Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:

I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!

Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way
Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way

Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.

Anthropologist Julie Hemment allows recollections of fieldwork to guide her writing:

My first step is to recall a rich incident. Often it’s an interaction or an event that that played out in ways I didn’t fully understand at the time – something that snagged my attention and caused me to linger, and maybe something that I continue to puzzle.  I then return to my fieldnotes for more texture (and these places, incidents, moments are often places where I did write thickly to begin with).  The ethnographic writing I ultimately produce is an amalgam of all this.  I rarely incorporate my fieldnotes directly, or quote from them; rather, I write from them.

If you are the kind of ethnographer that starts with the stories and writes her way into a theoretical insight, write out your thick descriptions first, and then take care not to overload the reader with a wall of theoretical analysis at the end of the dissertation, article, or book. Once you’ve completed your first draft, work back into the manuscript and foreshadow your theoretical argument throughout the body of your text. If done with a light hand, these insertions won’t break the flow of your narrative, but will gently guide the reader toward your ultimate conclusions.

Other anthropologists know their conclusions before they begin. When I wrote The Red Riviera, theoretical interventions guided my writing from page one. I knew I wanted to explore how cultural capital operated in a postsocialist context. If you’re starting with a clear argument, examine your fieldnotes. Identify the ethnographic material that best substantiates your claims. Then, state your overall theoretical intervention in the introduction. Make this a brief statement without too many rhetorical flourishes and without the exhaustive literature review.

As you write up the examples from your fieldwork, occasionally stop and return to your argument and theoretical framework, inserting bits of relevant theoretical background among the ethnographic examples. You can sprinkle these theoretical asides throughout your text, ensuring they arise naturally from the anecdotes you have chosen.

Anthropologist Doug Rogers combines these two writing strategies:

Whatever balance I’m aiming for with a particular piece of writing, I’m generally sorting secondary literature right along with the fieldnotes and other sources. So I might have a section of my bookshelves labeled “Chapter 2,” a folder of academic articles on the computer named “Chapter 2,” and another folder of fieldnotes and other sources (newspapers, archival materials, whatever) also labeled chapter 2. When I’m working on chapter 2, I’m trying to keep all of these things in play, and the “theory” stuff gets sorted and resorted right along with the fieldnotes as I write and reclassify, write and reclassify. For this last book, one way I did this was by covering my wall with sticky notes that indicated chapter sections and subsections and the bits of ethnography and/or theory that would go in each … that way I could move things around easily. I would write and keep looking back and forth between the sticky notes and the other things labeled chapter 2 — notes, articles, books, etc.

So you can write up your data, and then add in your arguments, or you can start with your arguments and slip in your data, or if you’re like Doug and can manage it, try to do both at the same time. Whatever your method, avoid separate sections or chapters devoted solely to literature review and theoretical analysis at the beginning or end of your text. Of course there will be exceptions – some journals may require a separate literature review section, others may be only interested in publishing theoretical analysis lightly seasoned with ethnographic examples. Every situation will be unique, but in general, a readable ethnography will be one that blends thick ethnographic detail with theoretical analysis, integrating that theory naturally into the narrative flow of the text.

2 thoughts on “Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

  1. Thank you for these, Kristen. All of this advice seems like something I should (or do) already know, but it’s very nice to see it articulated as you’ve done here. I second the recommendation of Scrivener. I haven’t used it much for academic work, yet, and there are some slightly annoying limitations, but it’s excellent for organizing projects. Moreover, it’s very affordable.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Kristen. It’s so helpful to hear specifics on how other ethnographers process large amounts of fieldnotes along with theory/literature in writing.

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