In my last post, I recommended that we consider archiving and sharing records from our fieldwork. Yet sharing both raw notes and publications can present challenges, as Rex recently covered with the controversy over Alice Goffman’s ‘anonymous’ but easily traced research in Philadelphia, published after she destroyed her fieldnotes.
Kristin Ghodsee similarly writes of the difficulties she encountered as she researched post-Socialist Muslims in Bulgaria—research that caught the interest of both local and American officials. After being detained and interrogated by Bulgarian officials, she decided to drop almost all of the ethnography from her forthcoming work. She describes her encounter with the state in this way:
He then asked me: “Are you responsible for this?” “Excuse me?” I said, not quite understanding his implication. “Is your purpose in Bulgaria to encourage these girls to assert their human rights?” “No,” I stammered, “I’ve been doing this research since 2004, long before this summer.” “But you know the girls?” “Some of them.” “And the people who are teaching them?” “They are all the subject of my ongoing research. An academic research project.” “Good,” he said. He nodded and jotted something down on his clipboard. He finally asked me if I had any questions for him. “Is this interview a normal procedure for Americans applying for long-term residency?” “No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “It is only for you.” “Why me?” “Your topic is interesting to us.” (Ghodsee 2011, p. 180).
As Ghodsee goes on to suggest, sharing the results of our research in any form, published or unpublished, can attract unwanted attention and Continue reading →
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!
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.
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.