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Researching Place: The Spatial Gaze

  • “Gaze” is the act of seeing; it is an act of selective perception. Much of what we see is shaped by our experiences and our “gaze” has a direct bearing on what we think. And what we see and think, to take the process one step further, has a bearing upon what we say and what and how we write.

    • (Stoller, Paul. The Taste of Ethnographic Things)


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Spatial gaze” can refer to our worldview

Worldview: an observers’ or informants’ entire cultural perspective.


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Why be concerned with worldviews?

  • In part, this is why we wrote “The Uniqueness of my Community” and why we identified our assumptions, preconceptions, and biases – so we could be more aware of our own worldviews as we discovered and explored those of others (e.g., informants).


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In “On Seeing England for the First Time,” for example, Kincaid uses the map of England as her focal point: when contrasted with the England that she saw with her own eyes (as opposed through a colonized spatial gaze), the tension that occurs allows Kincaid’s new perspective to be expressed in sharp relief to her past perspectives.


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  • One of the most difficult aspects of writing is choosing (or “selecting”) what the focus will be. In fieldworking, this process is known as selective perception.

  • As we select how to utilize descriptive writing and as we choose where to focus our gaze, we are participating not only in “looking out,” but also in “looking in” (reflecting”).

    • “As we write, we revise our worldviews. The point of doing fieldwork is to learn to see not just the other, but ourselves as well. The spatial gaze demands that we look – and then look back again at ourselves” (187).


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Some questions to ask Ourselves as We Observe our “selecting”) what the focus will be. In Fieldsites:

  • Why do I focus on this element of the landscape/setting and not something else? What about it draws my attention?

  • What is my reason for narrowing my gaze to any specific place?

  • What spaces have I rejected as I have narrowed my gaze?

  • Why do I use certain metaphors and descriptions?

  • What metaphors and descriptions did I decide not to use and why?

  • Is there evidence in my fieldnotes for the descriptions I make, or am I “filling in the blanks” from memory?


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Identifying Unity and Tension “selecting”) what the focus will be. In

What is meant by unity in fieldworking?

What is meant by tension in fieldworking?

(Hint: page 205)

  • In “Strike a Pose” (Photo Phantasies), what are some of the unities and tensions that Karen Downing looks for or identifies?

  • How are her revelations connected to gaze?

  • What does this excerpt show us about the importance of reflection?


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  • Great Writing “selecting”) what the focus will be. In Practices (Verbs)

  • Verbs. An entire world can exist in the verb. As Mark Twain noted, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” - Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

  • PRESENT TENSE

  • ACTIVE

  • STRONG / VIVID: use “to be” verbs sparingly

  • Adapt conserve dramatize formulate implement

  • Advance consolidate elevate generate improve

  • Advise construct elude gesture illustrate

  • Appropriate delineate ensnare grapple inform

  • Arbitrate develop establish guide instigate

  • Classify diagnose examine harass interpret

  • Collapse discover evaluate hypothesize invent

  • Collide dissect expose identify isolate

  • Compile dominate extricate ignore investigate

  • Maintain mobilize reveal

  • Mangle mock seduce

  • Manipulate motivate negotiate

  • Mediate navigate


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