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.


Learn More

2- Fram­ing Eth­i­cal Research

Chap­ter 2 pro­vides an overview of what it means to con­duct eth­i­cal research, what sorts of issues one needs to keep in mind before select­ing a research site, before enter­ing the site as a par­tic­i­pant-observ­er. Ethics mat­ter in the research and the writ­ing of ethno­graph­ic essays. Fram­ing your work through an eth­i­cal lens from the out­set will help ensure respect­ful, mean­ing­ful, legit­i­mate work in the end.

Con­duct­ing Human/Humane Research

The minute you choose a site for your research is the sec­ond you begin to make the lives and beliefs and actions of oth­ers the focus of your atten­tion. As a result, you need to think about the ethics—standards regard­ing rights, such as the right to life, pri­va­cy, free­dom from injury, etc.—and how the idea of rights might impact what it means to observe and research a cul­ture, a group of human beings. This chap­ter takes ethics as the main focus and cre­ates a frame for this aspect of your work.  Specif­i­cal­ly, the goal is to pro­vide a scaf­fold for your inquiry that is not only aca­d­e­m­ic and sound, but eth­i­cal as well.

From the moment you choose a research site, you enter into a rela­tion­ship with that place, with that space and those peo­ple.  Even before you vis­it it with your note pad and paper, before you write even one word, you are engaged in rhetor­i­cal con­struc­tion.  That is, the mere act of think­ing about your site, of hav­ing an opin­ion, pre­sumes eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty on your part.  When you think of this site, do you judge it?  Are you look­ing to “use” your research for some sort of gain?  Where do you locate the pow­er in the relationship—in you or your infor­mants?  What do you see as the cul­tur­al val­ue of this place?

Often, the stu­dent researcher over­looks the idea that in this sort of relationship—a rela­tion­ship that actu­al­ly involves human beings, peo­ple with ideas, opin­ions, feel­ings and beliefs—needs to be con­scious and pur­pose­ful.  This is rea­son­able and under­stand­able because, for the most part, your research has not involved actu­al human inter­ac­tion.  Your research has most like­ly been lim­it­ed to inter­net or library research where the author—the per­sona speaking—is with­out human form.  Because most of you read­ing this work will have been edu­cat­ed in the Unit­ed States, with a West­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty, you will have been taught to believe that if you found the quo­ta­tion, it is yours to use, and that ideas and words are dis­cov­ered, and that knowl­edge is some­thing to be pos­sessed by you.  Our gram­mar and syn­tax reflects such own­er­ship: These are now “ my favorite quo­ta­tions;” this is “my bib­li­o­graph­i­cal list of sources.”

This ten­den­cy to pos­sess a top­ic or idea often makes it dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize that your words are always in rela­tion­ship to the words of oth­ers, that if there is idea and opin­ion, there is human inter­ac­tion, and if there is human inter­ac­tion, and if the rela­tion­ship is to be eth­i­cal, it must also be humane.

One of the prin­ci­ple rea­sons that ethno­graph­ic research is so grat­i­fy­ing is that when stu­dents actu­al­ly come face to face, (or even if the inter­ac­tion is online, text to text), with oth­er human beings, the implic­it rela­tion­ship in research becomes tan­gi­ble.  Once you are able to under­stand that regard­less of whether you’re speak­ing direct­ly with a per­son, or talk­ing about opin­ions expressed through sta­tis­tics, or using the quo­ta­tions of anoth­er in your work, there is always, at root, a human rela­tion­ship being nego­ti­at­ed.  It is nev­er just you; it is nev­er just your ideas.  You are in a dynam­ic with all of the oth­ers out there—visible or not—who have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the con­struc­tion of the idea, the real­i­ty, the knowl­edge, the con­ver­sa­tion which you have cho­sen, at this instance, to enter.

This is not to say that you must choose a site with which you have ulti­mate famil­iar­i­ty or that in doing so you will guar­an­tee humane research and respect for your infor­mants and the site.  In fact, there are dan­gers of know­ing too much about a site, of mak­ing assump­tions about why folks are doing what they do, and say­ing what they say. But, for first-year writ­ing stu­dents in class­es that focus on teach­ing the research process, not ethno­graph­ic meth­ods in par­tic­u­lar, it’s bet­ter to err on the side of believ­ing that you know a site as an insid­er, than try­ing to break into, learn about, gain trust and write about a site from the per­spec­tive of an outsider.

In oth­er words, there is a dif­fer­ence between becom­ing an anthro­pol­o­gist and employ­ing ethno­graph­ic method­olo­gies and using ethno­graph­ic meth­ods as an under­grad­u­ate stu­dent. And yet the Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion code of ethics for ethno­graph­ic research pro­vides a basis for this dis­cus­sion of ethics and a start­ing point for think­ing about ethics on the whole.  While the code is some­what long and involved, in essence, there are four prin­ci­ples you need to keep in mind as a stu­dent researcher using ethno­graph­ic methods:

Show respect for the peo­ple you are research­ing at all times, both dur­ing the data col­lec­tion process and the writ­ing process.

One of the most impor­tant ele­ments in com­ing to under­stand the impor­tance in human research being humane research is the notion of respect.  If your ethno­graph­ic research needs to be con­duct­ed in a short span of time, you should choose a site with which you already feel a con­nec­tion because, in most cas­es, this con­nec­tion will ensure a cer­tain amount of respect on your part for the loca­tion and cul­ture, and reduce the amount of time it will take to become a trust­ed, viable cul­tur­al par­tic­i­pant.  It becomes prob­lem­at­ic when a stu­dent says, “I want to research a gay bar,” or “I want to try and fig­ure out why peo­ple will/will not enter an abor­tion clin­ic,” or some­thing to that effect when they have no spe­cif­ic per­son­al con­nec­tion with these spaces.  There is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased pos­si­bil­i­ty that with­out per­son­al con­nec­tion, the site becomes so for­eign to the stu­dent that it becomes “oth­ered;” it becomes seen as freak­ish, or odd, some­thing to be plun­dered for information.

Want­i­ng to know about some­thing you don’t know about is absolute­ly fine; it is a part of human nature.  But, we also know, giv­en human cog­ni­tive pat­tern­ing, that as one is chal­lenged with new and dif­fer­ent belief struc­tures, the ten­den­cy is to depend upon what you know, what you have been taught, and what you already believe to make sense of what is dif­fer­ent.  The respect you will illus­trate is respect for your­self and your own ideas, not because you are thought­less, or incon­sid­er­ate, but because you are human and your own human­i­ty will begin with your own real­i­ty and move out­ward from there.

Make sure that your research does not “harm the safe­ty, dig­ni­ty, or pri­va­cy of the peo­ple” you are work­ing with

Most every aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tion where aca­d­e­mics con­duct research using human sub­jects has what is referred to as an Insti­tu­tion­al Research Board or IRB, for short.  This board, usu­al­ly com­prised of researchers and a few admin­is­tra­tors from across the insti­tu­tion, has the ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty of assess­ing insti­tu­tion­al research projects with respect to their ethics, to make sure that all research is respect­ful and humane, that the work done by pro­fes­sors, grad­u­ate stu­dents and under­grad­u­ates does not “harm the safe­ty, dig­ni­ty, or pri­va­cy of the peo­ple” involved in the research project.

Insti­tu­tions with IRBs require researchers to sub­mit an appli­ca­tion and alert the school before they engage in any research.  The board then approves or denies the appli­ca­tion.  If an appli­ca­tion is denied, often the appli­cant is pro­vid­ed feed­back for revi­sion and invit­ed to reap­ply.  If an appli­cant is approved they may, at that time, com­mence their research, based upon the strict fol­low­ing of pro­to­cols pro­vid­ed by the applicant.

Because the time­line for IRB appli­ca­tion may or may not coin­cide with the sched­ule and brevi­ty of a sin­gle col­lege class, and appli­ca­tions from first-year cours­es could impede the process for oth­er researchers, most insti­tu­tions do not man­date that under­grad­u­ate stu­dents sub­mit IRB appli­ca­tions for their course work.  At some insti­tu­tions, under­grad­u­ates are waived from this process because the fac­ul­ty mem­ber ulti­mate­ly stands respon­si­ble for the eth­i­cal tenor of the work in the class.  There are some insti­tu­tions where a pro­gram would be required to report that, for exam­ple, all sec­ond-semes­ter com­po­si­tion cours­es will require the col­lec­tion of pri­ma­ry data through human inter­ac­tion and then the pro­gram will apply, but again, the indi­vid­ual stu­dent need not par­tic­i­pate in this process.

Inform the peo­ple you are work­ing with of your project and what it entails. Ask for con­sent to from com­mu­ni­ty to con­duct your research and deter­mine in advance whether or not peo­ple want to remain anony­mous or receive recognition.

Regard­less of whether your insti­tu­tion requires IRB approval, we believe that you should be aware of this process and that, if there is spe­cif­ic and direct inter­view­ing, if there is direct inter­ac­tion with oth­er infor­mants, that you fol­low the sug­gest­ed guide­lines for eth­i­cal research, includ­ing the noti­fi­ca­tion of par­tic­i­pants and the obtain­ing of per­mis­sion for rep­re­sen­ta­tion of their words.  Under­stand that, whether or not you are insti­tu­tion­al­ly required to obtain per­mis­sions from infor­mants or apply to an IRB, you are eth­i­cal­ly oblig­at­ed to let the peo­ple you are study­ing know what you are doing when you begin. If you are going to a site to col­lect data, you must rep­re­sent your mis­sion as such. This is not under­cov­er or hid­den-cam­era work.  If you fear let­ting peo­ple at your site know what you are doing and why you are doing it, sim­ply stat­ed, choose anoth­er site.

Plan to share your writ­ing and rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty with its members.

In an age of real­i­ty TV and sur­prise, tell-all talk shows, we find that there are always some stu­dents that are excit­ed about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of “not telling” or of using the infor­ma­tion they uncov­er to pit peo­ple against each oth­er, to con­duct some muck­rak­ing sort of research, to “get inside” the heads of oth­ers and write a “tell all” piece. Be clear: you may not set peo­ple up, or manip­u­late the scene in any way when you’re con­duct­ing research.  As a par­tic­i­pant-observ­er, the idea is for you to par­tic­i­pate as you nor­mal­ly would, as you usu­al­ly do, anoth­er clear rea­son why we advo­cate for choos­ing some­thing you know about, a site with which you’re famil­iar, to research.  Remem­ber that respect means rec­og­niz­ing that all of your behav­iors will have an impact on these oth­er peo­ple, on their space.  You real­ly can’t be a “fly on the wall.”  You’re much big­ger than a fly and, from the moment you enter a scene and start ask­ing ques­tions, you have the poten­tial to impact that scene.

Now that you have these eth­i­cal guide­lines, it is up to you to make sure to noti­fy infor­mants of your project.  Most con­sent for your ethno­graph­ic project can and will be oral, i.e. “Hey, is it okay if I use our film club for my ethno­graph­ic research?”  “Do you mind if I ask you a few ques­tions about why you like to be here?  This is for a project I am doing in Eng­lish class.”  Per­mis­sion can also be grant­ed by the group as a whole and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly require you to ask every indi­vid­ual for per­mis­sion, but you should still make sure to alert peo­ple to the point of your con­ver­sa­tion, to be clear about the rea­son for your pres­ence. If you plan to record (video or tape) spe­cif­ic con­ver­sa­tions, in most states you need per­mis­sion in writ­ing to do so.

Over­all, the issues of ethics come back to respect for the peo­ple and cul­tures at your site. You need the kind of access with­in the site in order to col­lect enough data in order to have some­thing smart and rel­e­vant to say.  You need to obtain per­mis­sion from indi­vid­u­als and/or the com­mu­ni­ty because you need to crit­i­cal­ly assess whether your inter­ac­tion will affect the safe­ty and well-being of the group.  You need to put sys­tems in place so that you don’t inad­ver­tent­ly reveal some­thing about this group that may adverse­ly affect them. There real­ly are count­less ways your research can have an impact on anoth­er per­son, anoth­er group, and your goal needs to be to nev­er pur­pose­ful­ly inflict dam­age or pain or humil­i­a­tion on any­one or any group.


Learn More

3- Proposing the Ethnographic Research Project

Chap­ter 3 pro­vides basic infor­ma­tion regard­ing the writ­ing of a pro­pos­al for an ethno­graph­ic research project.

Ask the aver­age col­lege stu­dent where they usu­al­ly con­duct research and chances are the answers will be the inter­net and, maybe, the library.  Research under­stood this way is usu­al­ly going to be sec­ondary research, research that results in the gath­er­ing, sum­ma­riz­ing and assess­ing of data that already exists.  It is most like­ly that most of the research you have con­duct­ed to date would be clas­si­fied as sec­ondary.  But, it’s also pos­si­ble that you have some expe­ri­ence with pri­ma­ry research. Have you ever con­duct­ed an inter­view?  Have you ever designed and/or admin­is­tered a sur­vey? These sorts of actions are cat­e­go­rized as pri­ma­ry research, research that involves direct col­lec­tion of data from real world interactions.

An ethno­graph­ic writ­ing project is one that requires the meld­ing of both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary research.  And, while sec­ondary research is of def­i­nite impor­tance, it is the pri­ma­ry research that serves to clas­si­fy the kinds of projects dis­cussed in this text as ethno­graph­ic in char­ac­ter.  In the case of an ethno­graph­ic research project, pri­ma­ry research will take place at a spe­cif­ic research site, one of your own choos­ing.  This chap­ter focus­es on pri­ma­ry research by assist­ing you in choos­ing a research site, a first step in this process.  Chap­ter 4 focus­es on the process of cre­at­ing pri­ma­ry data—of con­vert­ing obser­va­tions made into field­notes.  Your field­notes will, in time, be ana­lyzed and exam­ined for pat­terns of mean­ing and behav­ior, pat­terns that may be the focus of a larg­er ethno­graph­ic essay. Chap­ter 5 out­lines the process of col­lect­ing sec­ondary resources in order to help you bet­ter under­stand and ana­lyze your pri­ma­ry research data.

But, we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves.  In order to begin pri­ma­ry research, you must first select a research site.  But, even before you choose a research site, it’s a good idea for you to con­sid­er the pri­ma­ry object of focus for ethno­graph­ic research—the cul­tur­al text.


Learn More