Writing an Ethnography

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“In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.”

- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

It is not only war stories that create confusion, both for their writers, and their readers, about the nature of the truth they tell. Is the truth in a “true” story what the writer experienced, or the truth of what “really” happened? If the story is about other people, is the truth what the writer sees them do, or what they think they are doing? If the writer does not know the whole truth, does the story become false?

All these questions become even more pertinent if posed about ethnographies. An ethnography is, by nature, meant to be a description of a people (the dictionary definition actually refers to “scientific description of individual cultures,” but that brings up questions about the meaning of “scientific” and “culture”). How can a people (or a culture) be described truthfully? And what is the relationship between the idealized pursuit of truth and ethical practices?

In writing an ethnography, both what the ethnographer sees (as objectively as possible) and what the people themselves say is happening must be incorporated in a reasonable manner. The people’s words must be evaluated by the ethnographer for purposeful distortion, and taken into account with that possibility in mind. Parts of the truth may be left out if they make for a story that the people being studied do not want told about themselves. Reality may be portrayed inexactly, as long as a more general truth of it is preserved—ethnographers often make use of collective characters that are combinations of several people in real life.

These general guidelines, prescribed from a 21st-century vantage poin...

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As is probably clear by now, I personally favor what I have termed the “postmodern” approach to the portrayal of truth in ethnography. I take it to be self-evident that truth is indeed always “partial and positional,” and as such think that one can never know, or portray, an absolute truth, but only what one thinks is the truth. Thus, an appropriate treatment of truth in ethnography must acknowledge the subjectivity of the ethnographer, outline social boundaries that may limit the ethnographer’s perspective, and separate the ethnographer’s interpretations from the people’s interpretations and words, but incorporate both. While in the early days of anthropology this may have led to accusations of being “unscientific,” a contemporary perspective allows me to recognize that a treatment of the truth on this manner allows for a more ethical approach to ethnography.

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