What is the role of research assistants in the production of ethnographic knowledge?

“Coming to terms: Reinserting research assistants into ethnography’s past and present”

Research assistants have long been central to ethnographic practice, yet the conventions of academic labor have left their roles under-stated and obscure. The implications, we opine, are both theoretical and practical. Writing research assistants back in to our collective considerations of the method does more than simply fill a lacuna in the ‘reflexive turn’. It opens windows onto a radically transformed field of ethnographic practice. Today, the ‘field’ appears neither where nor what it used to be. Ethnographers are exploring ever-new terrains—many of them emergent, unstable, and dangerous. These endeavors, in turn, are prompting new kinds of research relationships. Against this backdrop, the time is now for a critical reappraisal of the players of contemporary ethnography. Venturing a new calculus of reflexive thinking, this Introduction engages the research assistant to revisit core ethnographic concerns—among them: research in dangerous places; the ethics of ethnographic labor; the shifting differentials of ‘academic vs. native’ expertise; and the socially produced nature of the ‘field’ itself. As the articles and Introduction of this special issue show, research assistants unsettle conventional understandings of what ethnography is and can be. Readmitted to the conversation, they provide a unique look into ethnography’s current state of play—and glimpses of the method’s future possibilities.

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