Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Boring Ethnography

In my previous post (“Some Thoughts on Ethnography”), I mentioned having recently reviewed the various essays in Writing Culture, including that by Mary Louise Pratt, while preparing for a discussion in a graduate seminar.

In Pratt’s essay, shortly after the section I discussed in my previous post, Pratt writes (p. 33; parenthetical added):

“Much must be left behind in the process (the process of converting subjective experience and field notes into formal ethnography, especially the components of ethnography engaged in objectivizing narrative)…There are strong reasons why field ethnographers so often lament that their ethnographic writings leave out or hopelessly impoverish some of the most important knowledge they have achieved, including the self-knowledge. For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?”

I’ll grant that much ethnographic writing is boring, some more boring even than punk rock (see “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring”). It is usually writing by academics after all, and most academic writing in general is dull in form and style, even when once read the material discussed might be quite exciting.

Still, each time I encounter this passage (I generally encounter it from time to time when I’m prepping for a class for which I’ve assigned Writing Culture as reading), I react negatively. This time around, I reacted a bit differently and with more positive results (i.e. I didn’t just snarkily wonder why someone from a lit theory background would leave the scintillating neighborhood of lit crit and theory to pay detailed attention to something as tedious as ethnography). I think that Pratt, in this passage, is both misperceiving the boringness of ethnography and asking the wrong sorts of questions of ethnography (or rather her questions are good ones, but they’re good questions about virtually any form of academic writing – why must writing about so many exciting topics [quasars, lemmings, market systems, novels] be so often so dreadfully boring?).

First off, as a genre of academic writing, a surprising number of ethnographies are not boring. Virtually every cultural anthropologist has a list of ethnographies that they’re positively passionate about, not because they’re excellent analyses (though that may be another [and ideally overlapping] list of books some are passionate about), but because they’re wonderful, well written, and engaging books.

I said above I think Pratt was asking the wrong sort of question about ethnography. My question is this: Why do we expect ethnographies (as examples of academic writing) to not be boring, and why are we disappointed when they are boring? (And I ask this non-rhetorically, for we [or at least I] do expect ethnographies to be interesting and experience disappointment when this isn’t the case.) After all, there are few other forms of scholarly writing for which we have such expectations (perhaps history writing). No one is disappointed when a physics report or economics article or essay of literary criticism is dull, because no one (I should probably say almost no one) expects them to be otherwise – it’s more a surprise if they’re not boring.

Virtually every academic discipline has a corresponding genre of popular writing written for a lay audience that’s expected to be interesting and engaging, but ethnography and professional history writing are the two forms of professional, scholarly writing that many if not most readers expect to be interesting as writing, even if they’re often disappointed. The most obvious, and probably most important reason for this is that these are the two forms of contemporary academic writing that often take the form of narrative, i.e. where we’re told a story. (As Pratt is discussing, the tension in ethnography comes in when the writing shifts from narrative to expository, objectivizing text.)

As I suggested in my previous post, another component of the allure of ethnography for many readers, and what draws many into anthropology in the first place, is the imagining of what Sontag called “The Anthropologist as Hero,” such that the reader expects not just a story, but a story of exploration and heroic adventure.

The popular imagining of “The Ethnographer” is not quite Gentleman Explorer á la Richard Burton or T. E. Lawrence nor Explorer lost in the Wilderness á la Cabeza de Vaca (or the ultimately anthropophagized title character of the film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman); not quite castaway á la Robinson Crusoe (or Gilligan); not quite fictional adventurer á la Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain; not quite contemporary television adventurer á la Steve Irwin (God Bless Him), Jeff Corwin, or Anthony Bourdain; not quite good feminist anthropologist battling (literally) man-eating cannibal feminists á la Shannon Tweed’s character in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (okay – not even close to that, though it is a movie any anthropologist with a sense of humor should see); but somewhere in the neighborhood of all of these.

Over the past few decades, anthropologists (alongside many others) have thoroughly critiqued most aspects of the discipline – the colonialist roots of ethnography, the major concepts of the discipline, the motivations of ethnographers, and this has been important and good. Like most cultural anthropologists today, I’m wary of any sense of ethnography as adventure, of being or trying to be “The Anthropologist as Hero,” but I’ll also be honest enough to say that the allure of heroic adventure is at least part of what attracted me to the discipline in the first place and no doubt is still a part of why I expect ethnography to be interesting if not positively exciting.

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Eshuneutics said...

Fortunately, you are not "boring" at all. This is a fascinating piece. Yes, why do we (culturally) have it grained in us that some writing can be boring whereas others must be a continual firework show? Must think. Great observations.

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Ethnoarch said...

Ethnography for me is an adventurous discipline, much like experimental sciences and sciences that involve (interesting) fieldwork. I understand this is not the position taken in several relevant articles. However, the prospect of learning about something new and growing as a person in the process of learning is by definition adventurous to me. Adventure protagonists the world over undergo personal change, and that is usually the driving force behind such storytelling. However, I don't see adventurers as necessarily being heroes.

I see adventurers as people who enjoy exploration, learning, and personal growth -- which is the opposite of some colonist hero undertaking some "horrible trial" for a greater cause. Exploration is supposed to be about discovery, and heroism is supposed to be about self sacrifice for some great cause. The former should be open-minded, seeking the truth -- the other is about doing whatever is necessary for the cross one is bearing. These are inherently contradictory endeavors, and I prefer to define adventure as exploration rather than as heroism.

I'm disgusted by researchers who've had the life sucked out of them and who do their work not because they enjoy discovery but because "they have to". Ethnography would be boring less often if people were motivated primarily by the love of discovery and learning.