If you have had any kind of writing instruction prior to this class, you probably already know that one of the most important elements in developing an idea is providing examples to guide your assertions. In the case of ethnographic writing, these examples are drawn from your memory and your fieldnotes. Your fieldnotes, as primary data are then the source for your primary evidence.
It is primary evidence that supports your focus and allows you to make clear why you have found a certain behavior or idea significant. Rather than thinking about evidence as a way to prove your point, it may be more helpful to consider primary evidence as an opportunity to provide your reader with an example of what you mean, what you have seen. If you are truly trying to engage the reader in a conversation, to inspire a response from them, you will want to provide examples from your fieldnotes you found to be compelling. The fact is that if you found something interesting, you will probably write about it in an interesting way, thereby piquing the interest of the reader. It is this sort of interest—another level of connection—that will prompt a response.
Given the goal of creating conversation, the question about how to effectively use primary source evidence then is three fold:
- Which examples should you choose?
- Where in the paper do they go?
- How do you present them?
Think about the writing of a longer essay as a series of shorter pieces. If you consider the introductory section and the concluding section as two short essays, you are then left to write two or three shorter essays in order to flesh out your idea. In many ways, the introduction begins with an example of your idea, but since the real purpose of the introduction is to interest the reader, the effect of this example is to inspire the reader to continue reading. This example will not necessarily be considered as evidence of your observation/focus. As a result, you need to think about other possible examples you can use in order to develop a discussion of your focus statement.
While the focus is definitely critical to determining your example/evidence choices, the most important consideration in choosing an example from your fieldnotes is: What would you like to accomplish with your essay? This question may be difficult for you to consider if you are still having difficulty seeing yourself as an authority on you own research. You might want to say something in particular way or to inspire someone to think about something a different way. Though it is usually not realistic to assume that any one piece of writing will “change someone’s mind,” there is no shortage of opinion, research, or writing for that matter, that does not support the notion that writing can assist people in shifting their perspective, in thinking about things in a different way.
There is a difference between identifying and iterating a focus and choosing relevant examples. Let’s start with a student focus:
In this essay I will discuss the connection between Polish folk dance and heritage. I will write about the meaning of the circle and what it symbolizes to all of us in the group. Also, I plan on discussing my observations on what goes on during practice and what I have observed about the group and how they view heritage. As I write this essay, I want people to start thinking about their own heritage and what they can do to become closer to it. I also want people to become more aware of the Polish culture and have a better view of it. I would like to get people to participate in their ethnic backgrounds, so they can come to know their culture more.
The focus for this essay is, “the connection between Polish folk dance and heritage.” Martyna developed this focus statement by considering a pattern in her analysis observations—that dancing connects her to her Polish heritage. The example of this connection, however, is not limited to Martyna’s observation—the idea that she feels a connection. She cites the use of the circle in her dance group as a symbol of connection, a way that the group illustrates their connections with each other.
Once you choose your evidence, the examples for your essay, the way of explaining and exploring your focus, you need to also decide where to discuss the examples and how you will present the example. There is no hard and fast rule about where and how you should present your examples. Martyna decided that the larger example of the circle should follow a section on the history of her dance group and her own connection with the group. This first section then provides context for her discussion of the symbolic function of the circle.
In her section entitled, “Family and Heritage in Wici,” Martyna uses the circle as a way of illustrating the connection between dance and heritage. One can better examine the logic of an essay, the connection between focus and evidence, by looking at the first few lines of each paragraph. Here, we are able to not only identify how they have used the example to their benefit, but to note the logic in the development of an idea. In the section that focuses on the circle, we note definite attention to the relationship between the focus on dance and heritage and the example of the circle as evidence of such a connection:
- Paragraph 1: The circle that we stand in at the beginning and end of practice is symbolic. It represents our heritage and all of us coming together as a family.
- Paragraph 2: There is a connection between the circle we stand in and the people in Poland.
- Paragraph 3: The circle represents us coming together and taking part in something not all people take part in. Being a part of something like a folk dance group shows that we are doing something that connects us to our Polish heritage.
- Paragraph 4: Our dance group is also symbolic. We symbolize the Polish youth who are going to pass on to others all that we have learned and experienced as a part of this group.
In this four-paragraph section, of her essay, Martyna uses one example—the circle they form during dance group—in order to develop the connection between her heritage and dance. She begins with the idea that the circle is symbolic of this connection. Then she develops this metaphor to extend the connection beyond the boundaries of the group to all people in Poland. She then reiterates this idea through the personal, rather than the theoretical connection and finally extends the metaphor one more time, crossing temporal, not just geographical boundaries. In short, the circle connects the people to dance, to other people in Poland, to each other and finally to those not yet born or exposed to Polish dance and heritage.
The point is that the examples you choose from your fieldnotes need not be complicated or even numerous. While Maryna does provide “evidence” of her assertion of the connection between dance and Polish heritage in the form of personal experience and self-reflexivity throughout this essay, she really only uses one bit of primary data in her essay in order to make her point. The key is that she examines that evidence from multiple perspectives, she explores its metaphorical potential, thinking about how it may be perceived, considering is as a representation for all the ways in which she feels connected to her heritage through the dance group.
As you consider your own focus statement and reexamine your list of observations in search of appropriate, fruitful examples, and think about which observations may enable you to connect your focus with the larger purpose (the SO WHAT?) of your essay. Here are some ways to begin to do this:
- Do not think that you need many of these examples, or that you need to know exactly how or where you’ll place them at first.
- Choose first and then as you write, experiment with ways of presenting the example—use your creative flair in order to bring a situation to life.
- Extend any metaphorical connections you may make between ideas.
- Reconsider how and why you made note of the observation in the first place. Was it the result of thinking about place and space, ritual and symbol, representation? If so, use those ideas as guides for developing a longer discussion of this connection.