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date: 30 January 2023

Ethnography Across Bordersfree

Ethnography Across Bordersfree

  • Marta SánchezMarta SánchezUniversity of North Carolina Wilmington


Ethnography is about cultural representation, which implies a gaze and set of questions and assumptions about who is being represented, by whom, and what for. In this sense, ethnography always is conducted across borders where borders imply a set of differences to confront and understand, even while the ethnographer is expected to effectively overcome these through embedded practice in the field. If the enterprise of conducting these studies is always marked by border crossing, then what are the different ways in which border crossings happen in knowledge production through ethnography? How does the definition of “border” change the way ethnographic studies are performed? Potential shifts in the meaning of “borders” heightens the importance of interrogating cultural representation, the social locations that ethnographers occupy, see, and speak from, and how perspectives on cultural representation and actual representations will differ. These dynamics build up when, as here, ethnography across borders implies the presence of the nation-state, either as palimpsest or direct actor in the relations and daily lives of the community-participant in the ethnography.

Borders are necessarily evoked—geopolitical, social, cultural, national, regional, global, and personal ones, such as gender, race, class, and ethnicity. Ethnography across borders emerges in this instance as a methodology and a stance to deconstruct the ways in which ethnographers and ethnographies are radically situated in their own histories, and how radical contextualization of those histories is required to understand across borders and uncover the limits of cultural representation, language, and ethnography as a tool to understand the lives of people, their histories, and communities.


  • Professional Learning and Development
  • Educational Systems

Theorizing Borders

Globalization has disrupted the understanding that “border” refers to the geopolitical space that marks the limits of a country. It has generated large migration flows of people, transnational business capital, and wealth to receiving countries, while leaving sending countries impoverished and depleted of resources. In the 21st century, it is more common to view borders as defunct, or, at best, diffuse, because of the movement of capital and people. Borders are no longer perceived as stable nor as having a clear function. They have proven to be circumventable by people and rendered nonexistent for corporations through free trade agreements and military action. A common criticism of neoliberal trade agreements that constitute globalization is that there is a double standard with regard to the flow across borders. They allow for the free movement of business entities and elites at the same time that they produce less-than-voluntary migrants, who, after suffering economically under the neoliberal market logic that propels globalization and environmental disaster (Sassen, 1996), are themselves barred from movement to safer and more productive spaces. Borders, whether there or not for distinct subjects, evoke hierarchies of privilege, histories, trajectories, injustices, human suffering, human agency, and both movement and instability. Militarism and neo-imperialist desire cannot be ignored in the theorization of borders. The driving logic is to ignore, overtake, erase, or remake borders through invasion and expansion.

Theorizing borders is important to multiple disciplines and scholars. Immigration scholars have theorized borders from the perspective of colonization. “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me” speaks to shifting borders under ongoing colonization and cultural and physical genocide. Globalization is a “cultural process that began with the constitution of America and colonial/modern Eurocentered capitalism as a new global power” (Quijano, 2000, p. 533). Seen this way, the logics of capitalism find ways to reinvent themselves and always implicate borders.

Cultural theorists and ethnographers who cross borders also must understand how borders are perceived, defined, and actually lived on the ground. Theorizing borders, therefore, has become an increasingly complex task with the many ways the state can reinvent itself in transnational social and legal spaces through international, transnational, and “supranational organisms, regional integration and the power of cyberspace” (Manos, 2016, p. 4). Cultural theorist Ioannis Manos (2016) suggests that although it has become commonplace to feel that we live in a world that is “borderless and de-territorialized in which borders are highly permeable like a membrane” (p. 4), the political reality points to something very different that complicates our understanding of borders:

Existing borders have been undermined or eroded, new borders have been established, and others have been reinforced through ethno-nationalist aspirations and security concerns over terrorism and illegal migration. Novel dividing lines and fresh categorizations of peoples, places, relations and identities are the outcome of a functioning of new border regimes where borders act as techniques of classifying and ordering. This ascertainment put an end to a kind of naïve optimism that characterized the early post-Cold War period and challenged us to acknowledge borders’ complexities and emerging asymmetries.

(Manos, 2016, p. 4)

The complexities and asymmetries noted by Manos (2016) that define post-borders and spaces of dispersion that migrants flee or migrate to (DuFoix, 2012, p. 36) are demonstrated in the refugee crisis of long-standing wars in Somalia and Syria that play out in the Mediterranean Sea and in holding countries like Turkey, the human rights crisis provoked by the separation of migrating parents and children along different points of the México–U.S. border and immigration policy that criminalizes migrants (Bacon, 2008), and the expulsion of the Rohingya people from Myanmar, the ongoing crisis with migrants’ claims for civil and human rights in diverse countries, and nation-states that are:

enabled by legal and accounting features of contracts . . . [that allow them] to acquire vast stretches of land in a foreign sovereign nation-state as a sort of extension of its own territory—for example, to grow food for its middle classes—even as it expels local villages and rural economies from that land.

(Sassen, 2014, p. 2)

Asymmetries and Shifting Borders

Immigration and race scholar Natalia Molina (2014) writes that in the early 1900s, businesses rallied in support of Mexican migrant labor, calling them “birds of passage” (p. 29) who would labor on U.S. soil and return to their homeland. In this way, they would not disrupt the demographic or social fabric of the United States. By the mid-1920s, however, concern grew over the Mexican presence in the United States and legislators began to draw comparisons between Mexicans and blacks, the latter a population that had grown rapidly through high birth rates. The conflation of these two groups, argues Molina (2014), suggested a racialization of Mexicans that helped “maintain a racial hierarchy” (p. 31), which in turn established new immigration quotas to curb the migration of Mexicans to the United States. Molina (2014) cites racialized comments by U.S. congressman Albert Johnson (1919–1931), who was also president of the Eugenics Research Association and chair of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, about Mexicans representing a “stream of alien blood” (p. 30). Molina demonstrates how a new border regime, and a new racial order and racialized border, emerged through the comparison of Mexicans to blacks that then allowed for socially locating Mexicans at the lower echelons of a white supremacy hierarchy. The border was shifted onto the body through race discourse.

A shift of the border to the body is also seen in the identification, detention, and deportation of Mexican and other Latino migrants within the United States (Derewicz, 2010). Former Mexican president Felipe Calderón (2006–2012), one of the least popular presidents for having forged an alliance with the U.S. military through the Merida Initiative, once pronounced, “Dondequiera que haya un mexicano, ahí también está México” (Wherever there is a Mexican, there is also México). The statement recognized that the México-U.S. border was no longer where the legal limit of one nation met the legal limit of another and cut across four U.S. states and six Mexican states, but rather wherever there was a Mexican national.

Calderon’s declaration, interestingly, has parallels with U.S. immigration code 287g. This code allows for Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to enter into memoranda of agreement with county sheriffs across the United States, which enables sheriffs to act as ICE agents. Immigration code 287g moves the México–U.S. border from its historical and geographical location and relocates it to the brown body laboring deep within the interior of the United States. Calderon’s statements highlight how a border discourse can be appropriated by a nation-state to claim power in another nation-state using the geopolitical location of the bodies of nationals, thus extending a nation-state’s reach; at the same time, immigration code 287g uses the body of a foreign national to shift the border to any location within the nation-state, potentially making any encounter with a foreign national an immigration checkpoint, making both the border and border enforcement highly mobile.

The ritualized encounter that once marked interactions between border patrol and migrants seeking entry to the United States where there was no border checkpoint—in which mostly Mexican migrants were detected, immediately deported, and often were able to re-enter (Massey, Durand, & Malone, 2002, p. 47)—has new rituals, with facets that resemble American Indian removal strategies and a network that expands the machinery of mass incarceration. This is accomplished by converting county jails into ICE detention holding centers, from which detainees are transferred to state detention centers, and finally to regional detention centers for final deportation. This constant zig-zagging movement of foreign nationals across distinct national regions and jails—the Eastern Seaboard, the Midwest, and so on—puts on display U.S. domination over its proverbial neighbor to the south and allows for the establishment and reinforcement of new borders (Manos, 2016).

Other migrants in the United States create political power within the host nation-state. Rivera-Salgado (2000) discusses the “transborder political activism” (p. 144) of Mixtec migrants in California. Originally from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, Mixtec migrants engage strategies and practices in their new homeland, California, to have political voice in México. Rivera-Salgado (2000) describes the autonomy and political power the Mixtecs enjoy as they participate in political processes in their communities of origin while living in California: the process “directly challenges the hegemony of the Mexican state to define the boundaries of the ‘national political community’ and the rights that its members can enjoy” (p. 148). Rivera-Salgado marvels at the Mexican government’s inability to regulate the massive political participation that takes places in hundreds of smaller communities in the United States by transborder politicized Mixtec migrants. Mixtec transborder political activists reveal how it is not only a repressive state apparatus, such as ICE, or a nation-state such as México that can shift borders, but also migrants themselves who can insert themselves into established networks or assert their continued active participation, and through that insertion and continued participation neutralize borders and the nation-states that uphold them.

Diaspora scholars Evans Braziel & Mannur (2003) problematize received understandings of the nation-state through a series of questions that further upset the notion of a bordered and borderless nation-state. Because transnationalism can be exercised by corporations, international organisms and individuals, whereas diaspora is a human phenomenon, how, then, do scholars and theorists make sense of these new ways of moving in and around the world? The border is implied in the name used for each transmigrational group; the border subsumes each transmigrational subject through either a discourse of belonging or one of transgression (e.g., exiles versus refugees):

How for instance, do constructions of nation, diaspora, and transnation differ for different transmigrational groups—exiles, refugees, immigrants and migrants? How are voluntary diasporic subjects different from those whose lives have been mapped by exile, refugee camps, mass migration, and economic immigration? What are the subjective, psychological, and social dimensions of diaspora and other forms of geographical displacements and dislocations? What are the disjunctures—geopolitical, psychosocial, class, and gender based—in these contemporary forms of mass movement? . . . How are these movements further striated and complicated by . . . intercontinental movements of ideology, information, and capital online? (p. 15)

A similar set of questions should harass and unsettle the ethnographer conducting ethnography across borders.

Internal Borders

Critical democracy and indigenous scholar Sandy Grande (2004), in her discussion of “internal sovereigns” (p. 32), introduces yet another complication in defining borders. The United States views American Indians as internal sovereigns, yet it does not fully recognize this status, fearing such recognition would destabilize U.S. democracy (Grande, 2004). Internal sovereigns, though self-governing, are unable to act without doing so within the larger borders of the U.S. nation-state. Grande (2004) remarks that democracy, education, and the nation-state are “interminably bound together” (p. 32). This entanglement makes true sovereignty for Native Americans impossible. How to define borders in this instance is an important question—borders here are heavily marked by a history of removal, containment, and cultural and physical genocide, and fueled by a deep mistrust of Native Americans and economic lust for their land (Grande, 2004). The persistent denial of human rights and justice claims evokes many borders: there are physical ones between reservations and the U.S. nation-state, and others that ethnographers must take on in order to do the work ethically. These include historical, political, cultural, epistemological, and ontological borders, as well as borders that could be erected by the ethnographers and the social identities that are produced at distinct social locations and often situate them at cross-purposes with the communities they wish to explore.

Borderless Borders

Transnational social space further nuances this theoretical exploration. Transnational social space has been made necessary by globalization and is continuously produced by multiple actors, including technology. Transnational social space is sustained by migrating subjects and their loved ones who attempt to extend and nurture the affective bonds of family beyond borders (Boehm, 2013; Sánchez, 2017). Leveraging technology to communicate by email, VOIP calls, online chats, text messages, social media platforms, and messages on remittances, these intimate migrations (Boehm, 2013) take place in a deterritorialized social space devoid of actual physical contact. Their ubiquity represents a daily overcoming of time, space, and the borders of the nation-state. These practices, and the family and community unity and sense of belonging that transnational social spaces make possible, contribute to the establishment of a transnation (Boehm, 2008).

Terra firma nation-states and transnations that develop in a social space raise a series of ethical and methodological questions for the ethnographer working across borders. Nonphysical political borders prompt the question: What border is one crossing in conducting ethnographies? If cultural, then all ethnography is conducted across borders. Borders can also be thought of as being inscribed in the political subjects of any given nation, as Calderón and ICE have done. This complicates the project here, which is to offer commentary and methodological nuance to the process of conducting ethnographies across borders.

Ethnography Across Borders: A Definition

Ethnography across borders engages the nation-state. Ethnography is a “way of seeing” (Wolcott, 1999) and a way of inscribing how, who, or what is being seen onto the distinct archives and discourses that constitute knowledge, such as “research,” “policy,” “curriculum,” “understanding,” or “reality.” For too long, the ethnographic way of seeing was from the perspective of empire as anthropologists and ethnologists were sent to the outposts of empire to inventory and study empire’s new subjects. That is, ethnography is a process of cultural interpretation and representation (Geertz, 1973) that requires ethnographers to have a relationship to the field through “fieldwork” or “living with and like those who are studied” (van Maanen, 1988, p. 2). Embeddedness in the field places the ethnographer not only within a particular community but also at the center of a key occupational hazard: a subject-object positioning of ethnographer-communities in which the ethnographer might reify the “seen,” transforming participants into ontologically flat representations of their culture in terms of the ethnographer’s culture. Some of this ontological flattening, it can be argued, is necessary in order to bridge one culture to another for the purpose of understanding. Of course, this may be the only way to “do” ethnography: through a lens we cannot remove. Thus, engaging tropes familiar to the culture of the ethnographer may be the best way to make one culture comprehensible to the other. The aim, however, is to participate in the complexity of the lives of community members and to represent the fullness of that complexity. Crossing borders of the nation-state or working within implied borders confound the process.

This primary method of using and making sense of ethnography requires the ethnographer to engage in comparative analysis in order to construct knowledge and make meaning. However, this approach has left a mixed legacy and marred history in ethnographic approaches, such as ethnology and anthropology, as early work in these fields cast communities and entire geopolitical regions through a Darwinian, Eurocentric lens that established hierarchies of the civilized. Such reductions can be epistemologically dangerous because they lead us to believe that we know when we do not. Thus, ethnography’s way of seeing and inscribing is not separate from the social locations the ethnographers occupy. Ethnographers, when embedding themselves in a stance of inquiry in order to investigate phenomena, are necessarily different from that community—they separate themselves from it through the process of inquiry itself. Difference can also be expressed through visible identities, such as gender or race, but also through much less visible identities, such as political allegiance, religious belief, or educational attainment. The social locations and the identities they generate often act as blinders for ethnographers and crossing a border may still not lead to understanding or knowledge but understanding or knowledge cannot be produced without border crossing. What is meant, then, by “ethnography across borders” (EAB) when the enterprise of conducting ethnographies is always marked by border crossing? What is a border? Is it a possibility made real through interactions between ethnographers and communities? Is a border a defining context, an actor in the lives of people, nature, systems, and institutions? The questions are necessary and should guide preparation for fieldwork. EAB is about conducting ethnography in which geopolitical borders, even under globalization, are real or implied and must be crossed by the ethnographer, either virtually or literally, to take part in distinct social spaces. Real borders refer to official points of contact between nation-states. Implied borders are embodied in foreign nationals or immigrants who maintain ties with their nation of origin.

A key lesson is that ethnography can only ever be “done” from the standpoint of the ethnographer. Embeddedness through fieldwork, working with cultural brokers and informants, and member checking are key ethnographic practices yet remain insufficient. Knowledge claims emerging from ethnographies are, therefore, tenuous. The implications trouble the ethnographic process in important ways. At the same time, ethnography holds promise as a relational process to examine power between those representing and the represented. It is a way to construct knowledge that requires border crossing in metaphorical and literal ways. To take purchase of this promise involves complicating the ethnographic way of seeing and constructing knowledge.

Postcritical ethnographers call for the reinscription of critique in the ethnographic process (Noblit, Flores, & Murillo, 2004). Ethnographers are to interrogate their positionality; that is, turn the gaze back on their own way of seeing, one that has been configured by personal experiences and family and community histories through interactions with the world and the social locations ethnographers inhere. Others call for radical contextualization of histories of communities as a way to understand the broader contexts in which the ethnography is being or has been developed (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017). These are necessary commitments and practices that further the ethical construction of knowledge and understanding—still constricted, but with more precise knowledge of how and why.

EAB is many things: a method for conducting ethnographic research and gaining understanding in sites where a real or an implied nation-state is present; an analytic approach for deconstructing the enterprise of knowledge-making (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017); and a theoretical and ontological move that acknowledges that there are multiple ways of experiencing and knowing the world, a fact that gives way to both EAB’s emancipatory promise and its limitations. In this last instance, EAB is a project of “interpretative explanation . . . [or] translation” (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 7).

As a method, EAB is the process of conducting ethnography across cultural, social, political, temporal, and regional contexts. The term “borders” in “ethnography across borders” quite intentionally evokes geographical regions, such as the nation-state, as blunt signifiers of the presence of difference as embodied by the nation-state, the transnation, place, research participants, ethnographers, the phenomena examined, the categories and terms used to label the phenomena (Rockwell, 2002), and the multiple borders traversed in the analysis of the data generated. The analysis yields understanding of the phenomenon explored, research participants’ and ethnographers’ standpoint, and of how knowledge-making itself happens (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017; Thorne, Jensen, Kearney, Noblit, & Sandelowski, 2004). Because difference, like knowledge, is socially constructed and, in ethnography, mediated by the ethnographer’s standpoint, conducting EAB is a necessary and important epistemological project. Engagement with it reveals how knowledge construction implies human presence (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017), place of elocution, and an existence that is mutually constitutive. These understandings move EAB toward relational ontologies and away from epistemological stances that impose a modern perspective (Giddens, 1990): absolute relativism in which knowledge is a mere reflection of culture and therefore allows for no commensurability or communication between or across cultures (Blaser, 2010), and from implicit universalism in which there is partial commensurability and partial equivalence because “one culture explains the other” while maintaining a modern perspective as the [author’s emphasis] shared universal perspective (p. 150).

As Blaser (2010) asserts,

Many modern “experts” (be they academics or activists) . . . explicitly claim adherence to the notion that all cultures are more or less equally partial and skewed in their access to nature (or the world out there). However, in their actual knowing practices, they implicitly assert a privileged access to the world out there by enacting universalist causes, underlying structures . . . that are accessible only to the expert’s eyes. In this way, rather than simply claiming partial equivalence with other “cultures,” modern experts end up explaining those other cultures according to modern parameters. (pp. 149–150)

EAB is an intensification of van Maanen’s (1988) observation that ethnographies “sit between two worlds or systems of meaning—the world of the ethnographer and the world of cultural members” (p. 4). That is, EAB seeks to understand presumably equivalent phenomena across distinct cultures, the manner in which the phenomena are defined, experienced, and interpreted by group members and ethnographers of distinct cultures, and whether there is such a thing as the “same” phenomenon. “Sameness” raises the question of power, in that ontological assumptions undergird the comparative process, which includes naming phenomena. Naming is in itself an exercise in power.

The colonial presence inheres in EAB; it is its dark past, having served empire, making the extent of empire’s reach visible and legible to itself, thus allowing it to categorize and determine its utility. This resulted, in large part, in racially locating its new subjects within its race hierarchies and racialized social landscape, but also within its racist economies of enslavement, extraction, and devastation. In lock-step with empire, EAB historically has not been able to reconcile ontological difference. It simply was not its job to do so as an agent of the state. Contemporary ethnographers ponder, propose, and embrace new commitments. But what is ontological difference? What is ontology and why does it matter to EAB?

Ontology takes us into a philosophical discussion. “Ontology” is the study of being, which implies “to exist.” We “are” within a context; said more clearly, we exist, or carry out our lives, within a particular set of conditions we call “reality.” Therefore, to study being is also to study existence and reality. Ontology examines the nature of being, existing, and reality. What is out there? What conforms reality? What can we perceive or observe about being, existence, and reality? How do they interact with each other? These are questions that concern ontology, which can be defined as

the study of what there is . . . Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god, or the problem of the existence of universals, etc. These are all problems in ontology in the sense that they deal with whether or not a certain thing, or more broadly entity, exists. But ontology is usually also taken to encompass problems about the most general features and relations of the entities which do exist.

(“Logic and Ontology,” 2004, para. 21)

Ethnographers have the same initial set of questions in the field; they seek to know about the general features and relations of a particular community and how these features and relations are experienced by distinct members and how these influence and shape each other. They are asking questions that have to do with ontology, especially how the community of interest experiences reality and is influenced and influences it. Because ethnographers ask questions about communities they are not from, in the immediate sense, it is important as a matter of professionalism and ethical responsibility to accept that an individual’s embeddedness within a distinct community from that of the ethnographer’s may lead that individual to have ontological assumptions distinct from those of the ethnographer. Or the individual may be embedded within an imagined community (Anderson, 1983) with the ethnographer that allows her to claim belonging in the same reality as the ethnographer, but the individual may experience that same reality in decidedly different ways than others within that imagined community. Three examples come to mind that highlight differences in ontological assumptions that arise from experiencing reality in particular ways: a class exercise, a journalist’s work, and an anthropological study.

A common class exercise for professors who teach about diversity, and specifically gender, is to ask students to generate a list of the steps they take to avoid sexual assault. The female students immediately begin to write and generate extensive lists, while the males often stare askance and rarely write anything at all. The young men and women of the class live in the same reality but because of how they experience that reality the female students’ ontological assumptions about existential threat and viability differ from those of the male students.

A journalistic example is provided by Chris Hayes in A Colony in a Nation (2017). Hayes posits that two very distinct race-based realities define the United States. One reality is the colony, which is mostly inhabited by people of color and where aggressive surveillance and policing is commonplace. This stands in stark contrast to the nation’s reality in which there is adherence to a careful observance and application of the law with regard for individual rights and community tranquility. This and other differences exist in the ways that citizens living in the colony can de facto have quite different claims about their existence and reality than citizens who live in the nation. The former’s relationship to the state is one of colonial power and deep mutual distrust; the latter’s reality is marked by regard and the full protection of the law. In the colony, the state is present to surveil and control; in the nation, the state is there to facilitate freedom. In the colony, few believe they will be treated fairly under the law; in the nation, few believe that the law is not followed in the colony.

The third example is from anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (1987), who in groundbreaking work recognizes the continuance of Mesoamerican civilization in the daily practices and lived experiences of most Mexicans. Bonfil Batalla calls this México profundo (deep México), which stands in contrast to México imaginario (imaginary México), which is Eurocentric and seeks to be hegemonic, imposing its Western cosmovision and ignoring that the Mexican people have rearticulated ancient ontologies and epistemologies to the contemporary moment. Bonfil Batalla names specific differences between the two that have had a profound impact on México. For example, healing practices in Mesoamerican culture have often been cast as superstitious behavior. He notes the frustration the government has when vaccination campaigns among indigenous communities fail and attribute it to superstition. Bonfil Batalla notes that the communities’ rejection of these interventions has nothing to do with the utility of vaccinations or with healing practices. What indigenous communities reject is accepting something they cannot produce. What is not produced locally requires dependence on an external intermediary, a positioning communities reject, choosing self-sufficiency instead. Their decisions have little to do with superstition, but rather an understanding that asymmetrical relationships can pose a threat to their existence.

These three examples begin to draw out the ontological assumptions individuals and entire communities develop as a result of how they experience reality. The examples indicate that ontological assumptions can become barriers, yet ontological ruptures are also not possible nor necessary in EAB. The aim in EAB is to be able to border cross ontologically, supported by informants and the ethnographer’s own willingness to radically contextualize the lived experience of others.

EAB is reflective of relationships of power and dominance between and across borders and requires ethnographers to deconstruct relationships of power and to accept the ontological assumptions of the other in order to see and potentially understand (Blaser, 2010; Garro, 2002; Sánchez & Noblit, 2017). Increasingly, more important, however, is to move to an understanding of relational ontologies (Blaser, 2010). “Relational ontologies” refers to how some ways of being in and imagining the world gain more traction than others, and how this nonequivalency among ontologies is mutually constructed. That is, here, EAB employs translation as revelation, in which the ethnographic project across borders traces and reveals the articulations that repress one ontology while increasing the ability of another one to have greater “reality” (Blaser, 2010, p. 151). To be clear, relational ontologies are not about adjudicating value in a hierarchy of value to distinct ways of being and distinct ways of understanding existence; rather, relational ontologies speak to the relationship among ontologies and how some are able to gain greater traction in the world than others. Blaser (2010) refers to this greater traction as “[corpo]reality” (p. 151). Intervening factors, such as control of resources, enables hegemonic power, which then enables one reality to become more salient, established, and hegemonic.

In qualitative metasynthesis, such as meta-ethnography (Noblit & Hare, 1988), EAB is carried out by ethnographers who are not typically part of the original studies. Because of this, ethnographers conducting meta-ethnography must radically contextualize the studies being synthesized to ensure the viability of the synthesis (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017). This radical contextualization is similar to an archaeological dig, in that histories must be recovered, terminology must be understood as temporal artifacts that point to a broader, historical discourse, and power must be assumed as latently situated in that temporality, inscribed in the histories, terms, and relationships educed.

Methodologies that Support Ethnography Across Borders

Ethnographers conducting ethnography across borders (EAB) must first consider the varying definitions of borders discussed, the methodological implications posed by shifting borders, and the actors and phenomena that can shift these. Some approaches to conducting EAB are meta-ethnography (Noblit & Hare, 1988), comparing ethnographies (Anderson-Levitt & Rockwell, 2017), and relational ontologies (Blaser, 2010).


Meta-ethnography is a methodology that synthesizes qualitative research studies to generate new interpretations and understandings of the extant work (Noblit & Hare, 1988). Meta-ethnography allows for the systematic comparison of ethnographies in order to understand how, for example, a phenomenon differs from one country to another (e.g., Anderson-Levitt & Rockwell, 2017). EAB has also been used in knowledge [de]construction (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017).

Seminal work in ethnography by Noblit and Hare (1988) theorized the possibilities of metasynthesis as a qualitative research method and developed a research methodology for conducting meta-ethnographies. Prompted by a real-life research problem in which the researchers had to find a way to bring together studies examining the same phenomenon and generate meaningful data, meta-ethnography was born.

Meta-ethnography is critical in comparative studies across borders, for which similarities and differences become key to the analytic process. Research metasynthesis has a longer history in quantitative research. In this field, constructs, such as standard scores, statistical significance, and effect size, allow for the comparison of many studies, generating a meta-analysis in that comparative process. The meta-analysis empowers the quantitative researcher to make knowledge claims about the generalizability of the studies’ aggregated findings. Such a process presented an epistemological quandary for qualitative research, namely “how to put together written interpretive accounts” (Noblit & Hare, p. 7). Qualitative researchers view conducting metasynthesis as being inconsistent with basic principles of qualitative research that sustains a focus on particularities. However, Noblit and Hare (1988) demonstrated that through systematic inquiry and analysis, involving the formulation of analogies and translation of concepts and constructs, meaningful interpretations could be generated.

Determining whether ethnographic studies are related begins the analytic process. Although “translating one study into the other” (p. 9) is an overarching method that Noblit and Hare (1988) propose for generating meta-ethnographies, the researchers identified specific processes with which to undertake meta-ethnography: assessing the adequacy of metaphors in meta-ethnographies (p. 33), reciprocal translation (p. 38), refutational synthesis (p. 47), lines of argument synthesis (p. 62), and inscribing meta-ethnographies (p. 75). In this way, meta-ethnography is about translating studies rather than aggregating findings. Comparison and the assumption of correspondence of ideas across the studies inform the process. Researchers are to be culturally adept at “facilitating the discourse between cultural languages” (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 7); that is, they must know the discourses of their cultures’ “idiomatic meanings” (p. 7) so that they may be rendered into idiomatic meanings of the other culture. Though this work remains influential today, and perhaps even more so than when it was written in 1988, its fundamental approach is to use advanced semiotic analytics. Analogies and metaphors, the same analytics that drive information-age search technologies, push for complexity, perspective-taking, and interpretation. In order to generate analogies, metaphors, and translations, ethnographers must shift their perspective to see and think in multiple ways.

Noblit and Hare (1988) outline a set of three criteria for assessing the “adequacy of the metaphors” (p. 34) to synthesize the various ethnographies. The search for metaphors facilitates initial meaning-making that requires the researcher to make judgement calls about the “emergent and interactive” translations of metaphors (p. 35). The interpretive process relies on the metaphors to “effect the comparative translation of one study into others” (p. 34). The approach assumes the existence of the likeness of ideas or phenomena in the studies. In order to be able to generate new interpretations from the ethnographies, the ultimate aim of meta-ethnography, Noblit and Hare (1988) identify the key interpretive task to be the identification of corresponding ideas within ethnographies to draw out metaphors. Metaphors and assessing their adequacy to generate a meta-ethnography is one way to approach meta-ethnography. Similar studies can be translated into each other’s terms, or metaphors (p. 38), to understand ethnographies in each other’s terms (p. 47). Reciprocal translation (p. 38) serves to synthesize such studies.

Refutational synthesis, note Noblit and Hare (1988), requires “a more elaborate set of translations” than previously described (p. 47). These translations will not be reciprocal but rather focus on how the ethnographies speak against each other. Lines of argument synthesis (p. 64) bring together complementary arguments from the ethnographies being synthesized to build a more complex argument about the phenomenon and other aspects of the study. Inscribing meta-ethnographies engages a key, primary task of the ethnographer. Noblit and Hare (1988) observe that inscribing meta-ethnographies requires the ethnographer to interpret the interpretations, or the analogy (form) and translation (content) (p. 75), and inscribe the metasynthesis with these cultural interpretations in the form of an analogy in order to generate a reading of the culture. More important, meta-ethnographies must be inscribed with the analogies that distinct audiences bring to the ethnographer’s interpretations: the experiences of the audience that authenticate the interpretation.

Noblit and Hare’s (1988) work continues to structure and influence the way meta-ethnography is conducted. Their methodological approach and epistemological understandings that meta-ethnography, as ethnography, is an interpretive process, have been taken up by ethnographers and other researchers in education, social work, public health, medicine, psychology, adolescent studies, and cultural theory. Examples of this uptake include elaborations on methodology (e.g., Sánchez & Noblit, 2017; Toye, Seers, Allcock, Briggs, Carr, & Barker, 2014), theory (e.g., Sánchez & Noblit, 2017; Urrieta & Noblit, 2018), and analysis and synthesis (e.g., Kennedy, & MacNeela, 2013). Although Noblit and Hare (1988) spoke of meta-ethnographies, they note that meta-ethnography can be applied to all qualitative research methodologies. Many important contributions have built on the work initiated by Noblit and Hare (1988). These include Anderson-Levitt’s and Rockwell’s (2017) “Comparing Ethnographies” project, which emerged from researchers who proposed and held the 13th Inter-American Symposium on Ethnography and Education, and cultural theory and identity studies by Urrieta and Noblit (2018).

Comparing Ethnographies

Ethnographers Anderson-Levitt and Rockwell (2017) present the work of scholars involved in conducting local education studies across the Americas, where rich and extensive work in EAB has been generated. In the “Comparing Ethnographies” project, two or more ethnographers from different nations who were exploring the same phenomenon in their respective locations compared ethnographies as a way to draw out how borders change the phenomenon of interest. Anderson-Levitt and Rockwell (2017) assert that comparisons open up possibilities and understandings of the world that may otherwise go unnoticed:

Without comparisons, one may think it is natural for girls to do better than boys in school. Without comparisons, one may assume that children are naturally monolingual. Without comparisons, one may assume that “learner-centered instruction” or multi-culturalisms means the same thing everywhere. (p. 15)

Comparisons, then, disrupt the ethnographer’s ethnocentrism and reveal her standpoint. In this way, comparisons, and EAB, have the potential to move away from anthropological and ethnological legacies in which comparisons led to conclusions about the inferiority of the Other and the otherness of the Other.

The disruptive, corrective potential of comparative work in EAB is evident in the work of Ames and Gomes (2017), who compare studies about the education of the Quechua of Peru and original peoples in Brazil. Through the comparative process, the analysis upset received understandings about the constructs “minority” and “majority,” revealing how these terms could be appropriated for claiming rights but also denying them. In Peru, for example, although the majority population was indigenous in the region in which one of the studies in the comparison took place, Peruvians claimed a minority status in order to access educational services. Minority status thus was privileged and “overshadowed the strictly democratic perspective” (Anderson-Levitt & Rockwell, 2017, p. 14).

In the same working group, Novaro and Bartlett (2017) compared assimilation and inclusion discourses in the United States and Argentina as they impact Mexican immigrants in the United States and Bolivian immigrants in Argentina. The authors describe the similarities between the United States and Argentina as both were settler states and maintain a colonial legacy of racial hierarchies. The expectations for immigrant integration, therefore, might be similar, suggesting that significant barriers would exist for the successful inclusion of immigrants in each country. Novaro and Bartlett (2017) write: “This research shows the limitations of the notions of assimilation and inclusion as they circulate in public discourse, while demonstrating the diverse ways in which inclusion and exclusion are produced” (p. 93).

Inclusion connotes positive integration; however, Novaro and Bartlett (2017) found that inclusion was accomplished through assimilation. Assimilationist processes in U.S. schooling have historically meant the loss of the first language and, through that loss, an inability to access the vast cultural resources of the home community (Wong-Filmore, 1991). This loss is designed through the process of subtractive schooling (Valenzuela, 1999). Inequalities are reinforced as “assimilation-oriented economic and social policies often work against the efforts of immigrants to achieve social and economic mobility” (Novaro & Bartlett, 2017, p. 101).

These two studies, and others conducted by the participants in the symposium, demonstrate how comparing ethnographies makes the familiar strange , casting known constructs into a new light and enabling “thinking beyond narrowly defined bounds of the thinkable” (Anderson-Levitt & Rockwell, 2017, p. 19). Comparison is a powerful analytic when conducting EAB, but not all EABs necessarily constitute comparative research. There are ethnographies in which crossing borders are embodied by the ethnographer, whose social locations or social identities, such as nationality, race, or ethnicity, mark her as an outsider to the research site, and she needs to cross social and cultural borders to be able to do the work. Comparison will always be part of ethnographic studies and ethnography across borders can, in part, be thought of as comparative ethnography in that crossing borders implies difference and difference is only perceived through comparison. However, although it is difficult and even unnecessary to suspend comparison, it may not be the primary analytic in EAB.

Ethnography Across Borders as Epistemological and Ontological Deconstruction

Ethnographer and cultural theorist Mario Blaser (2010) points to the limits of comparison, and philosopher Giorgio Agamben (Agamben & Ferrando, 2014) describes the limits of logos. Blaser introduces the notion of relational ontologies, which examine the ways in which one ontology becomes subordinate and the other superior. Relational ontologies are about knowing why one set of ontological assumptions are perceived as more convincing and desirable than another set of ontological assumptions. Blaser (2010) notes that ontologies represent different imaginaries and it is the imaginaries that recruit others into its project; these become real, taking on corporeality. These imaginaries are mutually constitutive of each. If one considers, for example, Western ontologies and the ontologies of indigenous communities of the mountains of the southern rural state of Guerrero in México, an immediate difference will be that Western ontologies are rooted in and promote economies of extraction and devastation and engage in the hoarding of resources. The forest, the ocean, the mountain, the sky—these all represent resources that can be made profitable through their exploitation. Among indigenous communities, the practice is to take from nature only what is needed on a daily basis. Hoarding is not within the purview of indigenous ontological understanding, because nature provides. But, as Blaser (2010) points out, these ontologies are mutually constitutive of each other even as they are at cross-purposes.

In the mountains of Guerrero, through a participatory action research project facilitated by local university students and their professors (Santiago Jiménez & Barriga, forthcoming), the families decided to start family-level reforestation projects, where each family committed to care for seedlings they typically harvest for firewood. This decision is made upon the realization that deforestation by lumber companies is a real phenomenon, and that at the very least, as mountain dwellers directly impacted by deforestation, they have to not only engage in justice claims against illegal logging, they also have to replace what they consume, something never before considered because of their historical and shared understanding that nature provides. Relational ontologies, then, influence decisions and possibilities for living and relating to nature. The indigenous mountain community must now reconsider its relationship to nature, and rather than being a grateful recipient and good steward of its gifts, as it has historically been, it must now take an active role as nature’s protector. The community has now been ensnared by the neoliberal moment, its market logic and its practice of devastation (Darder, 2012). At the same time, however, the seedlings—for there were many—begin to populate a small patch of the mountainside, and through their presence, assert their right—the community’s and the trees—to exist. The seedlings represent a bump in the neoliberal road, a diminutive bump, but one that requires a re-evaluation of the relationship to the indigenous community. This latent angst bursts through when indigenous communities take even minor actions as protectors or legitimate inhabitants of the mountain, valley, desert, sea, or forest, and it mobilizes the loggers, in this case, into action. Working in capitalist class unity with the government, they launched a “free plants and flowers” program in the mountains with its own public relations campaign, but the project failed because the plants and flowers were not part of the community’s cuisine, aesthetic, or way of life. The plants and flowers become actors that make the very projects they protagonize fail. This process, then, is mutually constitutive in the sense that both the loggers situated in Western ontologies and the indigenous communities living with a distinct ontology that positions nature as a source of food and knowledge, are both changed. Both imaginaries, both ontologies, both actors are in play, and one will have more traction than the other (Blaser, 2010).

Tracing the articulations, what is revealed is that neoliberalism can resume colonial relationships that persist, some in latent form and others in explicit ways. Western ontologies conquer areas with soldiers, bankers, experts, and media campaigns that brand and market their worldview; in this way, they can lure more supporters to their understanding of reality, and Western ontology will, thus, occupy the public imaginary more than that of indigenous communities.

Conversely, because of social movements and everyday forms of resistance, indigenous communities and the involvement of sociopolitical actors, such as academics and civic leaders that seek to right past and current injustices, including exposing universalist discourses about reality and marginalizing practices that are racialized and class-based, the neoliberal imaginary that undergirds Western ontologies faces resistance and rejection not only from indigenous communities but other actors as well, including supranational organisms concerned with the protection of human rights or the environment. These relational ontologies, then, are always contesting each other; or shifting together may be a better way to describe the dynamic. These shifts are in part fueled by the public imaginary and fuel the public imaginary. That is, the broader context becomes part of the constitutive processes of relationality, signaling a need for the radical contextualization of the phenomenon of inquiry when engaging as ethnographers across borders (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017)

Blaser’s (2010) discussion on ontological difference and relational ontologies is, of course, relevant to the ethnographer conducting EAB. The first skill of EAB as methodology should be to know that the ethnographer and the participants in the ethnography might experience reality in very distinct ways, and that one way of experiencing reality will have more presence and traction in broader society than another. This does not make one set of ontological assumptions or the people who hold those assumptions superior to the other group.

The ethnographer will enter virtually any site of inquiry as a privileged actor using a methodology that helped make the world legible to empire (Scott, 1998), even built empire. Thus, as a critical practitioner of the craft, the ethnographer will likely go into the field with ontological assumptions that differ from the communities in the ethnography, especially when the ethnography takes place across real or implied borders. The aim, then, of engaging in an interpretive process and generating understanding of the Other requires another move by the ethnographer. The ethnographer is called to (1) understand that in a broader context, one ontology will be more present and well-known than the other because of its ability to recruit the public imaginary into its project; and (2) accept the ontological assumptions of the participating community. The latter proves to be an aspirational disposition at best and remains in the realm of the theoretical. We all speak from somewhere, we all are socially located in spaces that are not completely fixed but are also not completely indeterminate. Shifting out of these locations into others would be an experiment or simulation that could offer deeper insights, but the shift would be temporary and used as an instrument of one’s trade in order to understand.

Blaser’s discussion on relational ontologies suggests that ethnographers can only get so close to making epistemological breakthroughs. and can, at best, make only tenuous knowledge claims, conditioned by ontological difference. The point here is for the ethnographer to understand and reveal in EAB writings how power is inscribed in the different assumptions made about reality and in the relationships among the ethnographer, the community that participates in the ethnography, and the broader historical context.

It is important to recognize that there are discursive limits to understanding. In the same way that accepting the ontological assumptions of others may prove to be impossible except as a theoretical proposition and exercise, there are limits to what can be said. Agamben and Ferrando (2014) explore an obscure Eleusianian mystery cult that was defined as an “initiatory drama” (p. 10). To initiate, explains Agamben, means “to close,” referring to the eyes and the mouth. Agamben posits that initiation is a form of apprehending knowledge that comes first as listening and then as illumination. He theorizes that the aim of remaining silent was to aid the initiates as they participated in an “experience of the unknowable” (p. 12). The closing of the eyes and mouth, for Agamben, signifies an attempt to have the initiates “refrain from putting into words what they had seen and felt” (p. 12). The initiates, he says, receive an impression and not instruction, and the impression is unknowable and unspeakable. The broader discussion is about Persephone/Kore of Greek mythology, who is unknowable because of the blurred identity as both daughter and mother, and as a hermaphrodite. These conflicting ontological realities are nonetheless united in the figure of Kore, the unspeakable girl (p. 21). That is, Kore is discursively unknowable and remains a mystery, in the same way that the initiates’ experiences are unknowable and, therefore, unspeakable (p. 21). For Agamben, knowledge is not acquired through language; or, there are knowledges that cannot be acquired in this manner because they are impressions and moments of illumination (Agamben & Ferrando, 2014). It is perhaps a discussion in which de Saussure (1916) must participate and a case of how language introduces the risk of the signifier crushing the signified, and thus reducing the knowable. Ethnography across borders must be aware that language may prove insufficient for knowing because knowing seeks stability rather than indeterminacy and language itself is inscribed with culture and power.

Ethnography Across Borders: Future Directions

Ethnography across borders (EAB) brings to the fore the need for greater ontological awareness among ethnographers and more radical forms of acceptance where “Otherness” is affirmed as a difference contributing to one’s own existence. This understanding that the Other is constitutive of the self and can lead to the construction of a pluralistic world as an authentic reality is what is needed. An affirmed Other is in contrast to an exoticized Other; the exoticized Other is invented to satisfy Western desires for superiority, surveillance, domination, and control. It is a reification of colonial power to represent others in the service of empire. An affirmed Other is made visible in acknowledgment of the shared humanity with that Other, the constitutive relationships that humans have, and the ethnographer’s responsibility to do no harm.

EAB should continue to problematize borders, engaging them not only as contexts that define individuals and entire communities, nations, and regions, but also as constructs that provoke methodological challenges. Borders can also serve as an analytic through which to understand how the State produces difference or how individuals navigate shifting borders. Sánchez (2017) learned through an ethnographic study of undocumented Mexican immigrant fathers living in the southeastern United States and who parent at a distance from their children, who remained in México, that improvisations were common in the daily routines of fathers in order to navigate an increasingly anti-immigrant climate and the shifting borders of 287g. This included avoiding racial profiling at checkpoints near Mexican grocery stores. The fathers frequented these to avail themselves of the remittance services used to send money to their family in México. The fathers also had to find ways to build family together. Working with an immigrant service agency, they were able to broker with a municipal parks and recreation center to use a soccer field to play midnight soccer.

The fathers also navigated the shifting borders of parenting when they were excluded from decisions that they would be a part of as fathers living with their children. They improvised new ways to parent as fathers living at distances of time and space from their children. They leveraged technology, making use of online chat and phone services, text messaging, and prepaid phone cards that offered volume calls at low cost. They sent gifts through special transnational delivery services and made use of message space offered by remittance companies when sending money to their families. The researcher herself had to navigate shifting borders: in México, her fieldwork coincided with compliancy checks that were being carried out by government workers to prevent misuse of a family support program. In one instance, a father who had given an extensive interview no longer wanted to respond to follow-up questions on a subsequent visit. His son was participating in the family support program, and Sánchez wondered if the father’s new disposition toward her had to do with anxieties about whether Sánchez might be a government agent or share information with the government worker. In the southeastern United States, her fieldwork coincided with increased surveillance by Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) in the counties the research took place. While no father ever seemed to doubt that she was, indeed, conducting research and not engaged in ICE activities, Sánchez worried about the eventuality of a father’s detention or deportation—would they then think she had somehow been involved? Border-crossing into the fathers’ ontological space helped her rethink her work as fraught with vulnerability for the fathers and her relationship to them, and it also further defined her interactions with them to be focused on strengthening the bonds of trust.

EAB should continue to contribute to the field of meta-ethnography to unpack complexities. EAB matters as a way to decenter the ethnographer in the field to make her alert to the nuanced ways in which communities do and do not differ, and the way that ethnographers can avoid a key occupational hazard that causes them to reify their own conceptualizations of the Other.

Important to this project is the radical contextualization of the phenomenon of inquiry (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017), and at the same time to recognize that radical contextualization has its limits. That is, even with radical contextualization one cannot arrive at some “original state” of existence in which antecedents no longer exist. Life is in flux. Ethnography across borders’s central aim should be to sustain the modernist humanist commitment to social justice, freedom, and equality, which should serve as the guide for making decisions about the extent to which to contextualize ethnographies and problematize the ethnographer’s standpoint.

Beyond examination of ontologies and standpoint, ethnographers should look for borders in their work, regardless of whether these have to do with the nation-state. The construction of “difference” has been the project of colonial power to situate the world’s people in relation to white cisgender- and hetero-normative, patriarchal ableist supremacy. Engaging multimedia, multimodal texts that shatter the narrowing of what it means to be human is one way to dismantle this type of supremacy. Work by DeGennaro (2015), a white, middle-class, U.S.—based ethnographer, through critical digital storytelling that places technology in the hands of rural Mayan youth, is an excellent example of ethnographic border crossing that shatters the symbolic violence of modernity’s notion of difference. DeGennaro leverages technology and, in participatory action research, co-constructs indigenous presence on the vast digital landscape, facilitating rural Mayan youths’ own border-crossing into new technological frontiers.


Chicana author Pat Mora (1993) writes that borders reveal the “glare of truth with stern honesty” (p. 14), and illustrate a world that is saturated with inequality, power, and domination. Borders are marked by poverty and hungry children and are the site where people are made childless, parentless, and illegal. Chicana feminist and borderlands theorist Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) has acknowledged the power of the state to evoke and move borders in order to determine destinies and “produce political subjects who are now legal, now illegal, deprived of citizenship” (Alarcón, 2003, p. 362). For these theorists, who were raised on the border between the United States and México, the border is a geographical location that generates its own culture and social life. It is the place where they learned to fracture the language of colonization and globalization through their own code-switching writings. It is where the subaltern pushes back and resists wholesale cultural domination in the full glare of truth, a truth that does not allow anyone situated at the border to remain innocent about the power of the nation-state and the danger of crossing borders, the danger of not crossing them, and the danger of having borders cross them. Ethnographers stand to learn from Mora (1993), Alarcón (2003), and Anzaldúa (1987) that ethnographies should not remain innocent after border crossing; they, too, should be interested in fracturing the language(s) and practices of power.

Conducting EABs will not always take place at an actual border, but the comments of Mora (1993) and Alarcón (2003) speak to the dislocations lived when borders shift or are shifted, whether it is onto the brown body or through the presence of an intrepid ethnographer; borders, whether real or implied, always lay in wait to be erected or re-established. Globalization, technologies, laws, political activism, and individual and communal agency also shift borders, establish new ones, and erase others. It is important for ethnographers conducting ethnographies across borders to methodologically account for borders as sites and relationships evoked by the presence of a racially, nationally, or ethnically distinct ethnographer, different from the community she will embed herself in. All borders, real and evoked in the moment of contact, reveal the glare of truth. These borders are also inscribed with memory and history of regional dominance and asymmetrical power relations (Rockwell, 2009). Ethnographers must let go of their “epistemological drive to fit human experience into known categories that ‘reflect our cultural subjectivity’ rather than representing the phenomenon as lived by the participants” (Garro, 2002, p. 78). Ethnographers, therefore, stand to learn much from Mora (1993), Alarcón (2003), and Anzaldúa (1987), who present their lived experience at multiple borders. Ethnographers should not remain innocent after border crossing; they, too, should deepen their commitment to fracturing the languages and practices of power.


I wish to acknowledge Kathryn Anderson-Levitt and Elsie Rockwell, the ethnographers they have assembled around this important area of work, and the stellar contributions of their working group to the field of ethnography across borders, as well as George W. Noblit and R. Dwight Hare for their seminal writing in this field. I thank the reviewers for their insightful comments. I would like to thank the Mexican fathers who supported my research on fathering beyond the failures of the state that pushed them into immigrant status and life. They helped me, a Mexican-descent, childless woman with protection from deportation from the United States because of birthright citizenship, border cross into their daily lived experience of the border in the time of 287g. Finally, I wish to thank María Luisa Santiago Jiménez and Oscar Barrios Flores, who have generously received me into their university-based work with indigenous college students and their shared research with indigenous communities in the mountains of Guerrero. They have helped me understand the constitutive nature of relational ontologies as a lived reality that signals the promise of hope for a more socially just world, tenuous though that promise may be.


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