Ethnography is one of the main things cultural anthropologists do. It’s not actually the thing most cultural anthropologists spend the most time doing – that would include a long list of activities, such as teaching classes, filling out paperwork, attending meetings, eating, sleeping, and a whole slew of other mundane behaviors, but doing ethnography is perhaps the activity that defines the endeavor of cultural anthropology.
As with the defining activity of any academic discipline or applied science, doing ethnography really means doing two disparate sorts of things – conducting ethnographic research (i.e. studying particular cultural contexts using a variety of specific methods, including participant observation, but also a number of others, such as various interview techniques, free listing, focus groups, pile sorting, etc.) and writing ethnographic texts (texts that can take on a variety of forms but which have as a primary motivation the presentation, evocation, representation, or interpretation of something essential about a cultural context).
I’ve written in several recent posts (April 2, March 23, March 10, March 5, February 12, February 10) about one or the other of these ethnographic practices, research or writing, whereas here I’d like to discuss the relationship between research and writing.
In “Thinking Problem: Rethinking Ethnographic Methods in relation to a study of students’ cultural models of drinking” (March 23) and “Measurement and Interpretation: Let us speak no more of Quantitative and Qualitative Research” (March 10), I argued against the tendency to conceptualize social research primarily using the rubric of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis. There is simply no such thing as pure qualitative or quantitative research; further, the tendency to proceed as if these are clearly distinct and even mutually exclusive modes of research has often inhibited rather than facilitated scholarly communication. Without a different set of terminology to conceptualize research methods, we are left with this clearly imperfect set of terms, so I also argued that we should replace the emphasis on qualitative or quantitative with an emphasis on the components of measurement and interpretation which are present in all research.
In “Ethnography as Art or Science” (April 2), I discussed two distinct modes of ethnographic writing (with recognition of many ethnographies as falling somewhere in between the extremes), ethnography as an artistic or literary genre, where the creation of text as object to be experienced and appreciated in its own right is one primary goal (as I’ll discuss below, not the only goal, or we’re not dealing with ethnography), and ethnography as scientific text, where one primary goal is the efficient transmission of valid, reliable information about a particular context.
I see no problem with the use of any number of research methods, each of which has its own strengths and limitations. (I might have a problem with the use of a specific method for a particular question, but research methods are tools. In themselves, they are neutral, though for particular purposes in a specific context, one tool may be superior or inferior to another.) I also see no problem with different modes of ethnographic writing; on the contrary, I find myself enriched by the variety of ethnographic texts that have been produced recently and over the last century or so. I do have a problem with the all too common association of certain research styles and strategies with mode of writing. “Quantitative” research is typically presented in a scientific mode of writing, while “qualitative” ethnography is often presented in a more literary and narrative style (with the reverse association holding perhaps more strongly, in that most literary ethnographies are built upon “qualitative” research). It’s not the association between research method and mode of writing in a particular case that I take issue with so much as the fact that there is a clear general pattern.
Just as I regard the qualitative / quantitative divide as false and not a good way to conceptualize research methods, so I also don’t regard a concern with precise and rigorous measurement (where measurement can but need not equal quantification and enumeration) in methods as clearly linked with a particular mode of writing. The mode of writing is a choice independent of that of methods. The choice of methods is related to what one wants to find out, the hypothesis or question in mind to be examined. The choice of mode of writing is related to what one wants to convey, present, or communicate (not necessarily the same things) about the context and research encounter. Literary or scientific modes of writing can be related to data collected and analyzed using any number of methods. At least a handful of anthropologists and others have recognized this, writing very different sorts of texts with different aims and motivations from the same research, e.g. the work of David Maybury-Lewis (discussed below and in my April 2 post), Paul Rabinow's Symbolic Domination: Cultural Form and Historical Change in Morocco and the later Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, or outside anthropology in the field of biology and ecology, Bernd Heinrich’s books Ravens in Winter, The Mind of the Raven, or Winter World, compared to his scientific reports. But generally, the style of writing ethnography seems to be chosen on reflex, as if only one style of writing could naturally relate to a particular data collection and analysis strategy, whereas choice of methods and choice of writing mode are actually independent choices (or at least should be).
All ethnographic texts, regardless of research methods employed or mode of writing, share something in common. They all share an interest in presenting an accurate fit between text and world (and hence should share a common interest in sound research methods), where our textual models present icons of some important aspects of the world, and in particular of the specific cultural context(s) being written about. This seems straightforward and simple for scientific writing, but this is deceptive, where a continual issue in assessing fit between model and world is assessing whether what we’ve modeled in our texts presents what’s there on its own terms and with its own logic rather than imposing a model that can be made to fit the context but may not reflect what’s there as much as the scientist’s interests and own cultural models. But it’s also true that artistic or literary ethnography share in the interest of fit between text and world, insofar as it’s ethnography in addition to being art.
Ethnography is “writing culture,” but not all “writing culture” is ethnography – there are other literary writings that also skillfully evoke or present for experience some quality, truth, or information about a particular cultural setting, e.g. Joyce’s novels or Tobias Schneebaum’s memoir Keep the River on Your Right. However, such non-ethnographic texts which “write culture” need not be concerned about detailed fit between text and cultural world, even if they manage to communicate or evoke something profound about a particular cultural milieu. I might pick up Schneebaum’s text for an engaging, thought-provoking read (and for what it says, perhaps unwittingly – perhaps not, about western cultural notions of the other), but I’d never pick it up to try to find accurate, reliable, valid information about Peruvian Amazonian cultures. On the other hand, I might pick up either The Savage and the Innocent or Akwe-Shavante Society by Maybury-Lewis for accurate, reliable, valid information on Brazilian Highland societies – I might find the information I want more quickly and efficiently in Akwe-Shavante Society, and I find the other book a more engaging, memorable experience to read, but though they are written in different ethnographic modalities, they share the ethnographic concern with accurately presenting cultural contexts and models.
I'd like to thank Amy Mountcastle. A conversation at the recent Society for Applied Anthropology meeting with her helped prompt my writing in this post.