Ethnography is an in-depth description of a culture or group of people sharing a culture. It is a fairly straightforward idea until one begins to ask troubling questions, such as: What is a culture? What are the boundaries of the group of people we are describing? Who describes them and upon what terms? What is the point of view of the description? The questions can become more difficult and even esoteric: “Who is privileged? Is it the narrator or the people?” “How objective or subjective can the narrator be?” “Should the narrator attempt to be objective?”
The entire issue of reflexivity has come to the fore in ethnographic writing over the past 20 years or so. The need for the ethnographers to put themselves into perspective regarding social position (gender, social class, age, ethnicity, and so on) has became an imperative for ethnographic presentation, as has the need to produce “texts,” often verbatim, undigested interviews and descriptions from the field. The influence of literary criticism on this movement is apparent. The philosophical positions and techniques of postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and other relativistic ideas and methods are obvious.
What many people ignore is the fact that many of these questions have troubled ethnographers for many years. Certainly, Franz Boas and his disciples in the United States and Bronislaw Malinowski and his followers in the United Kingdom produced “texts” and described real life people conducting their everyday business. Their papers are filled with such examples, and their letters attest to their interests in producing accurate pictures of societies.
Moreover, major disputes within anthropology between competing pictures of cultures further attracted attention of people to reasons for discrepancies in description. The disputes between Robert Redfield and Oscar Lewis and Ruth Benedict and a young Chinese scholar, Li An-Che, are but two of many disagreements over “ethnographic reality.” For example, long before the Margaret Mead-Derek Freeman controversy over Samoa, in which Freeman waited until Mead was dead, there was the dispute between Mead and Jesse Bernard over New Guinean material, a gentler difference of opinion and one of interpretation, not the gathering of information. However, the Lewis-Redfield differences led to a productive exchange of views in which the importance of the position of the observer was taken into account. The consensus was that it would be good to have a team of ethnographers work in an area. This team could compare its divergent views from various perspectives to present a truer picture of the whole.
Certainly, disputes continue to the present day regarding not only sensitivity and “voice” but also accuracy and consequences of description. The most recent of these disputes has been that over the Yanomami as described by Napoleon Chagnon. The ethical implications of the dispute are serious, as are questions regarding the methods and techniques for gathering information. However, many of the questions regard the description of the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil as “fierce people,” as well as the personality of the ethnographer itself. The issue came to a head with the publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, which made serious accusations against Chagnon’s field methods and portrayal of the Yanomami.
Clifford and Marcus (1986) in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography focused many movements that had been addressing the issues of ethnography over the years. It presented a coherent postmodern, reflexive, politically correct, and literary critical approach to the texts of ethnography wrapped in a neo-Marxist package. It drew careful attention to issues of power in fieldwork and the privileging of Western ideas, tying in carefully not only with French grand theory but also with the works of third-world critics of anthropology, such as Edward Said.
The book also drew needed attention to the obligation for presenting the viewpoint of those who live the culture, what had come by then to be termed the emic perspective, and allowing the people to speak for themselves. The Boasian tradition, often without crediting Boas, of collecting texts in the indigenous language regained popularity. The subjective nature of fieldwork, something Joseph Casagrande (1960) in his edited collection In the Company of Man had noted, was also given great attention.
In stressing the relativity of fieldwork and the role of the reader in drawing meaning from the “texts,” the new relativizing, deconstructionist movement, in the judgment of many, runs the danger of reducing anthropology to a branch of literature in which one opinion is as good as another and in which there are “truths” but no search for “truth.” This flirtation with solipsism in which nothing is privileged but only sensitivity matters is also nothing new. It is not the skepticism that demands proof of, say, Raymond Firth or Franz Boas, but rather the reflection of old Greek and Roman strands of philosophy stemming from the Sophists, in which the individual becomes the measure of all things.
The various techniques of ethnography taught in departments of anthropology attempt to incorporate the best of the old and new. For example, here is a sample of guidelines from Michael Stone’s course on ethnography at Hartwick College.
In research, you need to identify your personal assumptions, preconceptions, experiences, and feelings that affect your perceptions as a researcher. Hence, you will need to reflect upon them and incorporate them into your thinking and writing throughout the project. You are the essential instrument of the research process. In short, you will learn to be more conscious of your positioning as a researcher. Why have you chosen your site or subject? Which of your fixed positions (personal facts such as your age, gender, race, class and nationality) may affect your continuing perceptions, and how? What subjective positions (life history and personal experiences) may inform your ability to carry out research? What textual positions (the language choices you make in conveying what you perceive) may affect the way you know what you know about your research?
In common with other such courses, Stone blends the ethics of the American Anthropological Association with old and new techniques and approaches in a thoroughly professional and useful course. These are highlighted with practical exercises, giving future anthropologists a taste of the field and sharpening their ability to provide what is the building block of anthropological science and humanism: ethnography.
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- Chiseri-Strater, E., & Sunstein, B. S. (1997). Fieldworking: Reading and writing research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Blair Press.
- Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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- Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Stoller, P. (1989). The taste of ethnographic things. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- van den Hoonaard, W. (Ed.). (2002). Walking the tightrope: Ethical issues for qualitative researchers. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.