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Issue 5 March 1993

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Ethnographic writing

Martyn Hammersley

Martyn Hammersley is Reader in Eductaional and Social Research at the School of Education, Open University. In recent years most of his work has been concerned with the methodological issues surrounding social research. He has written several books: (with Paul Atkinson) Ethnography: principles in practice (Tavistock 1983; second edition due 1994); The dilemma of qualitative method (Routledge 1989); Classroom ethnography (Open University Press 1990); Reading ethnographic research (Longman 1991); and What's wrong with ethnography? (Routledge 1992).


At one time very little attention was given to the character of ethnographic writing. Minimal advice was offered to students about this aspect of the research process, and virtually no attention was devoted to how ethnographers formulate their accounts of the social world. The assumption was that 'writing up' research is relatively straightforward, a matter of general writing skills.

Recently, this situation has changed dramatically. As a result of the influence of structuralism and post-structuralism, and of a revival of the ancient discipline of rhetoric (Dixon 1971; Vickers 1988 and 1990; Barilli 1989), much greater attention is now given to the study of texts; including those produced by natural scientists and historians, but also those of social scientists themselves (White 1973 and 1978; McCloskey 1983 and 1985; Nelson et al 1987; Simons 1988; Woolgar 1988).

In this context interest in ethnographic writing has greatly increased. Not only are there now several books concerned with how to write ethnographic or qualitative accounts (Becker 1986; Wolcott 1990; Richardson 1990b), but there is also a growing literature of a more theoretical kind: concerned with the rhetorical devices that ethnographers deploy, the presuppositions on which these are based, the functions they perform etc. A key text is Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986); though there had been significant work before this (Brown 1977; Marcus and Cushman 1982; Atkinson 1983; Edmondson 1984), and there have been important recent additions to the literature, notably the books by van Maanen (1988), Atkinson (1990 and 1992), and Sanjek (1990). This interest in ethnographic rhetoric has often been associated with criticism of conventional forms of anthropological and sociological writing, on philosophical and political grounds, and with the development of 'experimental' new forms. (For examples of this new writing, see Crapanzano 1980; Shostak 1981; Dwyer 1982; Kreiger 1983; Mulkay 1985; Dorst 1989; Rose 1989; Ashmore 1989.) However, it would be wrong to imply that a consensus underlies work in this field. Nor has it been received uncritically (see Gordon 1988; Sangren 1988; Caplan 1988/89; Mascia-Lees et al 1989; Polier and Roseberry 1989; Roth 1989; Spencer 1989; Hammersley 1992).

This Update is designed as a brief guide to the literature. I have picked out a number of key texts and given brief outlines of their contents. The bibliography includes all references plus additional relevant items.

Atkinson, P. (1990)
The author is primarily concerned with displaying the textual strategies used in traditional kinds of ethnographic writing. He examines: the sorts of descriptions that ethnographers provide, and how these rely on background knowledge on the part of readers; the role of titles and subtitles; the use of data extracts in the text, notably as one way that multiple voices are introduced; the structure of narratives recounting the biography of research projects or the course of events in some setting; the construction of characters and their relation to social types; the way in which ethnographic texts are structured by assumptions about gender; and the uses of irony.

Atkinson, P. (1992)
The central theme here is the tension between the complexity of social life and the rhetorical forms available to ethnographers for representing it. Atkinson considers the way in which the 'fields' ethnographers study are textually constructed, the writing of fieldnotes and transcription of audio-recordings, the various genres of ethnography, and some of the experimental textual strategies currently being explored.

Brown, R.H. (1977)
An early but still illuminating analysis of the rhetorical/poetic strategies used by sociologists in their writing. Brown adopts a perspective he terms 'cognitive aesthetics' in which both the humanities and the sciences are presented as concerned with 'making paradigms through which experience becomes intelligible'. He argues that choice among paradigms is not based on judgments of truth or falsity but on taste; though he insists that there are canons of taste. In the remainder of the book he seeks to document sociologists' use of various paradigms, for example their adoption of different points of view on the phenomena they describe.

Clifford, J. (1988)
A collection of mostly previously published articles by a key figure in the study of ethnographic writing in anthropology. Of particular interest is the article 'On ethnographic authority'. This examines the realism of conventional anthropological ethnography; and criticises it for hiding the process by which accounts are produced, and for defining the reality of the people studied from a Western viewpoint which is disguised as objective. The constructed and negotiated character of ethnographic research and writing is emphasised, along with its political context and role. Clifford advocates collaborative ethnography and texts that are multi-vocal and open-ended.

Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. (1986)
A very influential collection of articles dealing with various aspects of ethnography as text. Clifford's introduction is particularly useful. The chapters by Asad and Rabinow offer important qualifications, while that by Tyler exemplifies the 'postmodernist turn'. (See also Marcus and Fischer 1986.)

Geertz, C. (1988)
Some of the concern with ethnographic writing arose out of the symbolic anthropology of which Geertz is a major exponent. In this book he examines the contrasting rhetorical styles used by several prominent anthropologists: Levi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski and Benedict.

Denzin, N.K. (1992)
In the context of a dispute about the accuracy of Whyte's Street Corner Society, Denzin questions the possibility of representation and the functions that 'representational' accounts perform.

Gordon, D. (1988)
This is a critical review of Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture, from a feminist perspective. Gordon argues that the new form of anthropology that this volume represents still marginalises women and feminism. And she questions the distinction between conventional and 'experimental' ethnography, denying that this is as significant as that between feminist and non-feminist work. She looks at what feminist anthropologists can learn from analyses of ethnographic rhetoric.

van Maanen, J. (1988)
van Maanen identifies three broad types of ethnographic writing and the conventions that govern them. Examples of the first style—'realist tales'—involve the almost complete absence of the author from the text, scenes and events being described 'as they are'. Mundane details are provided about the phenomena described (of a kind that would only be available on the basis of first-hand observation), and quotations from participants are introduced to show that the author knows whereof he or she writes. In 'confessional tales' the ethnographer is centre-stage: what is told is the story of the research itself. Often such accounts take the form of modest and unassuming reports of the problems and struggles of the fieldworker, usually with a happy ending. Finally, there are what van Maanen calls 'impressionist tales'. In these, literary or even poetic effect is primary, allowing the author to exaggerate in order to make a point. It is suggested that impressionist tales may represent the contemporary world more effectively than realist accounts, and that narrative ingenuity on the part of ethnographers should be encouraged.

Marcus, G. and Cushman, D. (1982)
The authors identify the dominant genre in anthropology as ethnographic realism, and list its characteristic conventions, as well as examining the textual strategies that ethnographers use to establish their authority within this genre. At the same time they look at variations in rhetoric as much as commonalities. A persistent theme in their discussion is how ethnographers present particular places, events, people etc. as representing cultural wholes. Marcus and Cushman also discuss experimental deviations from the realist pattern and look at how textual authority is achieved despite these deviations.

Roth, P. A. (1989)
This article looks at the epistemological significance attributed by recent commentators to the literary devices used by ethnographers. In particular, the focus is on the argument that traditional ethnographic accounts conceal the author and therefore obscure her or his role in their construction. Roth claims that explicit self-reflection no more guarantees authenticity than does a pose of detachment. Finally, he challenges what he regards as the confusion of epistemological and political representativeness. Following the article there are responses from Clifford, Tyler and others, plus a reply by Roth.

Tyler, S. (1985)
Tyler argues that despite their appearance as representations of a world that has come to be known directly by the ethnographer, ethnographies work through reference and allusion to other texts. Furthermore, they draw on tropes and story forms that are common currency in Western culture. He also questions the legitimacy of dialogical presentation; suggesting that, like realist accounts, it too involves a pretence of representation. Instead he recommends an allegorical, post-modernist ethnography that evokes rather than represents.

Webster, S. (1986)
This article considers ethnographic realism and criticisms of it from the point of view of Critical Theory. Various interpretations of the concept of realism are identified. Webster challenges some writers in the field for adopting an idealist position, and for not showing how the study of rhetoric can further a radical reorientation of ethnography. He argues that rather than ethnographic realism being an explicit application of fictional realist rhetoric, it represents an implicit adoption of some of the latter's techniques so as to mark ethnography off from literature and to present it as scientific. He considers the possibility of using the resources of literary realism for critical purposes, but rejects both this and formalistic experimentation in favour of ethnographic writing that self-consciously locates itself within its socio-historical situation.

Bibliography

Ashmore, M. (1989) The Reflexive Thesis, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Atkinson, P. (1983) 'Writing ethnography' in H.J.Helle (ed.) Kultur und Institution, Berlin, Duncker und Humblot.

Atkinson, P. (1990) The Ethnographic Imagination: textual construction of reality, London, Routledge.

Atkinson, P. (1992) Understanding Ethnographic Texts, Newbury Park, Sage.

Baker, S. (1990) 'Reflection, doubt, and the place of rhetoric in postmodern social theory', Sociological Theory, 8, 2, pp232-45.

Barilli, R. (1989) Rhetoric, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Becker, H.S. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Boon, J.A. (1982) Other Tribes, Other Scribes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Boon, J.A. (1983) 'Functionalists write too: Frazer, Malinowski and the semiotics of the monograph', Semiotica, 46, (2-4) pp131-49.

Brown, R.H. (1977) A Poetic for Sociology, New York, Cambridge University Press. Second edition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Brown, R.H. (1987) Society as Text: essays on rhetoric, reason and society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Brown, R.H. (1989) Social Science as Civic Discourse, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Brown, R.H. (1990) 'Rhetoric, textuality, and the postmodern turn in sociological theory', Sociological Theory, 8, 2, pp188-97.

Caplan, P. (1988/89) 'Engendering knowledge: the politics of ethnography', Anthropology Today, 4, 5-6, pp 8-12 and 14-17.

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