Postmodern ethnography

Postmodern philosophy has greatly affected ethnography. Postmodernism is largely the re-emergence of subjectivism in the human sciences, and one of its interests is the mystique of human personality.

First, ethnography reflects the person of the ethnographer. Ethnographers follow a unique path inward when learning culture, being transformed from an etic to an emic viewpoint through people they meet and a unique set of learning experiences.

The main research instrument of an ethnographer is him/herself as a person. Their findings can be colored by their personalities and the kinds of relationships that they have with informants. Consequently, another researcher in the same community might follow a different unique path and quite validly come up with different conclusions.

Besides, simply asking questions can stimulate cultural change. If people have never before articulated their thoughts on an issue, or have never before consciously thought through an issue, their views may be changed as they seek answers. And once the issues have been raised, there is usually no way for them to return to the former state. An ethnographer's incisive questions may stimulate a new perspective from which people view the topic.

In method, it is now more acceptable for ethnographers to refer to themselves personally and to include longer first-person quotes from informants.

Second, ethnographic data is soft, much softer than was previously thought. An informant's opinions may be valid data, but they might change with mood and circumstance. An informant may not have clearly articulated his/her thoughts when asked the first time, and may express them better when asked again later. The first was incomplete or inaccurate, but the improved version may have been artificially developed. Informants can also intentionally lie or make up fictitious answers to save face. In principle, soft data is still usable, but it affects the epistemology of the research.

As people are very idiosyncratic, generalizations are necessarily less accurate and less representative of the data than was thought. Even firmly enforced rules may be viewed or interpreted differently by different individuals. Consequently, there is a tendency to avoid generalizations whenever possible.

Researchers once tried to confirm data and results independently from more than source (called triangulation). It is a good idea but doesn't always work. Researchers have limited ability to triangulate because data is idiosyncratic and variable, and other researchers will not have exactly the same inward path.

Postmodernism rejects constructivism, the idea that a researcher uses data to construct a theory. Such a theory is separate from the data itself. It is the personal creation of the researcher and reflects his/her persona. One of the ways that researchers determine theory is by choosing questions to start with, so researchers now take more care to avoid prescribing questions and let questions come from the data.

This has led to post-constructivism, that is, attempts to develop theory much nearer to the data. It lets the data speak for itself as much as possible rather than being colored so much by the interpretation of the researcher.

Another development in postmodernism is the idea of alternative realities. In the constructivist era, scientists attempted to develop theories that explained all reality in their respective disciplines. Eventually it was conceded that reality is too complex to be explained by any one theory.

It then became acceptable to have multiple theories, all of which were to some extent justifiable, and which were not necessarily consistent with each other. Each theory became one tool in a toolkit. One development of this idea was that different people (or groups of people) could construct different realities, which are not fictions and not subject to examination from other realities. To some extent, these are much the same as worldviews.

Another development was that chaos is not too far away; that is, that part of reality is unordered and chaotic, and not amenable to ordered theory. Yet even then, there are rules of a different order governing or describing chaos. Acceptance of chaos is a natural result of accepting that no single theory can explain all reality. It follows that reality is not mechanistic, that is, a big machine that plods on predictably according to fixed rules.

Another aspect does not affect what you do or write, but the interpretation of the written report.

The report itself is an interpretation. It is linear and verbal. That is, it is written down in language that starts on page one and goes through to the end. However, the events of the ethnographer's field experience almost never occur in the same order as the contents of the written report. Besides, the experience was holistic while the written report contains selected particulars.

Another postmodern trend has been to note that readers often project their own persona onto what they read, so their interpretation might be more a reflection of themselves than an understanding of what the writer wrote.

In practice, it means you must read an ethnography between the lines to see what really happened to the ethnographer on the field. 

Conclusion. Postmodern concepts of ethnography have exposed serious weaknesses in previous views. However, postmodernism has major faults of its own and there is no need to push it too far. (In fact, postmodernism is already showing signs of losing impetus and it isn't yet clear what will replace it.) Ethnographies can still represent real people out there, and need not be swamped by the ethnographer's or the reader's personality. And it is possible to make mistakes and for others to conduct research that exposes them.


About narrative

Brian Holliday

A central problem of narrative analysis is the control of the voice, or who speaks to the reader or listener. Narrative is all about memory and selection, both remembering and forgetting. What is actively remembered and forgotten can depend on who the audience is, and this is true as the narrative is told both at the interviewee/interviewer stage and at the writer/reader level.

Narrative happens at many levels, and the question often is, "Whose narrative is being told?" To throw in an additional wild card, the reader’s grid and interpretation of the narrative is largely beyond the control of the writing process, and naturally and rightly so.

However, the writer influences, wittingly or unwittingly, the production of the work through an extended process of selection as the narrative is edited and re-edited, translated and interpreted. Having end goals in view (before the editing, translation, interpretation process takes place) can deeply compromise the final product.

In ethnography, the only way a reader can assess the original material, and the only way the interviewee can have an unqualified voice, is to include the verbatims in the work. This by no means eliminates the problems of interpretation by the reader, but it is a positive step in terms of voice.

In narrative analysis, where notes rather than verbatims are taken, the editing process has already begun, so the narrative is immediately different from the original. How this narrative is controlled is important, and the reader needs to know the range of background and beliefs that inform both the interviewee and the interviewer.

Each informant may have a different view of what is discussed in the narrative, and generalized perspectives are not very helpful. One of the changes in post-modernism was that generalizations, however necessary, are recognized to be the artificial constructions of researchers, as opposed to the authenticity of the original narrative.

Each informant's narrative is unique. For the purpose of a particular research paper, it is important for the researcher to:

The danger with narrative analysis is that it so easily shifts to narrative interpretation, where the interpretation is imposed from a different, usually dominant, cultural narrative. It is easy for the researcher to slip into this mode, and it inadvertently reinforces what largely has been the fate of the narrative of those living under cultural domination. (In hermeneutics, this kind of reading into the text is called eisogesis.)

Clearly all narrative analysis is compromised, and this reflects the everyday reality of our existence together as people with widely differing, interacting narratives.

The process of listening, interpreting, speaking and re-listening is extremely important. It must take place openly and persistently so that we (especially anyone from a dominant culture) increasingly understand the narratives of others.

It then behoves the researcher to be aware, vigilant and open in the personal, and public, on-going process of intercultural communication and understanding.