Integrated Ethnography: A Short Note

by Stan BH Tan-Tangbau & Cecilia SY Koh-Tangbau

inthefieldsafterclass introduced the term integrated ethnography in The Jahtawng Htu of Tangbau Seng Ing, a video entry contribution by Cecilia SY Koh-Tangbau. It is easy to think that integrated ethnography is just another fancy term in place of mini-documentary or video ethnography from the initial impression one might gain from this entry; and it will not be wrong to think so. But we like to think of it as more. Besides, that entry was merely just a trailer of what is to come.

Feel that Ethnographic Moment

At the most superficial level, we are trying to experiment how putting together an ethnographic record of an event – in this case, Jahtawng Htu among the Kachin – for a complete E-Reading experience would look like. At the present year of 2012, a complete E-Reading format must essentially integrate Text, Images, Videos, and Sounds as a singular experience. It becomes a singular experience only because even the most beautiful prose, as Stan puts it in 稻草園,

cannot replicate the colors of a Van Gogh or re-live the liberation of a Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker moment. [1]

If the descriptive element in ethnographic narrative paints the landscape, zooms-in on the little gestures and expressions of the ethnographed, brings out the aura or quotidian of the ethnographed during that ethnographic moment, and simultaneously reveals the angle of the ethnographer, then there is no reason to privilege writing as the only medium of performing these tasks. Through the integration of Text, Images, Videos, and Sounds, we hope the reader could feel that ethnographic moment. A lingering question then is, what role does writing perform in this integrated product? Unfortunately, for now, we do not quite have the answer to this question.


Poly-vocality was restrained and orchestrated in traditional ethnographies by giving to one voice a pervasive authorial function and to others the role of sources, “informants,” to be quoted or paraphrased. [2]

From lengthy extracts of conversations to lengthy transcriptions of chants, speeches, verses in ethnographic moments, ethnographers have attempted to bring in voices of the ethnographed. But all too often the text simply comes together too well packaged, or in James Clifford’s word, “orchestrated,” through the voice of the ethnographer. Put simply, the ethnographed seldom writes, that is the job of the ethnographer, who observes and records, and filters through the data then writes. But the ethnographed speaks, sings, acts, performs, cooks, etc…; some write. The traditional/conventional writing of ethnographic text acts as the most exclusive gate-keeper against poly-vocality. It is on the basis of this that Clifford encourages us to read that ensemble of expanded texts (including the ethnographic monograph) that recorded the making of that ethnography, documented accounts by the informants, etc., in order to develop a more critical, varied, and multi-textured account of that captured moment of the ethnographic subject “in its history.” [3]

We ask if it is possible to include these different voices in one singular ethnographic product? Can integrated ethnography take on this responsibility? Or does it only serve to enhance the “pervasive authorial function” of traditional ethnographic text? Unless it is a carefully choreographed documentary, any home movie style multi-media record literally captures “as it is.” You cannot hide the their voices in a raw video record. As our transcriber puts it when he was processing the video clips,

Some interviewed file are not so clear because background noise and some people are talking at the same time [sic].[4]

Short of actually writing out their testimonies, the multi-voices and expressions of the ethnographed can come alive in integrated ethnography only because we can tell stories in different forms and mediums.

The Ethnographed becomes the Ethnographer?

If integrated ethnography seeks to bring alive the voices of the ethnographed, it is also possible to consider that at the very interface of consumption, the ethnographed simultaneously also performs the role of the ethnographer through his/her very own ‘voice.’ We detect a certain measure of empowerment in two ways here. One, as already discussed above, the multi-voices of the ethnographed can clearly be heard just the way they are. Two, the ‘ethnographed’ subjects are brought into the very act of knowledge production. This is no mere act of bringing students to carry out field studies or inviting the very subject of study, e.g. the peasant, the engineer, the official, into the classroom. It becomes a collaborative piece of knowledge production. Indeed, why leave them at the gate of the guild of knowledge production (read academia) since we already recognize that they are more than mere informants?

Jahtawng Htu Credits

In integrated ethnography, it will be difficult to trace “authorship” to one particular person or two. You will notice that the trailer for The Jahtawng Htu of Tangbau Seng Ing ends with a movie style credit template that carries the names of many different people who made the ceremony possible and the recorded materials available.[5] At best, we can credit those who put the final product together as a “compiler” or a ‘put-together person.’ There is really no need to privilege our own name as ‘author’ for the sake of academic credits… And in the first place, the clips and photographs used in this integrated ethnography were not collected for some academic research purpose but for our own fond recollections. The Kachin community organized this ceremony to bless our daughter with a Kachin name; we were the key protagonists in the ceremony; and our friends were there to witness the event. There was little of professional ethnographic moment involved in the record of the event. Ordinary memories inscribed through sounds and visuals can, however, help us to better understand the varying geographical and historical contexts of professional ethnographic records when put together as a collaborative product of ethnographic knowledge.

Still the Question of Authorship

Ultimately, someone puts together this final product that we call integrated ethnography. Is not this person therefore the “author?” Does this person not exercise some vision, editorial rights, directorial concept of how the final product should look like? We admit that this is unavoidable, not even when exercising these prerogatives in the most parsimonious fashion. Perhaps three fundamental features of integrated ethnography could help to alleviate the problem of a “pervasive authorship.” First, it should be noted that “author/authors” are not working with notes, materials, and data generated by themselves per se. Instead, integrated ethnography calls use of materials that are auto-generated by participants and not specifically for “research oriented ethnography.” Second, the multiple imaginations or diverse gaze of auto-generated materials means that it is really difficult to pull everything together into one cohesively packaged piece of ethnography. The nature of these materials naturally leads to a jagged-edged and even disjointed product. Third, integrated ethnography is comprised of sound, visual, and text. You cannot weave these different genres of materials from such diverse backgrounds into one coherent product through the pen alone. And this is no scripted movie with a tailor-made fitted soundtrack and a paced dialogue. It is a cacophony of sounds and a patched-work of almost irrelevant clips. In this sense, in spite of its more elaborate composition and technology, integrated ethnography is a more modest knowledge product than its more esteemed relative.


[1] Stan BH Tan-Tangbau, ‘稻草園’in inthefieldsafterclass, u.r.l., retrieved 23 July 2012.

[2] James Clifford, ‘Introduction’ in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography edited by James Clifford & George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p 15.

[3] Ibid, p 16.

[4] Email correspondence with project research collaborator.

[5] Yes, it is part of the Apple iMovie Trailer template, but serendipity quite often opens a new door for us that we might never otherwise consider!

About these ads

~ by Stan B-H Tan Tangbau on July 23, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: