How do you “do” ethnography in studies?

As part of the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures impact evaluation funded by What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls? Programme and UKAID, the team undertakes much qualitative research to understand our young women’s and men’s lives and how the intervention helps them negotiate life’s changes. In addition to the many in-depth interviews, we have carried out over the last two years, we have also spent time with participants and observed their lives from within, this is call participant observation or ethnography.

In the past ethnography has often involved ‘foreigners’ from distant places (often white) observing people from completely different cultures and communities (often black). This has presented a number of challenges such as language barriers and adjusting to the socio-cultural contexts, all of which shape the dynamics of the interaction between the observer/s and people being observed. Moreover, as a significant body of reflexive research about ethnography (that is research reflecting on the process of doing ethnography) has come to recognise these encounters have often been hugely problematic, with ethnographers bringing unconscious biases about the ‘other’ to their research.

My experience could be perceived as somewhat similar – yet it is different. I am a young Black woman observing other young Black women in urban informal settlements in the same country and city in which I was born (Durban, South Africa). However, due to the historical and (even contemporary) socio-political conditions, South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world, as measured by the GINI co-efficient. This, and a range of factors, e.g. urbanisation and socio-economic disparities, has meant that I have to ride two public-taxis, go to the field and shift from a young Black woman in the city, to an observer in an informal settlement (same country, same city, same language).

Whilst I do not have to learn a new language or go the extra mile to try and adjust and understand the context in which I work, I have had a few reality checks that forced me to introspect on this research dynamic. One example of this was an encounter during the earlier stages of my interactions with this group of women. My colleague and I decided that I probably should not share much about my own education to the participants – I am currently in the middle of my Master’s degree – as this might cause the women to view me as different to them and privileged (less than 40% of the participants have completed grade 12 – the high school leaving certificate).

This speaks to a number of issues. For example, the decision to withhold information about myself in a strategic manner serves to highlight some of the challenges of doing ethnography in this context of contradictions, where you have to observe people similar to yourself, however you also occupy a space of “privilege”. Coming to terms with being the same as, yet also very different to the women I observe, poses multiple challenges that I need to confront on a daily basis, as I seek to develop a deeper understanding of young women’s lives.

The continuous reflection and interrogation of my own class positionality in relation to the young women in the study has enabled me to quickly build rapport with the participants and has assisted in overcoming some of the historical challenges of ethnographic research.

Blog Article written by Nolwazi Ntini, HEARD UKZN on unpacking the ethnographic process.



Stepping Stones and Creating Futures Facilitators: The Fanatics

As an ethnographer on the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention trial currently underway in Durban, South Africa, I have been absolutely amazed hearing the stories of the facilitators. Their incredible resilience in overcoming challenges when they head out to run the intervention in informal settlements around the city and has led me to call them: the fanatics.

The Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention is seeking to reduce men’s perpetration of violence against women, improve gender equality and reduce HIV-risk behaviours. Through participatory discussions and interactive methods delivered by facilitators, male and female participants reflect on their lives and actions in ways that lead to positive behaviour change.

Facilitators are scattered across many informal settlements around Durban. To get to their sites they travel via public transport, carrying refreshments for participants who will be present on the day. While venues were secured prior to the start of the programme, things can change during the course of the intervention and not always for the better. Political disputes in some communities have led to the unexpected locking of halls, forcing some groups to gather under a tree (a classical African story even for formal education). One facilitator faced with these challenges was fortunate to come across a kind tavern owner (who sells beer) who was supportive of the work of the project and allowed the group to run the workshop in his venue.

What was also inspiring was the commitment participants displayed in ensuring sessions ran. In one community a participant offered their shack for use on a regular basis as a group meeting place. Such alternatives venues were not without risk – in one case, since they were using a woman’s shack, the facilitator was perceived to be a secret lover by a jealous boyfriend who lived nearby. Luckily, quick intervention by the Project Empower team defused the situation and now the project runs without a hitch there.

Facilitating in the informal settlements where participants live has proved to be a complicated task, but nonetheless was met by a resilient and dedicated team of facilitators. They went the extra mile, dealing with emotional stories of young men and women living in informal settlements. Alongside this where the challenges of working in informal contexts: lack of water, lack of toilets, buildings with dangerous and illegal electricity, and community protests.

What moved me the most as I observed the intervention being delivered is the commitment and passion all facilitators showed as they saw themselves as agents of change – it is why I refer to them as the ‘fanatics’. They were fanatical in their commitment to overcoming the challenges of delivering Stepping Stones and Creating Futures, achieving the appreciation of the participants who valued their presence and the insight they brought to their lives. The fanatics went above and beyond any reasonable commitment to their work, in so doing I hope they continue doing great work in these informal settlements and make a contribution in alleviating a fraction of violence and HIV in South Africa.

Blog written by Thobani Khumalo, Ethnographer & Filmmaker, Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division (HEARD).