Practice Ethnography Proposal

Mar 2011
Practice Ethnography Proposal

(Last update: 12-23-13)

By Jim R. McClanahan​

The following is a proposal for a hypothetical ethnographic study. While the cultural side of anthropology is not my academic focus, I believe such a study would be an interesting undertaking.


The election of Nina Davuluri (Miss New York), an Indoamerican woman, as Miss America 2014 resulted in racist comments on twitter conflating her with the Arab Muslim extremists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. This present work takes a multisite approach to study two communities; one is the longstanding Indoamerican community in the heart of New York City, the other is a small but fast growing Indian immigrant population in an area outside of Washington, D.C. The focus is to see how both communities experience and deal with the negative social and economic effects brought on by such conflation. For the Indoamerican community, I focus on the negotiation of their salient Indian and American identities, how they create respect in an environment of no respect, and how they handle said discrimination. For the Indian immigrant community, I focus on the negative economic effects of being conflated with Muslims, how they negotiate the power differential, and, again, how they deal with discrimination. I also touch on the factors that cause white Americans to conflate one ethnic group with another. I show it is the isolation from the outside world that causes Americans to rely on phenotype and stereotypes to conflate Asian Indians with Arab Muslims.

Research Objective

A recent incident that garnered media attention illustrates how a devastating event can cause an ethnic minority to bear the brunt of resentment based simply on their phenotypic differences from the Euroamerican majority. On September 15, 2013, Nina Davuluri (Miss New York), An American born woman of Indian heritage, was crowned Miss America for 2014. That a dark-skinned woman was chosen as a symbol of America in such close proximity to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks caused a xenophobic backlash on twitter, an online social networking site. Many people left racist comments like “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?,” “How the f*ck does a foreigner win miss America? She is a [sic] Arab! #idiots,” and “Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It's fine” (“A Lot of People”).

The main focus of the study will be the social and economic side effects of people of Indian heritage being conflated with Arab Muslim extremists. A multisite approach will be used to study people of two communities; the first are first and second generation American born individuals living in the heart of a major metropolitan city which has a well-developed Indoamerican population. Major themes will include identity, respect, and discrimination. How has the salience of their individual Indian and American Identities changed in the post-9/11 era? Does the anti-foreign environment cause them to favor one over the other? Do they try to hide their ethnicity? Have they internalized the anti-foreign fervor to push away from the culture of their family? Do they act one way around their friends and another way around their families? How do they create respect in an environment of no respect? What kind of discrimination have they faced? What type of people usually discriminates against them? How do they deal with the discrimination (i.e., ignore vs. fight or flight)?

The second people will be immigrants living in a town with a small but rapidly growing Indian immigrant population. Major themes will include economics, power, and discrimination. All of these themes feed into each other. Has their foreign appearance or accent made it hard for them to find a job? Do people confuse them with other ethnicities beyond Arabs? Has the increase in Indian immigrants led to an increase in marginalization and possibly violence? What type of people usually discriminates against them? How do they deal with the discrimination (i.e., ignore vs. fight or flight)?

Both areas will be compared to see if one group is discriminated against more than the other. I predict that the latter group will be marginalized more because the communities in which they live will most likely have less exposure to Indians in comparison to those in the city. All of this will help elucidate information on the surrounding Euroamerican majority and help explain why the twitter controversy happened.

I would also like to explore, to a lesser extent, what factors cause white Americans to confuse people of Indian ethnicity with those of Arab heritage and link them to the 9/11 attacks and Islamic fundamentalism. People who do this display a lack of geographic knowledge considering that Saudi Arabia and India are two completely different countries separated by the Indian Ocean. This also shows a lack of cultural and political knowledge since not all so-called foreign-looking people are Muslim and not all Muslims are religious extremists. I suggest the self-reliant nature of the US economy and the nation’s segregation from smaller foreign countries in closer proximity to each other have created a protective bubble around the American citizenry. They live most of their lives in a whitewashed environment, and so their lack of exposure to the outside world has caused them to rely solely on phenotype and stereotypes to form pictures about concepts with which they are unfamiliar. It is most likely this unfamiliarity that has led to the conflation of Indoamericans with Arab Muslim fundamentalists.

Connection to previous scholarship

I am using two previous ethnographies on Mexican and Mexican American communities as a model for my own study. The first is Angel’s Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and Rhetorics of the Everyday (1997) by Ralph Cintron. The author studied a town near Chicago with a large Mexican American community. He traces the formation of the town from its earliest days as Native land, through its industrial golden age, and up to its modern incarnation as a transportation hub. The layout of the city shows that the foreign migrant workers who came to help build the city and work in the manufacturing industry were demarcated from a richer, whiter population that developed later on. He focuses on the titular character Don Angel, who is used to embody the modern experience of Mexican Americans and their migrant counter parts. The negotiation of his identity as a traditional medicine man, a Mexican American, and a working class American are explored. This lays the groundwork for discussions on respect, power, and contention among the Mexican American populace. For instance, Angel’s use of illegal documentation is used to discuss resistance in regards to power (Cintron 1997: 51-59).

The focus on the negotiation of identity is an important aspect of my study. The population living in the first site of the metropolitan city would probably have three types of people: heritage caretakers of the Hindu culture (possibly parents or grandparents who originally immigrated to the US long ago), Indian Americans caught between traditional culture and modern society (possibly first generation Indoamericans), and the second generation. The main focus would be on the first and second generations. I will study how the Islamophobic environment of the US following the 9/11 attacks has or has not changed the salience in their individual Indian and American identities. The second generation will be interesting subjects because they parallel the second generation from Cintron’s work. He describes them as resenting the older generation that exhibit what they would consider old fashioned or outdated ideologies or forms of dress (Ibid: 64-67). I will explore how more exposure to American culture and/or marginalization might cause the second generation Indoamericans to resent the older generations and try to forge new identities that make them appear whiter to the surrounding society.

The second is The Price of Poverty: Money, Work, and Culture in the Mexican American Barrio (2003) by Daniel Dohan. The author studied two communities in California; the first was the Guadalupe barrio with a high population of migrant workers from two particular Mexican cities. The second was the Chavez barrio with a high population of American born individuals of Mexican heritage. The effects of deindustrialization—major industries were moved outside of the respective cities for cheaper labor—are mapped in each area. Both barrios suffer from high underemployment, meaning that jobs are available but the hours fluctuate and the pay is quite low. Dohan finds that members of each barrio have different views on legal and illicit work and federal aid. Residents of the Guadalupe barrio work numerous jobs in order to remit money back to Mexico for future projects, or they try to save up in order to bring family to the US (Dohan 2003: 96). The residents of the Chavez barrio, having lived the American lifestyle, are for the most part unwilling to work more than one job, so they resort to criminal activities and federal aid to make a living (Ibid: 71).

The focus of two ethnically-related populations at two different sites is another important aspect of my study. But instead of studying the different ways in which they experience and deal with underemployment, I’m studying how they experience and deal with discrimination. As mentioned above, I will focus on whether or not the negotiation of the salient Indian and American identities is affected by anti-Arab/Islamophobic discrimination in the Indoamerican population. Do they view the discrimination differently than the Indian immigrants? Do the immigrants realize that there is a connection between their phenotype and the aforementioned discrimination? I will also study if this marginalization affects the employment of the immigrants. Are they stuck in low paying jobs because discrimination over their appearance or accent keeps them from advancing? These are other questions that I hope to answer.


I will consult the 2010 census for demographic information about areas of the United States that have established and growing Indian populations. The former must be located in a major metropolitan area where Indoamericans have been present in large numbers for at least one generation. Considering that the 9/11 attacks happened 12 years ago, these individuals would probably have children by now. The second generation would also be susceptible to xenophobia, so I would also need to check the same source for age demographics. Finding the latter will be important because the area must have a rapidly expanding Indian migrant population (possible spillover from a metropolitan area). Communities in and around New York City and Washington, D.C. seem like they would be promising areas of study due to the close association with the 9/11 attacks.

I would need to contact a local university or cultural organization in order to help pinpoint the exact areas. Visiting the places in person would be a must in order to view the proximity of the respective Indian communities in relation to the surrounding white neighborhoods. Visiting would also be important for meeting the people who helped me find the potential sites, finding a translator (if necessary), introducing myself to possible case subjects and finding a family willing to host my stay. I would like to live in the respective areas for some months before I officially begin the study so all involved will be more comfortable with me and more willing to share. This will also give me time to put names with faces.

I would like to live in both study sites for at least one year. Hopefully the host family will also be good case subjects. This will enable me to have almost limitless access to them and their lives. For people outside the home environment, I will try to befriend them to gain longer access. These people will make up the bulk of my observation and participant observation. The schedule for such people may be up to 8 or 9 hours a day (5 days a week) as long as interactions last that long. I will observe them as long as they feel comfortable, however. This may only be a few hours at a time in some cases. For those who I can’t ingratiate myself to, I’ll limit my interactions with them to the surveys and interviews that I will perform with everyone.

I will work with a bilingual translator to make sure that the survey and interview questions are easy to understand and, for those individuals who don’t speak English, that the corresponding Hindi (or whatever language they speak) translation matches the feel of the original. I would like to have 40 people (an even mix of males and females) take the survey. I would like to have 20 interviews to get several perspectives on the effects of racism. Both the interviews and the surveys will be performed in quiet locations. I will use both a video camera in plain view and a notepad to record the dialogue, non-verbal semiotic codes, the surroundings, and the mood of the interview. I’m hoping to draw out questions to make interviews last between 30 minutes to an hour. This will surely provide a treasure trove of data. The questions on both the survey and the interview will deal with the major themes mentioned above, including Identity, respect, economics, power, and discrimination. The information will serve to answer the questions listed above.

The data from the surveys, interviews, and field notes will be reproduced in a word program and uploaded into the appropriate programs. Surveys will be put into excel and analyzed in the SPSS statistical analysis program to look for correlations (e.g. bi-variant) with p values of 0.05% or below. The interviews and field notes will be uploaded to Dedoose, and the data will be given code trees to help find patterns.

The information on why I think Euroamericans have formed conflated images of ethnicities and cultures will be drawn from previous publications dealing with history, economics, anthropology, and psychology. One source that could be used to make inferences about the situation in the US is the European Fundamental Rights Agency’s (FRA) 2002 report "Summary report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001."


The ethnographic literature is full of studies on the effects of racism on longstanding racial groups in the US, most predominantly African Americans. The significance of this study is that it will expand the literature on a little studied group. Indoamericans are sorely underrepresented, as are their immigrant counterparts. It will also open the door to cross ethnic studies of how and why different groups come to be conflated with each other. The methods used could be applied to other ethnic groups and deepen our knowledge on racism in general. The more we learn about its root causes will help us change the environment in which it happens. Thus, leading to an open-minded society that is more accepting of everyone despite the color of their skin or what religion they practice (or don’t practice for that matter).

Early anthropologists became the bane of Native American people because the ideas that they transmitted in their writings helped lock these people in the “Ethnographic Present.” The image of the Indian as a “Savage” slowly disappearing into the mists of time helped fuel colonialist government policies to take the land and culture from Native groups. The forced marches of Native people like the Cherokee (1830: the “Trail of Tears”) and the Navajo (1864: the “Long Walk”) led to a great loss of life via starvation, exposure, disease, and murder (Sturm 2002; Denetdale 2007). The Native anthropologist Vine Deloria called on anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s to change the materialistic focus of the study to instead collaborate with Native groups. The change of focus would then not only satisfy the western thirst for knowledge but also benefit Native peoples (Deloria 1969). For instance, the share in money from a resulting book could help fund tribal projects. So it is important for ethnographic studies to somehow benefit the target people in one way or another.

The most significant contribution of this study is that it will help build a list of criteria to determine which areas of the United States would be more prone to the discrimination of Indoamericans and their immigrant counterparts. The government could then target these areas for cultural enrichment in which the local people learn more about Indians and their culture. This would help in dissolving the unfamiliarity mentioned above. It would also hopefully help keep events like the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting on August, 5, 2012 from happening again. Although there is no concrete evidence to the effect, it’s possible that the gunman, Wade Michael Page, confused the Indian inhabitants of the temple with Muslims. He was a former soldier kicked out of the military-turned-white power musician who had a 9/11-inspired tattoo on his arm (“Sikh Temple Killer”). The Southern Poverty Law Center states that this is not the first time something like this has happened. Their online article on Page mentions that a Sikh gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi, age 49, was shot to death by Frank Silva Roque on September 15, 2001, four days after the 9/11 attacks. Roque “described himself to police as ‘a patriot’” (Ibid).

Update 12-23-13:

A recent incident involving the defacing of a public billboard stands as the perfect example of why such a study is needed. The GAP clothing store posted billboards featuring the Sikh model Waris Ahluwalia as a part of their "Make Love" campaign. In November of this year, an unknown person in New York City vandalized the tagline to read "Make bombs!" In addition, they wrote "Stop driving taxis!" Again, a person of Indian heritage is confused with an Islamic fundamentalist based solely on their phenotype.



"A Lot Of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant." BuzzFeed. A Lot Of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant (accessed December 9, 2013).

Cintron, Ralph. 1997. Angels' Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and Rhetorics of the Everyday. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.

Deloria, Vine. 1969. Custer Died for Your Ssins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.

Denetdale, Jennifer. 2007. Reclaiming Diné history: the legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Dohan, Daniel. 2003. The Price of Poverty: Money, Work, and Culture in the Mexican-American Barrio. Berkeley: University of California Press.

"Sikh Temple Killer Wade Michael Page Radicalized in Army." Southern Poverty Law Center. Sikh Temple Killer Wade Michael Page Radicalized in Army | Southern Poverty Law Center (accessed December 10, 2013).

Sturm, Circe. 2002. Blood politics: race, culture, and identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Berkeley, Calif. [u.a.]: Univ. of California Press.


Forum Staff
Mar 2008
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
My hat is off to you for a well written proposal. I pray you keep us posted of your progress on this interesting topic. Adelante!
Mar 2011
Thanks, Pedro. This proposal was actually the final paper for my cultural anthropology class. I was quite proud of the results (as was my professor), so I decided to post it on my blog. This is not a project that I plan to partake in the future since my anthropological focus is primate behavior and evolution. However, I would love to see a professional ethnographer follow the project through to completion.
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