Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 5
"He's Not a Spy; He's One of Us"
Ethnographic Positioning in a Middle-Class Setting

Martin Forsey

One friendly critic of our discipline has defined an anthropologist as
a person who respects every culture-pattern but his own.

—Herskovits (1977:37)

Ravina High, the Western Australian government secondary school where I conducted ethnographic research during the 1998 and 1999 school years, erupted into serious conflict toward the middle of my fieldwork there. Throughout the course of my research after this situation arose, I was committed to documenting as many different perspectives on this breakdown of relations between staff and management as possible. This approach created a number of difficulties and significant challenges, particularly when it came to comprehending the views put forward by the school leader, the Principal of Ravina High.

An incident following a feisty union meeting is etched firmly in my mind. The meeting was marked by angry responses on the part of the school staff to attempted reforms to the workplace emanating from the principal's office. Afterward, I joined some of the teachers for lunch in the staff room. As I moved toward a vacant chair, one of them asked me what it felt like to be a spy at a union meeting. It was a perplexing question. Naturally enough I was uncomfortable about being positioned as a spy, and unsure of how to respond. A friend of the questioner, who by this point was also a friend of mine, seemed to sense my discomfort. She came to my assistance, exclaiming, "He's not a spy; he's one of us."

I very much enjoyed my fieldwork experience at Ravina High. I reveled in my interaction with students during the various classroom activities I sat in on. I delighted in the many conversations I had with teachers and school administrators in the staff room and corridors of the school, over

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