1c- Rhetor­i­cal Strate­gies for Ethnographic Writing

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.