Monday, October 8, 2007

Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing

The following is a revision of an earlier blog post:

Most cultural anthropologists would agree that ethnographic and other anthropological writing should be as clear as possible. A primary goal of ethnographic writing is to communicate a sense or understanding of a particular cultural context. Clear writing facilitates this and unclear or difficult writing obstructs this. When engaging in “public anthropology” and attempting to communicate anthropological understandings to an interested lay audience, the stricture to write clearly is even stronger.

Something that anthropologists have not discussed much, though, is what exactly constitutes “clarity” or “difficulty” in writing. There is a general sense that we should avoid overly complex syntax or particular vocabulary that our intended audience might not be familiar with (or at least to clearly explain complex vocabulary when necessary), but not much consideration that there might be different types of difficulty (and hence different types of clarity) that might call for their own particular responses.

Here, I find the recent work of Reginald Shepherd illuminating. Shepherd precisely delineates types or sorts of difficulty in another genre of writing, poetry. What is difficulty in general? Shepherd argues (and I agree) that difficulty in writing involves in one way or another violating readerly expectations. This can be good or bad, a barrier to grasping meaning and/or a spur to further experience and pleasure, but difficulty in its different varieties always involves this violation of expectations (that the words used will be familiar, that its referents will be clear, that the sense of the text “makes sense,” that the text will have a recognizable and clearly interpretable form).

Shepherd discusses five types of difficulty, which he identifies as: lexical difficulty, allusive difficulty, syntactical difficulty, semantic difficulty (with two varieties – explicative and interpretive difficulties), and formal difficulty.

A major difference in poetic and ethnographic writing has to do with the goals or motivations for writing. With poetry, a primary goal is to create a unique sensuous object with its own qualities to be experienced in itself (something that happens with any text, but something that is a primary function of literary writing, including poetry). The poem may make reference to something in the world outside the poem through the sense of the words, but it need not necessarily do so, and in any case, that is not the main raison d’etre for poetry (and if you want to communicate something directly and clearly about the world, there are far better means than poetry). Ethnography at its best might have poetic or other literary qualities, but that’s not what makes it ethnography. Unlike poetry, a definite connection between the sense of the text and the context in the world outside the text which is its reference is a necessary component of ethnography – it wouldn’t be writing culture if it weren’t writing about culture.

As a result, one difference between my writing about difficulty in ethnography and Shepherd’s in relation to poetry is a difference in attitude toward difficulty. Shepherd is interested in difficulty as an aspect of poetry which is neither inherently good nor bad – since reading poetry is about experiencing the poem as an object of experience in its own right, various difficulties in grasping its meaning are not bad per se, and are often important components in the experience of pleasure from the poem. In the case of ethnography, where communication about something in the world is a key consideration, to the extent it creates a barrier to understanding, difficult writing is often simply something to be avoided – though there are interesting exceptions.

Lexical Difficulty

Lexical difficulty is straightforward – words that are unfamiliar are used, or words are used in an unfamiliar way or at variance with convention. Anthropologists of all stripes commonly use words that are not familiar to the general public; we might speak of agglutinative languages, philopatric social organization among cercopithecine primates, or the differing consequences of avunculocal versus matrilocal residence alongside matrilineality. Recently, a student, after having read a chapter from a textbook on Native North American cultures and reading that some Plateau cultures practiced the levirate, came to me to ask just what in the heck the levirate was. He had even done what I always admonish my students to do when they encounter words they don’t know and had tried to look it up in a dictionary, but unfortunately even his dictionary didn’t help.

We use technical terms all the time that are unfamiliar to most people, and often with good reason – they allow us to very efficiently communicate complex and subtle shades of meaning. The response to difficulty is not to ban the use of “difficult” words – anyone can benefit from encountering new words and learning their meaning. Not knowing the meaning of a word doesn’t prevent learning and understanding it. In the interest of clarity, this is in some ways an easy form of difficulty to deal with. We can avoid the use of technical terms when they aren’t necessary, when less technical terms will in fact suffice, or by clarifying their referent and meaning when they are needed. The difficulty for a writer is judging the potential audience. It’s annoying when reading an article in a scholarly journal to have every technical term explained, given that most anyone who’s potentially reading it is probably familiar with the terminology or at least has an interest in finding out such things for themselves. In writing for a popular audience, lexical difficulty can be overcome simply by providing clear explanations when unfamiliar terminology is useful; e.g. the textbook my student was reading really should have briefly explained what the levirate was.

Allusive Difficulty

Shepherd writes of poetry, “The poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we’ve not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don’t have.” Returning to the previous category, much lexical difficulty in ethnography can be seen as a variety of such allusive difficulty, insofar as the main problem is generally knowledge (of the meaning of a term) which it is assumed the reader has when in fact they may not. As a distinct form of difficulty, though, for ethnography what is meant is allusion to a set of facts or discussions which the reader is assumed to be familiar with. As with lexicon, for the writer this is often a matter of mastering the art of gauging one’s audience. In a scholarly anthropological publication, one could allude to the kula ring, or Geertz’s Balinese cockfight, or potlatching, or Coming of Age in Samoa and generally assume at least a passing familiarity with the allusion on the part of the reader, whereas in works for a popular audience the same assumption can’t be made. As with lexicon, the difficulty for the writer is not so much in being aware that one should write “clearly,” but in successfully gauging an audience, whether popular, scholarly, or specialist scholarly, in order to strike a balance between not assuming readers know something that they in fact don’t (and leaving them lost) and not assuming that readers know less than they in fact do (and leaving them annoyed or bored).

Syntactical Difficulty

Shepherd describes syntactical difficulty as “the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations between the grammatical units.” In poetry, moving away from conventional prose syntax has often been put to creative and innovative use, but in ethnographic prose, syntactical difficulty is generally the result of plain bad writing. Also, we generally encounter only one subset of syntactical difficulty in ethnography. Except in cases of truly bad editing, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax, which can be used creatively in poetry, are not typically encountered in published ethnographic writing, even while they are increasingly encountered in more informal communication, such as email. And blogs. Overly complex, unfamiliar, or convoluted syntax, though, is all too common in ethnography and culture theory.

Semantic Difficulty

Shepherd writes of semantic difficulty in poetry: “We have trouble determining or deciding what a poem means, we cannot immediately interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct: sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. As linguist David Crystal elucidates in How Language Works, ‘Sense is the meaning of a word within a language. Reference is what a word refers to in the world outside language.’ From this perspective, it’s more useful to think of the poem as a field of meanings than as a thing that means something else, a container for a vehicle of meaning.)” He writes also, “It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, ‘I don’t understand this poem.’” Shepherd further subdivides semantic difficulty into explicative and interpretive difficulty. “In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem.” “In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do.”

Explicative Difficulty in Ethnography

In ethnographic and other anthropological writing, this sort of semantic difficulty, where someone looks at a passage of text and simply cannot make heads or tails of it, often involves in part a concatenation of all the previous forms of difficulty. Take the following sentence from Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (p. 72, emphasis in original):

“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”

I often emphasize this particular passage when teaching this text because once all the elements are carefully unpacked, you have created a good starting point for understanding Bourdieu’s practice theory. This passage certainly has plenty of lexical, allusive, and syntactical difficulty, but even once its individual elements are carefully considered, the sense of the whole still escapes many a student forced to read Bourdieu for the first time. Even when understanding each individual word, the syntax, and the ethnographic traditions being alluded to, it’s still difficult to grasp the total meaning. Some of that difficulty could be clarified with more careful attention to lexicon, allusion, and syntax, but some ideas we wish to express are in fact subtle and complex aside from any difficulties we might add because of bad writing, and there will always be a certain amount of difficulty resulting from attempting to communicate complex ideas.

Interpretive Difficulty in Ethnography

Shepherd writes, “In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashberry’s poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. To say that one doesn’t know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn’t know why it’s saying what it’s saying. The reader asks, ‘Why am I being told/shown this?’” There really aren’t many examples of this sort of difficulty in ethnographic writing. If the sense of the text is clear, the reference and reason for saying what has been said are generally clear also. There are some examples, though, and one that I find often confuses students is the ethnographic treatment of magic.

The convention in writing about magic in ethnography is to write about it as if magic has all the effects that its adherents claim and believe. Sometimes, the ethnographer indicates that people of a particular context believe or claim this or that, or do this or that, but as often as not, magic and its results are presented not as matters of belief and practice but as straightforward elements of natural reality. Students, not previously privy to the convention, are often confused, not knowing how to interpret such accounts, “Do (anthropologists think that) Trobriand witches really fly through the night? Do (anthropologists think that) muisak souls can really take vengeance by causing trees to fall on their killers?” What is often confusing here is a broader convention that encompasses the ethnographic treatment of magic, where cultural contexts are represented in terms of their own underlying premises and arguments.

Formal Difficulty

Formal difficulty involves the lack of recognition or the failure to accept the form of the expression. For a long time, free verse didn’t seem like poetry to a lot of readers, any more than Duchamp’s urinal seemed like art or the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, or Albert Ayler seemed like music. As Shepherd writes, many of today’s readers, raised on the free verse that has long been standard, now have trouble recognizing and appreciating aspects of the form of metrical or rhyming poetry. They have trouble recognizing and hearing the rhythms; they are turned off by or simply miss the rhyme schemes.

Formal difficulty in ethnography involves simply not recognizing some writing as ethnography. This sometimes involves writing that fits into another genre of writing, but which might also be ethnography. Other times, this involves writing that intends to be ethnography, but in an experimental way which violates or plays with the conventions of the genre in some way.

Writing Culture and the Writing of Culture

At least since Writing Culture, there has been widespread recognition that ethnography is “writing culture.” But is all writing of culture ethnography? Some texts that clearly fit into another genre are also writing of culture. Novels such as Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, all evoke a particular cultural setting in detailed ways, yet we wouldn’t normally recognize these or other novels as ethnography (and at the same time, most wouldn’t normally recognize Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sanchez, which claimed to be both an autobiography of a Mexican family and a novel, as anything other than an ethnography).

Experimental Ethnography

Experimentation with form in ethnography has a long history in anthropology, with an intensification in such experimentation since the mid 1980s. As with atonal music, modern art or free jazz when they were new (or even now when they’re not new at all), many experience difficulty in interpreting how or to what extent some experimental writing is ethnography or why it should be written. Many experimental ethnographies, particularly those experimenting with the form of the genre, have been perennially among the most interesting and thought provoking ethnographic texts, but they are also among the most difficult to come to terms with, to understand, or to evaluate (and it is often largely these qualities which makes them interesting).

Without claiming at the moment to have any clear sense of what precisely defines the form of the ethnography in contrast to other genres and even other genres of writing culture, the presence of such “formal difficulty” spells out a need to more intensively investigate the importance of form for ethnography and other genres. We cannot glibly fall back on something like fictionality, at least not in a simple sense, to define the difference between ethnography and some novels – some “fiction” tells great truths; as Geertz pointed out long ago, ethnography is always a crafted writing; and we should keep in mind the many “fictional” aspects of much ethnography, including pseudonyms for people and places, composite persons, confabulations of place and story, etc. Perhaps an important difference is that ethnography is “writing culture” which has as a primary motivation the understanding of a particular context via a correspondence between the sense of the text and the reference in the world, a sort of iconicity between text and world that need not be adhered to for even the most “ethnographic” of “fiction.”

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