Anthropology Department Offers KPU’s First Ethnographic Field Studies Course

Students will study themes related to homelessness in the Whalley neighbourhood

(Lincoln Saugstad)

Students enrolled in KPU’s Ethnographic Field Studies course, which is being offered for the first time ever this summer, will be volunteering alongside community organizations in Surrey to better understand how homelessness influences the use of public space.

Ethnographic research typically involves immersing oneself in a cultural group or environment different to one’s own in order to develop an objective, in-depth analysis of what that group’s norms, values, and behaviours are. Interest in this particular topic developed from a number of discussions that the course instructor, Dr. Jason Ramsey, had with students over the course of several years. He was especially inspired by a talk he had while teaching a class called The Anthropology of Dirt and Disorder.

“One of the things we looked at is decay and dealing with areas of ruination,” he says. “Multiple students mentioned this place called Whalley … [and] the way that they described it to me, what I ended up imagining was just this sort of abject no-man’s land—the surface of the moon, barren—that had sort of been forsaken for a long time by ‘respectable communities.’”

Ramsey has spent the last few months building relationships and volunteering at a number of different organizations in the area in order to get the course off the ground. He says that it is the first time he has performed research with students this way, and that the whole project is “a new experience” for him.

Helen Wong, a second year student who is interested in majoring in sociology, says that what interested her about the course was that it “wasn’t going to be in the classroom.”

“I’m really interested in why society works like that, why [homelessness] happens,” she says.

This summer, Wong will be volunteering at the Surrey Urban Mission, one of three organizations students will partner with through the course. The other two organizations are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a Nigerian restaurant located along 135a Street.

Students will participate in activities regularly performed by the organizations such as serving and preparing food, cleaning, and partaking in cultural events. By involving themselves in this way, they have the chance to develop relationships and observe day-to-day occurrences, which can help generate deeper insight into how the organizations function and how homelessness impacts them.

Ramsey hopes that, by disseminating information about the ways that homeless people create their own cultural worlds, his students will help challenge common stereotypes about living on the streets in places like Whalley.

“It really is nothing like the very simplistic impression that I had,” he admits.

In addition, Ramsey hopes that the research will inform future decisions made by the city or the province regarding how it treats homeless communities.

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