Feminist Ethnography: Thinking through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities

Dána-Ain Davis and Christa Craven

Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, 195 pp.

Robin Valenzuela

Dána-Ain Davis and Christa Craven’s thoughtfully constructed textbook offers a comprehensive, student-centered introduction to feminist ethnography, including the history, trends, debates, methods, and epistemologies that constitute it. Drawing upon Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of “un choque,” Davis and Craven present salient tensions and contradictions within feminist thinking, positioning them as “the work of feminism” (2). As such, students are not only exposed to the multiple approaches that comprise feminist theory, praxis, and production, but are also challenged to contribute their own critical responses. To facilitate this, Davis and Craven supplement each chapter with three different elements: Spotlights, Essentials, and Thinking Through. While Spotlights profile a variety of contemporary ethnographers and their work, Essentials feature excerpts of canonical texts that have influenced feminist ethnography. In turn, Thinking Through activities—which range from small research projects to engagement in public scholarship—encourage students to move beyond the text and pursue feminist concepts in greater depth. For example, one activity asks students to research WikiProjects pertaining to feminism or gender studies and edit incomplete or low-quality articles. Activities such as this could serve as individual or collaborative assignments within an undergraduate class or proseminar. This adaptability constitutes one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Davis and Craven divide the book into eight chapters, the first of which offers a brief historicization of feminism’s “waves,” as well as an overview of ethnographic methods. For them, feminist ethnography can be characterized as a “feminist sensibility,” a “commitment to paying attention to marginality and power differentials,” and an aim to produce scholarship “in both traditional and experimental forms…that may contribute to movement building and/or be in the service of organizations, people, communities, and issues we study” (11). To illustrate this, they include Spotlights featuring ethnographers like Cheryl Rodriguez, Talisa Feliciano, Scott L. Morgensen, and Gayle Rubin. They also incorporate excerpts from works like the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, the Combahee River Collective Statement, and Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes Revisited.” The chapter concludes with a description of liberal, radical, cultural, Marxist, socialist, black, “Third World,” transnational, and postmodern feminism.

The second chapter continues to trace the historical trajectory of feminist ethnography, beginning with its earliest contributors. Davis and Craven credit women like Matilda Cox Stevenson, Alice Fletcher, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Daisy Bates as pioneers in the field, despite the lack of recognition they received from their male contemporaries. The chapter then presents a periodized account of feminist ethnography, highlighting key contributions and trajectories within the field. Here, Davis and Craven are attentive to the ways in which critical race and ethnic studies, intersectionality, and queer theory have informed the present moment. Excerpts from Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men, Esther Newton’s “Too Queer for College,” and Gina Peréz’s “Methodological Gifts” exemplify this.
Chapters three and five focus on the ethical challenges and debates emergent within feminist ethnography. In chapter three, Davis and Craven raise questions regarding the researcher’s relationship to their informants. Should the researcher be an “insider” or an “outsider”? What advantages or disadvantages are associated with each position? Given the inherent power dynamic between researcher and informant, can ethnography ever truly be feminist? Can activism or engagement mitigate power differentials? If so, to what extent should feminist ethnographers involve themselves in the sociopolitical struggles of their informants? Alongside these core dilemmas, Davis and Craven incorporate the voices of ethnographers like Judith Stacey, Shannon Speed, Sara Ahmed, and Lynn Bolles, who have outlined their own positions within these debates.

In a similar vein, chapter five notes the logistical and ethical issues associated with feminist ethnography, especially those concerning the global politics of mobility. As Davis and Craven explain, globalization has problematized single, “bounded communities” as the quintessential object of study. Consequently, feminist ethnographers must confront challenges associated with the temporal and spatial frames that structure their research. In addition, ethnographers must contend with shifting power differentials between researcher and informant. Citing the work of Laura Nader, Karen Ho, and others, Davis and Craven review attempts to “study up”—to focus less on marginalized communities and more on cultures of affluence (105). Here, students are prompted to consider the challenges that may arise when critiquing systems of power. Can ethnographers offer critical perspectives without being silenced or sued?

The remaining chapters examine various methods and forms of knowledge production associated with feminist ethnography. Davis and Craven highlight methods involving participatory action and political activism. They also emphasize the creative potential of feminist knowledge production through visual art, film, poetry, or fiction. For them, the future of feminist ethnography lies in its capacity to rethink and reshape existent paradigms, not only by elevating different voices, but by experimenting with new analytical, methodological, and epistemological tools. The book concludes by inspiring students to invent new processes, practices, and products that advance feminist politics.

Robin Valenzuela is a third-year PhD student in the Anthropology department at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her dissertation will explore the experiences of Mexican mothers undergoing transnational family separation and reunification cases between Mexico and the United States. In particular, she is interested in the connections between parenting, citizenship, securitization, and human rights.

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