Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Community across Difference and through Trauma


In 1999, Edward Said, the Palestinian American scholar, activist, and author of the groundbreaking book Orientalism, and Daniel Barenboim, the world-renowned Argentine Israeli conductor and pianist who is also a citizen of Palestine, co-founded the West–East Divan Orchestra with a mission to unite young Arab and Israeli musicians.

No day is particularly easy at Divan, and some are traumatic. During the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006, the musicians struggled to sustain peership at all; some left the orchestra completely.

Today, the community faces another existential reckoning. In the Barenboim-Said Akademie, where Palestinians, Iranians, Israelis, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese and others live and study both music and transcultural humanities together, visceral pain is “undeniable and evident.” Some feel that music has taught them to listen to each other more deeply; others are unsure of the role of music at all in this moment.

Any community that values diversity and peace struggles to foster conditions in which people can learn and create together across differences, sometimes painful ones.

For EPIC2023, we invited our community to spend time with friction. We explored ways in which friction can be something to overcome—a sign of a failure, noise in the data, a poorly designed or unjust system. We also highlighted the value of friction—it can signal a fruitful avenue for research or intervention, or be deliberately designed into systems to encourage care, safety, diversity, illumination, and other types of social good. In all of its manifestations, friction is part of our intersubjective lives as social beings.

We have heard from many people, both long-time and first-time members, who feel warmly welcomed and deeply valued in the EPIC community. We know that EPIC gatherings create a distinct experience and special connections, and this particularly true at EPIC2023 in Chicago. But we know that there is no boundary around EPIC; we are part of a complicated, conflicted world.

We learned that an EPIC2023 attendee made a public comment about the war in Israel and Gaza that another attendee felt was threatening and harmful. The EPIC Board and staff have diverse positionalities and opinions related to this horrific violence, as do conference organizers and committee members, attendees, and members of our community around the world. We write in response as people who care immensely about the wellbeing of every member of our community, and who value every single human life.

In addition to the catastrophe on the ground in Gaza and Israel, the war is creating deep trauma around the world. It is excruciating to feel powerless as terrible violence unfolds in this moment—and in the next. It feels infuriating that cries of acute and generational pain travel in and through complex systems of power and politics; through information, misinformation, and disinformation. Fear is visceral as both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia reach terrifying levels, and words have high stakes.

EPIC people come together as a community because we are committed to understanding social complexity and using that understanding to create positive change in organizations. We are not a political organization, but as ethnographers we cultivate theory and practice for tracing domains of power, and we understand that political realities are lived out in the everyday. Our goal as a community is to create intentional spaces where people with diverse identities, beliefs, and experiences are valued, and where all of us can be both inspired and productively challenged by other perspectives. Intentionality from an ethnographic perspective means that each of us approaches our collective spaces with care, actively works to understand the experiences of others, and reflexively explores the social systems and inequities that connect us.

This goal, even in an imaginary world where it somehow played out perfectly, is not about erasing friction. We aspire to use the ethnographic commitments and skills we share to nurture a diverse community through our frictions. As EPIC people have argued authoritatively (Hitchcock & Johnson; Bernius & Dietkus), it is essential for our community and the work we do to be more “trauma-informed.” It is a humbling, but critical, challenge.

We do want to communicate the following:

  • Statements by members of our community, whether trivial or deeply consequential, in no case represent positions of EPIC as an organization.
  • We ask our members to communicate in intentional ways that invite and facilitate respectful conversation, particularly when difficult topics and complex issues are addressed.
  • We do not intend to control speech. At all times we invite feedback and dialogue regarding comments made in any EPIC context that are experienced as harmful and/or in violation of our Code of Conduct. We are committed to providing convenient methods and safe spaces for members to communicate with us.

We invite you to reflect (and comment!) on our Code of Conduct, which states in part:

  • EPIC values and promotes the inherent worth of every person; fosters dignity, understanding, and mutual respect; and embraces diversity as an essential component of our community and ethnographic practice. When you participate in EPIC programs and spaces you are also making a commitment to these principles.
  • We work in an interdisciplinary field that explores social complexity. We gain strength from diversity by fostering collaboration among groups with different backgrounds, worldviews, interests, needs, and skills. We encourage our community to pursue areas of interest, as well as be inspired and challenged by unexpected people, practices, and ideas. We believe in the value of continual, multi-disciplinary learning and critique in a constantly changing world.
  • We invite you to help make EPIC a place that is welcoming and respectful to all participants, regardless of race, gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, national origin, ethnicity, political affiliation, or religion. By creating an inclusive environment, we can make the most of this wonderful community.

We are deeply humbled when we think about the relentless and sometimes agonizing commitment of communities like the West-East Divan Orchestra and Barenboim-Said Akademie to exist. We put our hearts into our roles as leaders of the EPIC community, but we do not have perfect solutions, particularly not to profound human challenges. We invite you to navigate these difficult waters with us and to share your thoughts and ideas.

Jennifer Collier Jennings, Executive Director
Samantha Gottlieb, EPIC Board Treasurer
Shakima Jackson-Martinez, EPIC Board Member
Simon Roberts, EPIC Board President
Shriram Venkatraman, EPIC Board Member
Alexandra Zafiroglu, EPIC Board Secretary