Ethnographic writing: The Studs Terkel model or what?

So, let’s say you’re in the middle of writing up your dissertation.  You’re going through your interviews, making notes, seeing some patterns, and piecing together some of the stories you are going to tell about your fieldwork.  Then you start actually outlining chapters and blocking things out.  You follow with selecting certain segments of interviews you are going to use to illustrate the points you want to highlight.

So here’s the question: How do you actually decide to put all the voices into your text?

I am currently in the writing stage, and in the process of figuring out how I am going to answer this question.  There are a range of ways to do this.  At one end of the spectrum, there’s the sort of raw interview transcript or narrative that Studs Terkel used for books like Working.  I have always found this style of presentation appealing.  The other end of the spectrum is the sort of voice over technique in which the author’s voice is most dominant, maybe sprinkled here and there with fragments and quotes from interviews.  In between these two poles there are many options–and of course there’s no reason why it’s not possible to employ a mixed strategy (Righteous Dopefiend by Bourgois and Schonberg comes to mind).

What’s YOUR preference–and more importantly–why?

As I already said above, I am really drawn to a style that reminds me of Terkel.  I’m not sure why I am so drawn to this.  Maybe it’s because when I was in my 20s I read a bunch of Jack Kerouac and all he wanted to do was transcribe raw conversations and put them in books.  This style of presentations has it’s shortcomings, of course, since it can lead to a presentation that’s a bit more fragmented (in which readers have to do some of the work, in a sense, when they encounter the book).  But I tend to like this sort of fragmentation, and I don’t mind it when everything isn’t all tied up nice and neat by the author.

Let me know what you all think.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

11 thoughts on “Ethnographic writing: The Studs Terkel model or what?

  1. I really enjoyed a book based upon a Studs Terkel book, World War Z. Part of that was the novelty of someone having created a fictional set of oral histories. Another was pride at seeing that someone who is neither an anthropologist nor a folklorist respects the genre (and let’s face it, not even all anthropologists do). But mostly I respected how Max Brooks used the potential of the genre to tell a story. You get to see the Zombie War unfolding in time and space and from different perspectives. And Brooks does a great job of making it clear that the reader should keep in mind this is all being told after the fact.

    Don’t know if that helps at all. ☺ Years back I was gifted a copy of Trabajador en la Caña. I checked out a copy of Worker in the Cane and read all of Don Taso’s material in Spanish and Mintz’s interludes in English. That was a fun and enlightening experience.

  2. I think this is a hugely important question. In a “readings in ethnography” class I took in grad school, I noticed I often skipped block quotes because I was so caught up in the authors voice, and the interview text served to validate, rather than illuminate the author’s statements. On the other side of this, is the work of Henry Glassie, an author I greatly admire (who doesn’t, right?) who gives Terkel-like chapters to interviewees, once neatly edited. Glassie allows us to not only hear the voices that informed his thinking, but actually know them like we know characters from novels.

  3. To be clear, Terkel’s interviewee’s pieces were highly edited, smoothed over, and patched together from several sessions to present tidy narratives — they reflect an awful lot of Terkel, too. But yeah, I think there’s a place for that. I think that the way other voices are integrated into one’s work has to be determined by the nature and intent of the work. A lot of feminist anthropology, for instance, aims for polyvocality because that is the theoretical point of the work. Likewise, something like Caton’s “Peaks of Yemen I Summon” includes a lot of voices because the topic is to explore how these various Yemeni tribesmen use and shape language to address particular social conflicts. I would say that, whatever approach one uses, there needs to be a rationale for that specific approach (though not necessarily in the text unless it serves part of the purpose of the text).

    tl/dr: It depends. 🙂

  4. Not to be glib, but I think the answer is “it depends…” It depends on the story you are trying to tell, and on the nature of the interviews. In some cases your informants truly are collaborators and should be given as much room as possible to speak in their own words. In other situations, the anthropologist is engaged in a project that the informants only contribute to tangentially or in drips and drabs. In such cases the anthropologist has to do the hard work of culling those bits into a coherent narrative. The appropriate choice for presenting the material thus depends upon the nature of the project and the relationship between the anthropologist and her informants. It will also differ between informants depending on that relationship.

  5. @Mateo: Ya, I really like the idea of putting different perspectives side by side as it sounds like Brooks did with his book. Interesting. I should check it out.

    @Thomas Grant: I haven’t read anything by Glassie, but it sounds like I should. Thanks for that. Also, the idea of doing entire chapters with a sort of oral history style a la Terkel sounds really promising to me. I have been thinking of interlacing individual bio chapters throughout what I am writing…so again it looks like I need to have a look at Glassie’s work.

    @Dustin: Good point about the realities of Terkel’s work. I have always wondered to what extent his interviews were edited–and I’d like to read more about how they were. Any suggestions? Here I am using Terkel just as an example of one type of presentation style. I’ve always really liked the style of his presentation….and I have no qualms about ripping off stuff I like. Ha. I think you’re right though that any presentation style has to have a rationale.

    @Kerim: The “it depends” answer is definitely true. It does depend on the nature of the interview what story you’re trying to tell, and the relationships between everyone involved. In my case there are certain chapters in which I could go either way–so that’s where this post came from. Sometimes I just haul off and ask questions here to see what people say, how they answer the same kinds of questions.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  6. This is a wonderfully timely question for me (I just finished the final manuscript draft for my editor), and it has been nice to read through the comments. I agree that it depends on the story we are telling, and will add that it also depends on our commitment to the aesthetics of writing. Sometimes I felt as if I was pulling in more longer exchanges with informants because I found them more poetic and more interesting than my analysis. I gradually found ways to invite the reader into the informants’ experience of the world with just enough of my own scaffolding to keep things together. I admire writers who can do this well (like Bourgois) , but also love work that is constantly using ethnographic interviews but which thoughtfully integrates them (Rebecca Lester’s Jesus in our Wombs comes to mind)- there are surely many more! Thanks Ryan

  7. I’m partial to a combination of methods which allows you to speak in your voice and tell your story of the research experience as much as you give it over to the voice of your informants. A great example, in my opinion, is Clifford’s Identity in Mashpee – where you get his internal thoughts, his record of his experience in the courtroom, his re-telling of his informants stories through his voice, his informants voices directly – and sometimes he gives us up to 5 pages of direct quotes from the dialogues in the courtroom. I really enjoy going back and forth between these forms – it keeps me interested. When it’s all one method or another, I tend to start to lose interest. Re-reading that work might give you an inspirational reminder of the freedom you have to craft something in diverse styles and voices. It helps me to remember that I don’t have to follow only one form.

  8. Nice post. Another thing to think about (indeed what I am thinking about now at the very beginning of writing) is how to capture the voice of the people with whom I researched (mostly ‘working class’ Indians). My translations of their sentences (sometimes done on the spot when recording devices weren’t appropriate) are in quite dry English, free from colloquisms or regional variations (in part due to my limited language skills, I learnt the language in one place, I don’t really know how the language differs elsewhere). I thought about making their English like working class British people, but it would sound ridiclous.

  9. Jason Danely: I like how you phrased it: “ways to invite the reader into the informants’ experience of the world with just enough of my own scaffolding to keep things together.” That’s a nice way of putting and, and it expresses exactly the issue that I am dealing with as well. It’s a matter of building things up in the right way. Thanks for this.

    Michael: That’s a great reminder–there’s no need to worry about sticking to one style. I agree with you that a mix of styles is often most interesting, and maybe more effective too. Thanks too for reminding me about Clifford’s work.

    Sinister penguin: Ya, translation is another issue. I am right there with you on this one. It’s not just a matter of style or presenting things in a way that works, but also shifting from one language to another (and then into text) in a way that doesn’t lose too much meaning. Or change meaning.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

  10. Ryan, another thought about translation. I think of a paper my sagacious spouse Ruth McCreery once wrote about two translations of The Tale of Genji. Seidensticker’s translation was intended to replace an older translation by Arthur Waley and, no question about it, was, building on several decades of post-Waley scholarship, more accurate. Unfortunately, however, Seidensticker had every character speaking in the same, bland mid-Western American English register. Waley, an upper-class Englishman of an earlier generation wrote in a way that made aristocrats sound aristocratic and peasants sound like peasants. It was possible to quibble about his translations of particular terms or phrases; but to read Waley was to enter a world linguistically structured in a manner much closer to that in which Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji.

  11. A piece by Jon Krakauer on the death of Chris McCandless went up today on The New Yorker’s blog. It’s seems to me that the fact that Krakauer didn’t have what it took to pin down the better answer he knew was out there had everything to do with the fact that he thinks like a features writer rather than a scientist. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand “failure to disprove,” for example.

    On the other hand, the biochemist with whom Krakauer collaborates doesn’t stop to ask himself, to paraphrase my favorite Lévi-Strauss quote, “Did I answer the right question here?” A bookbinder working at a research library is who ends up putting things together.

    Hope that doesn’t seem totally unrelated to your original post! I suppose I am trying to say that when an individual’s professional life involves both writing and observation that the two tend to be linked not just in the what but also in the how.

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