Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on September 10, 2014

I’m reflecting on the arrival of my first batch of books for this semester.  That happy little brown box with the smiley symbol emblazoned across the front always brings me joy when it arrives and in this case, the joy was a little more pronounced than usual.  It was also accompanied by another sensation I hadn’t felt in quite a while.  I was giddy.  Yes, giddy.  I have three daughters so believe me when I say that I know giddiness when I see it and I had it!  This little brown box contained not only printed words bound together on pages, it represented something much larger and more significant for me.

The contents of that box symbolized my significance, worth exponentially more than the actual cost of the volumes.  These books meant that I had been accepted into an elite community of scholars, world-changers, intellectual giants, and I was ready to walk tall among them.  This was doctoral work after all.  And only a very small percentage of the population will ever engage in this pursuit.  I was giddy.  My wife was standing nearby when the package arrived so, of course, I casually mentioned, “oh look, my first books are here.”

Tina (in customary, supportive Tina style) exclaimed: “Yay!  Open it up, let’s see!”  So I, ever so calmly, opened the package, ready to revel in the high-minded volumes contained therein.  It was a glorious moment!  I, standing in all my academic splendor, with my adoring wife of 23 years by my side, ready to take on whatever challenges may come… Glorious.  Upon seeing the first two titles, Tina said something like, “what’s ethnography?  You have two books on the subject, it must be important.”  In that moment, my giddiness turned to stone cold anxiety over the possibility of being found out, exposed for the fraud I was when I had to answer honestly… “I don’t know.”  In that moment, “I don’t know,” the hardest three words for an aspiring intellectual giant to utter, became a readily available catch phrase for me.  I Don’t Know.  Sigh…

I didn’t know what ethnography was prior to entrance into this program.  Sure, I could piece together a working definition that would approximate the meaning simply based on what little I know about etymology, but I had never engaged in any meaningful discourse relative to ethnography let alone its sub-disciplines of visual-ethnography and sensory-ethnography.  “Maybe I don’t know as much about stuff as I think I do” was the revelation I arrived at pretty quickly.  Then I opened the book Doing Visual Ethnography and my brain began to implode.  After reading it (AUTHOR’S NOTE.  I, like an idiot, began reading my books before I saw the order prescribed by our program leader.  So by the time we got to the Bayard text, I had already completed Pink!  Man, now that’s some great timing, right?) I can say that I do now know what ethnography is (sort of) and I’m actually looking forward to engaging in some of my own as we move through this term.

Ethnography, as best I can understand it, is the close study of a culture by the ethnographer who is imbedded in that culture to the greatest degree possible.  By living wth, moving among, interacting with, the people and space of the culture, she comes to know it in ways that cannot be effectively known by clinical, third-party observation.  I get it.  Where I get a little fuzzy on the whole thing is how can the ethnographer truly study a culture in its most natural state if he is principally impacting said culture by virtue of his presence in it? Especially if the ethnographer is running around everywhere, aiming a camera at the actual members of the culture, the people that actually belong there.  Can we expect them to act normal under those circumstances?

It seems that the goal of ethnography is not merely to report an understanding of a culture based on observation but rather, to engage in “the production and representation of ethnographic knowledge.”1  It seems, in fact, to be expected practice for the ethnographer to manipulate and dictate circumstances which could lead to a preferred outcome upon which he can then report.  The reporter ceases to report the news and begins creating it.  This is an important consideration for me to reflect upon when the time comes for my own ethnographic research to be undertaken.  I’m hoping that I won’t fall prey to the ever-present, human tendency toward manipulation and insert my own spin on otherwise legitimate research.  I’m keenly aware that, much like data and statistics, images can be easily interpreted to prove the points of two, diametrically opposed combatants in any argument.  And if I’m not careful, I can be as manipulative as the next guy!  Among my many inadequacies, self-awareness is not one!

And I’m still a little giddy too.



1. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London: Sage, 2007), 23.

About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

8 responses to “GIDDY”

  1. Mary Pandiani says:

    Getting to know one another through the words expressed on a page is quite entertaining, especially as I see the exuberance and joy in your words, Jon. I can almost see you and your wife opening the box together 🙂 And I’m with you, when I first saw the word “ethnography,” I felt like I was in a brain fog. They (the US department of “they”) have another branch of science called ethnography, really?!!

    So now that I’ve wrestled with the word a bit more, I have a question for you with regard to the statement: “manipulate and dictate circumstances.” If we’re honest, don’t we all see things a certain way – the beauty and bane of being a human – even if we are trying to be as objective as possible? We all come at whatever we’re researching with a certain perspective. Pink is simply calling it out, from what I can see. I think of Margaret Mead in the jungles studying gorillas. She was trying to observe them in their natural habitat, but by her presence, she was actually altering, maybe even “manipulating and dictating circumstances.” (by the way, I’m not suggesting we’re all gorillas….or maybe?!!!).
    Just thinking out loud.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I agree Mary, the challenge of any researcher in any research environment is to be able to capture as authentic a look at the research subjects as possible. I think ethnography (as best as I can wrap my head around it anyway…) may very well be one of the best methods since it is incarnational. I think I prefer a more stealthy approach than dragging around photo and video gear… To the degree that we are willing to be honest about our own tendencies as researchers (mine to manipulate outcomes to give an appearance that is in alignment with my biases), we will generate useable information. Self-awarenes is vital if we are going to be effective I think…

      • Nick Martineau says:

        “Self-awareness is vital if we are going to be effective I think…” This is such a good point Jon. Self-awareness is crucial when entering any culture different from our own, particularly when conducting research. But don’t you find that most people lack self-awareness? I was in Uganda once with an older preacher that kept referencing Greek in his sermons. He was totally oblivious to his audience and unfortunately wasn’t very effective.

  2. Dave Young says:

    I would thought that it was the researcher’s goal to stay objective and detached from the culture one is studying. That would be my assumption going into reading Pinks’ book; but in it we find many examples of her getting close to the participants in the study, of her becoming part of the study. If I recall properly, because as we know we’re in the process of forgetting what we’ve read, before the shift out of modernity in the 80s and earlier that ethnography was much more ridged, more like a controlled experiment. But today it seems like “journeying with”, learning on the way instead of detached study. My guess is both have value, but I’m all for the journey – seems more exciting.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Dave, I am finding that I connect with the ethnographic approach to research simply because I am a holistic thinker but prior to these reading selections, my view of research was much more clinical. As a result, I didn’t much care for research… but I LOVE a good conversation! I am trying to see the connections between the two, that a good conversation can be research and connection at the same time. I agree with you that there is value in both.


  4. Brian Yost says:

    You bring out a great point about the ethnographer impacting the culture by his/her very presence. “Especially if the ethnographer is running around everywhere, aiming a camera at the actual members of the culture, the people that actually belong there. Can we expect them to act normal under those circumstances?”

    People change their behavior when they know they are being photographed. My wife likes to photograph children from a distance (not is a creepy way) because see wants to capture a more natural photo. I have been guilty of using telephoto lenses to capture images of people acting naturally. After reading Pink, I have to question the ethics of this. Are we left with the choice of ethics verses unnatural representation?

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    Don’t feel bad Jon, I could not wait to find out what ethnography was. I kept reading until i got a grasp of it and still have to read the next book to tie it all together. You can remain “giddy” the book just gave you a small glitch. Laughing!!!! Blessings!

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