In the days before Google, I wrote a research paper about enlisting a marketing manager in an electronics company to collect ethnographic data about the sales process on my behalf. I described the technique as ethnography by proxy, thinking that I’d coined the term.
Fifteen years later, I revisited the idea of using ethnography by proxy when I enlisted parents to take photographs of their children as part of a project to explore everyday lives at home. On that occasion, an online search quickly revealed that Wallman and colleagues1 had originated the concept in 1980 in Ethnography by proxy: Strategies for research in the inner city.
A proxy is usually understood to mean the authority to represent somebody else. The legal origins of the word describe an agent or deputy and derive from the word ‘procurator’, an official of the Roman empire who carried out duties on behalf of the governor or emperor. The ethnographer’s role in actively collecting, filtering and interpreting data is seen as a foundational element of traditional ethnography: deputising, or standing in for, this role may therefore be seen as a step too far. Presence and ‘being there’, whether virtual or face-to-face, is typically considered to be a prerequisite. The process of delegating some of the ethnographer’s activities to participants in the research setting – ethnography by proxy – may therefore seem treacherous.
Wallman’s team used proxies as interviewers because they were knowledgeable about inner city Battersea and, as locals, more likely to ensure a good response rate. In my case, the electronics company’s reluctance to risk commercial confidentiality was my main motivation to find another person who could report on the conduct of sales meetings. For our study of children’s everyday lives, the key challenge was the difficulty of conducting extended observational research in the home, especially beyond working hours.
In a UK climate of research performativity and utility in which extended periods of fieldwork are rare, this transfer of research activity to others is no longer unusual. Certainly, funding for overseas research on global challenges may require ethnographic work to be delegated to local research assistants if the UK investigators are not familiar with the environment or indigenous languages. Limited availability of funds also means that it is unexceptional for principal investigators to focus on management of a project, delegating the work of resource-intensive primary data collection, whether in remote or local cultures, to lower cost researchers.
However, ethnography by proxy goes beyond collecting and recording ethnographic data to its interpretation. While the data they gathered was designed to be a supplement to other sources, the proxy ethnographers were experts in their own domain whether they were residents, the parents at home, or the manager in the sales meetings. The marketing manager was building on his existing powers of observation and his ability to interpret and analyse people’s actions in a sales context. The role of the parent-photographers was also an extension of their typical conduct: these days, it is more likely to be considered aberrant behaviour if parents do not use their mobile phone to take photographs of their child.
While purists may baulk at the prospect of yet another tenet of ethnography being dismantled, revisiting the notion of ethnography by proxy helps us to think anew about the desirability and feasibility of the academic researcher’s role as the lynchpin of the ethnographic endeavour. Ethnography by proxy may serve as a way of making ourselves more accountable to the data and our informants, as well as presenting a pragmatic solution to some of the challenges of conducting ethnography in current conditions.
Submitted by Lydia Plowman, University of Edinburgh on Thursday, 7th December 2017