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Dr Kira Erwin and the curious case of ethnography


Kira Erwin

If you have written a methodology chapter or are in the process of writing one for your thesis, you may agree that the writing up of research methods can be downright boring. This is not the case for Dr Kira Erwin, a senior lecturer at Durban University of Technology’s Urban Futures Centre, who believes the methodology section should be a racing, good read!

She recently joined the Media and Citizenship group for a workshop to broaden our understanding of research methods, in particular, of ethnography and participant observation. Erwin’s research interests are on race, racism and the possibilities of non-racialism, ideas which are not straightforward to research as people may not be completely honest about their views.

Realizing that what people tell you tends to differ from what actually happens; she decided to immerse herself in the community she was researching in order to understand better. And by immerse I don’t mean that she just visited often. For her PhD, which focused on the Albert Park area in Durban’s CBD, she actually moved into a flat in the community. In Albert Park, art-deco style high rise flats and palm trees not unlike those in Miami can be found just a street away from dilapidated buildings with missing windows and flaking paint. Erwin shared with us both the challenges and the benefits of ethnography, or as she likes to call it, “hanging out”. This was based on her personal experience of hanging out with a street vendor, next to who she placed a chair and spent days with. While this provided the space and opportunity to talk to the people she encountered on the streets, it also meant that she could not record or take written notes of what was said.

Erwin admits that this kind of research has often been treated with suspicion by academics. There are sometimes no figures or statistics, no transcripts, nor formal interviews. So where are the facts? Where is the data? As Erwin explains, some questions can only be answered by being there and witnessing it. Like the woman who insisted that the strange noises at night in their Albert Park building were Nigerians being dragged out of the flats when in fact there were no Nigerians and as Erwin herself saw, it was just a bunch of slightly rowdy drunks on their way home. Participants are active, Erwin warns, and have the ability to change the way things are recorded by researchers depending on how they describe them.

Participant observation offers a more nuanced understanding of how things are and goes beyond the ‘what’. It is descriptive, explanatory, and insightful and answers the ‘why’ of your research question. Just by sitting on someone’s stoep or hanging out at a roadside food stall, one can get a better sense of what happens, how it happens and why. In their natural environment, people are perhaps at their most honest and raw.

Erwin offers some practical pointers to consider before embarking on ethnographic research. These include:

  • Considering how your props shape the conversation. Many people are intimidated by the presence of a notebook or recorder and it may be distracting, thus hindering the extent and the quality of the information offered. Erwin advises taking field notes as soon as one has a chance rather than jeopardizing a conversation with a recorder.
  • Realizing that while informed consent is highly emphasized in academic research, it may not always be possible to ask for if one’s conversation takes place casually in an elevator. It’s therefore important to acknowledge this in your methodology section.
  • Being careful of interpersonal relationships which may develop during the course of the research and may get messy. It’s important to then remember when talking to participants that you are merely a researcher, not a trained counselor or psychologist.
  • Remembering that building trust is important. Speak to someone three times, Erwin advises, and witness how the way they interact with you changes positively as they become more comfortable. She explains that giving gifts or helping out can assist your research, but it is important to also not create expectations that one cannot fulfill. Erwin also suggests finding key informants in the community whose trust you can earn and who will act as the gatekeepers to the community and the information you need.
  • Considering how your gender can influence your interactions and the way research participants respond to you.
  • Reminding yourself that while the research may draw from your own experience, it is not about the researcher, nor are your notes a personal diary.

Following Erwin’s pointers on ethnography, some of the student and staff researchers shared their experiences of research. Many seemed willing to adopt ethnographic research methods into their research plan, despite the scrutiny that it comes under. Hancu Louw, one of the current MA students found this particularly useful as journalistic and qualitative social science research methods could be combined, allowing him to take on the role of both researcher and journalist. According to Erwin, there is no such thing as a perfect or more valid method (those in the science faculty may disagree) and it is important to choose a methodology that answers your question. Be confident about your research, she advises.

What Dr Erwin gave us was not just a talk on ethnography, but a more nuanced understanding of how participant observation can answer questions which interviews or focus groups can’t.



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