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Illustration by Susanne Niemann

Humanizing Research: Glimpses into Abu Dhabi

Pushing students onto the public bus, roaming the streets of Abu Dhabi and into communities we may not have known existed, Ethnographic Field Research provides a new perception of the UAE for NYUAD students.

Oct 26, 2019

My first time attending a language exchange group in downtown Abu Dhabi was daunting. This solo venture into the city felt drastically different than my previous experiences with the UAE. I sat quietly listening to a volunteer Spanish teacher explain the difference between “ser” and “estar,” but my attention was split between the lesson in front of me and the social interactions of the surrounding individuals. During these enjoyable Tuesday evenings spent with a diverse group of Abu Dhabi expats, it was easy to forget that this experience was in fact an academic endeavor.
It is easy to lament that our courses keep us corralled in the Saadiyat bubble, stuck in the library finishing a paper or turning down a trip into the city because of an impending exam. There are other courses, however, that push students onto the public bus, roaming the streets of Abu Dhabi and entering communities we may not have known existed.
Ethnographic Field Research – a staple research methods elective for Social Research and Public Policy majors – is one of those courses. Professor Zeynep Ozgen has taught the course for four semesters. After studying Political Science at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey, Ozgen’s interests in ethnicity, nationalism and the relationship between state and non-state actors led her to first encounter ethnography in a multi-ethnic town in southern Turkey.
John O’Brien, a sociologist who also teaches the course, spent three and a half years on his own ethnographic study of a group of Muslim teenagers in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. Carried out in the duration of only one semester, students spend far less time in the field than their professors, but nonetheless, they must identify an off-campus site in Abu Dhabi to visit once a week.
“People have come up with some really creative places, places I have never imagined to do an ethnography myself,” said Ozgen when discussing the range of field sites that NYU Abu Dhabi students have discovered.
Lubnah Ansari, Class of 2021, is conducting her research this semester in a downtown Pakistani restaurant which has long been a popular spot for students. Within her new role, Ansari describes the challenges of being situated in the restaurant for research while others are there making their livelihood. “It is difficult to get integrated because you are going there for two very different motives,” she noted. “What I think made it easier is sharing a very similar cultural context.”
Accessing a site is a big challenge facing the student researchers. Ozgen explained the element of luck that comes into play, in addition to utilizing contacts to land a good field site. “It happened to me in the past,” Ozgen said. “It turned into a whole dissertation project in the end by accessing the right people at the right time.”
For Saleha Al Ameri, Class of 2020, reaching out to people she knew helped her to get an introduction into her eventual field site at a private school in Abu Dhabi. “I got to speak with the school principal,” explained Al Ameri. “Luckily, she did ethnographic research so she understood how difficult it is to access sites.” Al Ameri spent the semester in a grade seven class, helping the teacher manage the group of students while simultaneously studying the hierarchies, social interactions and behaviors in the classroom setting.
Al Ameri was intrigued by how the research in a specific site has implications that go beyond that setting. “It made me aware that a small social group, incredibly small, could have something to contribute,” she remarked.
For Julia Tymoshenko, Class of 2021, her findings spoke to the structure and function of diaspora communities, a topic that arose after her weekly participation in a Ukrainian volleyball club. “Something that happened inside Ukraine really connected diasporas outside Ukraine, Abu Dhabi included,” she said in reference to the realization that the 2014 revolution in her home country first brought together this expat community. “And then I noticed it was a common trend around the globe, that was a great discovery.”
The students’ findings culminate in a research paper, and Ozgen stresses the important academic outcomes of the course. The 14-week syllabus includes lessons on note-taking, interviewing and utilizing qualitative coding software, providing students with the tools to move from observation to argument. “This is a method that teaches you skills, logical reasoning skills, that helps you in every aspect, in every sphere of life,” explained Ozgen.
Even with the emphasis on academic rigor, Ethnographic Field Research provides a deeply individualized experience for NYUAD students. “I really appreciated making connections with people off campus,” said Tymoshenko, who described her Fall 2018 semester as refreshing. At the time, she was also enrolled in Introductory Film Making: Sound, Image, and Story, another course which pushes students to engage beyond Saadiyat.
Former and current students reflected on the uniqueness of the research method and the opportunities that the course provides to explore a new community in the city: “There is a human element to it. [Ethnography] allows you to learn from being present at a field site, being cooperative, empathetic,” Ansari warmly described. “You rely on your human qualities to learn and that's so cool.”
Caroline Sullivan is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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