Decolonizing Ethnography: A Reimagined Framework for Teaching Radical Ethnography

Photo taken by the author in Puerto Rico.

“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity." - Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

Field Notes: September 2017

My daughter and I were silent during the drive West on Route 2 to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Skeletal branches reached out to us from the side of the road as we passed, as if in mournful supplication. It was September 29th, nine days after Hurricane Maria had pummeled the island with Category 5 hurricane winds, leaving behind a trail of despair and devastation. We stared blankly at what had once been a vibrant verdant countryside, now a barren wasteland stretching into the horizon for as far as the eye could see. The entire experience was surreal. This was not the Puerto Rico of my childhood, and in the eyes of the people lurked a haunting grief... 

Our silence, however, was not due to the sadness we felt at the devastation surrounding us, though that was profound. It was due to fear at what might await us when we reached our final destination. We had traveled to Puerto Rico to locate and rescue my 78-year-old mother. We had had no communication with her since 9/20 [September 20], the day the hurricane struck, downing the old and decrepit power lines and creating a communication black-out on the island. I had tried every means at my disposal to get information as to her whereabouts and/or condition, to no avail. The week that followed the hurricane was the worst—the unfathomable purgatory of not knowing. I could not work or sleep, I watched news reports obsessively—fearing the worst. Finally, unwilling to live in ignorance any longer, I determined to go to Puerto Rico to find her.

As we neared the adjoining town of Isabela, we searched anxiously for the ancient Ceiba trees (so highly valued by the locals that the planners of the expressway built around them rather than cut them down), and upon sight of them, still standing persistently, majestically, my hopes were renewed.

Figure 1: The Majestic Ceiba (Ceiba petandra l.) on Route 2 survives Hurricane Maria! Photo taken and used with permission by author.

We had to stop several times on the road to her urbanization, due to closed roads, fallen tree branches and debris, and missing street lights, but finally we pulled up outside her home. The hurricane winds had buffeted the façade of the house, scouring off the soft pastel color paint. It now looked dull and lifeless, and there was no welcoming porch light to alert us to her presence within. The neighborhood was silent as the grave. We knocked on her door and heard sounds from within—footsteps slow and careful, and then the door opened and my mother stood on the other side. She was almost unrecognizable. She looked small and frail. Her face reflected surprise, pain, and a vulnerability I had never seen before. Her eyes overflowed with tears as we hugged her. She kept repeating, “I thought I was going to die alone.”

Figure 2: Living the Aftermath. Photo taken and used with permission by author.

I am ashamed to say that after the initial elation of finding my mother alive and well subsided, I grew afraid. Days passed, and we were unable to secure return tickets. I was on the phone with the airline, every hour of every day (thank goodness I had invested in a solar powered battery charger). I grew afraid I might not be able to escape the island, the same island that had always been my home—my safe haven from the world, was now a prison. I felt vulnerable. I couldn't imagine surviving without the luxuries I had grown accustomed to—clean drinking water, electricity/light, internet service, hot showers—for more than a few days. I felt ashamed of wanting to run out of there when so many could not. I still do. In the weeks and months that followed, I observed a gradual human awakening, from grief, loss, and despair to resilience, determination, and an urgent desire for change.

Articulating An Evolving Research Design

Post-Hurricane Maria, I set out to conduct an ethnographic research study to capture recovery efforts on the small island nation of Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean nations devastated by climate disasters. The initial title of my study was Healing Paradise, and my objective was to document the resurgence of traditional herbal healing practices, as well as efforts to increase food security in the aftermath. I hypothesized there would be an increase in small-scale farms, backyard gardens, and agroecology initiatives. I identified and engaged individual farmers, agroecologists, herbalists, and environmental groups in participant observation and informal interviewing, as per my training. As an insider-outsider, I expected I would have easier access to both people and data, so I was unprepared for the initial resistance I experienced. While my interviewees were mostly polite, they treated me with the same indifference they would an American tourist, answering questions only peripherally and often transitioning into issues I considered irrelevant to my research topic. I persisted in my research, noting the breakdown in my plan, and consequently reassessed my role of investigator. My informants, regardless of educational background, were extremely knowledgeable regarding the history and political contexts of their current situation (much more so than I) and resisted any attempts to decontextualize their experiences. I listened. I learned. As I engaged more fully/deeply, my perspective regarding the deep impacts of the socio-political, historical, and economic context of the Caribbean evolved. I came to understand that the food security issues I was exploring could not be adequately examined without digging deeply into the greater context. I also came to understand that by engaging in a Eurocentric version of ethnographic methodology, I was furthering the colonial agenda of those that had decimated the First Peoples of the Caribbean, their culture, and society. For this reason, I shifted my ethnographic methodology. I invited them to write their stories, without investigator interpretation and with minimal editorial interventions, with the objective of publication in my book as co-authors, knowing this process would result in an extended time commitment. Decolonizing Paradise was the result of this five-year process.

A Reimagined Ethnographical Framework

In this spirit of decolonization, radical ethnography seeks to dismantle those antiquated methodologies of anthropology that supported and sustained the colonial agenda, a process that classifies, objectifies and others human beings—a process we can, in good conscience, no longer condone. In its place, we advance the following guiding principles:

  1. Transparent acknowledgement that Anthropology, as a discipline, has been historically utilized as a tool of the colonial agenda, and that certain ethnographic practices continue to perpetuate the dehumanization and objectification of indigenous and colonized peoples.
  2. Dismantling of the false dichotomy, hierarchies, statuses, and roles that create unequal interactions between ethnographer and informant, invalidating the data we collect, and challenging the authenticity and veracity of the stories we are told.
  3. Engaging informants as collaborators and partners in knowledge production, respecting their inherent authority to tell their own stories from their unique standpoints.
  4. Providing open access to a platform for the gathering, sharing, and presenting of their stories and experiences, without filter and with minimal interpretation via our “objective” lens. Understanding that how we format, structure, and frame the stories as important as the content itself.
  5. Re-focusing the teaching of ethnography, so it promotes an engaged and non-hegemonic methodology focused on supporting human rights, equity, and the decolonization of currently oppressed and marginalized populations.

The Authors of Decolonizing Paradise (Moving from Informant to Expert)

As an anthropologist, strongly influenced by critical feminist theory, I engage/enact the premise that knowledge and reality are socially constructed and situational (Haraway 1988). Hence, the knowledge accrued by both women and indigenous peoples over thousands of years of observation and practice cannot and should not be so easily discounted by the relatively younger and less tried “scientific method.” My informants/collaborators embody a combination of identifiers. Some are current residents working to enact meaningful change in their communities—others are children of the diaspora—descendants of the First Peoples of the Americas. Still others are circular migrants with a foothold in several realities. Their voices represent multiple worlds and ways of knowing, as their understanding is emergent from the kaleidoscopic intersectionality of their identities. This becomes even more significant at this critical juncture in our history, in the shadow of climate change, when all voices and knowledges are crucial to the continuation of our entire species.

Informant/authors included scholars like Dra. Gladys Nazario, Professor of Biology and Ethnobotany at the University of Puerto Rico, who related her lived experiences and ethnographic accounts of the Jibaro (translated as “people of the mountain”) of the Central mountainous region of Puerto Rico, conducted in the early 1980s. Dra. Nazario shared her research regarding the science and Jibaro folklore of the medicinal plants of Puerto Rico, as well as her own scholarly research on the ethnobotanical properties of weeds.

Jorge Estevez, former educator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, self-educated Taíno historian and Tribal Cacique (Chief), shared his extensive knowledge of the Anandenanthera peregrina plant, commonly known as Cohoba, as well as other entheogens used by the indigenous Taíno of the Caribbean for mental, physical, and/or spiritual health. Additionally, he related ethnographic accounts of rural curanderos/healers of the Maguana, Cibao, and Higüey regions of the Dominican Republic.

Juliet Diaz, a Cuban bruja (witch) and an ancestral seer of the Ciboney and Guanahatabey people, introduced the concept of spiritual decolonization as a necessary tool for the enactment of true activism. She posited that colonization and the imposition of Western religions have programmed the colonized to believe that real “magic” and power exist only outside themselves. She advocates for self-activism through community care, connecting/living in alignment with the ancestors, and ritual practice, and shared rituals and spells for the healing of generational trauma.

Generation Z (Gen-Z) Nuyorican environmental activist, Gabriela Miranda-Diaz, embodies the future, and reminds us of the urgency of the moment. She communicates the reality that being born, and living, in the diaspora has not resulted in an escape from the legacy of oppression and social injustice for the descendants of the colonized. Instead, it has resulted in isolation, displacement, and a sense of “not fitting in anywhere.”

The resulting narrative that emerged from these unfiltered perspectives tells a story far more complex and multi-layered than would have been possible within the scope of “traditional” ethnographic methodology, which is often framed by the schema (objectives and theoretical framework) of the ethnographer. My informants were not interested in my research agenda or my scholarly audience. They were not passive subjects upon whom I could impose my “self-validating propositions.” Radical ethnography demands that we consciously shift the emphasis from the schema of the ethnographer to that of the research subjects, or, alternatively, that we construct a third schema that encapsulates both. It means entering the ethnographic context with humility, as a learner, and allowing for the possibility of a greater purpose for our research than we initially envisioned.

The Challenge of Radical Ethnography

The first hurdle I encountered in enacting radical ethnography was overcoming the deeply embedded colonial indoctrination of my non-academic informants, that nagging voice inside their heads telling them they were not qualified to narrate their own life experiences and circumstances. Conversely, I also had to persuade my academic informants that their personal narratives, as insider-outsiders, were just as valuable and relevant as their empirical research and needed to be included in their work for the sake of transparency and strong objectivity, thus challenging the objective/subjective bias still so common in this discipline. This was a necessary first step in deconstructing embedded hierarchies and creating a safe middle ground—a third schema.

The second hurdle was to resist the urge to organize, fix, modify, and edit written informant accounts according to established Eurocentric grammatical literary structures, and instead be receptive to creative alternatives in formatting and style that more closely matched the linguistic and cultural thought processes of the informants. Throughout the research process, I had to remain open to modifying my research question/s and focus, repeatedly, to accommodate the on-the-ground reality of my informants.

My own research study turned out to be very different from what I initially envisioned. In the analytical and editorial process, my perception of the discipline of Anthropology shrank, expanded, stretched, and accommodated. I pondered the nature and purpose of the discipline, both historically, as a tool of the colonial project, and currently, as a tool for restorative social and historical justice.

Teaching Radical Ethnography

As an educator, who has taught ethnography for decades, my post-hurricane Maria experience in Puerto Rico served as a catalyst for revisiting and revising my teaching philosophy and methodology. It compelled me to reflect on my own internalized belief systems, as a descendent of colonized peoples, and how they had impacted my teaching practices. Had I inadvertently colluded with the colonial agenda by imposing Eurocentric beliefs/practices onto my own students? Had I been so concerned about maintaining “objectivity” and “professionalism” that I had become distant, uncaring, complacent? After a period of painful reflection, I determined that I had. Radical Ethnography is not just about re-search, it is about re-building—acting to redress/mitigate the harm done. This is especially important when dealing with colonized populations. With these insights in mind, I shifted my teaching focus. These are the five points I currently emphasize with my own students:

  1. Hypotheses and research questions are a just a starting place (seriously!). I’m certain you have already been told this, but it bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating. Radical ethnography asserts that the actual questions and answers, for any cultural issue, are so far beyond the researcher’s understanding that they can only be developed in conjunction/collaboration with the community being researched. However, keep in mind that as your research goals and priorities change, as they must, you have a responsibility to communicate those changes with all the parties involved, as transparently and honestly as possible.
  2. Do your homework before entering any ethnographic field situation. When I mentioned complacency in the paragraph above, I was referring to that “know it all” attitude that assures us that we, as scholars, already know all we need to know about the community we are researching. We enter the field confident that we have done our due diligence, read all the academic peer-reviewed journal articles and created a sizeable, annotated bibliography, because we know that historical and socio-political context matters, but “history is written by the victors.” Ask your informants for their suggestions on what you should read to understand the issues that matter to the people you are researching, from their perspective. Listen to their music, peruse local newspapers and social media outlets, and read local authors and poets.
  3. To disrupt the socially constructed statuses/roles that interfere with your ability to connect with your informants on a deeper level, be of service. Listen. Observe. Learn. What can you offer this community that is of equal or greater value to them than the data they are sharing with you? It’s about reciprocity. To take what you need without first establishing a mutually beneficial exchange agreement is inherently exploitative and unethical.
  4. Once you begin your research you will experience “breaks, incongruencies and ruptures” in your research plan/expectations, as explained by Michael Agar in Speaking of Ethnography. Follow them. Embrace the anxiety of disruption and follow the breadcrumbs to wherever they may lead. This is the most exciting part of the process and will lead you to previously unimagined insights.
  5. In disseminating your research findings, expand your understanding of “audience” beyond the academic scholarly community. This research is not just about you. It is about these people, this community. They have their own audience. Their own message. Respect that and make space for it in your planning. In the end, this will enrich the ethnographic process for everyone involved.

In closing, the “AAA Statement on Ethics” states, “A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologists is to do no harm.” I advise you to go beyond that dictum in your interactions with participants and communities. As ethnographers we are tasked with a purpose more sacred than publishing or conference presentations. We are tasked with providing a deep understanding of humanity, in all its rich complexity and diversity, but that is only half the story. Understanding sparks compassion, empathy and positive action. If we do “Radical” ethnography respectfully, and intentionally, we can potentially improve conditions for that community and for humanity. We can, dare I say it, make the world a better place!


Agar, Michael H. 1985. Speaking of Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.

Harding, Sandra. 1992. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: “What is Strong Objectivity?”” The Centennial Review 36, no. 3: 437–70.