Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page.
There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

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.

5 thoughts on “Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

  1. Kristen, you write, “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.” The questions I hope that Part II at least begins to answer are (1) what is a theoretical concern and (2) how large does it have to be to reach the threshold at which work becomes scholarly. I am awakened to these issues by the post that precedes this one on Savage Minds, “The Politics (and Stories) of Fieldwork in Cuba.” I enjoyed reading that piece, and as someone who has long been a politically active Democrat find much in it of political and practical interest. As an anthropologist whose fieldwork was on another politically delicate island, Taiwan in the late 1960s, at a time when discretion in avoiding politically touchy topics was standard advice for graduate students preparing for fieldwork there, I find myself thinking about how fieldwork in Taiwan and fieldwork in Cuba were similar or different. So far, so good. But theory? I see no theory here. Perhaps I am being dense or too old-fashioned in insisting that theory have something to say that transcends the particular case that suggests it, But what do you say, is that piece a “scholarly” work?

  2. Dear John,

    I am a WordPress Newbie, and just spent 45 minutes responding to your comment, but my text has disappeared, and I can’t find it anywhere. I will never compose on this interface again…

  3. Damn, damn, damn.

    For what it’s worth, I have begun composing my online postings in Evernote. The formatting options are more than adequate for online material, and the comfort of knowing that whatever I write will be safely stored and searchable more than offsets the minor trouble it takes to copy and paste to a blog.

    I do hope that the thoughts return. I very much look forward to reading them.

  4. John, yes, it is so frustrating to lose so much text, but as I said, I am a newbie at all of this, and I didn’t even realize that I could respond to comments until you addressed me directly. So here is a more spontaneous version of the reply I wrote yesterday (composed in textedit).

    As for the Cuba piece, and my own piece on the death in Bulgaria, I think they don’t really qualify as “scholarly” (in the traditional sense) because they are self-consciously reflections from the field, and not trying to put forward and substantiate any arguments. One could make the argument that they are “scholarly” because they are written by scholars, so what this all boils down to is our definition of the word “scholarly,” and how that definition operates within academia today (e.g. in hiring decisions, on tenure and promotion committees, etc.). From the perspective of the profession, and for those of us operating within the constraints of the contemporary university system, our work is supposed to make arguments and further theoretical claims, or else it will not be judged as “scholarly.”

    That being said, I personally do not believe that all ethnographic writing should be subsumed under an organizing theoretical framework to further a certain claim. At different stages in our careers, ethnographers can experiment with different genres of writing. As the incoming president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, which welcomes a wide variety of ethnographic writing styles, I feel that ethnography can serve a documentary function, or that its function can be to evoke emotion and empathy, rather than merely furthering arguments. Much of the ethnographic poetry and fiction that is published in our journal, Anthropology and Humanism, is “scholarly,” because it is informed by years (if not decades) of deep engagement in the field. This work is not generalizable, in the sense that the case study is not being used to support abstract social theories, but it is generalizable in that it helps us better understand the beauty and diversity of the human experience.

  5. Kristen, thank you. There is nothing that you say here with which I disagree in the slightest. My own views of the proper relation of ethnography to theory are taken from the anthropologist after whom the SHA has named its annual prize and with whom I was once, albeit briefly, privileged to study.

    “In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.”

    “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors.” In Victor Turner, ed., Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 23.

    If, however, there is one thing that has struck me repeatedly in Turner’s work, it is that in nothing he wrote do we find facts simply documented or interpretations confined to a local context. Even in the most minute or intimate details, there is a striving to grasp a larger significance through explicit or implicit comparison with events in other times and places. Thus, for example, the white sap of the tree and its role in Ndembu ritual as symbol of milk, matrilineage, and community lead instantly to reflections on the significance of white in the color symbolism of other peoples in other places. When reading Turner, I never feel that I am being told about the Ndembu. Instead, through Vic’s encounters with particular Ndembu individuals, I am being urged to think about all sorts of relationships in my own and other lives. To me that is what makes Vic’s humanism also anthropology.

    Neither an attempt to test or, more often, to merely illustrate, theory nor merely local history of little interest to anyone who does not have sentimental attachments to the place or people in question, Turner’s humanistic anthropology was always broadening as well as deepening our understanding of humanity writ large.

    Or so it seems to me, when I ride this particular hobby horse.

Comments are closed.