Do you have an ‘ethno-sense’?


Have you traveled overseas looking for something else than just tourism and sightseeing? Have you been surprised by other cultures and other ways of being? And, then, have you got back to your everyday routine feeling somewhat dislocated? Feeling that something around you could be different?

A new “Western” generation of young travelers is emerging, a generation that appreciates other cultures and that hopes to make sense of the overwhelming diversity pervading modern urban life. Whether they are looking back at their migrant roots or facing for the first time the vivid truth of global poverty, these are people who have traveled abroad in order to get close enough to another culture and grasp its reality – a reality that seems almost fictional when perceived for too long through a TV screen. But if they traveled in alternative ways, it was not only to improve their cultural “skills”. They also thought they could do something meaningful for them, that they could make a difference in some way.

Once they are back at home, the world for these young “Westerners” may seem confusing and strange. Usual ways of thinking and normal styles of doing things may start to seem “out of place”. Indeed, they can potentially become everyday travelers, people with a strange sense of the normal, people who can question their own city, their own culture, because of the exposure they had to alternative scenarios and social circumstances. This feeling of alienation or estrangement, of everyday traveling, is what this project calls an ethnographic sensibility – an “ethno-sense”.


Lately, ‘ethnography’ has become a somewhat fashionable technique of research, which is strange, because it is too flexible and too enjoyable to pass for a “scientific method”. Instead of separating observer and object – as the typical image of a crazy scientist in his laboratory evokes – ethnographers try their best to do the opposite. They leave their lab coats at home and go “out there” to immerse themselves as much as they can in the culture of their interest, during several months or even years. Cultures, that’s what they study, in their most natural and messy existence, and their ultimate aim is to develop, precisely, an ethnographic sensibility, even if it takes unbelievable effort and sacrifice.

An ethno-sense is something that you cannot develop in a quick trip to a developing country or in a short course of intercultural communication. It’s an integral understanding of why people do what they do in a certain way and not another – especially when it’s not done in our way – an understanding that is most of the time either unspoken, hidden or encoded across multiple layers of cultural meaning and social life. Languages, customs, rituals and manners all belong to a cultural code that is hard to penetrate and that takes time to learn.

So, you must be thinking, “ethnographic sounds complicated”, and to a certain degree it is. Not everyone has an ethno-sense.  An ethno-sense is more than understanding another culture, it’s also understanding that one’s common sense is part of a culture, as strange and particular as any other. But it is still possible for anyone to develop such a sensibility. Currently, many people are in fact doing that through different cross-cultural programs of international aid, development tourism, volunteering abroad, educational tours, etc. And even if you have not gone through any of this sort of programs, but you have been able to reflect critically about what is considered to be “normal” among your peers, if you have thought at some point that your own customs, routines, beliefs and even values are somewhat peculiar or even exotic, in other words, if you have been able to defamiliarize your own culture, then, you have for sure started to develop an ethno-sense.


In this blog, you will encounter unusual ideas from a group of young people who, without being specialist researchers, are committed to develop their ethnographic sensibility at home (more about this in the young ethnographers project section). But I should probably warn you: while you read this blog, you may inadvertently develop your own ethno-sense, you may become to some degree an ‘everyday traveler’, a person who does not belong – not even at home – always  out of whack, a bit out of place.

I am sure you must be wondering then “so, what’s the upside?” Well, maybe developing an ethno-sense is not such a bad idea after all. Perhaps, only until we are really sure that things could be different and that our lifestyles do not necessarily have to look this way, we will not be willing to give a chance to sustainable social change.