Ethnography of the Art World

Social history is widely understood, but what is ethnography? It is a genre of researching and writing with its roots in anthropology. Its main investigative method is “participant observation” – a cluster of qualitative modes, which include firsthand experience of the environment, careful visual observation, attentive listening, casual on-the-hoof interviewing as well as formal in-depth interrogation, and the analysis of telling details and key documents. Participant observation is a self-conscious formalization of the naturalistic modes through which we learn generally; toddlers learn to walk and talk through a similar form of wide-eyed questioning and involvement. The participation part of the exercise usually transforms the researcher; we don’t wear a white lab coat and latex gloves to protect ourselves from what we’re studying. We don’t cling rigidly to old values but go into our chosen milieu with an open mind. In so doing, we usually change it.

~ Sarah Thornton, Art Writer (Excerpt from the Author’s Note section of her book Seven Days in the Art World)

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