By Samia Dinkelaker, Thomas Stodulka,  Ferdiansyah Thajib.

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The first installment of the Ethnolab in 2015 has resulted in a collection of six working papers, which demonstrate the different research conducted by its participants on various social and cultural phenomena that constitute Yogyakarta’s everyday life. The uniqueness of each writing with regard to their topics, approaches and styles reflects the authors’ different backgrounds in discipline, interests and positionalities. However, we would also like to underline some commonalities that connect the respective empirical case studies:

Fermin Suter with a tour guide, film still: Emanuel Mathias

1. The researcher’s bodies, roles and emotions as research tools

Bagus Anggoro Moekti and Fermin Suter were both involved in the topics they approached in a particularly embodied way. Moekti focuses on the position and role of the merchandise stand in the music scene of Yogyakarta and sheds light on informality aspects that promote the local ‘indie-music’ scene into an alternative form of economy. Working as a salesperson at merchandise stands himself, he develops an understanding of the field by not only referring to the explanations of his interlocutors, but also drawing on his own experience in the scene. His involvement in his research topic allowed him to gain deep insights from his interlocutors, who are also his colleagues and friends. Concluding his analysis he understands the merchandise stand as a commodity that stimulates social life and values of well-being and belonging that go beyond economic transactions. His descriptions of the labor of salespersons at merchandise stands allows for a ‘thick’ understanding of the character and developments of the Yogyakartan independent music scene.

In his ethnography on the encounters between informal tour guides and individual tourists in Yogyakarta, Fermin Suter draws on his personal experiences of being guided through the touristic sites of Yogyakarta. He was interested in the emotional labor of tour guides, and in order to get to know informal tour guides and their tourist recruitment practices he did what fit well to his embodied role as a visitor of Yogyakarta: he explored the city as an individual tourist and encountered different ‘types’ of informal guides – becak drivers, batik sellers, local bureaucrats and dwellers of the area surrounding the Sultan’s palace. His analysis of the emotional economies that are at work in the encounters between tourists and informal guides is based on the documentation of his own affective experiences. Similar to Moekti he does not only act as researcher or observer, but also actively partakes in the role of a tourist. By ‘hanging out as bait’ he managed to establish contact with his research protagonists and create data.

Gatari Surya taking pictures, film still: Emanuel Mathias.

2. Digging into expressions of self-representation

While a distinctive trait of Bagus Anggoro Moekti and Fermin Suter’s respective ethnography is the significant role of their personal experience and involvement in their respective research topics, Gatari Surya Kusuma and Mira Shah’s ethnographies are characterized by their engagement in self-representations and self-perceptions of their interlocutors. Kusuma’s contribution asks which meanings are created and communicated through family photo archives. She discusses two collections of family photographs by scrutinizing their forms of presentation, their ways of archiving and the meanings that the subjects attributed to the images.

Mira Shah’s focus on the self-representation of her interlocutors relates to her interest in the conditions, means and forms of contemporary art production in Yogyakarta. She visited the exhibitions and working spaces of individual artists, artist collectives’ spaces and curators and engaged in conversations about their understandings of themselves and their work, about art spaces and related socio-economic conditions in Yogyakarta. Through her interest in self-descriptions and self-labeling, Shah gained insights into inherent logics and workings of the Yogyakarta art scene. Her analysis challenges the overused and overdue ascriptions of “alternativeness” in characterizing contemporary local dynamics.

3. Framing Multi-species Marginalization

Fajar Riyanto and Julia Keil’s ethnographies revolve around topics that are inflicted with ethical and political concerns. Riyanto addresses the topic of social marginalization in the urban fabric of Yogyakarta by writing up his experiences of collaborating with the dwellers of the kampung Ledhok Timoho – an ‘informal’ settlement in the Eastern part of the city. Fajar’s ethnography reflects on the obstacles that informality poses for urban communities in gaining access to formal citizens’ rights. He has regularly visited his fieldwork site not only as an ethnographer but also in the context of KUNCI’s community-engaged practices in Ledhok Timoho. As editors we highly value that Riyanto’s engagement with interlocutors in the field demanded a high degree of sensitivity as he had to manage his different roles as activist and researcher.

Motivated by a concern for animal well-being, Julia Keil explores relationships between humans and non-human primates. Her ethnography reflects her observations and interactions at the local zoo, the animal market, a grammar school and other sites in Yogyakarta. She scrutinizes attitudes of various persons and communities towards non-human primates. In a gesture of cultural comparison between Germany and Indonesia she draws the conclusion that both contexts share certain patterns of attitudes towards animals. The contribution echoes the demand for dealing and managing with emotions in the field as well as for cultural sensitivity following her encounters with forms of animal cruelty in the everyday life.

Julia Keil observing the zoo, film still: Emanuel Mathias

4. Ethnographic experience: Redux

All six contributions share central traits of ethnographic data collection and writing (see for a general introduction to ethnography: Agar 1980; Breidenstein et. al. 2013; Sanjek 2014)[1]. The Ethnolab participants were exposed to the dynamics and logics of their respective research sites – different than in more standardized forms of social research the authors had little control of the research process. Hence the authors’ insights are based on their flexibility, patience and their courage to rely on coincidences, as well as on assistants, informants and interlocutors who were open to share their knowledge. Getting themselves into their respective topics and fields allowed the authors to find the practices they engaged with not through the medium of re-narration, but on the sites where they occur – the touristic sites of Yogyakarta, the merchandise stand, a living room, art spaces, an informal kampung, the zoo or grammar schools.

It is worth noting here, that this process is not one of ‘having control over the field’ and of ‘knowing’ but first and foremost one of ‘learning’ (Agar 1980, p. 119). In this process of learning the authors approached the meanings and relevance that interlocutors attached to practices and phenomena; they engaged in the endeavor to understand what is described as emic perspectives. This certainly means that these perspectives are nothing ethnographers just ‘find out there’, but interlocutors and researchers address each other in ways that are contingent upon their varying positionalities embedded in social and economic power asymmetries. We would assume that there were situations when interlocutors addressed Fajar Riyanto as NGO-activist (with higher education), or Mira Shah as a representative for the Western cosmopolitan art scene. We have to always take into account that shared information is not detached from these positionalities: ethnographic data, is always ‘situated’ (Haraway 1988) and ‘relational’ (Spencer 2012).

All contributions that you find on this blog are the outcome of a process of reflecting on the authors’ involvement in their respective fields. Documenting and writing down their experiences allowed for a thorough reflection on the question of how these experiences can shed light on the authors’ respective interests, the research process and outcome. Although this reflection without doubt caused headaches and was accompanied by detours along the process, we believe that the participants of the Ethnolab (some of them being more used to text-based material or more standardized forms of data production; some of them more orientated to practice-based activities) benefited from the ethnographic mode of creating knowledge. The authors experimented with the ethnographic endeavor to grasp and describe the complexities inherent in social interactions, develop substantial critical analyses of existing sociocultural issues and make the research process itself productive in the interpretation of data – standardized hypotheses testing science reaches its limits with regard to these aspects.



  • Agar, M. H. (1980). The professional stranger: an Informal Introduction to Ethnography. New York: Academic Press.
  • Breidenstein, G., Hirschauer, S., Kalthoff, H., & Nieswand, B. (2013). Etnografie. Stuttgart: UTB.
  • Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997). Discipline and Practice:’The Field’ as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology. In A. Gupta & J. Ferguson (Eds.), Anthropological Locations. Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science (pp. 1–46). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges : The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.
  • Sanjek, R. (2014). Ethnography. In Ethnography in Today’s World: Color Full Before Color Blind (pp. 59–71). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Spencer, D. (2012). Introduction. Emotional Labour and Relational Observation in Anthropological Fieldwork. In D. Spencer & J. Davies (Eds.), Anthropological Fieldwork: A Relational Process (pp. 1–34). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


End Note

[1] We do not refer to the postcolonial “archetype” (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997, p. 11) of ethnography that was dominant in Anthropology for a long time. This archetype of ethnography implied an extended “trip to a place that is agrarian, pastoral, or maybe even ‘wild’” (ibid, p. 8) in order undertake an examination of non-European ‘Others’ socializing in their ‘natural’ habitats. Instead, along with Anthropologists who critically reflect the discipline’s involvement in knowledge-power nexus, we refer to a distinct way of working; in the following observations we elaborate on its characteristics.