On Writing Ethnography ‘At Home’

Author: Kate Giunta, a PhD Candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. As suggested in this blog, her PhD covers the identity of queer femmes in Sydney’s Inner West.


“I can’t stop thinking about the way you wrote about my hugs”. Amber has released me from her embrace, but keeps her hands on my shoulders. I flush, forgetting that I had sent her an outline of my latest chapter, with excerpts from what I had written about her.

I wrote in that draft what I write now, that Amber always greets me with a deep hug. She holds me tight, long enough for us to both exhale and relax into the closeness between our bodies. This is how Amber greets most people, from lovers to acquaintances, that she encounters on any given day. To not receive such a greeting from Amber is a sign of a relationship on the rocks, something I witnessed only a few times during my fieldwork.

Today, however, Amber makes the rounds joyfully, enclosing new and old friends in her arms. We are at a bar in Sydney’s inner west on a sunny Sunday afternoon to catch up, gossip and generally while away the last moments of our weekend.

I ‘left’ the field about a year ago and am grateful to have maintained and deepened my relationships with many of the queer femme Sydneysiders who I have based my PhD research on. I say that I ‘left’ the field because my field, the queer scenes of Sydney, is also my home.

I am a queer femme studying queer femmes. And I am one of a growing number of ‘insider anthropologists’ who study our own communities for reasons ranging from the political to the financial. I remember being happy to close out my fieldwork, thinking that I would be able to begin to shift my relationship with my femme friends away from the categories of researcher and researched.

The writer and the written-about

My friends know that I am writing about them, but they do not know how I will do so. They do not know if I will be able to capture the nuances of their gender identities, if I will take their words and actions out of context or expose their secrets, shared after whispers of “this can’t go in your study, okay?”

KateblogThey do not know if I will be able to make you, the reader, who may never have met a queer femme before, understand how their way of being-in-the-world is continually becoming different to yours (and mine).  I carry the responsibility, the weight, of their trust every time I sit down to write. While I try and leave this weight at my desk, it follows me into the parties and lounge rooms and kitchens where we share in each other’s lives.

Since I returned to the university to write, we formally stopped being anthropologist and participants, yet as my femme friends increasingly become part of my circle of intimates, we are also becoming writer and written-about.

Writing ethnography, distilling the dynamism and contradiction of everyday life into words on a page, often feels like a violence. We must take that which is fluid and fix it in print, and in time. And this feels like a violation, especially when every day I see how the femmes I worked with carry on living lives of contradiction, mess and change.

Try as I might I cannot write in isolation from the social worlds that continue to take shape around me. My femme friends won’t let me. I once arrived at a party to find a group of them, sitting together and calling each other by the pseudonyms I had assigned them for a conference paper I was about to give. My indignation (“the whole point of a pseudonym is to keep you anonymous!” I had teased, “Now everyone knows who you are!”) was met with warm laughter.

An anxious observer

Over a midweek dinner at Amber’s place, I interrupt our usual easy flow of conversation to initiate a conversation with her about what I am writing. I blush and stumble over my words to ask, “um, so I’m writing about you at the moment, is it, its – can we talk about that?” Amber responds calmly to my fluster and invites me to tell her what I am working on. I am surprised that she does not fold her arms or cross her legs but continues to smile at me as if we are still talking about party outfits or our friend’s dating lives.

It seems that I am the one who wants to curl into myself, feeling vulnerable for talking about analysis that is still in its early stages, and fearful that Amber will feel objectified or taken advantage of in my writing and argument.

Writing as methodology 

These awkward encounters, my own discomfort and the novel relationships that these produce are all part of writing ethnography at home. We talk a lot about conducting ethnographic research at home in Anthropology. We ask if researchers can ever truly be at home in the field, and argue over whether ethnographers ever truly leave the field. But we don’t talk much about writing at home, and I think that it is a valuable conversation to have.

Turning my ethnographic attention to writing at home has enabled me to develop greater insights into my positionality as a researcher, my ethical commitments and my expectations of what I can achieve with my thesis. In this way, I see writing as part of my methodology. I am just as much an ethnographer at home as I am a writer of ethnography at home, and both are equally important to my research process.


Recommended Reading

Abu-Lughod, L. 1991. ‘Writing Against Culture’. In Recapturing Anthropology in the Present. Edited by Richard G Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. Pp. 466-479.

Narayan, K., 1993, ‘How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?’, American Anthropologist, vol.95, no.3., pp.671-686.


[image by Brent Gorwin at Upsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/rfqaMzumGQQ%5D 

One thought on “On Writing Ethnography ‘At Home’

  1. Love this – as one of the ‘written about’! And as a person who has made films with and about my own communities. Xo ‘femme rising butch’ in the suburbs

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