6- Drafting Your Ethnographic Essay

Chapter 6 provides a step-by-step process for developing, writing, and revising your ethnographic research essay.

Finding a Focus, Choosing a Controlling Idea for Your Research

The first step in finding a focus is to read through all of your fieldnotes two times. As you read, notice when and where you become particularly interested in what you have written. Circle, mark or note these passages in some way. Write a brief summary of each idea/passage on a separate sheet. After you identify what interests you most, move on to search for patterns that will lead you to focus.  You can follow the step-by step-process below as a path to create a kind of umbrella or guiding focus statement for your essay:

  1. Read through the list you compiled from your fieldnotes and identify which parts of your fieldnotes interest and engage you most. Look at the larger arc. Are most of your points taken from your thoughts and feelings or are you more interested in the analysis observation?
  2. Search for patterns in your list, and make a new list of those patterns. Keep an eye out for things that strike you as meaningful and interesting and that happen again and again.  As you explore patterns, also look for things connected to those patterns.  Find patterns within patterns. how do you connect ideas with language?  Do you seem to repeatedly use the same phrases?  When and with respect to what observations?  This may help identify relevant patters of observation.
  3. From your list of patterns and connections, select the ONE larger idea/pattern that interests you most. You know you’re on to something if you find a pattern and can see how it connects to other observations you’ve made during your research and /or to what other scholars or writers have said.
  4. Take that one interesting idea/pattern and develop an “umbrella” statement or a broad focus statement. You can start, for drafting purposes, with something as simple as “In this paper, I will…(discuss, explore, explain, analyze, etc.).”  Here you are articulating the big idea for your essay. You can always return to the statement to make is more sophisticated in the context of a focus paragraph later,
  5. Expand that statement by breaking the pattern that you are focusing on into any number of supporting observations. Follow your initial broad or umbrella focus statement with that break down. “First, I will….Second…Third….” with each of those statements specifying the supporting material. These first, second, and third statements provide the framework for the body sections of your research essay.

As you examine patterns you find in your own comprehensive observation list and look for an idea, theme, or metaphor to connect them, keep in mind the ways in which a focus moves from observations to a more developed discussion of the ideas you note.  As you connect the dots of your pattern, you may begin to understand where your essay could “land,” which implications become most compelling to you, and which elements for discussion could make clear the complexity of reality and truth.  When you identify some of these more powerful elements, take the time to write about any connections you see between those patterns or expand on any unfinished thoughts. From this list, you need to choose the idea/pattern that interests you most, that you think you can really write about, and that you can support with other observations from your notes. You have found your focus!