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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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina-American writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She serves as one of the editors-in-chief for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and SF MOMA's Open Space. She has lectured at the De Young museum, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture (2016). She is currently a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow researching the concept of citizenship. She also serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center.

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