Much has been made in the past two decades about ethnography as writing, that ethnography is “writing culture.” Here, I wish to explore the issue of the details of ethnographic description. Approaches to description in literature are potentially informative, both because there is a much longer and more developed history of critiquing literature as text and considering the details of description in literature. Whereas Chekhov posited that if a gun appears in act one, a gun should go off by act three (i.e. only those details directly relevant to the development of plot should be included; only the necessary is incorporated into a piece that stands alone), much contemporary writing by authors such as Jose Saramago or Orhan Pamuk incorporates a variety of means to call attention to the writing itself, including “superfluous” detail – which through its superfluity calls attention to constructed narrative as constructed. For ethnographic description, what constitutes accurate, adequate, useful, or interesting description? What constitute necessary or important, relevant or superfluous details?
Modern(ist) literature, at least in theory, tends toward the self-enclosed: inclusion of all that is necessary for the structure and aims of the piece, exclusion of the rest – including the author. As in all things literary or ethnographic, there are copious exceptions to be sure, e.g. the abundant supplementary footnotes to some of Eliot’s poems, and perhaps in practice most modern literature never matched the theory, but there was generally strong commitment to the ideas of modernism, Chekhov’s gun that shouldn’t be pulled unless it’s to be shot, Peter Szondi’s emphasis on self-sufficiency in drama, or Clement Greenberg’s articulation of modern art as the purification of a genre from that which is not necessary to its form. Much recent literature is different, in practice and theory. In Pamuk’s Snow, there is continual interjection by a writer-narrator. It’s not clear that the writer-narrator is Pamuk – this is still a work of fiction after all, but there is a sort of rejection of the exclusion or death of the author, a constant reminder that this is an authored and not self-sufficient (self-subsistent?) piece. In Saramago’s The Double, details relevant to the playing out of plot are, of course, included, but alongside ample digressions into details and topics not so directly “relevant.” Complicating matters, some, but not all, such seemingly irrelevant details end up relevant, producing in at least this reader a constant awareness of the text as text and the role of construction in producing it through a continual need to question which, if any, details would matter.
We can draw an analogous contrast between “modernist” ethnography – where perhaps Malinowski’s Argonauts is the archetype – and more recent ethnographic work. In modernist ethnography, as has been pointed out repeatedly in recent decades, there was a removal of the author from much if not all of the text. Details were presented as objective in the absence of the specific social relations and interactions that brought them to light. We have also something akin to the emphasis in modern fiction, drama, and poetry on self-sufficiency through holistic description of “all” aspects of the culture, as well as use of the ethnographic present and a general exclusion of relations external to the culture, so that each culture was presented within itself and on its own terms as a self-sufficient and self-subsistent entity. Frankly, this creates more of a problem for ethnography than for literature given ethnography’s aim of presenting truth about some cultural context and given that such modernist textual techniques create a construction of culture that is illusory to some extent, something that has since been addressed in both ethnographic writing and theory. It is now commonplace for the ethnographer-author to be visibly foregrounded and reflexively examined, alongside examinations of the social relations that produced the data that the ethnography is about; the ethnographic present and the attempt to holistically describe an entire culture have been soundly critiqued, e.g. Annette Weiner’s restudy of the Trobriands giving the lie to the self-sufficiency of Malinowski’s constructions; description of the effects of relations to regional or global processes is typical, illuminating the extent to which cultures are and are not self-subsistent; in the past twenty years, especially, there have been numerous examples of formal experimentation with ethnographic writing.
What I am most interested in here is the details of ethnographic writing, which is really a question of relevance – What topics should be addressed, and what would be beside the point? What specific descriptive details are important, relevant, necessary or superfluous? The answers will depend on aims, whether of modernist or more recent literature or ethnography. Some of the details and digressions of Saramago’s The Double are superfluous given a modernist attempt to distill a work of art to the necessary, but given Saramago’s different aims, which include an attempt to make clear that The Double is in fact not a self-sufficient but a constructed and contingent piece, while any specific detail or digression may not be strictly necessary, taken in aggregate, the details are not superfluous but important, relevant, and even necessary.
On the cover of Matthew Gutmann’s fine 1995 ethnography The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City is a photo of a Mexican man holding an infant while he sits / happens to be sitting in the window of a music shop, several guitars hanging behind him. In the text also, the photo is described. Part of the photo – the man holding the infant – is clearly and directly relevant to arguments about being a man in Mexico City, and the reactions of a variety of people to the photo form a large part of one chapter – the incredulity of several Anglo North American anthropologist colleagues not expecting to see a Mexican man playing such a role, and the expression that the man holding and caring for a child was “muy normal” by most of Gutmann’s working class Mexican informants. The guitars and the siting in a music shop are additional minor details, seemingly not necessary (though also not particularly problematic in their inclusion unless one wanted to adopt an extreme modernist stance), though ultimately, Gutmann uses this detail in a striking way when he finally reports one Mexican individual’s reaction, “Oh, you like music?,” the image of man with child seemingly so normal that it could not have been the reason for Gutmann to show him the picture.
While conducting ethnographic field work for my dissertation in 1998 and 1999 which focused on HIV prevention work and the social groups most affected by HIV/AIDS along the U.S.-Mexican border at El Paso/Juarez, I had the opportunity to encounter and get to know as research informants and friendly acquaintances several M2F transgender individuals who engaged in sex work (Note the detail of naming: I could have said “prostitutes” or simply “sex workers” – and this makes a difference). I learned, not surprisingly, that one of their major concerns was with violence, and with good reason – one of the girls was viciously attacked and seriously injured during the time I was doing research there by a man who attacked her with a baseball bat after sex with her. What I want to address here, though is the way in which I found out about this general fear, and for that matter this particular instance of violence.
One evening, while engaging in conversation at one of the two immediately adjacent bars located in the rail and warehouse district of downtown El Paso from which transgender individuals engaged in sex work, one person mentioned that she had been particularly frightened lately in the evening because of the Railway Killer. The Railway Killer was a serial killer who lived in Mexico, had relatives in Juarez and crossed into the U.S. at El Paso to take rail lines to various places like Central Texas or Kansas to kill. He was much in the news in the spring months of 1999 as law enforcement officials discerned his identity, tracked him down, and ultimately captured him – though this after the particularly evening in question. A bit later in the evening, I went into the other bar and engaged another group in conversation. At one point, I asked if they too were worried about the Railway Killer. Fortuitously, one mistook the reference and told me about the girl who had been attacked by a man with a bat along the railroad tracks. This then led to a more general discussion of acts of violence and their fears of attack. Given my research focus at the time on HIV prevention and the social groups affected by HIV and prevention efforts, the ways in which violence and fears of it shaped the discourse and behavior of this social group was clearly relevant to my research and writing. The question arose for me, though, whether writing about the Railway Killer was important or a salacious and sensationalizing digression. I ultimately did decide to incorporate this detail, to see it as relevant, in the writing of my dissertation and elsewhere because it allowed me to easily encompass this discussion within a broader concern about gender/sexuality and violence, especially as the Railway Killer almost inevitably in El Paso in 1999 raised to mind two other cases, that of a serial torturer of women in T or C, NM, and more widely known, the Juarez serial killings, a case wherein hundreds of women had been and continue to be found dead in the desert surrounding Juarez. A quick examination of that case, e.g. with its very different patterns of forensic evidence in different murders, allowed for an investigation of discursive constructions of gender and violence, e.g. was there really evidence of serial killer or killers or were hundreds of dead women the more “normal” product of a social context with pervasive violence, especially toward women. The Railway Killer then was a sort of key that allowed for linking violence and transgender sex workers to broader considerations of practices and discourse of violence and gender, and in particular the qualities of masculinity – another area of my research. In short, some not strictly necessary details allow serendipitous connections to be made, even if requiring digressions, such as those concerning men in guitar shops or about the details of the Railway Killer or Juarez killings in the paragraph above.
Another issue has to do with the ways in which choice of specific detail or lexicon shapes meaning production, e.g. the differing connotations of “prostitution” or “sex work,” “sex worker” or “person engaging in sex work.” In the fall of 1998 I attended several rodeos at the Southern New Mexico State Fair, including a “ranch rodeo.” I was especially interested in constructions of masculinity for a number of reasons. Being interested in HIV as a sexually transmitted disease, I was interested in gender and sexuality generally in the field area. Being particularly interested in social groups highly affected by HIV, I researched MSMs of various ethnic groups, and so was interested in masculinity in relation both to homosexuality/heterosexuality and ethnicity. Especially in the early months of my dissertation research, I undertook to examine masculinity in many different sorts of settings, including gay bars, transgender bars, sex shops and sex cruise scenes, but also in popular music, stock car racing, and rodeos. I ultimately excluded much of this material, especially that on rodeo and racing, from my dissertation, deciding I couldn’t make it directly relevant to the discussion of HIV prevention and specific social groups. But enough with this digression about why I didn’t previously incorporate discussions of rodeo events into another text than this. One of the events I witnessed at the Ranch Rodeo – a rodeo where teams from four different ranches in West Texas and Southern New Mexico competed against one another in a series of events – was Wild Cow Milking. As with any incident, there are a number of ways in which it could be described because of the many details that could be focused on or not in the description, though with the choice of details having potential consequences in terms of the meaning of events and predispositions to certain sorts of interpretations. Here are two descriptive accounts of Wild Cow Milking at the Southern New Mexico State Fair:
Four wild cows, each with a tag assigning it to a competing team, were set loose into the rodeo arena. At the other end of the arena were the event judge and the four competing teams, each consisting of one man riding on horseback with a lariat and two men on foot, one holding a container. As the cows ran out into the arena, the ranch teams took chase, the horseman catching the cow with a lasso around the neck, one of the footmen grabbing and holding onto the hindquarters, the other footman attempting to milk the wild cow into the container. Once successful, he ran back to the event judge. The team of the first man to reach the judge with his container of milk won the event.
At one end of the arena stood the event judge and the four competing teams, consisting of one man on horseback with a lasso and two on foot, one holding a clear glass bottle. At the other end, four wild cows were set loose into the arena, whereupon the teams each took chase after an assigned cow. The horseman lassoed the cow while one of the footmen grabbed its hindquarters, yanking and tugging on its tail while the horseman pulled hard on the animal’s neck and head so that together the two men held somewhat still the bucking and uncooperative animal. The third man milked the cow, collecting the milk in his bottle. The team of the first man to reach the judge, hold the bottle up over his head and spill the milk out onto the ground won the event.
Both of the descriptions are accurate as far as they go. The slightly different details do, though, prefigure potentially different interpretations – in other words it is often the case not just that interpretations refer to the facts but that sometimes the presentation of facts refers to an interpretation. With the second, a sort of symbolic and psychoanalytic interpretation is made easier through the presence of a (phallic) bottle, the violence of the encounter between man and animal, and the spilling of the white liquid from the (phallic) container. It could be objected that the first description is flawed in leaving out obviously important details – and it does for certain symbolic interpretations, though as a description of a sporting event, a sort of race, its details function sufficiently. Also, there is omission in the second description as well – as in any description of any event – for example, details of the rodeo announcer asking himself, “Why a bottle? I guess it’s just more difficult and more of a competition that way,” – which is certainly true enough, and which is also a counter to anybody who might contemplate that the event embodies a symbolic enactment of phallic domination of nature, or anything such as that.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on music and meaning at the annual meeting of the Semiotic Society of America. A violinist played one of Bach’s partitas for solo violin, and then he and his mentor, another violinist, discussed meaning and music and took questions. One person asked what went through the head of a musician as they played music, what is it that they are trying to do? The violinist who had played the piece responded that he tried to communicate with the audience and to do so by emphasizing what was in important in the work by way of notes, themes, and dynamics. I asked how one knew what the important details were – Was it something inherent in the music, a matter of elements conventionally emphasized for perhaps arbitrary reasons of “tradition”, or a matter of more subjective personal emphasis. It was an unfair question, and the answer was, of course, some of all of that. Now that I ask it of myself and the elements of ethnographic writing, I can only call for continuing awareness, play, and examination of the role of specific elements and detail in our production of meaning.
This post is a revision of a presentation to the 2006 annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society.