Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography
Once upon a time ethnographers returning from the field simply sat down, shuffled their note cards, and wrote up their descriptions of the exotic and quaint customs they had observed. Today scholars in all disciplines are realizing how their research is presented is at least as important as what is presented. Questions of voice, style, and audience--the classic issues of rhetoric--have come to the forefront in academic circles. John Van Maanen, anexperienced ethnographer of modern organizational structures, is one who believes that the real work begins when he returns to his office with cartons of notes and tapes. In Tales of the Field he offers readers a survey of the narrative conventions associated with writing about culture and an analysis ofthe strengths and weaknesses of various styles. He introduces first the matter-of-fact, realistic report of classical ethnography, then the self-absorbed confessional tale of the participant-observer, and finally the dramatic vignette of the new impressionistic style. He also considers, more briefly, literary tales, jointly told tales, and the theoretically focused formal and critical tales. Van Maanen illustrates his discussion of each stylewith excerpts from his own work on the police. Tales of the Field offersan informal, readable, and lighthearted treatment of the rhetorical devices used to present the results of fieldwork. Though Van Maanen argues ultimately for the validity of revealing the self while representing a culture, he is sensitive to the differing methods and aims of sociology and anthropology. His goal is not to establish one true way to write ethnography, but rather to make ethnographers of all varieties examine their assumptions about what constitutes a truthful cultural portrait and select consciously andcarefully the voice most appropriate for their tales. Written with grace and humor, Tales of the Field will be an invaluable introduction to novices just learning the fieldwork trade and provocative stimulant to veteran ethnographers.
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