On Gutters and Ethnography

On Gutters and Ethnography

In a departure from more conventional communication methods in academia, I’m exploring how comics–a medium I love to read and am learning to make (thank you to my teacher in pre-pandemic times, Julian Peters!)–speak to ethnographic practice. In particular, I am wrestling with how the gutter between comics panels is something to consider in terms of ethnographic narratives. The work I refer to below is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is an excellent resource for comics artists and readers alike. For those who are interested in examples of the intersections of ethnography and comics, as a very small start, I really like Tings Chak’s Undocumented: the Architecture of Migrant Detention (unfortunately currently out of print), Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, Safdar Ahmed’s “Villawood“, the satire/non-fiction comics website The Nib, Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road, and “At Work Inside our Detention Centres: A Guard’s Story” by Sam Wallman and others at the now-defunct Global Mail. There are so many brilliant comics artists out there, and there’s even a whole American Anthropologist piece about anthropology and comics! (If you’re really stuck and need comic recommendations, Tweet at me with a few books you like or subjects you’re interested in. Or, share your own recommendations in the comments!)

My next post will be more text-heavy, but until then: my short meditation on comics.

In "Understanding Comics," Scott McCloud talks about how gutters--the spaces between panels--are a part of comics storytelling. Gutters aren't a lack of comics--gutters are gaps that impact how a story is told.

(Black on white) Gutters are the breath we take between here... (in a separate white box, black text) ...and here

According to McCloud, gutters also help us experience time in comics. In the example to the left, think about how your brain processes these two sequential images. What does the gutter do? (The images are one closed eye, one open eye.)

Ethnographies are also partial, and subject to their own kinds of time. Ethnographers decide whose voices to feature, what scenes to describe, and what kinds of topics to cover. (Ethnographers even decide--in the moment--what to not include in our notes.) [The background is two notebooks, one dark, one white.]

What is left out as we create an ethnographic (w)hole? How can we be more aware of the gaps in the stories we tell? [Hands are typing on a keyboard in the background, with a striped background.]

How do I write about my own fieldsite? how can I do justice to the 100+ asylum tribunal cases I observed? How do I tell a complicated story?

I don't have a perfect, one-size-fits-all solution. Ethnigraphic practices, styles, attentions vary. But I do think that we need to pay more attention to the interstitial gaps that make our ethnographic accounts possible.

[Dark background, white text]: We can't tell whole stories without acknowledging what's left out.

2 Replies to “On Gutters and Ethnography”

  1. This is such a nice and thoughtful reflection. I’ll be thinking about “gutters” for a while and just ordered some of the recommendations in the post. Thanks for this!