With one of the biggest elections in history comes the prime opportunity for professor Debra Spitulnik’s anthropology class to put their ethnographic writing skills to the test.
As the election reaches its peak today, Spitulnik’s students have been lingering around the Dobbs University Center, Asbury Circle and various campus events to listen in on students’ conversations and tune in to their behaviors as they discuss politics.
The assignment requires students to observe several aspects of behavior in those engaged in political discussion and other similar activities, like watching the debates on television. Spitulnik asks her students to examine the etiquette in these types of surroundings, how people engage or choose not to engage in political discussions, and to note the differences in how the election is approached between foreign cultures and American cultures.
In order to conduct these studies, Spitulnik wrote, these students act as observers, hold interviews, and even participate in the situations they study.
“Most cultural anthropologists use a variety of methods within a single project and the methods supplement each other,” Spitulnik wrote, explaining the importance of students looking at their subject from more than one angle. “We look for the unspoken norms that guide interaction, we look at what is not happening as well as what is happening, we try to tease out the subtle ways in which culturally specific meanings are expressed and produced.”
In the past, Spitulnik’s students have chosen their own projects, which have included field locations such as Emory’s emergency room, family life and Starbucks. This year however, Spitulnik has chosen to limit students to the election because it is a subject that encompasses a great population at various locations and because she feels it is “a topic broad enough so that everyone can carve out something different for their own project.”
“There are endless facets of this process that merit ethnographic documentation and examination,” Spitulnik wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
. “The students are seeing up close as both researchers and as newcomers to the election process just what is at stake in elections.”
Not only does the election this year provide anthropology majors a chance to build their skills in ethnography, Spitulnik wrote that the elections are showing them “what kinds of personal, political, and social investments people make as they live their lives as ‘Americans.’”
College senior Sarika Kasaraneni is focusing on politics in the community.
“I would like to investigate student/community political activism both on Emory’s campus and within its surrounding community. Through my research, I hope to gain an understanding of the values driving collective involvement in the political campaign,” Kasaraneni wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
Kasaraneni is observing students and adults involved in the Obama campaign both on and off campus and is both hanging back as an observer and getting involved in campaign efforts.
“I have attended Emory Students for Barack Obama (ESFBO) General Body meetings, as well as participated in ESFBO’s on-campus voter registration efforts,” Kasaraneni wrote. “I would like to expand my field site to the DeKalb County Campaign for Change Field Offices.”
Spitulnik wrote that this project will give her students a deeper understanding of anthropology and be another step in teaching them how to be ethnographers, as well as help them learn more about the world around them.
“They are learning more about their own culture: They are grasping more concretely what it means to live here, and not in some other part of the world,” Spitulnik wrote.
— Contact Alice Chen.