Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


Multi-Sited Ethnography Project:

Getting From Point A to Point B Around The World

Chloé Hirschhorn

      I plan to focus my multi-sited ethnography on transportation in various countries.  Transportation is something that is used by everyone, whether it is walking, driving, riding an animal, or rowing a boat.  I find the uses of different modes of transportation to be intriguing and an interesting look into even the smallest differences between cultures.  A traveler may go through his or her travels without noticing that they have been in five different colored taxis, some metered and some not, some with different fares for the day versus the night, or some that wait around until they have a car full of strangers going to the same destination.  They may not notice that in some countries you drive on the right, in some you drive on the left, and in some you can drive on both sides of the road. 

There are some modes of transportation that I had never thought of until this voyage.  I didn’t expect to find myself riding a motorcycle or a camel or a rickshaw.  I didn’t expect to find buses so packed that people are hanging out of the open doors and jumping out at their stop because, well, if you expect a bus to stop at a bus stop all around the world, you are gravely mistaken.  These examples and many others made me interested to look a little closer at the different modes of transportation in different countries.

     I am using the multi-sited ethnography design because it allows a world-view of the given topic.  A multi-sited ethnography, unlike a single sited one, provides “de facto comparative dimensions … instead as a function of the fractured, discontinuous plane of movement and discovery among sites as one maps an object of study and needs to posit logics of relationships, translation, and association among theses sites.” (George Marcus)  The opportunity to visit multiple sites to study gave me a chance to follow the topic I chose from site to site, giving me the ability to form a multi-sited ethnography.

Burma: Getting What You Ask For

Croatia: Going In Reverse

India: Speed Thrills, But Kills

    In the past three months I have visited ten countries.  Each of these countries differs from the others by their forms of government, religion, and cuisine.  They also differ in small, yet important, ways such as meal times, greetings, and modes of transportation.  Though these may seem insignificant, they are not insignificant to the foreigner who doesn’t understand when to eat a meal, what a hand palm down with curling fingers under it means, or how to get from point A to point B safely and economically. 

    At home, there are few unsafe modes of transportation.  This is not the case for many other countries.  Before going to a foreign country, you rarely find out that for example taxis are overpriced, buses are too hot and crowded (and a good place to get pick pocketed), or that you should not walk in front of people praying, even if they are in the middle of the street.  The transportation that you use in your travels can dramatically impact the people that you meet and the things that you see, along with impacting your health and your wallet.

    In George Gmelch’s “Lessons From The Field,” he describes how it feels to be someone who is aware of the customs and values of a culture in a place where there are tourists who know nothing.  This is often how I felt when I carefully studied who was getting into taxis in a certain country, whether they were sitting in the front or the back, whether they held conversations with the driver or not, and when I had finally figured out how to correctly use the taxi, I witnessed an obvious tourist do it all wrong and felt embarrassed for her and for myself as a foreigner who may be grouped with tourists in the eyes of locals. 

    I often felt much of the fear and anxiety that Eric J. Haanstad described in his ethnography of Thai police, “The Other City of Angels: Ethnography with the Bangkok Police.”  He describes a fear of being a bad anthropologist that will have to abort his mission or that won’t know what to do.  This is much of what I felt entering each new place.  I’ve thought many times though out these travels that perhaps I should study something else, something more concrete.  Each time that I began to think this way I saw a stranger who intrigued me.  Each time I got up the courage to try to speak a little bit of Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, or Burmese, and was understood, I felt accomplished.  I felt that perhaps I could teach the world something about these people; to help them understand why in some places it is just plain wrong to open the door to a cab that you wish to use.  It may seem inconsequential, but this one small action will shape how those around you view you and treat you.  That is not inconsequential; in fact it is the most important part of traveling. 


Return to course home Send me your comments: