Understand and value the subjective nature of ethnographic interpretation.
The ethnographic research design involves a number of unique considerations toward the end of the project. Chronologically, the first of these concerns is deciding when to stop conducting field work. Logically, the more time you are able to spend in the field, the stronger your data are likely to be and therefore the stronger your understanding and interpretation of the culture.
Know When to Leave the Field
Eventually you must stop acquiring data and begin interpreting them. This does not mean that field research has to stop in order for the report to be written. In fact, sometimes ethnographers go back and forth between the writing desk and their field work. Some researchers even write their reports while still in the field. But, as someone who is likely to be new to ethnography, you should plan to essentially retire from the culture you are studying at least two weeks ahead of the date when you plan to submit your report. Even though you should be generating writing as you go, the amount of time it takes to sort your data and compose an interesting, thoughtful, and carefully composed paper is significant.
Allow for enough time to change directions in your writing or to seek some advice from your peers, informants, or instructor. You also should consider that the process of sorting through the data you have created can encroach on the time you have allowed for the actual composing of the paper.
Identify Major Interpretive Themes
Ultimately, what have you learned as a result of conducting the ethnographic research? What story can you tell that will accurately and compellingly depict the lives and struggles of community members?
When you are attempting to make sense of observations, you will need to guard against the human tendency to form patterns too quickly and then look for confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming evidence. Of course, you ultimately cannot escape your own selective and subjective perception of reality, yet you can try to be as objective as possible by checking your version of reality against what other people in the community have to say.You can best begin analyzing and organizing your final report by rereading your chronological record of field notes. As you review, look for recurring behaviors, attitudes, and themes. For example, if you were conducting an ethnography that examines students’ attitudes regarding a large lecture course and you heard several students make similar comments—such as “I have no idea what the professor is talking about, but there’s no way I’m going to ask any questions. I don’t want to look stupid”—then you might posit a theme: Students are afraid of looking silly by asking questions in large groups. Over time, you could check the validity of this theme against what other people in the community say or suggest by their actions. In addition, other themes might emerge. For example, when you discuss the course with several students, they may tell you they have heard that the teacher has been using the same lecture notes for years and that it’s best to study the course text carefully and mostly ignore the lectures—all but the last three before each test—in order to get good grades. The ethnographer could then take these two themes and posit a pattern: Students’ drive to earn a good grade encourages them to be quiet and ignore most of the professor’s lectures.
If Ethnographies Are Completely Subjective, What’s the Use?
Virtually every nightly news program includes some coverage of the President’s daily activities. We often see him walking across the White House lawn or making a speech or shaking hands with an international figure. Often it is assumed that journalists, such as the ones who create the evening news, only report “the facts.” By appearing to only present “facts,” journalists give the impression that they are objective, that no bias affects their reporting. Of course, they are not completely objective: The decision to report some “facts” and not others involves subjective decisions. But more importantly, the audience doesn’t want only “facts”: They also want interpretation and explanation. We don’t want to watch footage of the President shaking hands and not have someone try to explain what the event might mean. We don’t want to read a story about an upcoming vote on an important bill and not also consider what the repercussions might be.
“Conclude Your Work” was written by Joseph M. Moxley
Be Honest About Observations
Professional journalism has strict codes, which try to insure that their audience is not misled. Ethnographers are involved in a similar situation: they report their observations as objectively and honestly as possible, but they also explain what their discoveries might mean. In other words, ethnography inherently involves a weaving of observation and interpretation.
As with journalists, ethnographers should employ the utmost integrity in order to insure that their audience is not misled. When an ethnographer feels the need to interpret the observations he has witnessed, he wants to be sure that his interpretation is based upon as many pieces of evidence as possible. It is important to allow the ethnography to formulate such interpretations. For example, we don’t want to read a bunch of facts about the size
and frequency of Balinese cockfighting bets without also reading an analysis of what they could possibly mean.
Observation vs. Interpretation
As an ethnographer you must be aware of the distinction between observation and an interpretation. An observation is an occurrence that is witnessed by one or more people. For example, in Geertz’s article the observation is Geertz’s declaration that “this is clearly serious gambling” is an interpretation. Even though his interpretation is written emphatically, and even though we might agree with his interpretation, nonetheless, it is not something that a group of people who were watching the cockfight would agree they definitely observed.
Base Interpretations on Multiple Observations
The ethnographer’s goal is to base interpretations on as many observations as possible. Remember, ethnography is a research design that is based upon both description and interpretation. If you can make an observation that you think is important but cannot fully interpret, don’t hesitate to include it with an explanation. After all, readers will also be conducting interpretations of your study, and they can also benefit from as many observations as possible. Likewise, if you have a strong feeling about an interpretation you would like to offer, but your data may be currently incomplete, you can still include your commentary as long as you explain the situation.
In essence you should judiciously weave together both observation and interpretation, alternating them in order to create variety in your writing and maintain the readers’ interest.