SSW 02: Ethnographic Tales

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

20.09.2010 15 - 17 : SSW Session 02: ETHNOGRAPHIC TALES


Exercise: Story-spine Feedback

2-3 People at random will share their Story-spine based on last week's situation of sitting in a class about Site and Subjective Writing.


The story-spine is repreenting one's own narrative and maybe also about one's own histories, practice, influences, and in general, 'culture'.

How about representing someone else's?


Anthropology, Sociology, Ethnography

Simply put, traditionally,
Anthopologists go elsewhere to study others, and shift sites & topics
Sociologists stay at home to study others, and become specialists in a region, culture, people etc.

These distinctions are blurred over historal development of the field and reducing these contrasts, but they are worth to be aware of distinctions..

“In sociology, ethnography is regarded as a low-budget, modest, somewhat odd, but more or less respectable product that is rather peripheral to the field and its goals.

In anthropology, ethnography is the field, its central rational for being.”

(Van Maanen, 1988: 21-22)


John Van Maanen writes that

“[a]n ethnography is a written representation of a culture (or selected aspects of a culture)”,

which carries “quite serious intellectual and moral responsibilities, for the images of others inscribed in writing are most assuredly not neutral”

(Van Maanen, 1988: p.1)


Fieldwork as social setting

The method of ethnography is often called fieldwork
how the understanding of others, close or distant, is achieved

Amanda Coffey writes that “Fieldwork is itself a 'social setting' inhabited by embodied, emotional, physical selves. Fieldwork helps to shape, challenge, reproduce, maintain, reconstruct and represent our selves and the selves of others.” (Coffey, 1999: p.8)

Her perspective is grounded in a feminist discourse in the nature and process of social research:

“To locate the self as a gendered, embodied, sexualised and emotional being, in and of the research; discounting the myth that social research can ever be neutral or hygenic. It is concerned with demystifying the researcher and the researched as unattached and objective instruments, arguing that research is personal, emotional, sensitive, should be reflective and is situated in existing cultural and structural contexts.” (Coffey, 1999: 12)


How one writes about others has an affect..

The subject of ethnography is culture (a particular person's or community's)

Van Maanen says: “Ethnographic writings can and do inform human contact and judgement in innumerable ways by pointing to the choices and restrictions that reside at the very heart of social life” (Ibid.)


Fieldwork demands..

According to Van Maanen, it usually means

“living with, and living like those who are being studied”,

and in the broadest, most conventional sense,

“fieldwork demands the full-time involvement of a researcher over a lengthy amount of time
(typically unspecified) and consists mostly of ongoing interaction with the human targets of study on their home-ground.”


Ethnographic writing

What is being presented in the writing..

In print: “occasionally boring, sometimes exciting, but virtually always self-transforming as the fieldworker comes to regard an initially strange and unfamiliar place and people in increasingly familiar and confident ways”

Classical quotes of how researchers have represented themselves: “marginal natives” (Freilich, 1970), “professional strangers” (Agar, 1980), as “self-reliant loners” (Lofland, 1974), .. sometimes the status doesnt not get better than “dull visitors”, “meddlesome busybodies”, “hopeless dummies”, “social creeps”..

(Van Maanen, 1988: 2)

“Could need the instincts of an exile” - without much introduction, knowing few people if any..
The arrival story.. “an image of the civilised, Westernised even, ethnographer embarking on a journey among strange (and dangerous?) peoples” (Coffey, 1999: 18)

The truck alternately jounced and slithered over the dirt road; after last night's rain, the first of the season, it was a lake of mud with occasional reefs of laterite. To either side spread the grasslands, dead gray grass patched with the green of yam fields and the brown of newly cleared land. Dotted about were their homesteads: circular clusters of round huts with thatched roofs like dinner bells, domed and golden in the sun. Men and women were out in the fields, hoeing and pulling grass. They straightened at the noise of their coming, shouted, and shook their fists at me. Sackerto had thought to tell me that this was their form of greeting. I shook my fist in return. (Bowen, 1964: 1-2, quoted by Coffey, 1999: 18).

Coffey continues to show how the 'field' may be constructed, as a place 'elsewhere' and away from the usual situation, which must be endured, by quoting again Bowen a little further along in the introductory tale..

The sun was high. The tall grass cut out any view and any breeze. The the carriers began to sing, and my momentary depression vanished. Seeing them file down the path, boxes on their heads, made me feel like something out of an old explorer's book. True, I was not in traditional costume: neither Mary Kingsley's stays and petticoats, nor in the pith helmet, shorts and boots of the traveller's frontispiece. It's difficult to feel adventurous in tennis shoes, a cotton dress, dark glasses, a shoulder bag and a floppy hat, but I managed it. I even managed to feel competent, almost experienced. The water from the small streams we waded was running out of my tennis shoes just as I had been told it would. (Bowen, 1964: 4-5).

And continues with her sense of strangeness, alienation and out of place, as a quest of endurance.. (Coffey, 1999: 19)

However, Coffey notes that the reality of fieldwork and enstrangement is more complex than accounts above suggest..

“Straightforward readings of standard methodological texts imply a position of ethnographer-as-stranger, progressing towards a familiarity and eventual enlightenment, which simultaneously achieving a professional and personal distance…

They do not do justice to the complex dualities of the research settings and the fieldworker self.”

The “personal embeddedness” of the research.

“Involvement is to some extent inevitable and even desirable”

Questioning familiarity

According to Coffey, methodological and politcal critiques of social anthropology (and ethnography in general), have recently in last couple of decades have called in to question the image of 'ethnographer-as-stranger and marginal,

“challenging the dichotomies of strangeness and membership, experience and innocence knowledge and ignorance suggesting that they [the fieldwork accounts] do not fully, or even partially, capture the complexities of the self in the context of meaning and fruitful fieldworks.” (Coffey, 1999: 20).

Furthermore, Coffey expands also the dilemma of familiarity..
When the fieldworker begins to live, work and become part of that environment..

This is also an issue when the issue is 'at home', studying everyday things: “to an 'untrained', or over-familiar, observer 'nothing' maybe going on and worth noting down in a hospital ward or school classroom” (Coffey, 1999: 21).


Readers of Ethnography

“Writing is intended as a communicative act between author and reader.

To produce an ethnography requires decisions about what to tell and how to tell it.

These decisions are influenced by whom the writer plans to tell it to.

Ethnographies are written with particular audiences in mind and reflect the presumptions carried by authors regarding the attitudes, expectations and backgrounds of their intended readers.”

(Van Maanen, 1988: 25)

All texts aims to raise interest in a particular subject, individuals or group of people, and aimed at real or imagined groups of readers.

The kind of readers are identifed by the clues the writer leaves..

Preface gives a summary plus list of friends acknowledged who have read / helped / supported / inspired Typological clues: language, jargon used, reference & footnotes indicated anticipated knowledge of reader

What is not in the book/manuscript/essay is also revealing
(Van Maanen, 1998: 25-26)

3 types of readers presented by Van Maanen in 'Tales of the Field':

Collegial Readers:

Fieldwork literature is followed most avidly by other fieldworkers.
Academics in social-science would make up the biggest readership.
Most familiar with past, present & future of the practice.
Therefore most careful & critical readers of each others work

To people mostly known and who's judgements you trust.
Opinion matters to the writer, and they will hopefully get the 'gist' & jokes.

Social-science Readers:

Readers from outside fieldwork traditions look to ethnographers for the information they provide on the group studied.

Interpret fieldwork as a method among other methods (eg. statistical) and judges it by how much it informs their own research interest.

Don't always take up the arguments that surround and give meaning to information shared.

Looking for information surrounding low-visibility, little understood, deviant or out-of-ordinary cultures.

General Readers:

Occasionally fieldwork become visible to a large, not specialised audience.

Ethnographic materials can entertain, instruct or even according to Van Maanen, madden a general readership.

Fieldworkers become storytellers, and allegories are significant.

Readers are maybe familiar to a format:

The traveller's tale
The novel
The adventure story
The investigative report
Past classic ethnographic reports

Attracting a general readership may necessitate coverage (showing rather than analyzing) and some simplification..

As well as fear among colleagues as being misleading, false, dishonest, stereotyping etc.

Literary standards however is a different category of judgement:

Fidelity, coherance, generosity, wisdom, imagination, honesty, respect and verisimilitude (truth-like-ness) are all standards which can be shared from the discipline to a general ethnography readership.

(ibid: 27-33)


Van Maanen has identified different forms of ethnographic writing.. which dont necesarily exist exclusively, but can sometimes be found in combination..

Realist Tales

The most prominant, familar, popular and recognised form of ethnographic writing historically (1980s).

“A single author typically narrates the realist tale in a dispassionate, third person voice.
On display are
the comings and goings of members of the culture,
theoretical coverage of certain features of the culture,
and usually a hesitant account of why the work was undertaken in the first place”

The result is an author-proclaimed description and something of an explanation for certain specific, bounded, observed (or nearby observed) cultural practices.

Experiential Authority

absence of the author from the text.. Only what members of studied culture say and do, and presumably think are in the text

Typical Forms

Documentary style focused on details of every day life among people studied

Attention to descriptive detail

Occasional glimpses of the dramatic are allowed, but in the form of exceptions or contrasts to the everyday.

Little is told about the experiences of people studied, more about the categories or institutions that are said to order their life's

Celebrate the concrete reference!

“A vagrant in a realist tale is not simplay a stock, unwashed character, but a “shabby, foul-smelling sort who is wearing a dirty torn overcoat exposing white hands that tremble noticably”. (Van Maanen, 1988: 48-49)

“Details suggest intimacy and establish presence (who else could know such things?)”

“They are often used to draw the audience into the world of the people studied.”

“The particular & ordinary details make it difficult to deny the fieldworker's authority,
and when presented together, represent the 'real life' of the observed”

The “typical” is identified.

The native's point of view

Presents accounts and explanations by the member of the culture of the events in their lives, particularly routine, every day events.

Extensive, closely-edited quotations, conveying to the readers that the views put forward are not those of the fieldworker, but are rather authentic and representative remarks transcribed straight from tape/recording device.

The reader must know what the native does day in and day out, and what they make of it also.
(Although the 'natives point of view' is also subject of much debate in ethnographic circles..

In general, observation has given way over the years to interpretation..

Much stage-setting & contextual framing.

Interpretative Omnipotence

“The ethnographer has the final world on how the culture is to be interpreted.” (Van Maanen, 1988: 51)

Rare in past were ethnographers who questioned aloud if they interpreted correctly, or whether there was another, better way to do it..

an “equally useful way to study, characterise, display, read, or otherwise understand that accumulated field materials.”

As Van Maanen remarks, “a distinguishing mart of ethnographies outside the realist mode is the troublesome worries the ethnographer themselves make public regarding the accuracy, breadth, typicality, or generality of their own cultural representations and interpretations.

Self-reflection and doubt are hardly central matters in the realist tales”

(Van Maanen, 1988: 51)


Confessional Tales

“Ethnographic writing of any kind is a complex matter, dependent on an unaccountable number of strategic choices and active constructions (e.g. what details to include or omit; how to summarise and present data; what voice to select; what quotations to use).”

The fieldwork confessional is an increasingly popular [1988] genre, distinguised by their highly personalised styles and their self-absorbed mandates.

“an attempt to explicitly demystify fieldwork or participant-observation by showing how the technique is practiced in the field. Stories of infiltration, fables of fieldwork rapport, minimelodramas of hardships endured (and overcome), and accounts of what fieldwork did to the fieldworker are prominent features of confessions”

(Van Maanen, 1988: 73)

influences of phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, and other interpretative procedures on empirical research

Writers making confessionals “try to show that ethnography is not merely old-fashioned social science in its geriatric decay.. [they] attempt to demonstrate that an ethnographic report is more than a personal document; that it is something disciplined by proper fieldwork habits, including the attention an ethnographer pays to the epistemological problems characteristic of social science.

Most confessionals have at their core some hope of making fieldwork, if not fully safe for science, at least respectable in terms of upholding some community standards and disciplining the undisciplined of fieldwork.”

(Ibid.: 74)

Three conventions..

Personalised author(ity)

“Author-fieldworkers are always close at hand in confessional tales. Their writings are intended to show how particular works came into being, and this demands personalised authority”

(Ibid.: 74)

Not disembodied voice, but in its place a person (I saw/experienced..)

“There is an intimacy to be established with readers, a personal character to develop, trials to portray, and as with realist tales, a world to be represented within which the fieldworker will roam.”
Confessional tales do not usually replace realist account, but typically stand beside them elaborating, sometimes, overlapping.

Much confessional work is done to convince the audience of the human qualities of the researcher:

“Often the ethnographer mentions personal biases, character flaws, or bad habits as a way of building an ironical self-portrait with which the readers can identify” (see I am just like you)

“The omnipotent tone of realism gives way to the modest unassuming style of one struggling to piece together something reasonably coherent out of displays of initial disorder, doubt, and difficulty.

(Ibid.: 75)

According to Clifford (1983a), referenced by Van Maanen,

There are 2 conventional ways for ethnographers to orientate themselves towards confession..

“One is to cast oneself as a simple student of the observed group, an apprentice of sorts, who comes to learn of the culture much as any child or newcomer to that culture might.. Learning from living is the predominant theme.

The other way.. [more fashionable in late 80s] is to cast oneself as a translator or interpreter of indigenous texts that are available to the ethnographer in the field (Geertz, 1973).. The major problem with this tactic is convincing the audience that such text are in fact authentic, natural, useful for analytical purposes, and more or less untainted by the fieldworker's touch”

“Fieldworkers, unlike literary critics, historians, or linguists, face the problem that their texts (on behaviour, belief, ritual etc) taken from the field must first be constructed, since they do not come pre-packaged. The first orientation lends itself nicely to a cognative, rule-based and behaviourly focused ethnographic display; the second to a more reflexive, language-based, interpretive one.

(Ibid.: 75-76)

The Fieldworker's Point of View

Typically in a confessional tale, the point of view being represented is the fieldworkers.

A character-building conversion tale in which the fieldworker, who saw things one way at the beginning, comes to see things differently at the end

“The new way of seeing the world is normally claimed to be similar to the native's point of view. But careful attention is given to insuring that the fieldworker does not appear to be fully altered, the proverbial cultural dupe or convert.

The attitude conveyed is one of tacking back and forth between an insider's passionate perspective and an outsider's dispassionate one.”

“The mere presence of the confessional suggests that the fieldworker is now seriously back among his peers, ready to tell of the adventures in the field.”

“A reader often learns of the ethnographer's shifting point of view during a period of fieldwork in a confessional. Common features of reasearch confessionals are episodes of fieldworker shock and surprise. Subjects include blunders of fieldworkers, the social gaffes they commit, or the secrets they unearth in unlikely places and ways…

despite the theoretical languages and attitudes taken into the field by ethnographers, the significance of inserting the self into the daily affairs of others is, at least on the experiential plane, similar for everyone.”

but sometimes it is a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time.


“the fieldworker cannot in the field forever and still be considered a fieldworker.

Conventions grow up around what is to be considered an adequate field experience, and various communities (and sub communities) of fieldworkers adopt different standards. The more targeted or limited the ethnography is to a particular and well-defined cultural problem, the less time in the field is thought necessary in order for revelation to strike.”

(Ibid: 77)


Last convention, according to Van Maanen, is “the way fieldworkers argue that their materials are reasonably uncontaminated and pure despite all the bothersome problems exposed in the confession.”

“Though confessional writers are forthcomig with accounts of errors, misgivings, limiting research roles, and even misperceptions, they are unlikely to come to the conclusion that they have been misleading dramatically, that they have got it wrong, or that they have otherwise presented falsehoods to their trusting audience.

The implied story line of many a confessional tale is that of a fieldworker and a culture finding each other and, despite some intial spats and misunderstandings, in the end making a match.”

(Ibid: 78-79)

The ones which make it to print are only the more or less successful ones..

Where informants knew what they were talking about..

“We rarely read of unsuccessful field projects where the research was presumably so personally disastrous to the fieldworker that the study was dropped or failed ever to find its way to publication.”

(Ibid.: 79)


Impressionist Tales


References shared in this session:

Bowen, E. S. [Bohannan, L.] (1964), Return to Laughter. New York: Doubleday.

Coffey, Amanda (1999), The Ethnographic Self: fieldwork and the representation of identity. London: Sage Publishers.

Van Maanan, John. (1988), Tales of the Field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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