a sort of dialectic (i.e., a novel insightful position combined with a certain level of ignorance).

Another complex aspect of the “Stranger Effect” is gift-giving or the manner in which a stranger is accepted into a community and the delicate relationships that ensue. Such gifts may appear as something as simple and essential as food or a place to live. In other instances, it may present connections to other people, connections to histories and in almost all instances some form of knowledge or know-how. It must also be remembered that gift-giving is reciprocal in nature. If an ethnographer wants to do a serious job, they must understand the sorts of dimensions in a society and one such dimension is giving back something in return. At times, this exchange can appear as simply asking to hear someone’s story or history in exchange for the ethnographer’s story. But one of the complexities of this process is at times other people are not interested in the ethnographer’s story or even interested in the existence of outside worlds. At other times, hosts can become irritated or bored with hearing the stories of other people and other worlds.

Still another interestingly complex aspect of fieldwork and the “Stranger Effect” is “bodily exchange.” When doing fieldwork as a practice, the researcher must be accustomed to move and shift throughout the society in different ways; to sleep differently and become accustomed to ways in which other people sleep; to become accustomed to different sounds, different smells, and probably one of the most important things is different foods. Many times, the foods of different societies can have an adverse effect on the health of the ethnographer in various ways. Without doubt, there is a deep-seated bodily shift required by the ethnographer.

Fieldwork is different from running a survey or having a questionnaire but certainly these forms are not to be ruled out. In fact, it is an insult to a society not to try to understand those sorts of dimensions. But it must be remembered that fieldwork is another form of knowledge, a different way of knowing and if you think of it as different from the full-scale academic approach, it can be an exciting and illuminating experience.