Lessons from GVSU’s Ethnographic Field School

Guest blog by Deana Weibel, associate professor and department chair, Anthropology

The Anthropology department at GVSU has a long history of providing Anthropology majors and others interested in ethnographic research with the opportunity to do real research in the local community. The field school has rich benefits to our department, our students, and the surrounding community.

Anthropology is the study of humans and their cultures. We can learn about humans in a variety of ways, from studying ancient structures to examining mummies, from conducting interviews to immersing ourselves in a familiar or unfamiliar culture. Applied anthropology involves doing the research, but not leaving things at the academic level. Instead, it is focused on problem solving. Applied anthropologists study humans and their cultures in order to help make the world a better place.

I volunteered to run the ethnographic field school as a new assistant professor in 2005, choosing to work with the local Grand Rapids Habitat for Humanity chapter. Seven students, two field assistants, and I set out on a six-week project of doing academic research on the role of Habitat and its history, interviewing Habitat employees and volunteers, and helping construct new homes ourselves in the Baxter neighborhood of Grand Rapids. My students learned the techniques of “ethnography,” a key skill in the discipline of anthropology, specifically how to conduct secure yet informative interviews and how to do “participant-observation,” which involves learning through doing.

And my team sure did! We lifted and carried and hammered and sawed and observed. We asked questions and took notes. By the end of the six-week semester we had crafted (in addition to a few houses) a 120-page report that we shared with the department, the Habitat for Humanity office, and the Baxter Neighborhood Association. This detailed report provided information about the motivations and viewpoints of office employees, worksite employees and volunteers, perceptions and misperceptions about Habitat, and the impressions Baxter residents had from their experiences with Habitat. We pointed out issues that perhaps hadn’t been uncovered yet and made suggestions for the future. It was a great accomplishment that offered my students a chance to experience something new, collect and analyze data, and produce an incredibly useful report.

Since my first experience with Anthropology’s ethnographic field school I’ve observed many different ethnographic field experiences for our students. Some students have worked with local farmers’ markets, analyzing everything from the physical setup of the market to how farmers can improve customer relations. Other ethnographic field schools have focused more on issues of community health, where students have looked into the presence of radon in local homes (and residents’ awareness of it), the health experiences of veterans in the Grand Rapids area, and the goals and achievements of West Michigan Therapy Dogs.

This coming spring, Dr. Tara Hefferan is leading another health-focused ethnographic field school and will be working with a large group of students to learn about the health needs, motivations, and meanings of the residents and health workers in the Westside neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

Our students will:

  • Learn participant-observation and interviewing techniques
  • Become familiar with the ethics and methodology of this type of research
  • Work in tandem with local groups, organizations, and healthcare providers

The community will:

  • Contribute hands and minds to help better understand and improve health in the Westside neighborhood
  • Be given a detailed report, including analysis and findings based on the students’ research
  • Establish a stronger relationship with Anthropology and with GVSU

The community-based participatory research GVSU Anthropology offers in its ethnographic field schools is great for both our students and our community. We are proud of this program and happy to see it going strong.


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