Ethnography for 5 year olds

“I might be somewhat shorter than his other students, but that shouldn’t prevent me grasping the basic principles of ethnographic research methodology. Amongst the most important of these, I learned, was the search for rules. When we arrived in any unfamiliar culture, I was to look for regularities and consistent patterns in the natives’ behaviour, and try to work out the hidden rules – the conventions or collective understandings – governing these behaviour patterns” (Fox, 2004; 7).

This is part of the introduction to Elizabeth Fox’s book about The English. She describes how, from a tender age, her father (the famous ethnographer Robin Fox) taught her to look for the ‘DNA’ of the different cultures they visited. I took her book (lent to me by my friend Choco) to Colombia with me, and these are the rules I discovered.

Rule 1 – If you are a taxi driver you have to buy a very small car.

When we arrived at El Dorado airport, we went out to the taxi stand and were greeted by a row of tiny yellow cars. There were 3 of us, plus luggage and conference materials; we didn’t think we would fit into a Fiat Panda – although we soon changed our minds when it became apparent that there were no bigger taxis in Bogota.

Why? Well, many of the big “Carreras” are a maximum of 3 lanes, with many being only 2. But, with small cars, it is possible to fit 5 cars across 3 lanes and 3 cars across 2.

Obviously a car is no real status symbol in Colombia, nor a proxy measure of any part of its driver’s anatomy. Given the congested nature of Bogota’s streets, the smaller your car the faster you’ll get wherever you’re going.

Rule 2 – If you are going to stand anywhere, stand at a crossroads.

This rule is apparent in the first photo. Nearly every busy crossroad in Bogota is framed by individuals, couples or small groups of people standing around, chatting (if they have company) or watching the world go buy, if they are on their own.

Why? Well many crossroads serve as unmarked bus-stops, as the traffic has to slow down or stop, giving people chance to climb aboard or get off. More usually, though, given the ‘purposeful’ nature of many conversations, it would seem people have arranged to meet at these crossroads.

As we found, the problem with a city that has been laid out on a grid system means, unless there is a major landmark, everywhere looks quite similar. So being precise with addresses is important, and this is done by specifying a place in relation to it’s location to the intersection with a Carrera and a Calle, or, in other words, a crossroad.

Rule 3 – Pavements must be at least 18 inches high

If you haven’t realised by now. The Colombians love their cars. In fact, 13 years ago it was difficult to traverse the city centre (CBD) as cars drove and parked pretty much wherever they wanted.

So the incoming Mayor, Enrique Penalosa, put up concrete bollards, almost overnight, to mark out sidewalks (and to stop traffic using the space that was needed by pedestrians).

Then, over a three-year period he financed the construction of pavements, making them at least 18″ high to stop cars driving or parking on them (see photo above).

So, there you have it. The ethnographic observations of a forty- year old, five-year old.

References Fox, E., 2008, Watching the English, Hodder: London.

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