By Sally Campbell Galman

ETHNOGRAPHIC FOUNDATIONS AND PROCESS WORK

My work as an artist and ethnographer is rooted in “redirecting conversations about social phenomena by enabling others to vicariously experience the world” (Barone and Eisner 2012, 20). As most of my work is in cartoon form, this work seems to always encounter delegitimizing discourses; comics have found acceptance to some degree in popular culture and even in educational contexts, but are still only marginally acceptable in social science research. Gustavo Fischman (2001, 28) writes that this is partly because “images and visual culture are not accepted forms of scholarly transmission,” and our attempts at integrating it can create a slough of epistemological, methodological, and general despond. Fischman further cautions us that the introduction of visual culture can be a truly wondrous thing to behold, as long as it is done mindfully and not “reduced to the repetition of the same questions and approaches that flaunt eye-catching illustrations whose only object is to help in the marketing of a research project” (32). Art should make things more complex, not less.

I was conducting fieldwork before and during the 2016 US election cycle. Watching study participants—young transgender and gender-creative children—struggle during the campaign and then reel in fear after the election was horribly painful. My disciplinary training as an anthropologist did not prepare me for navigating this terrain, so I turned instead to my training as a visual artist to understand, without simplifying, the rapidly changing affective context and safety reality. The comic I created, which ran in Anthropology News in April 2017, represented a new “turn” in my arts-based work: moving from my established instructive comics to what I now call “process work.” This was a little bit scary as I was writing something that wasn’t cute or funny for the first time, but vulnerability is part-and-parcel of the artist’s life, and often of the ethnographer’s.

I define process work as using the arts (in my case, comics) to grapple with uncomfortable data and fieldwork experience while resisting the urge to reduce complexity or normalize experience; it expands upon the traditional research memo by employing the inherently iterative process of moving a piece of comic art from the initial pencil sketches through to the final inked panels and beyond. In the story I am about to tell, this involved physically layering story upon story such that no part was erased but some parts were rewritten or obscured and allowed others to be revealed. At its most basic, process work employs artistic process as a way to address a difficult contextual process. The stark empirical account of exactly what happened is there, but so too are the other stories that take into account individual meaning-making and fears, as well as the stories of what might have happened, what we wish could have happened, and what may happen in the future.

THE BRICK: WILL’S STORY IN THREE ACTS

After the experience of publishing Research in Pain, I felt like I had the tools to engage with some of the most disturbing participant experiences in my data. There was a lot of it, but I wanted to start with story of The Brick, which had been told to me by eight-year-old Will,[1] who is a transgender third-grader living in the United States. This story was, as I said earlier, uncomfortable data about jarring phenomena. Will and I wanted to tell the story of what actually happened, but we wanted to tell more than just that. So what we have is a story in three acts: The True, The Truer, and the More Than True. It is in the last act that we slay dragons.

Will told me the story of The Brick last March. I asked him to tell me the story, then tell me how the story was “in his head,” and then tell the story how he would tell it if he were the author writing a book, in control of the plot and the possibilities. Will told his stories, and I drew the pictures of the story and his words, and checked them with him as we moved from draft to draft and back again. Interestingly, Will didn’t ask what I was going to do with the story. It was fine that the story just was. However, I did ask for specific permission and he has agreed for me to share it in this context.

So here is the story of The Brick, told in three overlapping and iterative acts. A dynamic story, it can be read forward or backward. I encourage you to read it aloud to yourself as you go.


This is process work—meaning it is not necessarily product work. The value is in the process of making it, feeling it, and ending in a messy place of something that is true, but also more-than-true. Will and I both felt healed by this retelling and the temporality of process work.

I believe that there are many different ways of doing robust scholarly work that may, like process work, not quite fit with journals’ “instructions for authors” or many university and college tenure and promotion criteria. I am determined to find a place for process in a world that values only productivity. The twin mythologies of finality and productivity truncate process and reify mirrors rather than icons.

That said, process work is also about pursuing liberation via new research dissemination possibilities and, in the words of the 2014 AAA annual meeting, reaching diverse new publics. Maybe the problem is not, then, the square peg, but rather the relentlessly round holes that were made for us by people and things that came before.

CONCLUSIONS AND FROGS

In conclusion, I would like to add that this work is not a passive process but rather a rending of those round holes. As Brecht wrote, “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”[2] I have started to keep a hammer and a brick on my desk to—as Will would say—remind me of both the tools of action and the cost of allowing dust to gather upon them.

And, because I like stories, I will conclude by telling just one more: There is a story from the American South about two frogs that fall into a milking can. As they struggle to stay afloat in the milk, unable to jump out of the liquid, they see that the slick sides make it impossible to climb high enough to pass through the narrow entrance at the top. There is literally no way out. One frog sees the hopelessness and says, “Well, we’re going to drown,” stops swimming, and promptly drowns. The other frog, despite the obvious futility of continued swimming, keeps on kicking and swimming and trying to stay afloat and in doing so churns the milk to butter. She then climbs atop a floating slab and jumps out of the can. I have been told by publishers, editors, and even colleagues that cartoons are silly and not real scholarship and not fundable and that they take too long and are too expensive to produce. The world is on fire, with bricks being thrown and marching in the streets and unapologetic racists unfurling their flags of hate in the town square and the government paved in barefaced lies, and it seems like the work of making art and doing ethnography might be as futile as a frog trying to stay afloat in a milk can. I’m telling the story of The Brick to honor the story and its teller and to persuade others to grow a bigger moral imagination that allows space for the more-than-true. As Barone and Eisner (2012, 27) write, I do not move to enhance certainty, “but instead, through the use of expressive design elements, succeed in the unearthing of questions that have been buried by the answers.” I am making butter, and so are you. So are we all. And the day we jump is coming.

REFERENCES CITED
Barone, Tom, and Elliot Eisner. 2012. Arts Based Research. Los Angeles: SAGE Press.
Fischman, Gustavo E. 2001. “Reflections about Images, Visual Culture, and Educational Research.” Educational Researcher 30 (8): 28–33.

NOTES
[1] All names and identifying details are significantly altered and disguised to protect participants.
[2] This quote has been disputed but was most recently attributed to Brecht in McLaren and Leonard (1993).