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Record Type: Review   ID: 173

Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century

Denzin, Norman K.

For those who may be fuzzy about just what ethnography is and does, let alone the interpretive ethnography of the title, might well be amazed by this book. Even though a person could only understand a tenth of it, I would recommend reading it. I’m lucky if I understand half of it, but in a sense, that is what it is about. Interpretive is apt because at base this book is how "reality" is socially constructed. That is the only indisputable "fact" we have (though many brought up at the peak of modernity in the first three quarters of this century might not be able to accept the idea. Nonetheless, the cornerstone of ethnography is reflexivity—or how the observed changes the observer at the same time that the observer changes the observed. At first blush this is a scarifying thought to some (though I and others have always found it exciting and liberating).

When I went to college ethnography was one aspect of anthropology. That may still be true, but there is a world (perhaps literally) of difference between ethnography then and now. Then ethnographers went into the "field" (i.e., the turf of first peoples around the globe), and described it in terms of primarily white patriarchal Anglo-American Newtonian and Darwinian-Freudian culture. They were there to discover the "facts." They discovered themselves but didn’t know it. They did not, except for moments, discover their subjects, and probably wouldn’t believe that if it were pointed out to them. Facts were found by objectively observing them. I doubt they could understand this was not possible to do in the case of the "other," a meaningless term also in those days. Today we have Denzin, who is Distinguished Professor of Communications and Professor of Sociology and Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of numerous books and editor (simultaneously!) of 4 professional journals and one of the preeminent leaders and trailblazers of qualitative research and inquiry. He defines ethnography as "that form of inquiry and writing that produces descriptions and accounts about the ways of life of the writer and those written about" (p. xi). This book is how the definition of ethnography came to be changed and where it is headed, for the process is not yet complete. (I should also point out that anyone who writes about anything, even if he or she only scripts it in the head, is doing interpretive ethnography.) In the introduction he outlines the book and says it is about ethnography’s "sixth moment," which is in the process of crystallizing.

In Part One the main topic is legitimization in the process in which old ways are deconstructed and new ones constructed. Part 2 offers illustrations of many experiential texts, including standpoint epistemologies, performance texts, the new journalism, the private eye, and ethnographic poetics and narratives of Self. The last part, Whose Truth?, consists of two chapters, Reading Narrative and The Sixth Moment. The first closes with "The Storied, Performance Approach to Narrative," which in effect is what people create as they live and write their EHE autobiographies.

In the Sixth Moment, he observes that the majority still side with the traditional ethnography, not the many new forms that have been burgeoning. However, he notes that the "traditional hegemonic ethnographic order ... insists on marginalizing the new, not treating it as a version of a new order of things, and always defining it as an aberrant variation of the traditional way" (p. 251). EHEs are directly involved here in that they are often (if not always) at the base of the new and initially, at least, they are not welcomed but marginalized. EHEs always spearhead new ways of being human in the world, for good or ill, depending on where the consciousness of others is/are. If they were to set the standard of the norm (which would then have to be fluid not set), the world would surely be different.

But Denzin is not shutting the door. He is opening it. He discusses "new models of truth, the ethics and epistemologies of a post pragmatist social criticism. A feminist ... communitarian moral ethic ... will be sketched and contrasted to the ethical systems that had traditionally structured ethnographic, interpretive practice" (p. 251). In the sixth moment ethnography will he founded on moral criticism, advocating "a form of participatory democracy without necessarily advocating particular solutions to particular problems" (p. 252). He views the ethnography of the near-future "as a form of radical democratic social practice" with "a feminist, communitarian, public ethnography, working hand in hand with public journalism" as an aim and practice. He points out there is no need to travel to other cultures to meet the Other. The Other is in our midst, and the "world" is here.

The heartening conception I take from this is that ethnographers will become caring persons who side with the Others they write about and whose aim is to raise the level of public caring. But I envision a seventh moment—or maybe it will be the 10th or 20th to evolve sufficiently to have a name and place in ethnography. It will be involved with a cosmic turn of humanity, an engagement with the cosmos, not necessarily physically, but morally, emotionally, and experientially. And as we realize our oneness with the cosmos, we will know in our bones our oneness with Earth and all who live on this planet, including all people and all other species. This world will be the ark in the sea of the cosmos. And ethnographers will write accounts of people’s exceptional human experiences (EHEs) and full-length EHE biographies. One aim of this future ethnography will be to analyze the themes running through these many texts to understand where we are going as we take the cosmos with us, and vice versa. This __nth moment will not need to use journalistic and cinematic methods to portray these narratives, though they could take any form, but rather, the performing arts, fiction, journalism, the media, cinema, drama, poetry, and by then, multimedia and virtual reality will portray those narratives uncovered by ethnologists that stand out from the rest in their insight, vision, and degree of caring for all.

Publisher Information:Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997. Pp. xxii + 325p. Bibl: 290-314; Chapnotes; Ind: 315-323; 4 tables
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