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Another problem, and one with which this special issue is more closely aligned, is that the embodied carework of tinkering, repairing and tending to materials, upon which the formal politics of economic circularity depend, is only alluded to, at best, in contemporary formations of circular economy. The resulting tension can mean that this material carework is not recognized, even as discards are increasingly commodified.

The contributions of these laborers to social life and its political significance is lost—even while the value generated is appropriated. The accelerated interest in reuse, as circular economic ideologies are mainstreamed among policy makers, industry and citizens, deserves renewed attention at this moment when long-standing reuse and repair practices are increasingly being rationalized, formalized and institutionalized.

The contributors to this special issue engage with those who tinker, scavenge, save, buy used and give away to examine these practices in social context, lived experience and as embedded within larger political and economic structures of capitalist accumulation and abandonment. Our ethnographic approach, based on qualitative engagement, enables a rich examination of meaning and experience, but also leads us to question how these practices are linked to and arise from the conditions of modernity.

While the recent focus on circular economy certainly emerges from crises of overproduction, economic inefficiencies and growing concerns about climatic change and resource depletion—ethnographic engagements with waste, repair and reuse raise questions about the novelty and efficacy of the circular economy concept. From ethnographies featuring innovative reuse among resource-strapped communities Nguyen, and garbage pickers on the margins of Brazilian society Millar, to sanitary workers in New York City Nagle, , or among connoisseurs of thrift shops and vintage goods Appelgren and Bohlin, ; Isenhour, , these studies have long demonstrated the not-so-novel concept of informal circular economies in action.

This special issue builds upon our understanding of these practices, both old and new, not only as an expression of care for history, for the future, for others but also within the context of a rapidly transforming global resource landscape. We ask questions about how people who have long been practicing reuse come to understand their own engagement as well as their relations to larger political and economic structures—particularly as the logics and methods of circular economy gain momentum.

Before turning to a summary of the articles included in the special issue, we briefly review several themes and theoretical frames that link these contributions and the broader literature on repair and reuse—revaluation, resistance, care, relationality and reproduction.

Bibliographic Information

We follow this with a discussion of the global implications of reuse, for people on the margins and for all of us at this time in history. Where acts of reuse exist in capitalist economies, they stand out in marked contrast to the ordinary patterns of consumption and production. Vaughan and colleagues document how households engage in reuse of objects, like bottles, which they characterize as a form of resistance against supermarkets and part of identity construction As both note, acts of reuse take on a distinct form because they involve processes of revaluation; of renewed care and attention to material qualities and human enskilment.

As several contributors to this issue point out e. Berry, Hermann participation in reuse practices is often intended as a form of moral and consumptive restraint that runs counter the normative expectations of consumer culture Evans, Reuse, through this frame, provides a means of critique and resistance to wastefulness, hyper-materialism and excess Vaughan et al.

Those concerned with the social, economic and ecological implications of contemporary consumption norms have contributed to an array of alternatives enacted across scales, ranging from individuals shopping at yard sales or the organization of alternative networks among friends and family, to community-sponsored public sharing events e.

While these actions are often highly individualized, some scholars have argued that, in aggregate, they comprise a new form of environmental politics and an attempt to re-embed economic activities into social and moral logics Carrier and Luetchford, To characterize repair and reuse as a form of carework, means recognizing these activities as fundamentally ethical and not only material. Arguably, all consumers relate to the things they purchase with more or less care in the latter sense, in terms of their importance or value for the buyer and beyond.

Daniel Miller ethnographically illustrates how shopping practices in London often involve relationships of care for family members, as objects become integrated into daily life in the home see also Kopytoff, ; Sayer, ; Hudson, Mindful consumption, in this context, implies care not only for the ecological, but also the social consequences for marginalized and temporally distant peoples , and thus invokes a morally driven moderation of consumption behaviors.

Through participation in alternative markets, Albinson and Perera argue that buyers, sellers, fixers, scavengers, swapper and gifters hope to contribute to both social change and community well-being. To reuse may mean attending to objects in terms of what they are composed of and what else they can be made to accomplish, that is, shifting from being a mere consumer to being a producer.


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According to Vaughan et al. Beyond the boundaries of conventional use, repairing and reusing objects can pose risks and generate additional moral concerns and ethical challenges. In other words, care for things and people can work in concert, as with the repair of a family heirloom, or in opposition, as with electronic and electrical repair and reuse. When we claim that reuse and repair are not only material , this is in response to the fact that materiality, as normally conceived, is rather limiting, as if what matter is and what matters to people were utterly ontologically distinct.

Various posthumanist approaches have attempted to adjust for this limiting conception of matter and being. The approach most influential among contributions to this issue develop the idea of affect. Affect could be seen as the dialectical counterpoint to materiality, insofar as the former tends to suggest bodies and beings and the latter processes and things. What affect does, for the contributions to this issue, is suggest a level of relational connection between subjects and objects, so that remaking used up materials also means remaking the self.

In fact, affects are shaped by waste even when it is fundamentally non-relational, that is, when waste removal and disposal are focused on separating bodies from troublesome substances. Losing material is not only found in formal waste management, in this sense, but in people moving into a new house, managing belongings of relationships that have ended with the dead or with exes , or even weight loss Larsen, Reuse raises the possibility of developing such plasticity and vitality in unexpected directions, where people are affected by and affect the world around them through transformative relationships with waste.

Albinson and Perera argue that changing how people relate to consumption can become the basis for reforming life and relationships more broadly. In a different context, post-Oslo Agreement Palestine, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins has described a similar gift-like and moral quality to the widespread practice of leaving discarded bread out in common spaces for reuse.

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In all of these cases, there are ways that using and reusing offer affordances for becoming kinds of people and for shaping social relations far beyond consumer identities. Since waste practices extend social relations either way, reuse in however humble a form gives consumers more of a role in shaping the fate of discards, and thus shaping themselves.

These explorations of reuse as engagements of care, linking human and non-human worlds, certainly make it clear that reuse cannot be reduced to any sort of straightforward economic calculus. While not disputing the limited options of the urban poor, Millar draws our attention to the highly social forms of living made possible by the flexibility of working in a largely unregulated space, free of many of the constraints of formal wage labor.

Among the discarded, garbage pickers in Rio use materials to help construct alternative social and economic networks, more responsive to their needs. Despite the creative labor invested in the resurrection of value, it is also true that those who work with discards are often stigmatized for working with materials considered to be dangerous or dirty, rather than celebrated for their labor creating and redistributing value Erikson and Schober Contemporary economic logics, mirroring linear production-consumption-disposal systems, assign primary value to productive processes which are seen as the genesis of value Isenhour et al.

These logics simultaneously neglect consideration of value generated in other locations, including distribution and disposal. James Ferguson has recently argued that this economic logic proceeds even as a growing number of people are excluded from wage labor. Ethnographic engagements with the economy, however, have long provided insight into the value of distributive labor, which we understand is just as much about the movement as resources as it is the construction of moral Scott, , human Hart et al.

But perhaps the recent interest in circular economies marks a reconsideration of value in economic processes? Indeed, the ethnographic literature is well stocked with examples of increasingly rationalized and formalized practice at the end of the commodity chain. Indeed, with multiple crises of modernity e. And yet as these concerns for long-term sustainability refocus our attention on all sorts of value — thermodynamic, nutritive, and durable — we wonder how practices of salvage, saving, repairing and reuse, so long and usefully performed by the socially and economically marginal, are being appropriated as the practices and property of the environmentally-enlightened and economically affluent.


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Ta reminds us that discards have surplus value and that there is a significant potential for private profit associated with their capture and management. This special issue critically and productively engages with long-standing and emergent efforts to prevent waste through repair, care and reuse. While we did not seek out papers for this collection based on their geographical location, by sheer coincidence the contributions that made it into this issue incorporate research from one of two national settings: the United States and Sweden.

Accidental though this was, and despite its limited geographical and cultural scope, it does offer a suggestive contrast when it comes to waste management strategy, practice and policy. As Reno —4 argues, Sweden and the US offer counterexamples to one another in terms of their approach to mass waste discard.

When and How to Use Ethnographic Research

Sweden is also leading the world in landfill mining to recover usable resources that have been discarded. The US, by contrast, is deservedly infamous for its dependence on landfilling and reduced use of incineration. Other research suggests that Swedes also perceive that their environment, their air and water, is cleaner than American counterparts, so it is not only that there are explicit pledges to reduce landfilled waste, but citizens actually tend to believe, either that environmental protections are effective, or that pollution is minimal. Norway, Denmark and Sweden were so accomplished at recycling that by they had no need for landfill.

Just like Nordic prisons, the landfills are empty. Now Denmark even has hygge, a system for living that combines cosiness and chunky knits with sustainability, and an enviable design aesthetic. These contrasts between the US and Sweden are not fully explored here, as they are beyond the scope of this introduction or this special issue. That said, the articles included—two from Sweden and three from the United States—do provide an interesting focus on similarity and difference across space as well as conceptual and policy-based contexts.

Starting in Sweden, working collaboratively with people and materials in a re-design studio, Staffan Appelgren invites readers to consider the simultaneously social and material entanglements inherent in the practice of reusing materials. While the now dominant imagination of circular economy views resources through the lens of efficiency— subordinating them to the rational logics of productive processes—Appelgren and his colleagues in the design studio illustrate the necessity for redesigners to collaborate with and respond to the properties and traits of the materials at hand.

Introduction: Reuse & Repair in the Age of Ecological Crises and Circular Economy

This dialog between designer and materials pays respect to the properties of the objects as well as the energy already embodied within them as they extend and assign new value. But if we understand reuse, in part, as an expression of care for the meaning and materials embodied in goods, what happens when people decide to part with objects of affection?

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork tracing circuits of second-hand acquisition and divestment in Sweden, Anna Bohlin argues that the acts of caring for and letting go of objects are not necessarily contradictory.


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Drawing from decades of ethnographic research and participant observation at garage sales across the United States, Gretchen Herrmann builds on our understanding of objects in motion as she explores both reminiscence and recompense in second hand sales. While the economic benefits associated with the sale or purchase of second-hand goods is popularly understood, Herrmann argues that both buyers and sellers also derive recompense through the creation of a moral identity. Looking at this under-researched interstitial stage, between use and discard, the authors examine the surprising complexities associated with the categorization of waste.

By centering the oral histories of liminal electronic devices that are neither used nor discarded old iPads, gaming consoles, e-readers and cameras , McMullen and her colleagues counter representations of wasted objects as abject. Instead they argue that personal attachments to these obsolete electronics often prevent their disposal.

Some affective associations are so strong that participants intend to save these devices to share them with future generations — as historical artifacts of ancestry and relationality. Finally, Brieanne Berry, Jennifer Bonnet and Cindy Isenhour turn their attention to the northeastern US state of Maine where a vibrant culture of reuse has long been noted by historians, cultural commentators and tourists alike.

New fields of study, new kinds of questions, and new reasons for undertaking ethnographic studies have emerged, and with these, a form of ethnography known as "focused ethnography" has developed. While this type of ethnography is mentioned briefly in some qualitative methods texts and a small set of methodological articles, it remains methodologically underspecified, which has contributed to controversy about its character and value.

In order to apply ethnography effectively to an ever-evolving range of settings and purposes, it is helpful to consider specific examples of ethnographic research that push the boundaries of convention. My intent in this article is to describe my experiences with focused ethnography and demonstrate how particular research questions, the attributes of certain cultural groups, and the unique characteristics of specific researchers compel adaptations in ethnography that nevertheless preserve the essential nature of the method.

Ethnographies of Social Support

First, I will outline the origins of ethnography and explain some of the adaptations that have occurred with this method over time, including focused ethnography. Then, using the example of a focused ethnographic study I recently conducted, I will demonstrate how various aspects of culture such as beliefs, values, knowledge and skills, as well as power and control can be richly revealed using focused ethnography, despite its differences from traditional ethnography, making it an important part of the ethnographic toolkit for social research. It is characterized by. Ethnography has its origins in anthropology and the traditional ethnographic method has shaped our subsequent understandings and expectations about this method.

Over the years, ethnography has evolved from its origins to take on different characteristics based on ideological currents of a given time. Systematic ethnography, which emphasizes the structure of a culture more than descriptions of it, emerged in the s and s, in response to critiques that classical ethnography was too broad and unsystematic MUECKE, This form of ethnographic research was typified by step-by-step methodological approaches, schematic representations of cultural knowledge, ethnographic algorithms, and folk taxonomies ibid.

Eventually, ethnography took an interpretive turn to emphasize "the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers" GEERTZ, , p. This stream of ethnographic methodology focused on "best guesses" about cultural meanings, presented through "thick descriptions" of cultural contexts MUECKE, In response to concerns that existing forms of ethnography were essentialist and objectifying, critical ethnography emerged in recognition of the subjective, co-constructed and value-laden nature of research among cultural groups.

This form of ethnography is founded on a view of culture as relational, partial, unbounded, dynamic, and plural, which is contrary to earlier conceptions of culture as closed, isolated, uniform, and enduring AGAR, In traditional ethnography, the goal was description; the intent was not to critique cultural circumstances or design strategies for change MAYAN, Conversely, with critical ethnography, the intent was and is to include marginalized and contrary voices and reveal hidden agendas and power centers for emancipatory purposes MAYAN, ; MUECKE, These moments describe methodological creativity, interdisciplinary perspectives, reflexivity in representation, and shifts from positivist to postmodern thinking.

The later moments describe the opening of a space for experimental, values-based, and critical forms of ethnography and have brought with them corresponding adaptations in methodological strategies and forms of writing. In this time, we now see many new forms of ethnographic research such as visual ethnography, autoethnography, and institutional ethnography. Nevertheless, ideologies fluctuate and "scholars around the world have been busy inventing and reinventing The work of early ethnographers set in motion "successive waves of ethnographers in what has become an ever-widening circle of applications and adaptions" p.

One ethnographic adaption that has sparked discussion is focused ethnography. Focused ethnography is based on the premise that "we no longer need to travel to far-away places to study culture; nor is culture defined only along ethnic or geographical lines" MAYAN, , p. It has been used primarily in practice-based disciplines e.

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KIEN labels these types of ethnographic projects as "technographies," which are "truncated and shaped by the pragmatics of producing 'deliverables' within a tight schedule" in industry settings p. Examples of focused ethnographies in the social sciences are few. To the extent that focused ethnography is described in the methodological literature, it appears to differ from traditional ethnography in some key ways. Interviews, long-term participant observation, field notes, and document analysis are regarded as classic features of ethnography.

As well, questions emerge about the trustworthiness of the knowledge gained through focused ethnographies because they are relatively brief and limited in scope MUECKE, The image of ethnography continues to be shaped by classic anthropological ethnography. However, I concur with KNOBLAUCH's sociological description of the method and would reiterate that it is the focus on cultural understandings and descriptions that define ethnography, rather than the form and amount of data collection that occurs.