The Ethnographic Vignette as Innovative Tool in Intersectional Social Justice Activist Research

The Ethnographic Vignette as Innovative Tool in Intersectional Social Justice Activist Research

Debra D. Burrington (Colorado Technical University, USA)
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8479-8.ch004
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This chapter leverages ethnographic narratives written during the author's year of nearly daily ‘walking tourism' in New York City on the heels of 9/11 as a vehicle to illustrate an innovative approach to community-based research for intersectional social justice purposes. Since the 1990s, the author has employed creatively crafted vignettes as an activist researcher working with alliances of racial, gender, queer, economic, and labor organizations that joined together to conduct progressive intersectional social justice interventions in a conservative Western US state. Here the author extracts pieces of her “New York Stories” for use as vignettes that could be employed in practice-based research as discussion prompts to foster restorative dialogue and participatory action research efforts in community groups and organizations committed to the work of intersectional social justice.
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To write this piece I have relied on fragments, bits and pieces of information found here and there. (bell hooks, 1990)

…no field of social or artistic research can long remain indifferent to influences or provocations from beyond its disciplinary boundaries. (James Clifford, 1981)

I like to watch. (Chauncey Gardner, Being There, 1979)



In this chapter, I embrace the bricoleur or “the poetic making do” (de Certeau, 1984, xv; Denzin & Lincoln, 2013) to offer my perspective on how a variety of tools – the ethnographic disposition/attitude of mind; the spirit of community-based research; the confluence of action research, appreciative inquiry, and restorative dialogue; and the power of story rendered in vignettes, which can be utilized by activist researchers in support of intersectional social justice research. I situate myself (perhaps precariously) as I attempt to make a case for a ‘relaxed’ and innovative approach to research that recognizes the positionalities and investments of all participants who want to ‘know’ and ‘do’ work on the ground in their communities to advance a diversity of interests in social justice. There is no neutrality here; there is little time for it. In embarking on this journey, I reach behind me into my own history of practice-oriented inquiry while simultaneously looking forward in my quest to offer guidance and support to those who hope to heal both selves and others. I argue here that researchers/inquirers willing to toil to build a socially just world would benefit from combining the tools of participatory action research, appreciative inquiry, and restorative dialogue fueled by the backdrop of ethnographic disposition/attitude of mind as a methodological framework, and in which data are gathered through participant oral narrative responses to vignettes. The responses to the vignettes and the group discussions that follow would be used primarily to craft opportunities for at least some level of reconciliation/restoration between/among people whose diverse interests result in building relationships that contribute to deeper understandings of difference.


4:15am, time approximate: I sit on the cushion, sun rising at my back, moon setting opposite, and it comes to me: “recount your journey down the winding path that propelled you through a lineage of investments to a practice of activist-research.” Moments spanning three decades flash through my consciousness at warp speed – my early history of doing data-driven action research (Burrington, 1985, 1987); being part of appreciative inquiry efforts as a member of a lesbian-feminist collective (Eastland, 1985); battling against efforts supported by traditionalist spiritualities to marginalize feminist and LGBTQ issues (Burrington, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998); advocating for and building coalitions to stitch together gender, sexual identity, economic, environmental, and labor issues using intersectional logics (Burrington, 2010) – and I arrive at a present colored by kaleidoscopic images from my past work. As I write and reflect and then write some more, images will be invited here through which readers can, if they so desire, begin to envision opportunities for new ways to work in our communities that allow us to move together into a more promising sense of what that word – community – means.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Vignette: A very brief story.

Community-Based Research: Collaborative efforts between researchers and community members that are driven by the needs and interests of the community.

Intersectional Social Justice: An approach to creating a more equitable society that recognizes uneven power relations exist due to interlocking oppressions.

Bricoleur: One who creates out of scraps, leftovers, bits, and pieces, thus making do out of what is available; a handyperson.

Ethnographic Disposition/Attitude of Mind: Abilities to listen deeply, be open to different ways of thinking and being, curiosity.

Blurred Genres: When the lines between disciplines disappear and it becomes difficult to clearly see differences between art, science, humanities, fiction, non-fiction, etc.

Appreciative Inquiry: Valuing the life giving and embracing the unknown to co-construct the future.

Bricolage: Creation of something out of the bits and pieces of what is available.

Provocations: Ideas that incite or stimulate people to think in new ways.

Activist-Researcher: One who seeks knowledge that helps advance understanding about and reduction of inequality and oppression.

Restorative Dialogue: A facilitated or mediated conversation the intent of which is to bring people to a place of understanding of how past actions have affected each party.

Participatory Action Research: Combines reflection and action, theory and practice, and collaborative efforts to help people and their communities thrive.

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