How do you know when you are reading an ethnography? What makes a book or article ethnographic? This past semester I taught a new undergraduate course titled Reading Ethnography in which the students and I asked these questions as a means of appraising the specificity and content of ethnographic knowledge. Our first challenge was to articulate what the term “ethnographic” meant. What are those qualities that make a piece of scholarship ethnographic rather than simply descriptive or anthropological?
Etymologically, the ethnographic comes from ethnography. Following from its Greek origins, ethnography is the writing of people, of society, of culture: ethnos means “folk/the people” and grapho is “to write.” In noun form, ethnography is no longer tethered just to writing. Instead, it is often used to refer to a type of research; it is not only non-anthropologists who use the term this way. We do it too. We talk about “doing ethnography,” using it as a shorthand for fieldwork, saying ethnography when we mean ethnographic research. By ethnographic research we mean the ever-evolving Malinowskian program of (usually) a single ethnographer in the field conducting participant-observation, living within a community, and getting deeply into the rhythms, logics, and complications of life as lived by a people in a place, or perhaps by peoples in places. But, even at its most methodological, ethnography is not only about method. (And it certainly does not mean to watch someone or interview someone or assemble a focus group as it is sometimes understood and practiced.) Ethnography and the ethnographic is a method and a theory and a material object (“the book”) and a position in the world. As Sherry Ortner puts it in her 2006 book Anthropology and Social Theory, ethnography “has always meant the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much as it of possible—as the instrument of knowing.”
Researching and writing ethnography is an experiential and embodied practice, and in Clifford Geertz’s classic phrasing, we expect it to be composed of “thick description.” What counts as thickness shifts over the decades and across theoretical and methodological approaches, but one thing that remains constant is a commitment to realism. Whether non-fiction or fiction, prose or poetry, ethnography is a realist genre.
In class, we tracked the ethnographic by reading and comparing six different contemporary ethnographies covering different parts of the globe, each written by an American anthropologist. (Again, this was an undergraduate level course; at the graduate level, you could do different things with period and place and national scholarships.) The ethnographies were Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), Kristen Ghodsee’s Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism (Duke University Press, 2011), Donna Goldstein’s Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (University of California Press, 2003), Danny Hoffman’s The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Duke University Press, 2011), Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory, and Social Life in an Omani Town (Stanford University Press, 2010), and my book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010).
Prior to reading the ethnographies, we read about and discussed trends and shifts in ethnographic writing in anthropology. Key to the class was George Marcus and Dick Cushman’s piece “Ethnographies as Texts” from the 1982 Annual Review of Anthropology in which they review the state of ethnographic writing at the time of and following Geertz’s discipline-changing The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). They identify nine characteristics of ethnographic realist writing:
- a narrative structure organized by topic, chronology, or a problem;
- the unintrusive presence of the ethnographer in the text;
- common denominator people, not as characters but just “the people;”
- based on ethnographic data produced through fieldwork;
- a focus on everyday life situations, what they see as a case study merger of interpretive and realist goals;
- an emphasis on the native point of view;
- establishing specificity and sufficient context for any generalizations made;
- the use of disciplinary jargon to signal anthropological scholarship; and,
- contextual exegesis of native concepts and discourses.
This list is now thirty years old. Some parts of it have stood the test of time, but what might such a list look like if generated now, in 2012?
As my class read the above ethnographies, we discussed each in relation to Marcus and Cushman’s list, over the semester cumulatively assessing both the ethnographies and the list. At the end of the course, we collectively generated our own list of what makes something ethnographic now. Our list also had nine items:
- anthropological purpose via research question and argument;
- yet, in dialogue with issues of local concern;
- attempt to articulate native point of view;
- focus on ethnographic realities, on life as lived, on everyday life and ordinary time rather than solely on extra-ordinary time;
- people appear as named individuals rather than categories;
- clear marking of the production of ethnographic knowledge, i.e., of how the anthropologist knows what he or she knows;
- sufficient context and background in terms of the literature, history, theory, etc.;
- ethnographer’s relationship with the community s/he writes about, how was trust gained, relationships of care forged?; and,
- clear scholarly credibility of the author, reader’s trust of their credentials.
Three things not on Marcus and Cushman’s list were deemed key by my students, and to them were instrumental in the making of a successful ethnography. These were: (1) a transparency of the ethnographer as researcher; by this they meant not gratuitous reflexivity, but a clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated, of what the scholar’s relationships with the community were; (2) the presence of people in the text as characters who you get to know, people who appear as themselves, as real people; and (3) clear demonstration that the topic being studied matters; by this they meant mattered not only in an anthropological sense, but mattered and was relevant to the people in the community. To my students, these were the hallmarks of the current ethnographic realism. These were the things needed to make the ethnographic seem thick and thus real and trustworthy.
What would be on your list? What makes something ethnographic now, in this particular disciplinary and world historical-political moment?
Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is grateful to the students in the Spring 2012 Reading Ethnography for their entirely uncensored views and critiques of all the books they read in class, including her own.