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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, June 15, 2008

reporting and reportage

a couple weeks ago, NPR was running several reports on Karachi, Pakistan. it's part of their Urban Frontiers series looking at growing cities around the world. hearing the reports throughout the week gave the listener (or at least this listener) the interesting impression of gaining some understanding of urban Pakistani culture. various segments described demand for housing leading to illegal building projects, which then necessitated the bribing of government officials to get "protection" for such projects; or how inconsistent infrastructure meant that, for that same illegal housing, builders needed to throw hooks into powerlines and "steal" electricity; or how racial and ethnic violence nearly resulted in the death of an ambulance driver whose skin didn't seem to be quite the right color.

for a moment, I felt like this NPR reporter was doing a service to his listeners, allowing them to glimpse a culture beyond, and likely very different from, those with which they are familiar. however, upon further consideration, I came to the conclusion that the reports were doing almost as much of a disservice, not only to the listeners but to the Pakistanis on whom were being reported. the events and circumstances of Karachi were depicted not from the perspective of a citizen, but from the perspective of an American reporter. listeners were seeing the culture, but it didn't seem as if any attempt were being made to foster an understanding of the culture.

I couldn't help comparing these reports with ethnography, done both well and poorly (both being variously common in my field). an important aspect of ethnography is that the ethnographer presents a culture in its own terms, from the perspective of a member of the culture. the purpose is to portray the subjective, lived experience of what it is like to be a member of a culture. contrast this with portraying a culture from an external perspective, applying analytic categories and distinctions to a culture that might not exist in the culture itself. a classic example is that of studying Micronesian navigation. when trying to do so from a western navigational framework that posits a birds-eye view, the Islanders' techniques seem inadequate, at best, to get them from one island to the next. however, if one adopts an ego-centric (or boat-centric) view, rather than the more objective-seeming birds-eye view, the Micronesian navigation system not only makes sense but works strikingly well. this difference in perspectives is sometimes referred to as the etic/emic distinction, that is, viewing a culture on an observer's terms from an external (etic) perspective vs viewing the culture on its own terms from a member's (emic) perspective.

upon reflection, it seemed that the NPR reports on Karachi had an etic perspective that gave the appearance of an emic one. what does it mean to those people who are laying the hooks to be garnering electricity from the city's powerlines? is it stealing (a category that a western reporter might apply to such an activity) or do they conceptualize it differently (perhaps with a category of activity for which a western reporter might have no analog)? on the one hand, this choice of perspective isn't wholly bad; it's journalism, after all, not cultural anthropology. however, I worry that we (as a society) might grow to accept this type of reporting as providing a sufficient understanding of a culture, an understanding from our external perspective rather than from the culture's own internal perspective. I'm not arguing that ethnography is a veridical representation of reality; ethnography is a form of reportage, and inevitably in that process of reportage is the reporter. however, there is a certain sensibility in that reportage that I did not find in the aforementioned NPR series. just as Paul notes, a whole bunch of things have sprung up in HCI that attempt to follow ethnography's methods but not its methodology. I worry that something similar might be happening in this form of journalism, and I wonder what some of the implications might be in terms of understanding and appreciating cultures (both others' and our own).

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