I’m Supposed to Be Writing an Ethnography. What Now?

By ERICK PILLER

I recommend that you divide your ethnography into sections with unique headings. Writing in sections will break down the big, intimidating task of writing your ethnography into smaller, more manageable chunks. Plus, it will make it easier for the reader to understand what you’re doing and focusing on at any given moment.

Here are some possible sections that you might include—or, alternatively, some information that you might add to sections that you already have:

  • You should spend some time on the background of your community: make it very clear to the reader what your community is, along with any other necessary contextual information.
  • You might (but don’t have to!) also discuss your own preconceptions coming into the project: what did you believe and how much did you know about your community before you started researching it? Later, you can tell your reader whether your preconceptions were right or wrong.
  • Primarily, you will be describing your community, but you might also devote some space to comparing your community to other communities. A recognition of how your community is different from others will help your reader to better understand it.
  • A similar, but slightly different angle that you might also take: how do people outside of your community view the community and its members? To what extent are these popular perceptions correct or incorrect, justified or unjustified? Likewise, is there any scholarly research on your community (or a community like it)? If so, bring that research into your ethnography! You might even find that your observations lead you to different conclusions, causing you to disagree with the scholar’s (or scholars’) arguments and assumptions.
  • Because the members of your community likely won’t be homogeneous, you should think about the different types of members of your community. And then, of course, think about how these different types of community members interact with one another.
  • You might look into how your community has changed over time—and why it has changed. Similarly, how and why did the community form?
  • Is there some community event that you were able to observe? If so, describe that event and explain its significance to the community as a whole.
  • If you can, try to argue why your study of this community is significant in general, beyond the fact that it gives insights into the community itself. Some of this discussion would be in your introduction and conclusion. You can write those sections last! You might not have a firm grasp of your “argument”—if you have one—until you’ve already written a big chunk of the body of your ethnography.
  • Remember that you’re not only describing—you’ll also be quoting from interviews, community texts, and outside sources and engaging in various forms of analysis, such as ritual or artifact analyses.

I want to emphasize that you don’t have to do all of these things that I’ve listed. They’re just possibilities of aspects of your community that you might write about, meant to help you if you’re short on ideas or don’t know where to start.

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