1- Defining Ethnographic Writing

Chapter 1 provides a basic definition of ethnography in order to situate an overview of the reasons for assigning, benefits for conducting, and characteristics of ethnographic writing.

So, you’ve just been told that you are going to have to write an ethnographic essay.  Great. Fine. But, you’re thinking: What the heck is that? I never heard that word before?  What does it mean?

Take a look at the word and think about how it may have been constructed, whether it seems at all familiar to you. Ethnography is one of those words that we have basically invented by combining two Greek words: ethno+graphy. Ethno, as you may have guessed, has to do with ethnic or ethnicity. Technically, the root ethno means culture. Defining culture is a sticky, complicated business.  Culture can be part of what we do; it may be understood as a “total way of life.”  However, even more complicated than the definition of culture is how we handle the implications of such a complex definition.  That is, if we’re in the business of producing textual representation of that culture, then the mode of such production—the writing and the ethical and representation components of that writing—become of utmost concern to us. The second half of the word ethnography may remind you of the word geography, so you may have thought about countries or maps. Or you might assume that it means the “study of,” and while, this is a great assumption, it isn’t exactly on the mark. Actually, graphy has to do with graph, and might make more sense if you think: graphic or even graffiti. Yep, it means writing.

Ethnography, then, quite literally, means writing culture. Here are the nuts and bolts of how this would work, how one would “write culture.” A researcher chooses a site, a place or a location to study.  The focus here is the culture of the people in this site. Anthropologists are the folks who developed this methodology, initially researching cultures unlike their own, in faraway places, in order to learn more about the world. While at the site—in the field—the researcher (ethnographer) observes and participates in the culture. They write down what they observe in fieldnotes and will often interview individuals and find themselves an informant who helps them better understand what they may see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. The researcher may be in the field for years, constantly writing up fieldnotes, participating and observing until they feel as though they have some understanding of the culture at hand. The fieldnotes are primary data and are then explored and examined for repeated patterns, for relationships that allow the ethnographer to begin to understand how the culture works.  The patterns often reveal belief systems and power structures, two of the key ways humans organize themselves into/as cultures. When a pattern is identified, it is then turned into an argument—a thesis as you might understand it—and the primary data is used as examples to support the assertion made about the culture. Secondary research—the writings of other academics—is consulted and used as the researcher (ethnographer) then in effect, translates what they have seen and done into an argument, a line of logic: an essay. A culture is then, in effect, literally written (down).  An ethnography—a writing of culture—has been composed.

Engaging Communities breaks this process down into steps so that you can get somewhere in the few weeks that you likely have (not the months or years an ethnographer has) to go from choosing and entering a site, to writing fieldnotes, to conducting academic research, to translating your observations into an ethnographic essay. No matter where you are in the process, ethics are of utmost importance. The act of writing culture is not only one way.  It isn’t only that the culture in question will be revealed. This text recognizes that whenever an individual writes about culture, their own personal assumptions and beliefs are inherent in the research and writing process.  That is, ethnographic writing is never fully objective and never completely neutral.  We must try to be ethical and honorable, working as hard as possible to truly represent the culture we’re studying with as much accuracy as possible.  We need to be committed to thinking about the issues and potential conflicts that may arise when someone observes and writes about the lived lives of others. All of these aspects of ethnographic writing make it more challenging, but also more exciting, and often seemingly more relevant as the process of writing culture will likely reveal to you your own cultural perspectives, as much as it allows you to translate those of others.