In our culture, (assuming here Western, American, capitalist) we often interpret experience with respect to what we identify as Cartesian thought, a process by which we organize data into binary oppositions: good/bad; light/dark, right/wrong, civilized/savage, young/old, smart/dumb, insider/outsider. Rather than presenting data in terms of two-sided notions, ethnographic writing works to multiply the levels of possibility, to confound the binary divisions in our culture. It is when we fall into the pattern of binary thought that we have the tendency to judge others. We see that which is not like us, that which is different as wrong. We think of arguments as having two sides, the pro and the con, usually ascribing the pro position for ourselves regardless of the argument.
An example here would be the rhetorical difference between the Pro-Choice and Right to Life movements. Each side sees their perspective from the “pro” position. Those who take a Pro-Choice stance often describe the “other side” as the Anti-Abortion Movement. Likewise, those who accept a Right-to-Life stance are often heard to be Anti-Children. The point is that when we have only two positions from which to choose, we are often led to make judgments since it is human nature to consider our own perspective as the “right” one. In a final ethnographic essay, you will not be asked to argue one “side” or the other, or present any two aspects of a particular issue Ethnographic writing does not answer questions as much as it explores the many ways people have of answering them. It doesn’t argue a position, in as much as it presents an observation for consideration.
But, while resisting the binary is an element of ethnographic writing, it isn’t necessarily a rhetorical strategy. In examining this list, you will note elements that may be understood as characteristics of ethnographic writing—in other words, identifying markers of possible examples of ethnographic writing—and elements that can be understood as rhetorical strategies, the actual means for producing the ethnographic writing. The list itself has no particular order, but it may be reorganized into two categories as follows:
Characteristics of Ethnographic Writing
- Ethnographic writing investigates how it is we make meaning and what this meaning might be.
- Ethnographic writing is reflexive.
- Ethnographic writing does not make judgments.
- Ethnographic writing highlights complexity; resists Cartesian thought and binary oppositions.
- Ethnographic writing illustrates a writing relationship between primary field research and secondary source ideas.
- Ethnographic writing is evocative.
- Ethnographic writing grabs the reader’s attention and works to sustain genuine interest.
- Ethnographic writing is an approach rather than a prescription.
Rhetorical Strategies of Ethnographic Writing
- Ethnographic writing explores ALL senses.
- Ethnographic writing is personal writing.
If you noted that on the heels of stating that ethnographic writing resists the binary, another binary was created—one that seems to compare and contrast characteristics of ethnographic writing with rhetorical strategies for ethnographic writing–you are well on your way to thinking like an ethnographer, thinking in terms of questions, rather than answers. If you did not notice this, do not worry. You, like so many students before you, have been trained to simply read their textbooks, not to question the logic, veracity or accuracy of their content.
The point here is not to create a binary, to encourage you to be able to recall which elements are characteristics and which are rhetorical strategies. Rather, the point is to illustrate that it is often much easier to provide a list that we might use to determine whether a piece might be labeled as ethnographic writing rather than to provide you with specifics as to how to produce ethnographic writing. Expressly because ethnographic writing investigates how we make meaning, resists binaries and evokes interest, there can be no set formula, no specific set of rhetorical strategies that will ensure that one produces ethnographic writing.
Ethnographic writing emerges from a process, one that involves connection between researcher and their project, the creation of a proposal, ethical fieldwork, fieldnote writing, creative exploration with multi-modal and multi-vocal writing, and even experimental representation of findings. Figuring out how to do this can, as suggested above, be reduced to a list of skills, skills that are identifiable and translatable to any number of other academic fields or disciplines. Emerging Cultures provides guidance with respect to what ethnographic writing may be, but, in the end, understanding ethnographic writing depends upon your experience conducting research, working to translate what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell into words. Any instructor can tell you that ethnographic writing is valuable, but your belief in the process depends upon your own efforts, successes and revelations following the process.