“Searching for whose homes? Reflections on ethnographic comparison”, by Miranda-Bonfanti-Massa

Searching for whose homes?
Reflections on ethnographic comparison

Alejandro Miranda, Sara Bonfanti, Aurora Massa

Keywords: cross-country case studies, sharing ethnography, reflexivity, research methods.

Comparing is a resource of insight in our project. It is also a commitment: how do comparing across social groups and field sites can do justice to and emphasise the uniqueness of each of our cases? Comparison is intrinsic to ethnographic work, but most ethnographies become comparative post hoc (Miller et al. 2017); that is, they develop comparisons after fieldwork. In contrast, our project seeks to build a comparative study as we conduct fieldwork in multiple locations, considering different social groups. These are some of the key issues that we have discussed in early June 2018 in a session on comparison in migration and urban studies at the 7th Ethnography and Qualitative Research Conference at the University of Bergamo. This post addresses some of the main ideas that emerged during that session.

Comparing lies at the core of the craft of ethnography. Yet, there are ontological assumptions embedded in the act of comparing that are often taken for granted. The ‘common sense’ that infuses each of our disciplines, namely anthropology and sociology, provides scholars with an ‘intuition’ that informs the ways in which we conduct certain comparisons while avoiding some others. To put it differently, our scholarly backgrounds help us to judge certain things as comparable or not able to be judged by the same standards. But as Marcel Detienne (2008) points out, it is not that ‘one can only compare what is comparable’, but rather one finds ways to make things comparable across the different stages of conducting research.

There are a series of presumptions underlying our project; the most noticeable one is that we are seeking to compare ‘ways of homing’ across people migrating from the Horn of Africa, South America and South Asia, currently living in selected cities in Western Europe. Focusing on nationality/ethnicity and geographical space are two of the most evident ontological assumptions in our approach. Drawing comparisons among ‘ways of homing’ based on migrants’ nationality and the place of current residence is a point that can be questioned. As Brubaker (2006: 7) reminds us, it is a common place that ethnicity and nationhood are constructed. But how exactly these processes of construction occur is often taken for granted and left unexplored. Although our research design addresses people based on their nationality/ethnicity and the city in which they currently live, it is still possible to examine how notions of nationhood, belonging and ethnic affiliation are constructed within and beyond the domestic environment.

Building comparativity in our project is an effort to understand at least two different dimensions: on the one hand, we focus on the relationships between spaces, such as domestic environments and their links with public and semi-public spaces. We have already discussed how this occurs at places of cult in Amsterdam, parks in Madrid, and devotional gatherings in London. On the other, there is a comparative stance towards our individual cases. We are conducting fieldwork with different people in different places than can be compared and contrasted. We have a relational approach towards the ways in which people inhabit private, public and semi-public spaces, and a comparative approach towards our cases. This way of conducting collaborative research raises the question of how we are constructing comparative objects of study as we proceed in the field, while writing down our notes, making interviews and transcribing them and, especially, while meeting in Trento (or via Skype). As we collaborate in this project, we are trying to create the conditions for comparison by negotiating what is there to be compared and what is not. In fact, we are striving to operationalise comparison.

From assumption to practice, we have been trying to find modes and elaborate models to operationalise our aim to match and contrast (Fabietti 1999). Since our methods included both participant observation and narrative work, we have devised an initial grid in order to collect qualitative data that could be not only shared, but also framed with a certain coherence. We have tried to establish analogous parameters for data construction that could render our findings as case-specific and consistent. Such an operationalisation, i.e. making socio-cultural facts possibly comparable, applied in fact to three facets of our empirical work in the field. So to speak, we have inflated comparison in the research techniques adopted in the field. First, we have developed guidelines for the narrative work we conducted with research participants (for opening interviews on the meaning and experience of home in a migrant’s life, and for life-stories rendered by some of our informants). We then have tailored a scaffolding to retrieve the socio-demographic profiles of all the interviewees, paired to a protocol where we reported the essentials of their narrative interviews. Last, rather intuitively, we have focused our ethnographic observation on private homes and (semi) public spaces of attachment (worship places, markets, parks, or restaurants), which could guarantee a certain degree of accessibility and replicability, and have provided parallel settings for sharing ethnographic fieldnotes.

All these minor strategies have been somehow effective to induce a comparative approach, but have been also flexible because we have reshaped them as our fieldworks (and collective sharing) proceed. For instance, we began to administer freer interviews without losing sight of the guidelines, but leaving them as a backdrop to unique dialogic exchanges; we progressively extended the social parameters deemed relevant about the interviewees (not least, people’s multi-language skills in contexts of mobility); we kept rearranging the univocal tags used to retrieve our ethnographic notes, given that on-field events and experiences could not be labelled with single key-words, but required a tempered word-crossing. In brief, our collective effort for comparison while collecting data and analysing it has remained open to discussion, oscillating between modelling and freedom, search for analogies and respect for varieties. Reflecting on the positionality which each of us played in the field with our informants has cast significant personal weights on our comparative targets (Herzfeld 2001; also see our own co-authored HOMInG Working Paper n.3 https://homing.soc.unitn.it/2018/05/17/homing-working-paper-no-3_2018-setting-the-table-having-a-seat-a-reflection-on-positionalities-while-searching-for-home-and-migration/).

Comparing as method

We have gained several insights from reflecting on how we conduct comparisons in our project. First, we are comparing comparisons: our informants compare ‘here’ and ‘there’, and the many dwelling spaces that they have inhabited along their migratory trajectories. The contrast and similarity in their experiences also opens up the possibility of establishing comparisons across our cases. Our own analyses of our participants’ home experiences (their ideas, practices or feelings, for instance) come from their self-interpretations of making and being at home.

Second, the specificity of our collaborative project has to do with the idea of operating comparisons while conducting fieldwork, instead of comparing after having conducted fieldwork. As we noted earlier, this point has been already raised by Daniel Miller et al. (2017). One of its immediate consequences is that we influence each other’s actions in the field. A telling example comes from doing fieldwork two colleagues at a time. Two of us have been conducting participant observation at restaurants in Madrid. Another colleague conducting fieldwork in London initially didn’t consider visiting restaurants, but then she started visiting some dhaba (roadside cheap diners run by Indo-Pakistanis). These circumstances are producing a sort of ‘real-time’ comparison (co-conducting participant observation with a fellow team member), and also comparisons in similar settings across the different cases, namely South American and South Asian restaurants in different locations.

Homemaking is also a continuous quest for a place of retrieval. We are comparing different empirical evidence to highlight the ethical and political implications of this statement within mobile people’s everyday life. Considering home-making strategies and multiscale home contexts for both migrants and natives, labour migrants and refugees, we wonder: to what extent can homes (their precariousness or absence) host people’s vulnerabilities or become a site of resistance and agency?

In deciding to conduct certain comparisons, we also realise that there are some blind spots. Sex at home is one of them, a topic that we have ignored so far. There is also the issue of shared frontiers between the countries of origin of our informants—an issue that involves several other topics, such as politics of identity. Some of us have a group of reference that comes from a country that shares borders with the other group of reference. That is, Pakistan and India or Ecuador and Peru.

Through our comparisons we are producing certain types of visibility and ignoring other facets that remain out of the spotlight. Comparing is also a cognitive device for knowledge production and a disciplinary instrument for social sciences. In our search, comparing as much as we can has meant sharing the singularity of our case studies, identifying patterns or exceptionalities, and eventually acknowledging connections and disconnections that would otherwise remain invisible.



Brubaker, R., Feischmidt, M., Fox, J., and Grancea, L. (2006) Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fabietti, U. (1999) Antropologia Culturale. L’esperienza e L’interpretazione. Roma-Bari: Laterza.

Herzfeld, M. (2001) Performing Comparisons: Ethnography, Globetrotting, and the Spaces of Social Knowledge. Journal of Anthropological Research, 57 (3): 259-276.

Detienne, M. (2008) Comparing the Incomparable. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Miller, D., Costa, E., Haapio-Kirk, L., Haynes, N., Sinanan, J., Tom, M., Nicolescu, R., Spyer, J., Venkatraman, S. and Wang, X. (2017) ‘Contemporary Comparative Anthropology – The Why We Post Project’, Ethnos. DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2017.1397044