Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ethnography or Storytelling?

In her book My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, anthropologist Rebekah Nathan lives in a foreign community (a college dorm) for a year and studies the population.  As an anthropologist, Nathan understands what it means to write ethnography; she probably had to write at least one other during her graduate education.  The book that results from her study is not scholarly, but it is not especially personal either.  While it might have been a temptation to tell the story of her year among undergraduates as memoir, Nathan avoids this temptation, whether from professional habit or by purposeful intent.

Ethnography is one type of research that has also been used by compositionists.  Stephen North challenged the field to avoid mixing methodologies, but I wonder if that is really the problem.  Granted, our class has not yet read ethnographies written by compositionists, but my theory heading in is this: compositionists are generally attracted to the field because they love good writing--they love to read stories.  Ethnography, more than any other methodology (except for case study) reads like a story.  Without having been trained in ethnographic methods, as anthropologists like Nathan are, compositionists equate writing ethnography with telling a story.    Although they look the same, their ends are quite different.  Perhaps this is one reason that Micheal Taber found shortcomings in the ethnographies he analyzed for his thesis.

In "Thinking and Rethinking Research Methodology" (Business Communication Quarterly 9/1/96), Geoffrey Cross makes a distinction between empiricist and interpretist ethnologies.  These two categories seem to have a relationship to positivism and post-positivism in that empiricism and positivism both point toward knowledge "out there" that can be "discovered" through research; post-positivism and interpretism are more likely to see knowledge as constructed by the researcher.  Cross also points out that ethnology has different "rules" based on which discipline's version of ethnology one is examining.

Given that composition has borrowed ethnography from some discipline and does not claim to have originated it as a methodology, what should be the guidelines for compositionists who wish to perform ethnographic research?  Or should there be guidelines at all?  This takes us back to Micheal's question of generalizability.  No one disagrees that what appears to be ethnographic research in composition/literacy results in good stories.  The question becomes at what point can the story be generalized into knowledge that can be assimilated into the field and built upon?  This is the question that I hope we can move toward answering in this course.

1 comment:

  1. Your answer to this ? comes down to your epistemological assumptions