Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Reading :: Tales of the Field

Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, Second Edition
By John Van Maanen

During my Q&A at a recent conference, someone characterized my research (again) as ethnography, and I clarified that I considered it a case study approach. It's not that I'm against ethnography, it's that (a) I'm not trained as an ethnographer and (b) I'm much more interested in bounded activities than in culture per se, which is what ethnography studies.

Still, I'm interested in the perspectives of ethnographers, so I've been working on (a). And for that goal, reading John Van Maanen's Tales of the Field was useful, although not world-changing.

Van Maanen's book describes developments in ethnography by focusing on the styles and narrative conventions that ethnographies use—an approach that is potentially quite interesting for writing scholars. He traces ethnography from its beginning in "realist tales" (based in naive empiricism) to "confessional tales" (in which ethnographers woke up to their ethnocentric and cultural biases) to "impressionist tales" (in which ethnographers sought to delight readers with their impressions of the field, giving up on an objectivist account and rather describing things through the ethnographer's eyes).

These shifts in style, he demonstrates, develop in tandem with ethnographers' theoretical stances. That is, in describing style changes, Van Maanen also describes how ethnography has developed theoretically, methodologically, and ethically from its inception to the present day.

If you're interested in ethnography, certainly give it a look.

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