Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, Second Edition / Edition 2

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For more than twenty years, John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field has been a definitive reference and guide for students, scholars, and practitioners of ethnography and beyond. Originally published in 1988, it was the one of the first works to detail and critically analyze the various styles and narrative conventions associated with written representations of culture. This is a book about the deskwork of fieldwork and the various ways culture is put forth in print. The core of the work is an extended discussion and illustration of three forms or genres of cultural representation—realist tales, confessional tales, and impressionist tales. The novel issues raised in Tales concern authorial voice, style, truth, objectivity, and point-of-view. Over the years, the work has both reflected and shaped changes in the field of ethnography.

In this second edition, Van Maanen’s substantial new Epilogue charts and illuminates changes in the field since the book’s first publication. Refreshingly humorous and accessible, Tales of the Field remains an invaluable introduction to novices learning the trade of fieldwork and a cornerstone of reference for veteran ethnographers.  

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Meet the Author

John Van Maanen is the Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management and professor of organization studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of numerous books.

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Tales of the Field

On Writing Ethnography

By John Van Maanen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-84964-5


Fieldwork, Culture, and Ethnography

If ethnography produces cultural interpretations through intense research experience, how is such unruly experience transformed into an authoritative written account? How, precisely, is a garrulous, overdetermined, cross-cultural encounter, shot through with power relations and personal cross purposes circumscribed as an adequate version of a more-or-less discrete "otherworld," composed by an individual author? James Clifford

An ethnography is written representation of a culture (or selected aspects of a culture). It carries quite serious intellectual and moral responsibilities, for the images of others inscribed in writing are most assuredly not neutral. Ethnographic writings can and do inform human conduct and judgment in innumerable ways by pointing to the choices and restrictions that reside at the very heart of social life. My intention in this monograph is to organize and bring to light some often overlooked narrative conventions of ethnography so that different modes of cultural portraiture can be identified, appreciated, compared, and perhaps improved.

This is not a book, therefore, about the method of ethnography (fieldwork) or about its subject (culture). Both are vital notions, of course, because when married in an ethnography they form something of a conceptual union. To be sure, ethnography has a long history, and its techniques, goals, and representational styles mean different things, not always complementary, to its many curious readers. These matters will be covered in due course. But let us first consider what ethnography ties together—fieldwork and culture—as well as the knot itself.

Scribes and Tribes Together

Fieldwork is one answer—some say the best—to the question of how the understanding of others, close or distant, is achieved. Fieldwork usually means living with and living like those who are studied. In its broadest, most conventional sense, fieldwork demands the full-time involvement of a researcher over a lengthy period of time (typically unspecified) and consists mostly of ongoing interaction with the human targets of study on their home ground. In print, the research is presented as occasionally boring, sometimes exciting, but virtually always self-transforming as the fieldworker comes to regard an initially strange and unfamiliar place and people in increasingly familiar and confident ways.

Fieldworkers represent themselves as "marginal natives" (Freilich, 1970) or "professional strangers" (Agar, 1980) who, as "self-reliant loners" (Lofland, 1974) or "self-denying emissaries" (Boon, 1982) bring forth a cultural account, an ethnography, from the social setting studied. While there are undoubtedly cases where fieldworkers fail to achieve a status among the studied better than "dull visitors," "meddlesome busybodies," "hopeless dummies," "social creeps," "anthrofoologists," "management spies," or "government dupes," fieldworkers themselves, by reference to the massive amounts of experience they accumulate in the field and the attention they pay to the role relations that emerge, are sure to present their stay as highly instructive.

To do fieldwork apparently requires some of the instincts of an exile, for the fieldworker typically arrives at the place of study without much of an introduction and knowing few people, if any. Fieldworkers, it seems, learn to move among strangers while holding themselves in readiness for episodes of embarrassment, affection, misfortune, partial or vague revelation, deceit, confusion, isolation, warmth, adventure, fear, concealment, pleasure, surprise, insult, and always possible deportation. Accident and happenstance shapes fieldworkers' studies as much as planning or foresight; numbing routine as much as living theatre; impulse as much as rational choice; mistaken judgments as much as accurate ones. This may not be the way fieldwork is reported, but it is the way it is done.

What I mean by fieldwork is the stiff, precise, probably too visual, but nonetheless double-edged notion of participant-observation. This is less a definition for a method than it is an amorphous representation of the researcher's situation during a study. Whether or not the fieldworker ever really does "get away" in a conceptual sense is becoming increasingly problematic, but physical displacement is a requirement. The method reflects a bedrock assumption held historically by fieldworkers that "experience" underlies all understanding of social life (Penniman, 1974; Rock, 1979; Georges and Jones, 1980). Fieldwork asks the researcher, as far as possible, to share firsthand the environment, problems, background, language, rituals, and social relations of a more-or-less bounded and specified group of people. The belief is that by means of such sharing, a rich, concrete, complex, and hence truthful account of the social world being studied is possible. Fieldwork is then a means to an end.

The ends of fieldwork involve the catchall idea of culture; a concept as stimulating, productive, yet fuzzy to fieldworkers and their readers as the notion of life is for biologists and their readers. Culture is akin to a black hole that allows no light to escape. The observer knows of culture's presence not by looking, but only by conjecture, inference, and a great deal of faith (Wagner, 1981; Sperber, 1974). Culture, while certainly a cosmic idea, is nonetheless expressed in some down-to-earth ways. In currently fashionable form, culture refers to the knowledge members ("natives") of a given group are thought to more or less share; knowledge of the sort that is said to inform, embed, shape, and account for the routine and not-so-routine activities of the members of the culture (Conklin, 1968; Becker, 1980; Swidler, 1986). It is necessarily a loose, slippery concept, since it is anything but unchanging. Culture is neither prison nor monolith. Nor, of course, is it tangible. A culture is expressed (or constituted) only by the actions and words of its members and must be interpreted by, not given to, a fieldworker. To portray culture requires the fieldworker to hear, to see, and, most important for our purposes, to write of what was presumably witnessed and understood during a stay in the field. Culture is not itself visible, but is made visible only through its representation.

This is what makes the study of culture so sticky. Human culture is not something to be caged for display, put on a slide for inspection, read from an instrument, or hung on a wall for viewing. The fieldworker must display culture in a narrative, a written report of the fieldwork experience in self-consciously selected words. Ethnography is the result of fieldwork, but it is the written report that must represent the culture, not the fieldwork itself. Ethnography as a written product, then, has a degree of independence (how culture is portrayed) from the fieldwork on which it is based (how culture is known). Writing an ethnography is office-work or deskwork, not fieldwork (Marcus, 1980).

The Limits of Ethnography

Ethnographies join culture and fieldwork. In a sense, they sit between two worlds or systems of meaning—the world of the ethnographer (and readers) and the world of cultural members (also, increasingly, readers, although not the targeted ones). Ethnographies are documents that pose questions at the margins between two cultures. They necessarily decode one culture while recoding it for another (Barthes, 1972). This is an interpretive act that occurs with the writing of texts, and as with any form of writing, certain constraints partially determine what is written. Some very general ones follow.

Ethnographies are obviously experientially driven, in that writers seek to draw directly from their fieldwork in the culture of study. Yet there are very real limits to what a particular fieldworker can and cannot learn in a given setting. Much has been written on how the personal characteristics and working habits of fieldworkers mediate the cultural scenes that unfold in their presence. Women (or men) in the field, for example, find some doors open more readily than others (Golde, 1970; Warren and Rasmussen, 1977). Rapport with certain informants may preclude it with others (Berreman, 1962). Fieldworkers in some settings are granted relatively rapid access to culturally sacred matters; in other settings they will learn nothing about them unless they devote their professional careers to such a pursuit (Clifford, 1983b). Fieldworkers may present themselves as delicately lurking, working, and getting results, but the results they achieve are always experientially contingent and highly variable by setting and by person.

Ethnographies are politically mediated, since the power of one group to represent another is always involved. Fieldworkers are typically one up on those they study (Nader, 1972). Moreover, sponsors (or lack thereof) suggest and enforce domains for "proper" ethnographic work. The practical worlds of budgets, scholarly interests, and academic politics all attach themselves to fieldwork. Insight into how to shake a grant from the Giving Tree may be far more important to understanding why one group instead of another is investigated. Most crucially, ethnography irrevocably influences the interests and lives of the people represented in them—individually and collectively, for better or worse. Writers know this, and self-imposed limits mark all ethnographies.

Ethnographies are shaped as well by the specific traditions and disciplines from which they are launched. These institutional matters affect the current theoretical position an author takes (or resists) regarding such things as the origins of culture, its characteristic forms, and its consequences (Clifford, 1983a). Such pre-text assumptions help determine what a fieldworker will find interesting and hence see, hear, and eventually write (Davis, 1971). Exotic-mongering ethnographies of a remote but romantic wind-rustling-through-the-palm-trees kind are, for instance, out of favor these disenchanted days, replaced, by and large, with more focused, technical, cold, and puzzle-solving varieties (Kuper, 1977). More general intellectual trends are also relevant to the writing of ethnography. Along these lines, the number of deconstruction workers and structural architects employed in the ethnographic trades is on the rise (Geertz, 1983; Marcus and Fischer, 1986).

The narrative and rhetorical conventions assumed by a writer also shape ethnography. Ways of personal expression, choice of metaphor, figurative allusions, semantics, decorative phrasing or plain speaking, textual organization, and so on all work to structure a cultural portrait in particular ways. Style is just as much a matter of choice when the experimentalist writes in a self-conscious, hyper-realistic, attention-grabbing dots-and-dashes fashion—where, for instance, ellipses are used to simulate (and stimulate) the effect of a ... skipped heartbeat—as when the traditionalist falls back on the neutral, pale-beige, just-the-facts fashion of scientific reporting. Some styles are, at any given time, more acceptable in ethnographic circles than others. These are the ones that most powerfully fix our understanding of what a culture is and what it is not—our own and others.

Finally, all these ethnographic conventions are historically situated and change over time. Only during the first third of this century did ethnography itself become a recognizable topical and literary genre set off from similar written products such as travel-and-adventure stories, fiction, biography, social history, journalism, statistical surveys, and cultural speculation (Clifford, 1983a; Marcus and Fischer, 1986). Shifts within ethnography occur when, for example, new faces enter the field, novel problems are put forth, funding patterns change, or, of special interest here, new narrative styles develop as older ones fade and become somehow less convincing and true. These changes may be gradual and may pass without notice, or they may shock and awaken slumbering writers and readers of ethnography unprepared for the blurring or overthrow of previously uncontested ways of doing things.

My concern is primarily with the narrative and rhetorical conventions surrounding ethnography and secondarily with the historical. Whenever possible I ignore the experiential, political, personal, and institutional conventions. This is a choice that certainly restricts what I propose to say here (said, once, twice, thrice). But it is a choice that allows me a degree of tranquility in not having to gaze too far afield. More to the point perhaps, a good deal of critical analysis has been directed at other ethnographic conventions (particularly the experiential). My choice at least has some novelty on its side.

What I propose to show in this monograph is simply that the joining of fieldwork and culture in an ethnography entails far more than merely writing up the results culled from making friends, staying sane and healthy, worming one's way into back regions, and taking good notes in the field. Among social scientists there is a rather persistent conviction that the problems of ethnography are merely those of access, intimacy, sharp ears and eyes, good habits of recording, and so forth. It is not a straightforward matter, however, because a culture or a cultural practice is as much created by the writing (i.e., it is intangible and can only be put into words) as it determines the writing itself (Wagner, 1981). To suggest otherwise reduces ethnography to method.

Method is, to be sure, a problem. But even when it is said to be more or less overcome, the fieldworker must still put into words what was learned of a culture so that a representation of sorts may result. An ethnography is a means of representation. Yet any claim to directly link fieldwork (and the immediacy of its experience) to the ethnography itself, unmediated or untransformed by narrative conventions, will not hold. No transparency theory can be confirmed by ethnography.


Most of the intellectual hopscotch that follows is about how social reality is presented, not known. Culture is not strictly speaking a scientific object, but is created, as is the reader's view of it, by the active construction of a text. While distinctive authorial voices are heard in more literary and innovative cultural accounts, all ethnographic writers make use of discernible rhetorical and narrative conventions when putting into words the presumed results of fieldwork experience. These words are the matters of my concern.

There are five chapters that carry this concern. Chapter 2 takes up, in breathless fashion, the emergence of contemporary fieldwork and considers what various readers of its written products have come to more or less expect. The following three chapters are the heart of the book. Each presents the narrative conventions that define a particular type of ethnographic tale, offers a few examples, and suggests some of the pressing problems writers of the genre face when attempting to establish their tale as accurate, authentic, and authoritative.

Chapter 3 deals with the most familiar form of ethnography—Realist Tales. These tales provide a rather direct, matter-of-fact portrait of a studied culture, unclouded by much concern for how the fieldworker produced such a portrait. Confessional Tales are addressed in chapter 4 and provide sharp contrast to their realist counterpart. As the name implies, confessional tales focus far more on the fieldworker than on the culture studied. Both of these forms are distinct from the Impressionist Tales of the field covered in chapter 5. These tales are personalized accounts of fleeting moments of fieldwork cast in dramatic form; they therefore carry elements of both realist and confessional writing.

Chapter 6 concludes the book by giving passing mention to several other kinds of ethnographic tales. These tales are grouped under four headings—Critical, Formal, Literary, and Jointly-told Tales. Put candidly, these are residual categories of ethnographic writing (quasi ethnographies) formulated largely so that my house of ethnographic classification can be ritually swept clean.

My use of the folksy term "tales" to refer to ethnographic writing may seem somewhat curious to readers. I use the term quite self-consciously to highlight the presentational or, more properly, representational qualities of all fieldwork writing. It is a term meant to draw attention to the inherent story-like character of fieldwork accounts, as well as to the inevitable choices made by an author when composing an ethnographic work. This does not, of course, imply that ethnography is mere fiction or that the whole world must be put between quotation marks. I only mean that writing is something writers do, and it stands at least one-off from what is written about. There is no direct correspondence between the world as experienced and the world as conveyed in a text, any more than there is a direct correspondence between the observer and the observed.


Excerpted from Tales of the Field by John Van Maanen. Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Fieldwork, Culture, and Ethnography
2. In Pursuit of Culture
3. Realist Tales
4. Confessional Tales
5. Impressionist Tales
6. Fieldwork, Culture, and Ethnography
Revisited Epilogue

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