Five Tips for Writing an Accessible Ethnography

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So you’ve written a few journal articles, jumped through a tenure hoop or two (or given up and decided it doesn’t matter), and you are sifting through research from years of fieldwork, with a view to writing an ethnography. You want to write something engaging—something people will actually enjoy reading—so you set yourself the ultimate challenge: writing for undergraduates. You dust off the transcripts of interviews, stories collected along the way, recordings, videos, photos, and primary documents you’ve meticulously archived.

What to do now? What does it mean to be “accessible” or “engaging” or “designed for classroom use”? Here’s a short list of ways to start thinking about how to transform those good intentions and that mountain of research into a classroom ethnography.

  1. Give Thought to Good Design: There are a lot of ways to design an ethnography. You can organize your material around key themes (most common), key people (less common, but often very effective), places (especially good for multi-sited fieldwork), or key cultural practices. If you want your book to be used in an undergraduate classroom, you have to think like an instructor (not an author) and ask yourself how this book would actually be integrated into a course. What would make it compelling to assign? Is it the subject matter (sex, drugs, and rock & roll)? Is it what you have uncovered (the fact that mining and ecotourism are two sides of a similar coin)? Is it the way that it helps us understand other cultures and our own (cell phone use in Papua New Guinea)? Answering these questions early on will make the rest of the work relatively easy. Hint: Research some course syllabi to see how the target courses are taught, and try to figure out how to link your research to those key topics.
  2. Tell a Story: We all respond to stories—maybe it’s because it makes information digestible. One way to ensure a book will be read, and not just skimmed, is to create a narrative that tells a compelling story. Do you have a story to tell? What is that story? Why would people care about your story in a world where so many stories compete for their time? What’s the best way to have that story unfold? A good story establishes both relevance and interest, no matter how far away it may be located. A good story also often involves interesting characters, and includes a tension of sorts, a problem or dilemma that needs to be resolved.
  3. Establish a Connection: Ethnographies that are designed for introductory-level students can often be used in upper-year courses, but the reverse is rarely true; that is, ethnographies written for upper-year and graduate students aren’t usually accessible enough for introductory-level courses. Despite what you may think, accessible doesn’t mean shying away from sophisticated concepts—but it might mean taking more time to establish connection, context, and background. Using personal examples, or inserting yourself into the story early on, is an important way of establishing a connection with your reader. Moving from there to sophisticated concepts takes time. What does the reader need to know? How does what you are telling them resonate with their own lives? Can you anticipate their questions and answer them before they get frustrated? Can you check in with them at points to remind them of important themes/concepts already raised? And how do you do this without losing their interest? Establishing a strong connection creates trust on the part of the reader; if they trust you, they will follow.
  4. Be Brief: We all know that monographs have been shrinking in size for years now. Most are now in the 200-page range. If you want a book to work in introductory-level anthropology courses, however, you need to start thinking about going even shorter. Something in the range of 50-60,000 words or 125-150 pages should be your target length. It’s a challenge, but the benefit of limits is that it forces both focus and creativity. What is really important? Try to narrow your list of 10 to a list of 3. What is the story you want to tell, and how quickly can you tell it without sacrificing richness?
  5. Think Outside and Inside the Book: Ethnography remains an important form to disseminate anthropological fieldwork, and it is certainly a form worth preserving and teaching to students. However, that doesn’t preclude some creative thinking about how we might use multimedia elements to both enhance and supplement the book. Is there a way to use audio, visual, or interactive digital technology effectively? Does that material serve an important purpose or is it window dressing? Are there assignments or activities that might supplement the book to help engage students and extend their knowledge? Are there primary documents that lend themselves to helping students both learn how to analyze research and experience that research in a different way? There is endless opportunity for creativity here. The more these forms help the reader engage with the book (and not just become an experience very separate from it), the more students will learn about the value of using variety of media to disseminate research.

Anne Brackenbury, Anthropology Editor


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