Literary Ethnography

A blog about writing, creating, and representing culture

“Ethnography is still a relatively artistic, improvised, and situated form of social research where the lasting tenets of research design, theoretical aims, canned concepts, and technical writing have yet to leave a heavy mark. In the end, this is the way I think it should be, for a persuasive and widely read ethnography will always be something of a mess, a mystery, and the miracle.”

—   John Van Maanen, Tales from the Field: On Writing Ethnography, pg. 175

“Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your lifespan plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.”

—   Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, page 44

Anonymous said: Do you ever want to write a novel, fiction, i.e. a work not based on ethnographic data?

I think every ethnographer has fantasies of writing fiction, partially because we are not able to write about the interior lives of our subjects.  I know that some ethnographers use ethnographic fiction in order to avoid ethical issues about potentially causing harm to informants, but for my part I think the most attractive thing about fiction is the possibility of getting into a characters heads and exploring their thoughts.

That being said, I have written some short fiction and one of my ethnographic stories won the 2012 Ethnographic Fiction prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.  You can check it out here:

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere capacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

—   Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, page 58-59

“Ethnography aims to reduce puzzlement – of the ethnographer as well as the reader. What readers learn in a well put together tale is what particular people, in particular places, at particular times are doing, and what it may mean to them.”


John Van Maanen, Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press (Second Edition), 2011, pg 172

“A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear. The one I want to go after is cultural relativism. Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded.”

—   Clifford Geertz (via sensationalsegue)

(via teamanthro)

“The ordinary truth of any research trade — ethnographic or otherwise — is that we traffic in communications, and communications implies that we intend to alter the views of our readers. From this perspective, our task is rhetorical. We attempt to convince others that we’ve uncovered something of note, made unusual sense of something, or, in weak form, simply represented something well. That is to say that our writing is both explicitly and implicitly designed to persuade others that we know what we’re talking about and they ought therefore to pay attention to what we are saying.”


John Van Maanan, Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press (Second Edition), 2011, pg. 147.

A lovely, July afternoon at the Farmers’ Market in Brunswick, Maine.

“If you want to understand what is science is you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do.”

—   Clifford Geertz
Book cover!