Puppetry of ethics

9 May

The decision to embark on an overseas volunteer journey was, for me, grounded in my idealist utopianism of wanting to change the world. Gandhi said it well i think, when he made the now famous quote “be the change you wish to see in the world”.  As far as I was concerned, I was going to make a difference!

Fast forward to the pre-departure training (or was that indoctrination training?).  The reality of being a volunteer within a broader context of “Australian Aid” became apparent.  Now this brought with it a new perspective on what it means to be a volunteer, with guidelines on how we are to act, what we can and can’t say, can and can’t do and so on and so forth.  A few of us volunteers did ponder from time to time why a right-wing neoliberal government would want to mass together 200 left-leaning young people and fund their travels and work overseas. We never did have the answer, but it did bring to light an interesting space where both were using each other for means that existed at opposing poles. The challenge I guess then became how does one navigate this space? Could I be guided by the ethics of both my utopian humanitarianism and Australia’s foreign aid policy? Were they compatible? Or would I need to simply become a puppet?

Perhaps the first opportunity to explore this question came from the pre-departure training. We were shown a video of the amazing ingenuity, creativity and resilience of the peoples of Bougainville during the blockade of their island home.  Things such as building electricity generators from old bulldozer parts and running cars off coconut oil.  I was so completely captured by what I saw that I later purchased a copy of the DVD so I could watch it again and share it with my friends and family. And this is where it got interesting.  For what I discovered when I watched the DVD again for the first time, was that the first half of the documentary had not been shown to us at pre-departure training. The half that showed Australia’s involvement in firstly taking control of Bougainville lands for mining, and secondly in providing military support to PNG to fight against the Bougainville “rebels” and instigate the blockade.  How very interesting, I thought. Where does the truth fit within my newly adopted ethics of Australian Aid policy? How would I navigate similar such spaces if they were to arise during the course of my volunteer position?

Six months into my twelve month volunteer position, I was  faced with this latter question, in what seemed to be an incommensurability between my own ethics and that of “my keeper”.  In fact twice before this moment the same challenge had arisen, and I had chosen the path laid out to me by the pre-departure training DVD.  But on the third occasion, my own now frayed and worn ethics could take it no more, as I struggled with the dilemma of exposing the truth or toeing the line as an Australian volunteer.  On this occasion, I chose the former. The response was swift, with my position being suspended along with a visit to the Australian High Commission for a ‘please explain’. And what was interesting about the latter was the sense of solidarity that came along with my disciplining. A feeling of support for what I had done for it was consistent with a truth, yet there existed another truth confined within the context of my volunteering that required my to be disciplined.

I can think of only cliches in trying to rationalize this dilemma…”the greater good”, “the necessary evil”, “biting the hand that feeds you”…but the question ultimately remains – How does a volunteer navigate the conflicted ethical spaces, particularly when the balance of power is not their favour?

About the blog

22 Sep

This collaborative blog is an experiment in ethnographic methodology that I organized in the context of my doctoral research. Just as it would happen with the copious amounts of field notes in any classical ethnography, only a very small portion of the actual material produced by the project makes an appearance in my dissertation. But from the beginning that was one of the appeals of gathering thoughts through this kind of public writing.

The blog has now been for a long time an archive and I apologize to those who kindly tried to encourage me, like Jaap Timmer, to pass it on to others who might be able to find new directions and energies for the blog. At least its general concept seems to have made some impact and found some resonance within a wider public, the most evident being the way the Fieldschool for Ethnographic Sensibility at The University of Alberta adopted and embraced the domain name of “ethnosense”.

My PhD has taken me in unexpected directions throughout these years, shifting towards rather theoretical and historical inquiries. You can check out the abstract for the thesis that will soon be appearing in the MQ online repository to see what I mean. I am still of course open to the idea of extending the life of this blog. Please email me at carlosmpalacioso@gmail.com if you have any ideas.

Lastly, apologies if the hyperlinks within the posts don’t work at times. This was a side-effect of changing the blog’s name from ethnosense.com to ethnosense.wordpress.com. But they can be manually fixed by editing the ending of the relevant link to wordpress.com. To this day I continue to find interesting posts that I had not read closely enough before. I must thank one last time all the bloggers who contributed with so much commitment and creativity to this experiment. I hope that, with the passing of time, they have come to see this exercise as a useful step in their own personal explorations.

Book project looking for volunteer stories

26 Dec
I thought this might be of great interest to the readers and contributors of ethnosense – especially if you have a really good story to tell from your volunteer trip.
Transformative Tourism: Stories from Volunteers
seeks story contributions for book project
Project Description
The book project Transformative Tourism: Stories from Volunteers seeks story contributions based upon your experience as a volunteer tourist. We ask that you contribute stories that will allow readers to share in your volunteer experience and the insight(s) you gained. The book project is premised upon the belief that volunteer tourism is a transformative experience for the community and the individual. While the concept of “voluntourism” has been theorized in an academic context, it has garnered little public attention. Transformative Tourism attempts to fill this gap and creating a resource for multiple audience.
Project Guidelines
·      Visit www.transformativetourism.org for detailed story guidelines
·      500-1500 word insightful, thoughtful, engaging and/or life changing stories
·      Project abstracts (250 words) due by February 1, 2012
·      Final essays due by April 1, 2012
·      Submit stories to Sara Church and Mary Gould: story@transformativetourism.org
Transformative Tourism: Stories from Volunteers is a collection of short stories written by people who participated in volunteer tourism trips. This edited volume will contain the transformative, enlightening, uplifting, and challenging stories told by the men and women who serve as volunteers around the world.
Contact Information
About the Editors
Sara Church traveled to Romania in 2008 on a volunteer trip with Globe Aware and the experience made a profound impact on her. Sara has over a decade of experience with Fortune 500 companies in commercial strategy, marketing, management and sales.
Mary Gould, PhD., is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Culture at Saint Louis University. She researches and publishes in the areas of tourism and travel, cultural studies and globalization.

Check out our publication!

31 Oct

The Young Ethnographers Project has come to an end. Our bloggers finished their journey by creating a short publication with their Final Reflections as cultural travelers and international volunteers.

Last month they got together one last time to celebrate the success of this project and receive a certificate of participation for their creative and bold contributions. This closure event was also the perfect opportunity to launch their edited compilation. To give you a better idea of how that publication complements this blog, check one of the things it says:

To conclude the project, the young ethnographers wrote a small reflection or ethnographic
piece that synthesized their insights and thought process in a concise format – resembling
the way anthropologists would put together an ethnography for publication. After facing
several weeks or months of being immersed in an ocean of cultural difference, and after then
blogging and thinking back on many of their unique experiences, the journey finally comes
to a resolution in the following ethnographic pieces of writing. Just like an anthropologist,
these returned volunteers have engaged deeply with another culture and then have
systematically reflected on that experience, allowing them to write, at the end, a public
reflection that brings together the entire process.

And to complete the event, we announced the happy winners of the 2 iPads that were meant to encourage everyone to keep their energy up throughout this lengthy project. Congratulations to the two participants! And congratulations to all of the participants, who made this an amazing blog to read.

Where’s everyone gone?

13 Aug

You are probably wondering what happened to these group of young bloggers that used to post stuff so frequently. Well, they’ve been very busy in the last month writing one final reflection for the first version of The Young Ethnographers Project. This project consisted in two parts: first, three months of intense blogging in Ethnosense, making sense of their cultural immersions as international volunteers and, second, one last month of writing, putting together a final reflection for a compilation to be published in a booklet format. A new group of young ethnographers will start blogging again in the next few months, but in the meantime, I’d like to give you a snippet of what you’ll find in the concluding thoughts of this exciting and creative group:


The transition from my world to theirs and vice versa was undoubtedly the most challenging thing that I faced. It was culture shock but not in the sense that the Peruvian culture is vastly different to mine, more so a sense of lifestyle shock, if there is such a thing. It was impossible to ignore. Inescapable, surrounding me like a misty haze on a dark night..


I feel for India, I opened to the country and as a result have reassessed a lot of what I do in daily life. I smiled, and India smiled back. India head-wobbled, and I head-wobbled back. I sledge-hammered through how ‘normal’ is such a painfully relative term; how through repetition we can be used to anything, through getting used to anything we foster a familiarity which then becomes immunity – oh look, there’s another cow taking a dump in front of me outside the bakery about to cross an 8 lane road..


Perhaps it was because of how welcome and included I felt that I did not experience any “culture shock”. I think this is true to an extent but, most of all, I think it was because I was so immersed in the culture that I failed to recognise its major particularities.


I blindly picked Vietnam off a list of countries I could visit using my chosen volunteer agency. There was no reason behind my choice. I wish there was, just so I could explain the reason why I spent three months in a country I only associated with war and Forrest Gump. In hindsight, I think this blind decision benefited me..


Even your own efforts as a volunteer seem senseless, futile and even egocentric in the grand scheme of a system that created poverty and inequality in the first place. That’s the volunteer hangover..


When I found myself in Vietnam, amongst systems and structures that also don’t treat people as people, I was overwhelmed. And that overwhelming sensation returned multiple times during my 12 months there. However, I found that one must choose one’s battles. By seeking to understand the context, the players and the dynamics between them, you can choose the battles you fight..


While I have volunteered in Vietnam and India, my time spent at an Australia Immigration Detention Centre was by far the most ethically challenging and changing. I think in Vietnam and India it was easy to dismiss poverty and inequality as essentially ‘developing world’ issues; the inevitable outcomes of poor governance and inadequate education. Yet the egregious Australian asylum seeker process cannot be blamed on either of these things..


My journey of sacrifice and approaching everyday activities with a posture of learning benefitted me incredibly. Even more so, was my retelling of such experiences through blogging. The sacrifices that my friends make every day in Swaziland, of which I also partook, e.g. walking for hours in the heat of the African sun for the purpose of establishing a more united and prosperous community, serves as a reminder of the goals we strive to achieve..


I remember feeling very foreign when I first arrived at my placement. I had a reoccurring thought of the meaning of the word foreign. To me I had mostly heard the word used by mum, who works in medicine, referring to a ‘foreign body’, something that should not be where it is..


The wonderful humour and lightheartedness sometimes brings with it frustration when things need to get done.  Not just for me but for the locals sometimes too. Perhaps what is different for me is that I can seemingly drift in and out as I please, picking and choosing the bits of cultural fruit that tantalize my taste buds. For the Fijians however, such freedom is not as easy..


At University, School and Church I always hear statements such as “We are so blessed to live in Australia” but maybe we are just so well off because we keep everything to ourselves and we don’t help the less fortunate countries as much as we could..


I have found all too often, following a stint of volunteering, I’ve been asked to relate my feelings and experiences in power points and easily understandable photo gallery narrations that last no longer than the welcome home dinner party… it is very rare that one is driven to the simple act of self-reflection for reflections sake..


Though I think many of the issues raised can never be resolved by blogging, the value is in our shared experiences and reflections, which are often not understood by those close to us..


I think pushing your comfort zone is a great experience and should be encouraged.  Language is a big part of your comfort zone.  Not being able to converse with someone is not something we’ve had to deal with since early childhood…



I will upload the digital version of the booklet as soon as we have it ready, and I’ll keep you updated with everything, but if you think you can be one the next young ethnographers or if you want to make a guest appearance in this blog, don’t hesitate and let me know.

Reflections and frowns

21 Jul

I realise my volunteering experience has three stages to it.

1. I am doing a wonderful thing (self aggrandisement?), how important this is and my ability to ‘give back’. Good stuff. Taking advantage of my ability to partake in such a program. Bonus life points.

2. This is a joke! Anyone with a hand to hold a pen could be doing this job – I am useless, is it just about the program fee for the organisation? Surely not, I’m more valuable that that?! Withdrawal. Denial. Let down.

3. This experience is mine, my work partner is like a private travel guide/translator, it is not about the work, but the culture, the people, the experience. I suddenly feel bad for having such a good set up over there, but that’s the only way I can come to terms with it.
Break away from the tight framework that we started with, enjoy hours on buses often for 20 minutes of work, watch India roll by, know that I have discovered and redefined a precious part of the world and of myself.

The Power of Reflection

9 Jul

When reflecting on our volunteer experiences, there is always something that stands out amongst our memories. They may be an encounter, an event that taught us a lesson in life, or even a chance experience. For me, however, it was something as simple as hearing the melodies of people’s voices. Singing in a pastime activity for Swazis and Africans in general.

By sharing stories, experiences, triumphs, learnings, and personal journeys, whilst being an overseas volunteer has allowed me to revisit my most cherished memories that would otherwise be locked away. It has allowed me to relive my successes, challenges and reflect and learn more from my retelling. Such a power that lies in reflecting, and indeed can be adapted to learn from all life’s experiences.

Generation (Hard) Y(akka)

7 Jul

When I applied for the overseas volunteering opportunity, I was struggling to find employment as a recent double-degree graduate. I completed my studies at the end of 2008. Just after the GFC unleashed itself on the world.

It’s tough being a Gen Y graduate. There are more university graduates in the jobmarket than ever before. Competition is fierce. It was particularly so after the GFC. No one was hiring.

An article written by a member of Gen Y, or, as I would call it, Gen Hard Yakka, struck me. I’ve reproduced some of it below:

Young people have simply never known what proper job security is. We are so acutely aware of how difficult it is to find a job that when we eventually get one, we work incredibly hard to protect it and remain wary of how fleeting it may be.

We entered the workforce when a job was a rare privilege.

Some of us work with the fear of being fired and accept that as legitimate because, well, that’s just the way things are these days. If you’re not the best at your job then employers are entitled to get someone who is.

This attitude shocks baby boomers who entered the workforce before unionism went out of fashion along with bell-bottomed jeans. To baby boomers, the casualisation of the workforce is a one-fingered salute to workers’ rights. To generation Y, it is an entirely acceptable and pragmatic reality of our uncertain financial times.

Influenced by an endless conveyor belt of strikes and memories of glorious unionists during the 1960s and ’70s, boomers have always believed their job is their right and no one would dare sack them for having a few off days and a sickie or two. They never experienced the distress of being a qualified, ambitious, industrious graduate desperately looking for a job in a threadbare market.

Generation Y aren’t just harder-working and more enjoyable to work with because they’re young and fresh. We have an appreciation for a job that our parents [baby boomers] simply don’t.”

I agree in large part with the above views. I hope this post didn’t come across as a huge whinge, especially as I feel very privileged to have steady and interesting employment right now.

I’m merely pointing out, as this young lady has, that a young university-educated person in Australia has a precarious short-term future.

University graduates in Vietnam have better prospects of gaining employment (corresponding to their profession) than in Australia. The competition is far too high in Australia.

However, new occupations are emerging, such as social media analysts and consultants, which did not exist 30 or even 10 years ago.

Hopefully, positions in the developing labour market will be filled with bright young minds which will bring about transformations of existing structures, systems and the status quo.

a sanitised depiction

7 Jul

Merely watching the first 2 minutes of Luke Nguyen’s show persuades the viewer of the beauty of Vietnam.

I wish I could be as laid back and relaxed as Luke Nguyen is in Vietnam.

His exuberance, enthusiasm and the way he fully embraces and expresses his love for Vietnam seems genuine and is very believable. It’s probably because he is genuine. However, despite him jumping right into local food culture, the show depicts quite a sanitised version of Vietnam. Even the introductory montage (around 2 minutes into the above youtube video) has a pearly white glow.

Whereas, when one is aware and confronted by the social and political climate in Vietnam, it’s difficult to let go, relax and be enchanted by ‘charming’ Vietnam. It is difficult to be creative in your work and be proactive and positive in your outlook every day.

A friend recommended a recently published book to me. Vietnam, Rising Dragon, explores the complex and fascinating period in which Vietnam is developing in, and goes beyond the deceptive tourism campaign. I read the excerpt and was sold.

It is exactly the book I need to read upon returning to Australia after being living and volunteering in Vietnam for a year. It will undoubtedly help me make sense of what I experienced.

In Vietnam, whenever I found the answer to one question, ten more would pop up in my head. This book will help me find the answers that have been floating in my head ever since.

Maybe then, I could return to Vietnam and be as laid back as Luke Nguyen.

When Words Fail

5 Jul

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes, they are too much. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to get the balance right. So. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

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Need and Greed

5 Jul

The line between need and greed is often very thin and difficult to distinguish.  It may be somewhat obvious for the average Australian when considering a sizeable purchase.  Do I need a new phone or new car?  Or can I survive with my current one?  Taking this many steps further, you could ask the “Do I need?” question on every single one of your daily decisions, big or small.  If you took this to the extreme, you may end up living in a cave eating berries.

Let me attack this from another angle.  I discussed in the previous article about the theft of the video camera, and whether this was driven by need or greed.  I have also wondered about this from other observations.  Metal security grills on houses in remote villages in the middle of the Pacific or in Africa seem a little unnecessary.  Surely crime doesn’t exist in such remote locations.  But I can guarantee these people wouldn’t have spent the money on security grills if it wasn’t necessary.

Another example shocked me when I was travelling through Kenya.  Travel in Kenya on buses means lots of stops, and whenever you stop, there is no shortage of people trying to sell you something through the window.  This is great, as it ensures you are never hungry on a bus, as it is mostly food being sold.  However, I was in a minibus one time and the driver slowed down enough to buy some oranges.  By slow down, I mean he didn’t stop, he kept driving at a slow pace so the women selling the oranges had to run along beside the car to make the sale through the window.  Just as the money was changing hands another woman barges in trying to out-sell the other lady, nearly resulting in both ladies tripping themselves up and tumbling along the edge of the road.  With a bit of jostling the first women kept her feet and completed the sale.  This was some intense competition between the two women (who probably live in the same village) and I wonder whether it was need or greed.  The need maybe between dinner and no dinner for her family or it may have been some meat for dinner versus another night of beans and rice.  The difference between need and greed is far too hard for me to tell and not for me to judge, regardless.

My current conclusion is the difference between need and greed is a personal decision and can be only judged by the individual.  This type of moral decision is ingrained in you from your upbringing. You alone are responsible for deciding what you need and what is greed.

Puma fact:

5) Pumas are just like all other cats, they like nothing better than having a snooze in a sunny spot.  It may last 15 minutes or it may take an hour.  Either way you need to be ready to go when he is.

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