Five books for better ethnographic writing

The unfolding pandemic has shaken up my plans for fieldwork in West Africa. Travelling has been delayed, and, as a consequence, the pressure has risen to succeed in the field as soon as travelling is feasible.

At the same time my own drawn-out recovery period after infection has confined me to a couch for much of my workday for the past months. So I have spent time reading and re-reading books about ethnographic writing. My hope is that my next stint of fieldwork, for the project Future Migration as Present Fact, will be my best in terms of laying the groundwork for bringing the field alive through text.

Here I present five books that all engage specifically with the journey from interactions and note-taking in the field to writing texts that engage readers and convey analytical insights.

From Notes to Narrative

Writing Ethnographies That Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

The greatest strength of this book is the reflection on observation and note-taking in the field. What do you look for and jot down in order to write rich ethnographic text months or years later? I wish I had read this book as a graduate student.

Later chapters deal with the writing process, editing and the quality of text. These address important issues, but the topics are addressed in greater depth in other books (which should be the topic of a future post!). A great aspect of From Notes to Narrative is that the author combines her own experience with reflections from other ethnographers that she’s asked about note-taking and writing habits. The result is a great combination of specific advice and an ethos that there’s no silver bullet.

When writing about people, avoid the temptation to describe someone as a list of physical or emotional attributes: tall, fair, brave, outspoken, driven, etc. Instead, consider describing them in terms of their actions; show how they negotiate the vicissitudes of daily life.

CONTENTS: Introduction: Why Write Clearly? | 1. Choose a Subject You Love | 2. Put Yourself into the Data | 3. Incorporate Ethnographic Detail | 4. Describe Places and Events | 5. Integrate Your Theory | 6. Embrace Dialogue | 7. Include Images | 8. Minimize Scientism | 9. Unclutter Your Prose | 10. Master Good Grammar and Syntax | 11. Revise! | 12. Find Your Process | Conclusion

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw (Second Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2011)

The core message of this book – or at least the one that stood out to me – is that ethnographic writing should begin with a particular way of reading events in the field, or ‘envisioning scenes as written’. The route to final text goes via different forms of jottings, notes and memos — an elaborate system of text in different formats and with different functions that can seem overwhelming.

The authors lay out their recommendations in great detail, with sensitivity to logistical, technical and ethical dilemmas of ethnographic fieldwork. For instance, they discuss the challenge (and necessity) of dividing time between social interaction and secluded writing. The two activities need to be give the time and space that each requires, but without seeing them as separate, since they are mutually constitutive.

We draw four implications from our interpretive-interactionist understanding of ethnography as the inscription of participatory experience: (1) what is observed and ultimately treated as “data” or “findings” is inseparable from the observational processes; (2) in writing fieldnotes, the field researcher should give special attention to the indigenous meanings and concerns of the people studied; (3) contemporaneously written fieldnotes are an essential grounding and resource for writing broader, more coherent accounts of others’ lives and concerns; and (4) such fieldnotes should detail the social and interactional processes that make up people’s everyday lives and activities.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes is primarily a textbook for new ethnographers, and much of the content thus reiterates what more experienced fieldworkers (should) know. Still, I found it rewarding to read. The book’s pragmatic and detailed attention to the multi-dimensional challenges of fieldwork helps sharpen awareness and set priorities. This is valuable in the face of fieldwork with daunting demands for productivity and creativity in a short period of time.

CONTENTS: 1. Fieldnotes in Ethnographic Research | 2. In the Field: Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes | 3. Writing Fieldnotes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page |4. Writing Fieldnotes II: Multiple Purposes and Stylistic Options | 5. Pursuing Members’ Meanings | 6. Processing Fieldnotes: Coding and Memoing | 7. Writing an Ethnography | 8. Conclusion

Alive in the Writing

Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov

Kirin Narayan (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Narayan situates her book at the crossroads of ethnographic writing and creative nonfiction. She presents it as a hands-on guide that is suggestive rather than prescriptive, noting that her husband describes her book project to his friends as “not a how-to manual but a how-about? manual.” And Narayan’s dialogue with the more-or-less ethnographic writing of Anton Chekhov is surprisingly successful in achieving this effect.

The text is interspersed with dozens of writing prompts. Some are cleverly formulated while others feel thrown out a bit too casually. On the whole, the book is perhaps not as hands-on as the author intended. Or rather, the hands-on aspects often seem like afterthoughts. I enjoyed reading Alive in the Writing, but, tellingly, I highlighted fewer passages than in the other books presented here.

Much social scientific writing contains people within social categories or types, while fiction and creative nonfiction more commonly follow very particular individuals and their concerns. Ethnographic writing blends these perspectives in different measures, depending on the form.

The value of the particular is taken one step further in Narayan’s commentary on one of Chekhov’s ethnographic descriptions from Alexandrovsk Hard Labour Prison:

The fat, sauntering cat is a classic Chekhovian touch—the detail that seems irrelevant at first, even at odds with the tenor of the rest of the description, and yet, in that very contrast adds to the sense of a living world.

CONTENTS: Preface: Alive in the Writing | 1. Story and Theory | 2. Place | 3. Person | 4. Voice  5. Self | Postscript: Writing to Be Alive

Tales of the Field

On Writing Ethnography

John Van Maanen (Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Van Maanen lays out seven genres of ethnographic writing, focusing on what he calls realist, confessional and impressionist tales. I was immediately drawn to the last of these, which he describes as ‘tightly focused, vibrant, exact, but necessarily imaginative’ renderings of fieldwork.

While there is something fundamentally playful about Van Maanen’s account of different tales, his tone of voice often pulls in the opposite direction. For instance, it doesn’t have the intended amusing effect when he says that ‘fieldworkers without stories to tell about their adventures are unimaginable, and if found out they would surely be banished from their respective tribes.’ I enjoyed this book less than the others, not least because the prose was often stilted. Here’s another example:

To explore the analytic treatment of fieldwork epistemology is, as noted, well beyond the scope of this monograph, which is concerned primarily with clarifying and illustrating the various forms of ethnographic expression.

The second edition was published in 2011, but my understanding is that it is just a reprint of the 1988 first edition with a new prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, Van Maanen says that, re-reading the text some twenty-odd years later, he finds that ‘most of the book holds up reasonably well’ although it contains some ‘rather cringe-worthy passages’, which are left untouched.

CONTENTS: Prologue [written in 2010] | Fieldwork, Culture, and Ethnography | In Pursuit of Culture | Realist Tales | Confessional Tales | Impressionist Tales | Fieldwork, Culture, and Ethnography Revisited | Epilogue [written in 2010]

Follow the Story

How to Write Successful Nonfiction

James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Unlike the other books, this one is not specifically for ethnographers. Still, I found it highly inspiring for ethnographic writing. Stewart writes from his experience as a journalist, Wall Street Journal editor, New Yorker contributor, author of investigative nonfiction books, and lecturer at Columbia Journalism School.

Parts of the book are quite specific to journalism and the newspaper format. But mostly, the book addresses the challenges of using observation, interviews and other material to craft text that engages readers. When this is done well, Stewart writes, ‘readers absorb what they read as though they were experiencing the events themselves’.

From an ethnographic point of view, I particularly enjoyed the chapters ‘Description’ and ‘Anecdotes’ which deal with specific connections between individuals, places and events of the real world and the textual choices that represent them on the page.

After reading Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (reviewed above) and it’s call for envisioning scenes in the field as written, Stewart’s discussions about doing that in practice are illuminating.

In his chapter on anecdotes — or what ethnographers might call ‘episodes’ — Stewart gives a powerful example from one of his own books and contrasts it with a hypothetical rendering of the same event in the style he sees as typical of much non-fiction writing — a painfully realistic bleak account that could have been from an academic text. He then explains how much of the difference in the writing can be traced back to his attention to evocative detail in the initial reporting.

The difference between journalistic and ethnographic writing are very real, but I found that they were not a distraction in reading Follow the Story. On the contrary, they helped sharpen my thinking about the nature, purpose and potential of ethnographic texts.

In his recent memoir about editing American Anthropologist (AA), Michael Chibnik writes that ‘I would have been delighted to receive submissions with stylish prose and often wished that AA could regularly publish graceful and intelligent essays of the sort often found in the New Yorker.’ This wish attests to the value of reading books such as Stewart’s to strengthen ethnographic writing.

Thinking like a writer prizes the question more than the answer. It celebrates paradox, mystery, and uncertainty, recognizing that all of them contain the seeds of a potential story.

CONTENTS: Introduction | 1. Curiosity | 2. Ideas | 3. Proposals | 4. Gathering Information | 5. Leads | 6. Transitions | 7. Structure | 8. Description | 9. Dialogue | 10. Anecdotes | 11. Humor and Pathos | 12. Endings | 13. Conclusion


The five books differ in perspective and style and are worthwhile reading all together. But with limited time, it’s necessary to prioritize. The five books are really 4+1 in the sense that Follow the Story is so different from the others. The other four I would prioritize as follows:

  1. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
  2. From Notes to Narrative
  3. Alive in the Writing
  4. Tales of the Field

Then I would warmly recommend reading Follow the Story on the side, not least because it’s different point of departure fosters reflection on what ethnographic writing can or should be.