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.