Richard P. Horwitz

E-mail: Richard-Horwitz@uiowa.edu
WWWeb: http://myweb.uiowa.edu/rhorwitz

Copyright © 2020
A version of this essay also appears in
When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography
ed. Caroline B. Brettell (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1993), pp. 31-43 .

Fieldwork for a scholar in anthropology, sociology, or folklore can greatly resemble everyday life for most everyone else. In many ways, it is a simple matter. You visit a setting, register surprises, venture generalizations, contrast them with others you have read or recall, and write it up. You tell a story. Of course, the sorts of generalizations and stories that interest academics are apt to estrange a novice. But when considered in the abstract, the process and the report, both known as "ethnography," could easily be mistaken for a trip to Amish country or Disneyworld and a letter home. Given the resemblance, friends find it hard to believe that ethnography requires training or merits professorial compensation, much less angst-ridden methodology. But a vast, diverse literature on the subject has grown particularly tortured of late.

At stake, supposedly, is how ethnography ought to be done, written or read in a world that is imperfect enough to demand a response. There is widespread agreement that the world is unjust, but there is little consensus on the reason or the sort of response that fact requires. The arguments often feature cautionary tales about relations between traditional ethnography and the real world, particularly about the ways that ethnographers as authors have tended to ally with ignoramuses or oppressors. This is but one urgency in the debate.1 So, I ask, how do we form better alliances? If ethnographic stories really are to be worth telling and hearing, what kinds of stories, whose story, should be told? Who decides? How, in short, should ethnography be authored?

Those are, at least, the questions I tend to bring both to the literature and to the field. Reflective ethnographers and informants often claim my attention in the name of other urgencies: affection, science or liberation struggle, utopian, cynical or realistic schemes, remedies for some more important agenda, ours or someone else's. Clearly, I cannot respond to all such pressures here. I have three more modest aims. First, I aim to sort out some key positions that claim ethnographers' attention. In particular, I will identify two kinds of stories about authoring ethnography that seem also to distinguish two, fairly discrete bodies of literature -- "theory" and "ethics." Second, I will outline some compromises between the two that I have found necessary and desirable to strike while in the field. And third, I will introduce an example from my own field experience that is consistent with the principles of compromise but that remains profoundly troubling. The closing example, then, is also just a story, but it is intended to be a kind of parable, a narrative enactment of problems that defy codified solution even as they urgently invite us to try.

The story begins, though, with a particular version of the problem of ethnographic authority. By "the problem" I mean -- how can I conduct fieldwork and write it up so as to fulfill my responsibilities to informants, readers, and myself? How can I help construct representations and criticism that these parties can agree to live with, that matter for reasons that at least the perpetrators can defend? In short, how should I contribute to ethnography that is just?

Several feminist scholars, in particular, have placed this version of the problem near the center of a challenge to ethnographic traditions and experimental alternatives.2 Despite great differences among their analyses, they tend to agree that sexism must be critically engaged in confronting the real world. Substantive recommendations for fieldworkers range from adding gender to the list of standard subjects for hard-nosed research to replacing hard-nosed research itself with less phallocentric designs. Regardless, they converge in using an analysis of gender to integrate a critique of the world and a critique of ethnography. Much of the rest of recent writing about the nature of ethnography and field experience avows very different, even conflicting advice. Nevertheless, nearly all of it can be read/recalled as if it implied an answer to my question -- how should ethnography be authored? -- or at least recommended a serviceable solution in practice. The solutions tend to be of two very broad types.

First, there is a type characteristic of what we might call "(reflexive, post-modern, rhetorical, ethnographic . . .) theory."3 This literature is probably the one most immediately implicated in my title. It includes the bulk of writing since about 1970 that has taken as its subject the history, rhetoric, and poetics of ethnography and post-modern representation more generally. Its followers are a diverse lot, though academic colleagues and competitors often consider them a kind of cult. Names such as Howard Becker, James Clifford, Clifford Geertz, Henry Glassie, George Marcus, Frances Mascia-Lees, Barbara Myerhoff, Paul Rabinow, Michelle and Renato Rosaldo, Dan Rose, Dorothy Smith, Stephen Tyler, and Steve Woolgar come to mind. Some are building a simple catalogue of ethnographic strategies; others a new branch of critical poetics, a warrant for culture criticism, or an end to patriarchy and imperialism. Nevertheless, these authors tend to cite each other enough to be considered a school of thought, a loose band of social scientists who read Derrida (or at least Booth) and humanists who read Durkheim (or at least Geertz). As one of them recently joked, their scholarship is distinctly "high in fiber, low in content."4 The joke plays on the suspicion of detractors that theorists produce more pages of professional self-flagellation than of substantive field reports. Narratives outnumber rituals, and tropes outnumber traits.

Despite their differences (including arguments over the reading I propose), I think most "theory" can be read as a set of stories with a single moral, in particular, a moral that counsels ethnographers to "decenter" authority. A common foil is "realism," an omniscient narrator's account of generic others locked in an eternal present: "The Wuba-Wuba prepare for harvest with cross-cousin gift exchange. . . ." Instead, theorists suggest, ethnography should be offered as a negotiated agreement, play, polyphony, or dialogue among the ethnographer, the subjects, and the readers. Or the aim should be an unabashed monologue by an ethnographer/narrator who challenges the reader to beware of authorial artifice. Or the aim should be translation, the subjects' monologue which the ethnographer empowers through inscription. Or the narrator, amidst punctuating confessions, should fill pages with elegant, evocative raw stuff, everyday talk and events. By some accounts the result is a representation that empowers its subjects; by others one that deconstructs itself. In any case, one can usually infer that there is a more or less "correct" way to narrate ethnography that can be built into the narrative itself.5 In theory, decentered authors are a preferred response to monopoly capitalism, patriarchy, and post-modernism.

A second set of solutions and recommendations comes from the literature on "fieldwork ethics."6 In this case, too, differences of opinion can be extreme and some participants would likely object to the norms that I read into it. But also in this case it is easy to posit a school of thought and a creed. Most professional associations have an ethics committee and endorse a written code. For example, the membership of the American Anthropological Association has approved "General Principles of Professional Responsibility," and the AAA newsletter and sundry essays provide Talmudic commentary on their application in the field.7 Some of these rules are now among the federal regulations which bind scholars as employees of tax-exempt educational institutions in the United States.8

Of course, many of these codes, commentaries, and regulations have nothing to do with authoring ethnography, but some of them quite explicitly do. Most codes feature directions for identifying and adjudicating potentially conflicting interests of producers, subjects, and consumers of ethnography. For example, authors are required to protect their subjects by assuring that participation is informed, voluntary, and anonymous. Readers are due a full, candid account of what the ethnographer has learned. And at least in anthropology, given a conflict among these parties, the subjects should prevail.

As commentators note, conflicts among these standards (including those on how to manage conflict) are, in fact, routine. In a long-term project, for example, how can an informant be at once guaranteed anonymity and be sufficiently identifiable to be allowed later to withdraw from participation? If behavior is only recorded in aggregate in 1990, how can variables be disaggregated in 1995 to remove a case? How can one informant receive credit for participation when his close associate demands anonymity or when, after publication, he changes his mind? How can rights of readers be protected when they are not party to the contracts binding fieldworker and subject? What happens to the public's right-to-know or the ethnographer's right to speak when an informant insists on a self-serving lie?

Such contradictions are hardly news to fieldworkers. They are part of day-to-day life, grist for yet more commentary and insufferable meetings of Human Subjects Review Committees. In the end, you do the best you can. If successful, you muddle through and no one notices. If not, someone feels wronged, maybe even hauls you into court. No matter how such challenges are resolved, when viewed in terms of "ethics" the author is considered a singular, responsible being. Although ideally decentered in theory, authors are powerfully centered in the literature and jurisprudence of field ethics.

Yet, there are important bridges between the works that I place in two piles, theory and ethics. Both tend to affirm that authoring ethnography is a valuable, socially complex act. They tend to share a cautionary flavor, emphasizing potentials for abuse of authority either through failure to share knowledge with readers or failure to protect the interests of subjects. Both grudgingly acknowledge the importance of practical circumstance and the limits of norms and regulations for preventing abuse.

But in one fashion or another, these two literatures should be distinguished, not only because they bind different sites, authors, and audiences, but also because they tend to address different challenges. For theorists the key circumstance is present post-modernism or phallocentric, imperial decadence. Authority appears to be an arbitrary sign, a narrative trick that an ethnographer plays on readers or that ideology plays on authors to nab their trust. Theorists, then, aim to unmask the tricks so that readers and writers will not be so easily duped by hegemonic discourse. Codes of ethics, on the other hand, tend to treat authority in more modernist terms. Authority is earned in the closing of a standard, implied contract between ethnographers, subjects and readers. Ethical commentary, then, aims to help these three parties better know, name, and arbitrate specifiable interests.

Practically speaking, then, the two literatures conflict in the ways they counsel an ethnographer to act as narrator and researcher. For example, how often should she use "I" or quote from "natives"? Should an informant be translated, paraphrased, or identified? Whose interpretation comes first or last? That is, how should various parties control what appears in print? Generally, theorists look to ethnographic texts for an answer. We can know that authority is earned (or, they might say "properly disavowed") versus abused when the text displays the right/avant garde versus wrong/canonical narrative strategy. For example, trust the ethnography that displays a convincing mix of decentering moves. In ethics, however, process is more important. For example, authority is earned when samples are representative, footnotes are in order, and release forms are signed. Narrative ideals are moot because informants are in control. Trust ethnography that has played by the rules.

Of course, also practically speaking, processes are imagined from texts, and texts can be treated as processes. Informants never have total control, and no one is utterly free to choose a narrative. In fact, at any particular moment the distinction between ethnographer and subject or text and process is difficult and perhaps undesirable to draw. Nevertheless these differences in emphasis between theory and ethics and their common promise of a just solution give me pause as I set out for the field or face a Human Subjects Review Committee. If only to satisfy the committee and keep myself out of litigation (but also to convince myself that I am not an imperialist ignoramus), I feel pressed to opt for one or the other in crafting a protocol and warrant for authoring ethnography as I do.

In response I have fashioned a serviceable protocol, a compromise. I cannot gloss all of my procedures here, much less their variations or the thinking behind each of them.9 I can say, though, that particular circumstances have been as important as my reading of the literature. For example, most of my fieldwork has been in workplaces in the United States -- shops, farms, factories, offices -- and a public university has paid the bill. So, I have sparred with hack realists on review committees and with corporate executives whose attorneys are saddled nearby. I often feel torn between my own affections and convictions as well as the demands of diverse subjects. Employers insist that I keep their cover, and employees count on me to blow it, while my own employer hedges, "Do the right thing . . . but don't say anything that will get us sued!" Although elements of my protocol have long pedigrees in ethnography, as a whole it is unusual enough to have occasioned great difficulty in qualifying for "minimal risk" review.10

One source of the difficulty is well known among qualitative researchers. Review committees (in consultation with university liability insurance companies) are accustomed to less improvisational designs such as controlled experiments or questionnaires. Their worries increase when they face a person like me, a critic as well as a student of culture who wants to be turned loose, not on some impoverished tropical isle, but in an office tower with its own legal department.

Their worries may also be attributable to my unusual place in the academic bureaucracy. Although affiliated with anthropology by disposition and training (e.g., my mentor at the University of Pennsylvania was Anthony Wallace), my degrees and most of my scholarly commitments are in American Studies, which is an interdisciplinary "program" rather than a "regular department" like Anthropology. I am the only member of the faculty at my university whose appointment is entirely interdisciplinary, without even paper ties to a "regular" discipline, meaning among other things an outfit with canonized procedures for protecting human subjects. Each of the social sciences has a "departmental reviewer" who is empowered by a university committee to approve protocols that fit established norms, while humanists tend to proceed without any protocol or review. Since American Studies spans the humanities and social sciences and since few Americanists have ever engaged in face-to-face research, it is unclear which norms should apply to me or if they should apply at all. My professional association, the ASA which has been in existence for about a half century and now counts about 3000 members, has never endorsed a code of field ethics.

Furthermore, the topics which I favor require unusually flexible relations with subjects. Most often I have studied cultural definitions of personhood in the United States, historic and contemporary relations among the fractured and contested identities that Americans engage. These have included studies of the relation between being "ethnic" and "American," between the "real me" and the one who is hired or goes shopping, between "the way I used to be" and "the way I've turned out." Hence, the most telling stories for me, the ones that I aim to elicit and interpret and that I aim for readers to engage, are quite personal accounts of discovering, inventing, altering or ignoring identities that are negotiated in everyday social life. With these accounts in mind, reviewers may classify my work with journalism or oral history, where sources are best identified. But since I also analyze the way institutions affect accounts, reviewers may classify it with Chicago-school sociology or traditional ethnography, where unnamed sources have been the rule.

Although my position and interests may be anomalous, the fieldwork itself is not very mysterious. I generally work a long time, six months to several years, in very unstructured (i.e., casual, friendly) contact with a small number of individuals in settings they call their own. Although I often use a tape-recorder and take notes, the sessions rarely deserve to be called anything so formal as "interviews." Informants and I rapidly vacillate between fleshing out details, confessing interests, trading interpretations of everyday life, and getting on with it. Questions and debates are improvised to weigh the significance of daily routines for the individual participant and for others who in varying degrees occupy and affect the scene. Such as they are, those exchanges generate the "data," thoroughly soiled by the occasion, including a drone of evolving explanations for my persistence and for informants' indulgence.

From notes and transcripts, I then draft a single story. The writing process is very difficult to gloss, especially given a variety of forms, ranging from reminiscence or confession to technical report. But most often I begin with a single moment, monologue, or dialogue which seems best to encapsulate what I've learned from one person. I then patch in pieces of other material that should seem "natural" (that is, fulfill readers' expectations of the form) and that should strike the informant as a faithful account of reality. Within those limits, I try to tag interpretations and explicate allusions as a reader may require. For that reason quotations and events may be altered, certainly reorganized and compressed, but the whole account is still supposed to seem true to life from the vantage of the informant, the reader I can best imagine, and me.

I then present the story, with real names, to the informant for review, inviting corrections. We edit the final draft together. These editing sessions have ranged from the most congenial to the most acrimonious encounters of my adult life.

The congenial ones, fortunately, are most common. I am grateful to informants for pointing out when I have made an innocuous mistake, over-simplified complex conditions, or taken a local variant for a defining norm or irony for comedy. The rarer and more contentious affairs center on informants' desires to appear perfect or at least likable from the vantage of every friend and crank that they can imagine in the audience. Theirs is an understandable desire, but one that may also argue both for falsifying the record and for reducing everyone to a flat character.

For example, long after the usual, extended discussions of risks and benefits and a release form was signed, I spent a week fielding late-night, panic-stricken phone calls from a key informant, a manager of a motel with second thoughts about my publishing the strategies he used in getting the maintenance men to moderate their hallway antics: "What if some housekeeper or her husband says, 'You work for THAT guy!?'. . . as if I enjoyed it. You know, even if they're wrong." I countered: "Well, those strategies ARE yours, aren't they? And they're normal with managers, right? What else would you guys be getting paid for? The piece talks about the pressures on you, too. Besides, do you think you and the maintenance men or the housekeepers and their families or, for that matter, academics who will actually read this stuff will be better off if we all pretend that we don't know these things go on?" He responded, "You mean, if they think I'm an ass hole, THEY'RE ass holes." "Yeah, I think so," I said. He bought it. Years later we remain good friends, and he tells me that the project was one of the most valuable things he ever did. Yet in this case as in others I have to acknowledge that negotiating with informants can resemble pushing them around. I still do not know what I would have done if he had not bought it.

In such cases I am torn between my respect if not affection for individual informants and my sense of professional duty as a critic of the cultures to which they/we belong. On the one hand I aim to please -- print what flatters -- but on the other to challenge -- print what "helps" even if it hurts. A key aim of my protocol is to make the textual representation of that tension not only an object of reflection but also a part of the fieldwork and writing process itself.

Three steps in particular -- collaborative editing, favoring end-point versus prior release forms, and using real names -- are among the most challenging aspects of my approach. They clearly signal ways that the theoretical literature has convinced me to break with common codes of ethics. They also challenge me to explain some of the implications of this literature to informants. Of course, given my social position and experience as a fieldworker, I still have extraordinary control over the report, and the consent of subjects in no way guarantees their empowerment. But at least I do not begin demanding a blank check. Both the informant and I have a story of what we might learn from each other, a version of its basis, and veto power over the conclusion.

In negotiating a release, I usually have to make plain the difference between facts about which we ought most easily to agree (specific things said and done) and generalizations or interpretations of them about which we might well differ. We have to talk quite concretely about those differences and how they should or should not find their way into print. Clearly, such discussions affect the editing process. In particular, informants may insist that I be a distinct, centered narrator, even, say, if I am working in such a monophonic form as autobiography. For example, one informant was so articulate about tensions in his community, that I could edit his own words to highlight a condition that, we agreed, amounted to bigotry among his middle-American neighbors. While they echoed his claim to have been accepted as "one of us," he was also known as "the Jew on Main Street." When, in the name of getting along, he objected to my publishing this contradiction as an experience he well knows, I agreed to serve as the expert narrator who unmasks it. Some of the theoretical ideals, then, begin to break down in practice. In such ways, field experience has shaped my reading of the literature as much as the other way around.

In general, I think the protocol has worked very well, or at least better than alternatives implied in ethics or theory alone. It has helped me and the people I study learn from each other and to demand the attention of readers for good reason. It is "good" because it is defensible in ways that both informants and I can articulate, including the contractual attention to process suggested in one body of literature and the textual attention to authority suggested in the other. In practical, especially micro-political terms, I claim that the protocol best enacts the spirit of both.

There are occasions, however, when the compromise has not worked so well. The troubling cases may not be a large share of the whole, but they demand attention.

The most common problems can be traced to particularly large social inequities. There are cases when informants are so vulnerable and my work so easily misappropriated that their need for protection vastly overshadows the face-to-face niceties that the protocol presumes. People on the verge of being fired or jailed should be urged to elect anonymity. They cannot be expected to share the same responsibility for authoring cultural criticism as their employers or prosecutors. For those who are so vulnerable, candor itself can be taken as a kind of arrogance, being "insubordinate" or a snitch, and the sources of reprisal may be too distant for them or for me to anticipate. Conversely, there are cases when informants are so powerful that they may too easily deflect responsibility for their acts. I have not felt compelled to negotiate the "empowerment" of lofty executives by encouraging them to don a disguise. Of course, they deserve protection like anyone else, but they are usually well-situated to protect themselves, sometimes too well. They can condescend to candor. So, protocols and theories bend in response to social inequity in the field. That seems to me neither surprising nor unfortunate.

The more interesting cases are not so easily explained and present the most difficult challenge when sitting down to edit notes and transcripts or when negotiating the final draft and release. Here I sketch just one example that suggests the limits of the compromise I have struck. Like those featured in theory and ethics, it is a cautionary tale. It may be a bit frustrating as a conclusion, since it reopens questions that scholarly articles aim, albeit tentatively, to close. I, too, am inclined to argue that I have found a solution which can codified, considered apart from the conditions that led me to it or that might discredit it, and recommended to others. The argument above begins to do so. But even going as far as I have risks implying that justice ought to be so routinized: procedures can guarantee moral engagement; rules are superior to narratives; statutes are superior to common or case law. On the contrary, such reasoning deflects attention from circumstances that ought to be kept in mind if the practice as well as the data of ethnography are to be responsive to the real world or at least our narratives about it. That is why I close unapologetically with just a story.

In this case, for reasons that will be obvious, I must discard my usual protocol and alter identifying information.

* * *

Over the course of about two years, in connection with a much larger project, I got to know a man I'll call Bill. When the interviews began, he was a wealthy, 45-year-old Euro-American, and president and owner of an entrepreneurial realty development corporation. In this and associated companies I was especially interested in the relations of business organization and practice to autobiographies of participants. How did people refer to their position in or relationship to the organization in explaining the "opportunity" they had to be "themselves"? Most of my prior work was with Bill's employees, clients, and competitors who led me to guess that he was an ego-maniacal, conniving businessman. Although they respected his success and dissociated themselves from local bigotry (e.g., "I've heard he's homosexual, but that has nothing to do with it"), nearly everyone claimed to be his victim. Since I generally liked them, I suspected that I would not like him very much. It would take some effort to give him a fair hearing, and I was determined to do so. I prepared by anticipating ways that first impressions might collude with surrounding lore to confirm a cruel stereotype. For example, I guessed that he would recount his life in the manner of Ben Franklin or Lee Iaccoca, a tale of postured humility, desperate origins left behind with common sense, luck and pluck. So in dealing directly with Bill, I was on the look out for opportunities to belie that expectation.

But, in fact, despite my invitations to digress, to complicate or at least texture his autobiography, he insisted on the flat, luck-and-pluck version. He had it down pat. In transcripts, nearly every sentence began with a prepositional phrase, precisely locating his strides over adversity to success: "On a Thursday morning in March 1971, I did X. At that time, I felt Y." His oral style alone, its jerky robotics, could account for hearers' distrust of his integrity, even if, in fact, they had little to do with his character. In print where verbal ticks are more annoying, the effect would be worse.

So, in drafting an autobiographical monologue, especially in preserving its oral flavor, I felt compelled to soften its precision. Otherwise, it might too easily lead readers to neglect the difference between oral and written tales or to mistake verbal robotics for defective character. If I didn't at least increase the proportion of "around then"s to "on that date"s, I feared it would be boring to read or be taken as a sign that I edited with an axe. To further remind readers about the pitfalls of style, to encourage the possibility of reading against the autobiography, and to implicate my active role as off-stage editor/narrator (while getting in an ironic jab on behalf of alleged victims), I also prefaced the draft with a paragraph from a realty trade magazine, raving about Bill in comically pure, Chamber-of-Commerce hyperbole. In fact, when I first gave the draft to Bill I mainly worried that he would object to the preface, either because he caught the implied insult or because he wanted to appear humble.

The worry I had for readers was that they might not learn enough about Bill or people in his position to credit the way they justify their own routines. In particular, I worried that readers might just laugh off the trail of slain adversities that Bill used to plot his course. Such a possibility could not be blamed alone on the smugness of modern readers. In fact, the experiences that were most useful to me in appreciating Bill's position did not appear in the draft.

Bill was gay, and at the time of the interviews he was in a monogamous relationship with a much younger man who, from a heterosexual perspective, played femme to Bill's butch. Although Bill avoided acknowledging his presence almost as steadfastly as local homophobes, his lover was inescapably part of the scene. While we sat in heavy leather chairs in the living room taping Bill's conquests, his lover usually darted about the kitchen doting over canapes.

Such scenes easily undercut the sour expectations with which I began. My initial understanding of his story -- a fastidious chronicle of explosive ambition -- was very much tempered by an image of him growing up in a small farm-market town in Nebraska, an unlikely place for a gay young man to find much companionship or understanding. Rigidly gendered roles still invaded his love life. His time as an entrepreneur was spent doing business with people, particularly heterosexual men, who spread ugly gossip, framing feelings toward him in terms of sexual deviance. This story, the one I told myself, was also a familiar fable of triumph over adversity but one that came closer to pathos than bathos. It may have been just as formulaic but it was at least as true and natural as the one that Bill offered, and it was certainly more useful for understanding him.

With that story in mind, Bill's compulsiveness, his rabid search for wealth and security, his manipulation of homophobic associates, seemed far more reasonable, even heroic, to me. But it also seemed to me not my place to broach the subject, at the very least because publishing his homosexuality might hurt him. At the time, in fact, lawyers were threatening to subpoena my field notes in connection with a million-dollar suit and counter-suit involving Bill. I did not think his sexuality was relevant, but I had good reason to fear that bigots would abuse documentation that he was gay. In any case, as long as I provided ample opportunities for Bill to talk about coupling, family, varieties of adversity and contrasting contexts, I felt that I had done all I could. So, in surveying his entire life story, Bill never discussed his sexuality, and I never insisted on it.

After several months, I gave Bill my draft, the tale of luck and pluck, prefaced with an ironic quotation. A week later, he gave it back to me with only two sets of comments. Bill went through the monologue and crossed out nearly all the "around then"s and without benefit of tapes or transcripts replaced every "at that time" almost precisely where it originally occurred. The other comment was from Bill's attorney. On the top of the draft in a note to Bill he wrote: "I like it, but you're even more interesting than this."

Without protest, I changed the draft according to Bill's suggestions, and he signed the release form, agreeing to be identified by name, actually more or less a formality, given his visibility in the setting and others' insistence on being named. We shook hands, and that was the end of our relationship. "His" autobiography was published as planned.

But I still worry about this resolution, this particular exercise of ethnographic authority. I wonder if the preface was too coy. I wonder if I should have argued with Bill about how his precision might read, how the robotic time markers might make him look bad. The comment from the attorney could have been a convenient prompt for suggesting revisions. I wonder if I should have renegotiated agreements with other informants who wanted to be identified (wresting more muscular authority from them) to allow me to deal with Bill more anonymously. I wonder if I should have more openly beckoned Bill out of the closet. Most of all, I wish I could discuss all of this more with Bill. But within a year of publication, both Bill and his lover died of diseases associated with AIDS.

In evaluating the authority of this account, push has already come to shove. I cannot help but feel that the compromise I struck, whatever its theoretical or ethical warrants, helped maintain the ignorance, bigotry, and hysteria associated with AIDS and homosexuality. Of course, these were not among the subjects of my research. Of course, even if I had been more assertive, Bill might have insisted they were none of my business. Of course, nothing I can do will bring him back, and we may well question if a thousand ethnographies, however centered or decentered the authority or however ethical the protocol, could help prevent such injustice or give me less reason to grieve.11 But his memory makes this story inescapably mine -- now, I hope yours, too -- to challenge the stories we tell about the shoving match that ethnographers author.


This paper germinated at the symposium, "Writing the Social Text," at the University of Maryland, April 13, 1990, and it flowered in the NEH summer workshop on "Narrative in the Human Sciences" and the associated conference, July 5-8, at the University of Iowa. I am indebted to colleagues at the symposium, the workshop, and the conference for their support, advice, and tolerance. I especially want to thank the other fellows in the narrative workshop: Mitchell G. Ash, Barbara A. Biesecker, Richard H. Brown, George J. Graham, Mary Francis HopKins, William F. Lewis, Thomas M. Lutz, David R. Maines, William Monroe, Allen Scult, and workshop directors Bruce E. Gronbeck and Michael C. McGee. None of our work would have been possible without the administrative assistance of Kate Neckerman, Lorna Olson, and Jay Semel, the research assistance of Kevin Burnett and John Sloop, and the example set by associates in the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry. Thanks are also due the workshop and conference sponsors: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Iowa (The Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, the Office of Academic Affairs, the Department of Communication Studies, and the A. Craig Baird Fund), Drake University (Center for the Humanities), and the Speech Communication Association. I also wish to acknowledge the support services provided by the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Iowa. Further editorial assistance came from Caroline B. Brettell, John Calabro, Marian Janssen, James McLeod, George Marcus, Kathleen M. Sands, John Stewart, Margery Wolf, and sundry anonymous referees.

  1. For just one of many virulent examples of the ways ethnographers and critics have taken global injustice on their shoulders, see Powers 1990. After a book reviewer who is a linguist chastises him for failing to distinguish aspirated and unaspirated Lakota affricatives, Powers responds, "Lakota speakers, whom I see as one of the major readers of Sacred Language, have been raised on orthographies inspired by whims and dictates of missionaries, federal educators, and more recently, linguists, each of which has introduced various kinds of orthographies depending on the latest phonological fad of the day."
  2. See, for example: Caplan 1988; Clough 1992; Gilligan 1982; Golde 1986; Gordon 1988; Haraway 1988; Harrison 1991; hooks 1989; McRobbie 1980; Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1989; Mies 1983; Minh-ha 1989; Modleski 1986; Reinharz 1992; M. Rosaldo 1980:389-417; Stacey 1988; Strathern 1987; and Wolf 1992.
  3. For the briefest possible introduction to recent ethnographic theory, I would recommend: Clifford 1983; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clough 1992; Marcus and Cushman 1982; Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1989; Strathern 1987; and Watson 1987.
    A basic sampler might also include: Agar 1986; Aguilar 1981; Asad 1973; Becker 1986; Bowen [Bohannan] 1964; Brady 1991; Casagrande 1960; Chock and Wyman 1986; Clifford 1988; Crapanzano 1992; Fabian 1983; Fischer 1977; Geertz 1973:3-30; Geertz 1983:19-70; Geertz 1988; Golde 1986; Gordon 1988:7-24; Gouldner 1970; Hammersley 1992; Harrison 1991; Herndl 1991; Hymes 1981; Hymes 1969; Keesing 1989; Langness and Frank 1981; Lurie 1975; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Mishler 1986; Rabinow 1985; M. Rosaldo 1980:389-417; R. Rosaldo 1989; Rose 1983:345-355; Rose 1990; Ruby 1982; Said 1978; Sangren 1988; Sanjek 1990; Shankman 1984; Smith and Kornblum 1989; Stocking 1983; Stoller 1989; Tyler 1984; Van Maanen 1988; Wolf 1992; and Woolgar 1988.
    A multidisciplinary sampler of applications/instances of such theory might begin with: Berger 1985; Crapanzano 1980; DeBuys and Harris 1990; Glassie 1982; Grottanelli 1988; Horwitz 1985; Jackson and Christian 1980; Jones 1975; Kennedy 1980; Lutz 1988; Myerhoff 1979; Narayan 1989; Peacock and Tyson 1989; Perin 1988; Rabinow 1977; Ridington 1988; Rose 1987; M. Rosaldo 1980; Saitoti 1988; Shostak 1981; Stack 1974; Stoller 1989; Stoller and Olkes 1987; and Trawick 1990.
  4. The joke/admission/accusation comes from a dialogue between an anthropologist and sociologist set in 2089 by Paul Stoller (1989:17). Clearly, Stoller is playing with a familiar caricature of contributors to recent ethnographic theory.
  5. Such inferences are in many ways easiest in the literature that is less avowedly "theoretical" and that resists generalization across time and space (e.g., in Clifford's essays on the history or rhetoric of particular ethnographies). Often this literature identifies stock moves and the ways they bespeak the particular context in which the fieldwork was completed and the temperament of the author. The common denominator or residue of a series of such analyses is often alleged to be the inherent potential of the form, which can be explained in terms of narrative theory. This process has been essentially completed in the case of "ethnographic realism" and has just begun on more "experimental" forms.
  6. For the briefest possible introduction to recent debates, I would recommend: Caplan 1988; Clough 1992; Emerson 1983:253-311; Hammersley 1992; Harrison 1991; Reinharz 1992; Sjoberg 1967; Spradley and Rynkiewich 1976; Strathern 1987; and Wolf 1992.
    "Ethics" are also a stock topic of attention in field manuals for a number of related disciplines, such as: Gorden 1975:138-174; Hammersley and Atkinson 1983:54-126; Ives 1980:82-86; Jackson 1987:259-279; or McRobbie 1980. The literature on ethics in journalism is also relevant, though a special case in the U.S. where journalists have extraordinary legal rights and duties. Humanistic social scientists might gain the most by reviewing the literature on ethics in non-fiction filmmaking. Ethical criticism of film aesthetics, poetics, objectivity, reflexivity, political-economy, and representational practices more generally date from the earliest days of the medium. A good place to start would be the collection edited by Alan Rosenthal (1988:245-341).
    See also: Becker 1967; Becker and Freidson 1964; Cassell 1978; Cassell and Wax 1980; Duster, Matza, and Wellman 1979; Galliher 1973; Langness and Frank 1981:117-155; Orlans 1973; and Rainwater and Pittman 1967.
  7. Most professional associations in the social and psychological sciences adopted formal codes of ethics in the 1960s (e.g., American Psychological Association in 1963, American Sociological Association in 1968, American Association on Mental Deficiency in 1969, Society for Research in Child Development in 1972). The American Anthropological Association adopted a rudimentary code as early as 1948 and full "Principles of Professional Responsibility" in 1971. The AAA amended the principles in November 1976, and thoroughly revised them in 1989-90. Among the differences in these versions, 1948-90, are bolder claims for the rights of subjects (vs. producers or consumers) of ethnographic texts. See Administrative Advisory Committee of the Executive Committee of the AAA 1989. The newsletter's "Ethics Column" covers interpretations of more particular cases, and division reports include yet more specialized codes.
  8. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established and continually updates "Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects." See, for example, US DHHS 1981. For an introduction to some of the attending issues in jurisprudence, see for example: Greenwald, Ryan, and Mulvihill 1982; or Hershey and Miller 1976.
  9. Their range might be suggested by contrasting two narrators of my fieldwork: the side-stage nebish in Horwitz 1987 and the bar-graph-wielding absence in Horwitz 1989. More commonly I try to combine such variations and others to effect a kind of cubism. See, for example, Horwitz 1985.
  10. Loosely speaking, a study qualifies as "minimal risk" if the procedures so resemble those of everyday life that, in agreeing to participate, a subject is not entering particularly unfamiliar or dangerous terrain. In practice most committees imagine the terrain of ordinary life to be something like the Cleaver's living room, a place with fewer surprises and less bloodshed than anyplace I've actually encountered. The payoff for qualifying as minimal risk is radically shortened red tape.
  11. Of course, too, published criticism may also help very much. See, for example: Adams 1989; Lauritsen 1989; Rappoport 1989; and Shilts 1988.

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