Notes on: Denzin, N (1999). Interpretive Ethnography for the Next Century. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 28 (5): 510 – 19.

Dave Harris

[More assumed progress into the next century. Lots of lists of characteristics of the new ethnography]. A suitable ethnography has to be 'simultaneously minimal, existential, autoethnographic, vulnerable, performative, and critical (510). It should 'ground the self in a sense of the sacred', connect to nature and the worldly environment so recognising 'the ethical unity of mind and nature'. The self should be embedded 'in storied histories of sacred spaces' this presumes 'a feminist moral ethic, stressing the sacredness of human life, dignity, truth telling and nonviolence' [the usual problem — what if these are contradictory? Can we rank order them? It's basically all pious virtue signalling anyway].

Behar and Jackson have been influential. They want to work outwards from moments of existential crisis that affirm the truth, that humans must have some say, some choice, and some notion of a right to be here. Human beings come together in 'interactional moments… Struggles over love, joy, shame, betrayal' where we can see mutual constitution and acceptance not violence and contempt.

'This is an ethnography that refuses abstractions [!] and high theory' it avoids jargon and large chunks of data, it sees culture 'is a complex process of improvisation', it celebrates enactment and the construction of meaning in daily lives which means it celebrates 'Autoethnography, mystories, myth and folklore' [a strange view of the noble savages of everyday life ignorant of any rational calculation]. It involves narrative as a political act — 'a minimal ethnography with political teeth', asking how power is exercised in concrete relationships. Power and empowerment both turn on scarce material resources. It is after performance texts that tell stories about 'humans experience moral community' [Durkheim here] (511).

An example from Jackson follows about an aboriginal who is visited by Jackson and his wife and two kids. They offer him ready-made cigarettes but he is offended because they throw them, and he suspects ulterior motives. This can mean that he believed white people 'were denying him some degree of control and dignity in his life' [startling insight!]

Like Jackson, Denzin wants a 'redemptive, pragmatically prophetic, existential ethnography, and vulnerable ethnography that shows us how to act morally, in solidarity, with passion, with dignity — to engage the world and its dispossessed in complementary, not competitive or destructive ways' [might as well just vote against sin]. This will connect his to other biographies, when lives connect [for some reason he chooses the example of chucking a pack of cigarettes at the aboriginal!].

He should be visible in the text. He likes Sartre's claim that there is a ' universal singular',capable of experiencing events in any historical epoch. 'This ethnography' (512) [sic — Sartre is doing ethnography!], focuses on crises in the public sphere and how culture can modifies the personal and turns into a spectacle. In this way he understands the conditions of oppression and commodification and tries to make them more visible to others. The 'moral ethnographer' is particularly interested in moments of resistance and attempts to reassert control over lives.

Another example follows, turning on critical 'interrogations of the image of the American Negro' in Park. Park thought of the Negro as '"neither an intellectual nor an idealist… Primarily an artist… The lady among the races"', but Ellison criticises this metaphor and its mixed motives, and suggests a slide away from democratic intentions to the preachings of Goebbels. Instead, 'an existential ethnography' offers cultural criticism grounded in specifics. There can be 'no value free, objective, dispassionate, value neutral account of a culture and its ways'. As the example shows, the ethnographic aesthetic and the political 'can never be neatly separated' [well old anthropology comes under criticism from modern cultural politics].

There are certain criteria for 'a critical, literary ethnography' [same as the existential ethnography? Additional criteria, just added on?]. Quoting Ford, it should 'evidence a mastery of literary craftsmanship, the art of good writing… Present a well plotted, compelling, but minimalist narrative, based on realistic, natural conversation, with a focus on memorable, recognisable characters… Located in well described "unforgettable scenes"' (513). In addition [!] It should 'articulate clearly identifiable cultural and political issues, including injustices based on the structures and meanings of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation'. Thirdly, it 'should express a politics of hope' criticising how things are and imagining 'how they could be different'. It should do all this 'through direct and indirect symbolic and rhetorical means'' such writers will be 'fully immersed in the oppressions and injustices of their time' and be 'directed to hire utopian goals' [they should be Jesus Christ].

Such work becomes vulnerable as soon as it becomes public. There is a risk in taking sides. It is not enough just to 'call for anthropology that breaks your heart' [citing Behar], or to insert the personal into the ethnographic, tell stories that move people to tears. It is not 'born of regret, fear, self-loathing and anger' but instead 'angers the reader'', challenges the reader to take action to consider 'how the moral terms of the self are constituted'. It dares to criticise the status quo using 'the particular and the personal as vehicles' [apparently Jackson openly recognises his daughters gesture throwing cigarettes at the aboriginal 'as an instance of perceived cultural prejudice' — okay, but he could have looked equally at the conditions in which aboriginals work or their alcohol dependence].

This is a modernist vulnerability [somehow on Jackson's part!]. It's the bad old division between private troubles and public issues. We make ourselves vulnerable if we make private experiences public. Behar illustrates the presence of 'a gendered multilayered self, hiding behind many masks; a self with much to lose if  too much emotion is displayed'. Does this still makes sense in a post-modern age 'when nothing is hidden or invisible', where freedom means 'there is nothing any longer left to lose, as Kris Kristopherson tells in his famous road song "Me and Bobby McGee"' [Jesus] (514). Luckily, there is a 'higher purpose' in all this, where we use our 'experiences for social criticism, for imagining new configurations of the morally sacred self'.

This sort of vulnerable and performative ethnography [new characteristics?] represents a call to action and 'morally informed social criticism'; asks the ethnographer 'to always connect good and bad stories to the circumstances of the media, to history, to culture and political economy' [what the fuck do you actually do — assumes quite an encyclopaedic knowledge, and how do we get knowledge of those circumstances exactly?]. This is a structural move which helps contextualise the story [why is that important?] — because it shows conditions that need change, 'providing the grounds for moving from the particular (the singular) to the universal' [Sartre again?]

We need to produce 'mystory accounts, multimedia, personal texts grafted into scholarly, scientific, media, and popular culture discourses' [what does 'grafted' mean exactly — it seems as vague as diffraction]. These will act as 'personal mythologies, improvised and rehearsed public performance stories'. They should 'begin with the sting of personal memory, epiphanies, and existential crises in the person's biography', then move into critical readings of various systems of discourse, 'personal, community, popular and expert' which have offered interpretations of these experiences. This will develop empowerment and help the writer claim ownership over stories previously claimed by other systems of discourse.

'The truth of these new texts is determined pragmatically, by their truth effects, by the critical, moral discourse they produce' [so most of them have failed then?] which means the empathy they generate and the exchanges of experience they enable, and how they help develop social bonds [according to Jackson again]. The point is not to try to mirror the world as it really is, because that world has already constructed through narratives. Performative ethnography tries to 'locate and represent the gendered, sacred self in its ethical relationships to nature' and this can be done through exploring other forms of writing — 'personal diaries, nature writing, and performance texts anchored in the natural world' [which closes the circle]. These texts should be written in the first person, from the point of view of the ethnographer, and 'focus on performance and experience as the sites of meaning'.

Then an example of his own set of stories, part of his project called 'Performing Montana'. [It's really a story of how they bought a cabin in Montana, what the surroundings looked like, how flowers grew in the fields, how the snowmelt created raging rivers. 'Our little corner of Montana is a sacred place… Where wonderful things happen, and they happen when we perform them' {ie walk about}. We 'bring a sacred self into place. We enact nature through the very act of walking in the forest', creating 'an embodied relationship to this natural world'. Nature enacts itself 'showing me how to be one with her' (516). Rawlins is quoted for more romantic stuff about how the wind brushes past, a bird calls, a doe and fawn step into the meadow 'and, "somewhere lawless animal's cross boundaries without a blink"'. They 'watch in wonder'as a moose appears with her young. Nelson is cited to remember that people moving in nature are never truly alone. He thinks of this while fishing illegally and watching four deer. He struggles to put words to these images. He remembers a photo of his grandparents in a park, fishing. He enjoys the mountains because he grew up on the prairies. They often flooded and these watrers were destructive, reminding humans this was not their territory. He dreams himself back into his grandfather's photo. He watches the river. He watches kayakers. He likes looking at maps of how the rivers empty into each other and this brings him back to his childhood again]

So, [in order to generate this romantic crap?] 'We must learn how to enact an enabling, interpretive ethnography that aspires to higher, sacred goals' we have to do this as we enter the 21st century, but we may not be able to meet the challenge, especially if we lack '"intelligence, humour, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect"' [quoting West].

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