"I Don't Want to Die in America:" Speculative Ethnography for Moments of Crisis

Year: 2021

Author: Dai, Yan, Arnberg, Benjamin

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Margaret Atwood wrote that speculative fiction “really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened” (2011). Ethnographers cannot conjure characters, plots, and settings from thin air; ethnographers must ground narratives in realities that are verifiable. Tracy (2010) outlined criteria for “quality” qualitative work, including “credibility,” “rich rigor,” and “coherence.” Creswell and Miller (2000) identified a series of “validation” practices, including triangulation, thick description, and prolonged engagement in the field. These methods might be accessible for ethnographers under “ordinary” circumstances. But what can ethnographers do when conventional methods of inquiry are impossible? What must ethnographers do when crises emerge that restrict human movement and interaction? As COVID-19 spread, nations entered periods of isolation, social distancing, lockdowns, and closures. In the United States, education institutions shuttered, forcing students into digital-exclusive educational and social experiences. These conditions burdened international student populations: travel restrictions prevented them from returning to home countries and institutional policies prevented them from forming social networks or from receiving supplemental instructional resources. American higher education seemed to overlook and/or misinterpret the specialized needs of international student populations during this crisis. We initiated ethnographic work to illuminate these specialized needs and to articulate some evidence-based practices for guiding international students through times of crisis. COVID-19 dampened our ethnographic aspirations. Shelter-in-place orders prevented in-person fieldwork and restricted our ability to conduct interviews. Other barriers were unexpected. For example, Yan, who is an international graduate student, was able to initially recruit through her social network(s), but as our work expanded, recruiting through social sampling became less feasible. We also missed the opportunity to observe mannerism, body language, dress, and emotion, narrative elements that do not translate digitally. As we began analyzing data, we realized there were/are gaps in our study, gaps which could not easily be filled under pandemic conditions. We turned to speculative inquiry for inspiration. Speculative fiction grounds narratives in possible realities; possibilities are based on history and observation. We devised new approaches to data generation and analysis to build speculative reports on international student experience in a time of crisis; these approaches were/are informed by emerging postqualitative methodology (such as Mazzei’s (2021) “speculative inquiry" and Jackson’s (2017) “thinking without method”), queer theory’s futurity and fabulation (such as Nyong’o’s (2019) “afro-fabulation”), and autoethnography (such as Holman Jones and Adams’s (2010) autoethnographic hinging). Our presentation incorporates three micro speculative ethnographies based on our work with Chinese students studying in the U.S. during COVID-19.