Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Ghodsee.]

Ethngraphers as writers - Introduction
A writer’s tool

I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.

I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.

University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.

Ethnographic research provides a qualitative method to examine the diversity of worldviews that shape the social politics of local communities. In recent years, the ethnographic method spread from its original home in cultural anthropology to a wide variety of fields in the humanities and social sciences, yet as it grows in popularity, it remains inaccessible to few beyond a tight circle of specialists in disciplinary subfields. How ironic that scholars who research the intimate experiences of ordinary people, cannot write for them. Scholarship that tries to make sense of human behavior – the thoughts, ideals, and motivations of men and women operating within particular societal or cultural constraints – is produced so that the subjects of that research cannot understand it.

Why do so few ethnographers write clearly? Lack of training provides part of the explanation. In graduate school, professors concentrate on teaching ethnographic methodology: choosing a fieldsite, clearing human subjects review, identifying primary informants, ethnographic interviewing, and so forth. If apprentice ethnographers must learn a new language before heading off into the field, hundreds of hours will be dedicated to mastering a foreign grammar and syntax. If writing gets discussed at all, instructors focus on writing fieldnotes, and there exist a plethora of books advising students on how make accurate observations and later process those observations as ethnographic data.

When researchers return from the field, they write theses with little guidance. Overworked dissertation committee members will sign off on a well-researched thesis properly situated in the existing scholarly literature no matter how poorly the author constructed individual sentences or paragraphs. Most university professors don’t consider it their job to teach English composition, and dissertations take long enough without worrying about the quality of the prose. Completion matters more than elegance. The best dissertation is a done dissertation.

The problem arises when that dissertation has to make its way out into the world as a book. Young ethnographers face time pressure to establish themselves in the profession, either in the form of ticking tenure clocks or fierce competition for tenure-track employment. Amidst a host of new responsibilities, financial insecurity, and general upheaval, dissertations must transform into something publishable. Your old mentors busy themselves with a new crop of graduate students. University press editors possess limited time to advise to junior scholars trying to find a voice in their disciplines. New colleagues stagger under their own professional demands.

But poor prose is not the exclusive purview of the junior ethnographer. Seniority in the field provides greater ease of publication, but the ever multiplying demands on the time of established researchers means they have even less energy to devote to the craft of writing. If senior colleagues cannot write well, or care little for the quality of writing, who remains to teach the younger generation of ethnographers? The cycle repeats.

On top of this, many academics believe that smart scholarship requires the profuse deployment of disciplinary-specific jargon. Of course, technical terminology can provide a useful shorthand when conversing among professional peers. “Endogamous, bilateral, cross-cousin polygamy” captures a complex marriage pattern in as few words as possible, and proves invaluable when communicating with other anthropologists studying kinship. Unfortunately, this language often gets deployed to make an otherwise simple concept sound more complex. It does nothing to enrich the world of ideas, and exacerbates the insular and exclusionary nature of scholarly research.

Finally, there exists a pervasive ignorance about what makes good writing. “Few people realize how badly they write,” says William Zinsser in his classic style book, On Writing Well. Most ethnographers lack clarity on what constitutes good writing. They spend years of their lives mastering their disciplinary subfields, but spare little time honing the language through which they will ultimately communicate all of their practical and theoretical insights. Once the fieldwork is done and the fieldnotes are analyzed, I believe that students and scholars need guidance on how to produce the article, paper, report, thesis, or book that will be the final product of the research.

I will therefore dedicate some of my guest posts for Savage Minds this month to the question of writing ethnography, providing some simple tips for those ethnographers interested in producing artful scholarly texts.

8 thoughts on “Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

  1. I’m looking forward to reading this series, as I will begin writing my dissertation this fall. I hope that Dr. Ghodsee will share lots of examples of already-published ethnographies that are well-written and accessible to students.

  2. Shame to have a spelling mistake in the second sentence of a piece on writing:-) Poring, not pouring.

  3. “Endogamous, bilateral, cross-cousin polygamy” captures a complex marriage pattern in as few words as possible, and proves invaluable when communicating with other anthropologists studying kinship. Unfortunately, this language often gets deployed to make an otherwise simple concept sound more complex. It does nothing to enrich the world of ideas, and exacerbates the insular and exclusionary nature of scholarly research.

    Upon reading your piece I became interested in the point that undergraduates, novice scholars who are not necessarily anthro majors nor anthros in the making, might not be able to grasp the central argument of an ethnography written in inaccessible prose. I’d think that in general many, if not most, people would have difficulties reading through something that is poorly written. However, when you say that certain ethnographies are written in “impenetrable prose,” I ask myself exactly which ethnographies are you referring to?

    In my experience dealing with undergraduates I found that their (in)ability to grasp the arguments of a certain range of ethnographies had less to do with the author’s prose and more to do with their skill level in critically assessing arguments and understanding how to judge the merit of a social scientific study.

    It is one thing for a book to be written in convoluted prose but it is quite another for a book to be written clearly and with technical terms to describe a certain class of phenomenon. The quote above carries a technical term, quite practical for scholars working in kinship, that should in principle make it easy to understand its referent. This leads me to challenge your idea that such technical terms “make an otherwise simple concept sound more complex,” on the grounds that these terms serve to establish an unambiguous means of describing phenomena.

    For example, lets say I wanted to discuss post-marital residence patterns with my neighbor. I could ask that neighbor, “hey, in your culture after your daughter/son gets married (assuming its a monogamous,heterosexual marriage) where does s/he live? After receiving some response I would then speak of the phenomena along the lines of S/D lives with partner’s parents, relatives or in new place. Such a means of describing this phenomenon is fine for everyday chat, but it is rather lengthy. But in the realm of anthropological research it would be much simpler to simply say that post-marital residence is patrilocal, matrilocal, neolocal etc.

    These technical terms serve a purpose. They should be clearly explained so that they can be understood by the reader, but in a scholarly article or book directed at other researchers in the field it may be a bit repetitive and inconvenient to have to describe certain terms unless they are already used in different ways by various scholars.

  4. Dear Anon,

    Someone who thinks that typos are a mark of poor writing has plainly never made a living as a writer. Professionally speaking, writing should not be confused with proofreading or copy editing, which are laudable but separate professions in themselves. Fingers may slip, overzealous algorithms may alter what is written. Neither has anything whatever to do with the quality of the thought or the skill with which the writer conveys it.

  5. As a recent graduate student, I completely agree with your assessment of academy’s lack of attention to prose for all those reasons you’ve mentioned. However, as a former adjunct instructor of composition, I must say that it is not always the jargon-ridden and sometimes pompous academic writing that encumbers undergraduates’ understanding. Unfortunately, many undergraduates arrive to college without the necessary reading comprehension skills and most inadequate writing skills. I love clear prose, but I also expect college students to expand their vocabulary, to be able to grasp scientific concepts, and most importantly to be able to understand complex arguments without oversimplifying, as well as to deal with textual ambiguity. In my experience, it is not only scholarly articles that proved incomprehensible to the students, but even such examples of American prose as “The Great Gatsby” which used to be a standard college reading material a couple of decades ago…

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