November 1, 2004

But is it Ethnographic?

When we broke for discussion this week the group I was in talked a lot about the definition of ethnography. I think I tend to define ethnography by its tool: the field note. The presence or absence of field notes really clinches the question for me if a researcher is doing fieldwork or something else. However, I think my implicit, hazy definition is flawed: what is the difference between an ethnographer, journalist, fiction or creative nonfiction writer taking notes for themselves in the field for the purpose of writing them up later?

The intent of all three is to represent the situation with some accuracy (without making any claims to objective and total representation) and to do so in a way that’s appropriate and relevant to their audiences. In other words, we end up defining "true" or "research" ethnography by the genre in which the notes are written up: the journal article vs. the NY Times article. Personally, I would like my research to be deemed research not because the type of publication it appears in: when I was doing astronomical research with my team, it was still research, whether a report of it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal or The Globe and Mail science section.

Then again, I don’t think the definition of ethnography has anything to do with how long or how deeply a researcher is immersed in the field. In conducting research for his latest novel, Tom Wolfe spent months wandering unchaperoned around various American university campuses writing down his observations of the students. Instead of defining ethnographic writing generically by audience (professional audiences vs. lay audiences), perhaps we should define it by the degree to which the author “follows the actor” when writing up his or her notes? Then what do we do then about Denzin and Lincoln's brand of performance art as research? Can we say that the researcher writing up his or her experience in the form of an allegorical play is doing something other than making art?

Clearly, a Tom Wolfe novel is not an example of ethnographic writing. My question is: were his field notes?


Posted by nyssa003 at 10:47 AM