Goodall, H.L. 2000. Writing the New Ethnography.

Goodall, Jr., H.L. (Bud). 2000. Writing the New Ethnography. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.


Ethnography in four steps:

  • Learn how to do fieldwork
  • Learn how to write
  • Learn who you are – in field, as a writer, as a self
  • Learn how and where these things are connected, meaningfully.

What is Ethnography?

“The goal of fieldwork is to recognize patterns. The goal of writing ethnography is to express them” (8).

“Ethnography is a written representation of culture” (Van Maanen 1988), culture is “the production and consumption of everyday life,” as well as how we account and tell ourselves/others about the “meaningful orders of persons and things” (Sahlins 1976).


Ethnographic work (old) as assessed via formula – rationality, evidence, persuasion, monologue, etc. vs. New Ethnography – in rise of postmodern era, facing a “crisis of representation” (Denzin 1996, Van Maanen 1995) – how do we match the constructed, symbolic nature of language to the on-goings of reality? Whose reality do we represent and privilege? Can we do this in a formulaic, rational way? Who is entitled to the right to speak for a culture? How do we report on culture (perceived as “out there”) when we are immersed within them? New Ethnography as dialogical, dialectical, and involving of the reader in the experience. New Ethnography as “a story based on the represented, or evoked, experiences of a self, with others, within a context” (here 83, see Goodall 1991). Instead of offering partial depictions of reality (Van Maanen 1995), look beyond the partisan (representing one point of view from the teller) — however, all representations are partial, partisan, and problematic (see Eisenberg and Goodall 1997). There is no sense of omnipotence – reality is much more diverse and complex than any one telling of it.  Stuart Hall (1997) notes that representation has been viewed as “replacement” for reality – that is, there are political ramifications for how we tell stories.

Representing Ourselves

Van Maanen (1988) offers three types of style to approach ethnography: the realist, the confessional, and the impressionist.

Realist approaches offer single-author, often omnipotent, positivist approach. Reads like a documentary, based on rigid categories of analysis and avoiding the abstract. Offers credential through experimental, scientific authority.

Confessional Tales offer first-person narratives, looking to learn from the culture rather than interpret it. Displays empathy, communication, autobiographical detail; shifts points of views based on who is “speaking”. Offers credential through personalized authority.

Impressionist tales construct ethnography through dramatic recall, uses evocative language to create the illusion of the reader being present in the event. Events are not necessarily chronological, but move back and forth to construct a story – rather than being organized through category. Writers become characters within the story they tell, not just outside/extreme inside observers. In ways, a story “so rhetorically compelling, its language is so metaphorically powerful, and its style is so literately fashionable, that it must be fiction” (74) – a type of “radical empiricism” (Jackson 1989) – not just to reflect what the ethnographer does, but reflect on the processes, decisions, and meanings of such reflections in how it shapes the study. Looking to examine “the shape and pattern of lived experience as shaped and patterned by the ethnographer’s personal, political, and poetic experiences, choice of narrative forms, and uses of language” (77).

Taking Note: Tips for Fieldwork

Fieldwork is usually done by combining participant observation, talking to people, learning about everyday practices of the people who engage in the culture, reflecting on our own experiences (within the field and otherwise), recording notes/interviews, self-reflecting these notes into a narrative that can represent field experiences.

Fieldnotes, then, “mediate between lived experience and ethnography” (87, see also Sanjeck 1990).   Keep a notebook and/or diary to reflect on yourself – as a point of data. This helps in maintaining an evolutionary record of your thought, a personal account of what was influencing you at the time (books, people, etc.), and a “grammatical map” of your mental and emotional states while in the field. Take notes on everything – you’ll need them. Don’t go out looking for stories – it’s your job to make the stories.  More specifically, look out for verbal exchanges, practices toward people or things, and the connections between the verbal exchanges and behaved practices — this is where we derive meaning.

“Verbal exchanges are the organizing focus of everyday experience, and as such, these exchanges represent a fundamental way to create fieldnotes” (98). Ritual interactions (phatic communication) seek to establish social recognition, mutual address – but reveal hierarchies and status, elevations of exchange. Ordinary communication (discussion, information exchange, etc.) offers persona, relational, and informational insight as to how people analyze, evaluate, and act on information. Even deeper, skilled conversation (debate, interview, negotiation) looks at conflict in meaning, value – and can look towards how people resolve them. Personal narratives offer self-disclosure and help to reveal insight as to how one situates and explains their own position within social contexts. Dialogue helps to transcend informational exchange and debate and works toward new meanings – “spontaneous mutuality” (104).

In verbal acts, look for: Frame/context (where does this take place, what is the relationship of the speakers?), Content (what is the “work” that the exchange completes, symbols that must be read as signs – offering meaning, what are power terms, what is unsaid (silence), the role of gender, class, race, etc., what is the story and how is it presented from one to another?), Pattern (sound, source of storyline, how does it add up?), and Personal Location (what attracts you to it, how you participated, how does it match up (or not) to previous experiences you’ve had, what frameworks you’re pulling from as you interpret this event?). Look for rich points (Agar 1994) – things that contain cultural knowledge through slang, jargon, commonly used words that are particular to subculture, purposeful misrepresentations of others that work to denigrate (and thus value others). Look for turning points (Bullis and Bach 1989) for sources of critical life decisions and interpretations of meaning of person, relationship, organization, institution. Lastly, look for speech, gesture, expression, and other non/verbal communication factors that are included in communication construction (Goffman 1959).

In practices, examine the patterns of speech and behavior.

General Advice

Scholarship is about ideas – things that are very rarely limited to one discipline. Read associated disciplines about IDEAS (the storyline), instead of subject areas. Look at the big picture – what is being “collectively written”, what presents itself as a gap?

Look into deCerteau (1984) about practices as cultural performances – that is, everyday practices and speech as imprinted with cultural, organizational, and societal symbols and meanings. How selves are performed to attune or rebel against cultural meanings and perceptions.

Tell a story – lay out an exposition, offer a climax, and resolve through denouement – a release of the dramatic tension. Organize your interpretive schemed to be dramatistic (see also Burke 1989, Goffman 1959, 1967, 1980, Turner 1969) – social construction of reality through the metaphor of dramatic action (cinema, stage).

Ethics and Ethnography

Consider the following: how to gain entry to site, gain trust with informant, conceal/reveal identity and study purpose, how do you situate yourself in relation to your subjects’ lives, how should you acquire/use/appropriate cultural knowledge for your own use, how do you represent your subjects, how do you deal with information about illegal/unethical doings, how do you leave the field, how should you be expected to give back to your subjects?


Agar, M. 1994. Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: Morrow.

Bullis, C. and B.W. Bach. 1989. “Socialization Turning Points: An Examination of Change in Organizational Identification.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 53: 273-293.

Burke, K. 1989. Symbols and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

deCerteau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Denzin, N.K. 1996. Interpretive Ethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NJ: Anchor/Doubleday.

Goffman, E. 1967. Interaction Ritual. Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin.

Goffman, E. 1980. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goodall, H.L. 1991. Living the Rock N Roll Mystery: Reading Context, Self, and Others as Clues. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hall, S. 1997. Representation and the Media. Video (55 minus.). Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

Jackson, M. 1989. Paths Toward a Clearing. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Sahlins, M. 1976. Cultural and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sanjeck, R. 1990. Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. 1969. The Ritual Process. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Van Maanen, J 1988 —- missing cite.

Van Maanen, J. 1995. Representation in Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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