Peer Ethnography: My Theory & Method

During a workshop on how to conduct “liberated research projects,” Dr. Nadine Naber walked the class through an exercise to help us students and emerging scholars personalize our own theories and methodologies. After thinking about what makes my research distinct, I came to the terms “peer ethnography” and “lived experience research.” This is because of how my own lived experience as a mother and psychiatric survivor impacts my research on the relationship between perinatal mental illness and the Black maternal mortality crisis in the United States.

After a quick Google search, I found that both of these terms have already been in use. From the language of “lived experience research” reports (e.g. Honey et al. 2020) it seems like the head researchers delegated tasks like interviewing to peers who have greater access and more intimate knowledge about the target population, but they did not identify as peers themselves.

I observed similar phenomena in my search on peer ethnographies. For instance, Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation and Research (PEER) is a method that has been developed to gain insight into “sensitive issues among hard to reach groups where stigma and marginalization makes traditional research methods difficult to implement.” PEER researchers are recruited from the target population and trained to have “in-depth conversational interviews” with people in their social networks, but they do not design the study or help with data analysis.

In a study on racial health disparities among men who have sex with men (MSM), peer ethnography was mentioned as a methodology providing the main researchers with more refined recruitment strategies, techniques for asking more culturally relevant questions, and avenues for further inquiry (Mutchler et al. 2013). Another study of the lives of undocumented migrants in the Netherlands investigates how a “peer ethnographic approach” creates the conditions for trust and familiarity between participants and the peer researcher (Hintjens 2012). In both these cases, peer ethnography seems to deepen our grasp of subjugated knowledge.* It is unlikely that the findings of these studies would have emerged without the contribution of peers.

Distinct from this kind of peer ethnography, in my version the principle scholars also have lived experience of psychiatric crisis during pregnancy. Medical anthropologist Emily Martin puts it:

“My own condition might provide a route for me to study aspects of mental illness that could not be witnessed in any other way.”

Emily Martin, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (2017, xvi)

This decolonized research method subverts white patriarchal principles of anthropological scholarship by undermining the fiction of scientific objectivity. My goal during my next two to three years of coursework before I enter the field is to develop my theoretical and methodological approach to peer ethnography. It requires vulnerability in being honest with my interlocutors about my lived experience in order to establish trust, build, cultivate relationships, and create solidarity. I hope for my work to aid in decolonizing anthropological knowledge production by being a peer researcher with a principle role and reflexively use the lived experience I share with my interlocutors to balance the power dynamic.

Modeled after participatory action research, my collaborative approach engages in reciprocal communication and learning alongside my interlocutors. As I decenter myself as the main authority on maternal mental health, I expect my interlocutors to challenge my unexamined biases and highlight new perspectives. Furthermore, participants with a stake in perinatal mental health would inform the goals, questions, and priorities of the study as well as play active roles in data collection and analysis. I envision my research to create a space where birthing people can reimagine equitable maternal mental health care and co-create tools to implement the changes we want to see.

Clearly, I got a lot out of Dr. Amber’s workshop. She emphasized:

“I believe everyone has a theory and a method. I also believe academic disciplines cannot enable critical women of color and queer people of color-based research. I help people name and claim their theories and methods outside the boundaries of conventional academic disciplines.”

Dr. Nadine Naber, Liberated Research Workshop

She could not be more spot on. I cannot rely on the canon of anthropology for the theoretical and methodological tools I need to work from a place of lived experience. Therefore, I look to Black feminist anthropology and critical race theory, Mad studies, disability studies, and queer theory that provide a model for this type of research. These analytical approaches allow for my lens as a peer to be an asset instead of a liability in my work.

How does your identity and lived experience influence your theory and method for your projects?


End note

*In Power/Knowledge (1980), Michel Foucault describes subjugated knowledge as “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity” (81-82)

Image Description

An illustration of four differently colored human figures in a line linking arms.

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