By Inhabit Presenter Forrest Inslee
Sometimes really well-meaning people end up doing crazy things with the best intentions. How many stories do you know of a church plant or new small business, for example, that really got nowhere in terms of impacting the community for good? In many of these cases, the problem stems from the inability (or unwillingness) of the project initiator to properly understand the context. In other words, for whatever reason, they do not begin with a deep understanding of place.
But you know, anyone who cares can learn how to get this sort of understanding. An approach called ethnography offers tools for the would-be community developer, church planter, or neighborhood activist, to listen and learn before they decide what is best for a given people and place.
If you break that word down – ethno+graphy – you it literally translates to the practice of “writing culture.” Ethnography helps you to describe and interpret a community of people and their environment. And the ability to describe the complexities of culture presumes a capacity to read that culture in order to make any meaningful conclusions about it.
The modes and methods of ethnographic research equip us to discern the spirit of a place, to discover the capacities of a people, and to interpret the stories that express the hopes, fear, and dreams of a community.
Let me tell you a story of my own that might give you a sense of the potential usefulness of ethnographic research methods. As a church planter in Istanbul, I and my Western colleagues were committed to providing theological education for emerging church leaders – especially since the Protestant church in Turkey is a relatively new phenomenon. For many years we taught courses for an underground bible school in Istanbul, one that had been established by Western missionaries, and one that used a very Western seminary model. And it was the decidedly Western approach that made our efforts less than effective. All the signs pointed to contextual irrelevance.
In order to figure out the root causes of this problem, I decided to approach my teaching from an ethnographic perspective; I assumed the role of what qualitative researchers call a participant observer. In other words, while I was seeking to observing the context of Turkish theological education with some degree of objectivity, I was also experiencing that context first-hand, making note of multiple levels of detail, and seeking to discern meaning beneath the surface of all that was going on.
And what did I learn from this ethnographic approach? Among other things, I learned that Turkish believers were not really connecting to a Western style of teaching; many found our approach to teaching disengaging. In fact, the typically Western-seminary approach to the presentation of biblical content was far too abstracted and detached from the challenging realities of the Turkish church community.
In light of social challenges like this, an ethnographic perspective insists that any solution to the problem needs to be grounded in the perspectives of the problem stakeholders, and based in the capacities and resources that were already present in the community. It follows then that anyone who wants to be truly useful in a community must also be humble. In my case, as I worked with the Turkish Christians I had to stay humble enough to assume that, until I took the time to listen to their perspectives, I should never assume to know what the solution to the problem of Turkish theological education might be.
So I began to use ethnographic techniques of interviewing to try to discern the questions, the struggles, the joys, the hopes, and the potential resources that were represented in that community. Ethnography gave me interpretive methods to make sense of those conversations; in brief, I treated each transcript as a text, and interpreted them as I might a work of literature. And indeed, out of all of the interviews, definite themes emerged. And these themes then became the basis of creative alternative approaches to theological education – and ultimately the basis for a complete revision of our approach to theological education and training for the emerging Turkish church.
While I won’t include all those important lessons here, I’ll just signal a couple of them so you get the general idea:
- What I learned from practicing ethnography among the community members was that Turks learn best through arguing and wrestling with a topic, rather than being told what to think in a typical lecture style. Give them a hard theological question, or a biblical principle to apply in the real world, and after an hour or so of debating about it (and a little guidance from the “professor”), they’ll invariably end up with a few truths that are deeply relevant to their own contexts, and deeply internalized to their worldviews. And so this lesson derived from ethnographic data became a principle for changing the old approach: We started making courses look less like a formal Western classroom, with top down delivery of information, and more like an informal Turkish tea house where folks could debate themselves into understanding. And honestly, for both the students and the professors, it ended up being way more fun!
- What I also learned from ethnographic research among the Turkish Christians was that, as useful as bible and theology training might be, what was just as important was vocational skills training. It is a stark contextual reality that, in a predominantly Muslim country, one is likely to get fired for being a Christian. Church leaders in Turkey often have to find a way to support themselves and their families before they can think about leading a community of Christian believers. As a result of this discovery, my job as an educator and church planter in Turkey became a lot more diversified: Not only was I a teacher of bible and theology, but I was also tasked with building new social enterprises that could train and employ Turkish Christians in need of stable and lucrative work. Barista or English-teaching skills became just as important as grounding in Christian theology.
These are just two examples of the new understanding that ethnographic research gave me and my church-planting colleagues (Americans and Turks alike). And I share these examples in the hopes that you might see that the systematically-curious, positionally-humble stance that ethnography recommends can be engaged in any community, anywhere. Ethnographic skills are readily available to anyone! They are easy to learn, and really a lot of fun to employ. But most importantly, they are guaranteed to make us more effective, more impactful, more humble and sensitive, in our work with communities of people.
For a praxis-oriented course on place-based ethnography:
Ben Katt and I will be teaching a course in ethnography called “Reading Culture” at The Seattle School this summer.
For a good how-to book:
Merriam, Sharan B. and Elizabeth J. Tisdell. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.
For a compelling example of what ethnographic study looks like:
Holmes, Seth. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Oakland: U of California Press, 2013.