Blog: “Dance, sister! Dance!” New ways of doing ethnography in the city

By Lennie Geerlings

“Dance, sister! Dance!” Dina is prodding my side, encouraging me to stand up and dance. “My friend is asking you to dance!” She points at her smartphone, which is videotaping us. A red sign with the word ‘live’ shows that we are broadcasting live on Facebook. Another icon shows that seven people are watching. Comments are flowing in.

Karaoke on Sunday
Dina and I are in a karaoke room with five friends. Like Dina, they are Indonesian women who work in Singaporean households as domestic helpers, some already for seven years. Today is Sunday, the only day the women are off from work. To make the most of it, we are huddled in a room of less than four square metres in size. The speakers are blasting Indonesian tunes. A TV screen displays the song’s lyrics and its colourful movie clip. Dina and her friends are singing along loudly, their hands and shoulders moving to the beat. Despite their engaging performance, three phone cameras are directed at me: the stranger in the room. I am broadcasted on Facebook from three different angles. Dina whirls her wrists in front of my face. Self-consciously and stiffly, I copy her movements. I feel like a monkey performing a trick on a virtual stage.

A divided city
Over the past weeks, I have been engaging with migrant women in Singapore across social classes, occupations, ethnicities, and age groups. I am conducting an ethnographic study: I participate and write about the social lives of migrant women.

Fieldwork experiences vary greatly. Today I smell and taste crisps and soda; yesterday, freshly ground coffee beans and sugary tarts. Today loud music and singing fills my ears; yesterday I listened to polite conversation and soft instrumental music. Today I touch hands and bodies and move to the beat of the music; yesterday I touched only my own coffee cup. The spaces vary with the faces; the faces in this karaoke room differ from those I met yesterday in the ‘artisanal bakery’ café uptown. From this perspective, Singapore is a divided city. Its different urban spaces induce sensory and embodied experiences that are alluring to specific social categories of migrant women.

New ethnographies in the city
How should I study social life in the context of this super-diversity? My experiences indicate the need for embodied and sensory approaches. These approaches have gained in popularity since Paul Stoller’s influential 1989 book The Taste of Ethnographic Things. They have been further developed, notably by Sarah Pink, who argues that sensory ethnography accounts for multisensoriality of experience and of the process of ethnography itself. To me, this approach means that I should continue to look, listen, feel, sniff, taste, move, sit, talk, sing, and dance with the women I meet in the urban spaces of their choice. Doing so helps me to experience Singapore from their perspectives. So today, in this karaoke room, perhaps I better start dancing too…

I take another look at the phones surrounding me. Smartphones and their cameras are part of everyday social life in Singapore. Social media including Facebook live, WhatsApp video calls, Viber, and Instagram keep migrant women connected to each other and to their families. This demonstrates the usefulness of a multimodal approach, which includes using networked technologies along with other practices of ethnography. Leiden University’s Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology is engaging multimodal approaches in research and teaching. So perhaps instead of shying away from the cameras today, I could engage with these technologies…

“Hey, sister!” Dina prods me and looks at me with her eyebrow raised. I have been thinking about my research methods and I realise how strange this must have looked. However, now I know what to do: it’s time to stand up and dance for the camera! Let’s get ready for new ways of doing ethnography!

Photo: A Sunday karaoke session, live-streamed on Facebook

(Lennie Geerlings is a PhD candidate at KITLV and the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. Her ethnographic study focuses on the lived experiences of female migrants in Singapore through the embodiment of difference. The research shows how migrant women encounter social processes of inclusion and exclusion that are inscribed, mediated, performed, and contested through bodies.)

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