Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.
The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:
What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.
In my own books and articles, theoretical concerns dominated my early writing, but my more recent work places greater emphasis on the experience of everyday life. I continue to struggle with the question of how much theory to (explicitly) include, and I wonder how other ethnographers integrate theoretical questions into their writing. How do they decide the balance between theory and ethnographic data? I decided to do a little research.
At Princeton University, I contacted the anthropologists John Borneman and Amy Borovoy. Borneman, the author of five ethnographic monographs, including Political Crime and the Memory of Loss, uses theory to guide his research questions, but does not privilege it over direct experience in the field. He explains that:
Theory always determines what I might write down, therefore preselects the data. But the theory of ethnography I hold to admonishes me to be open to encounters with the unexpected, to experience as much as possible, to allow myself to be subject to other people’s desires and wishes as much as possible. But I go to the field with questions of larger social significance. What is the sacred? What is the political? What does it mean to be such and such a person at this time in such and such a place? I write down as much as I can in notes. I do not apply theory to this data but try to think through the data to refine, or even refute and displace, the questions I entered with.
Borneman places a heavy emphasis on the lived experience of participant observation, using his own experiences to question or subvert preconceived theoretical frameworks.
Amy Borovoy, author of The Too-Good Wife, sees a dialectic relationship between data and theory in her own work:
I’m tempted to say the data are more important, but that’s not right, because one needs ideas to interpret and organize the data. However if one simply demonstrates the same ideas (Foucault’s ideas about biopolitics [for instance]) in many different field settings, it’s no longer interesting. [Theory and data] shape each other in a fluid way. One starts with theoretical ideas or questions that come from theoretical readings, historical data, or other ethnographies. Then one’s ethnographic findings shape those questions.
Like Borneman, Borovoy values theory as part of the road map that guides the initial fieldwork. But once again, theory is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for her ethnography. The data from the field leads the analysis and eventual writing of ethnographic texts, and one has to be careful not to reproduce studies that have already been conducted in other contexts providing just one more data point for an already well-established theory.
Anthropologist Julie Hemment, the author of Empowering Women in Russia, also believes that theory determines the questions that shape her fieldwork. But when it comes to writing, she prefers the richness of ethnographic detail:
I’d say [theory and data] are equally important, and totally shot through with one another. While I consider myself to be led by my ethnographic data, it’s theory that has shaped its collection. And in analyzing, I tack back and forth between them continually. As far as what makes it onto the page –my personal preference as a reader and writer is for theoretically informed ethnographically rich texts and so I try to avoid theory-laden digressions. And nothing grabs a reader like a good story…
I checked in with a few ethnographers trained as sociologists, and they also tend to place a heavier emphasis on their ethnographic data in their finished writing. Olga Shevchenko, author of Crisis and the Everyday in Postosocialist Moscow, explains that, “I love theory as much as the next gal, but in the end, its role for me is to illuminate life, and so for me, ethnographic details come first.”
David Redmon, a sociologist and filmmaker, explained that when considering the balance between theory and ethnographic detail in his book Beads, Bodies, and Trash, he took his cues from his editor, who encouraged him to write the book “in filmic ways.” Redmon also relied on friendly readers, sending rough drafts of his manuscript to friends and colleagues. “Every person responded to the experiential material more so than the theoretical analysis,” Redmon told me. In the end, he let the stories lead the narrative, and only added in brief theoretical discussions at the end of each chapter.
Perhaps the key to writing an accessible ethnography lies with the ability to interweave the necessary theory into the ethnographic article, dissertation, or book without overloading the reader with extraneous verbiage. But what’s the best way to do this? I’ll consider this question in Part II.