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Being Intercultural Through Text: Reading as a Text Ethnographer

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    An ethnographer looks at cultural differences from both an inside and an outside perspective. Taking an inside (emic) perspective is trying to see the world as the ‘other’ experiences it, i.e. ‘trying to stand in the shoes of the other’ through being as much part of the experience as possible, by talking to people and being a participant-observer. Of course an ethnographer can never completely understand the inside perspective; it can only ever be an interpretation. At the same time, ethnographers try and take an outside (etic) perspective by trying to be aware of their own assumptions which influence their interpretation of what they see. This is the outside perspective, ‘making the familiar strange’ through creating ‘thick descriptions’.

    I consider the text ethnographer to go through similar processes in reading a text. An inside perspective of text cannot be the same raw everyday experience of the ethnographic observation or interview. The text is itself already a mediated artefact of the social and cultural world. However, by reading a text from an inside perspective, the text ethnographer is not so much trying to understand the writer of the text, but the environment the writer is describing in real life. This means the reader tries to understand the content of the text in relation to the wider cultural environment to which the writer wittingly or unwittingly refers. But, importantly, the reader can only understand the content and context in relation to her own experiences. So trying to understand the text from an inside perspective, i.e. trying to understand what the text might mean for the audience for whom it is intended, the reader will have to make use of her own experiences. These experiences could be those of empathy with the ideas or participants in the text, or these experiences could be brought to bear in relating and exploring the ideas and descriptions in the text against the reader’s own reality. This is an ‘engaging with’. It is not quite the same as the ‘languaging’ concept from Phipps and Gonzalez, because it does not involve ‘real’ face-to-face engagement in the language, but taking an emic perspective as a text ethnographer, can, I believe, be an engagement with otherness and relating it to oneself. Even if it is not a ‘raw’ ethnography in its experiential form, it is an intellectual engagement through relating the text to one’s own experience and ideas and making it ‘real’. In the classes which I used for data collection, there were some almost ‘raw’ experiences as students' emotions become part of the very personal responses to that text, as I will show in Chapter 5 in relation to a particular instance.

    But the inside perspective needs to be accompanied by an outside perspective, i.e. reflecting on the taken-for-granted interpretations the reader makes herself. By being reflexive about his or her own interpretation, the reader engages in a process which queries the taken-for-granted realities and interpretations which reflect his or her own assumptions which are part and parcel of his/her ethnocentricity.

    Again, the outside perspective I am describing is not quite the same as an etic perspective, as it does not involve making ‘thick descriptions’, but it can be a way of ‘making the familiar strange’.

    This page titled Being Intercultural Through Text: Reading as a Text Ethnographer is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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