Ethnographic Writing: A Polyphonic Approach


Thursday, March 5, 2020, 4 – 5 pm, 104 Van Hise Hall


In this presentation we consider how the written word may (or may not) adequately represent the multi-sensory experience of ethnographic observation. Adopting an approach to writing ethnography that is at once polyphonic and poetic, the authors propose that the written word continues to earn its place in the representation of social life. The presentation reports outcomes of a four-year ethnographic research project, which was a collaboration between academic researchers, non-academic partners, and community stakeholders in the UK. The aim of the project was to understand how people communicate across diverse languages and cultures. The interdisciplinary research project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The research team looked closely and over time at language practices in public and private settings in four different research sites in each of four cities, including small businesses, libraries, community sport settings, and legal advice centres.

The presentation reports research in a city market, invoking the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and textures of the market hall. It interprets the voices of people buying and selling meat and fish, joking, teasing, mocking, haggling, communicating with each other by whatever means possible. The talk also represents research in an advice service in a city community centre, as workers move in and out of translation zones, mediating for whoever comes through the door, translating not only language, but the bureaucratic discourse of institutions, regulations, systems, and processes. Their role as translators stretches far beyond the transfer of meanings from one language to another. They are legal advisors, counsellors, advocates, mediators, and much more.

The presentation reimagines ethnographic writing as a means of interpreting and representing the complexity of urban social life. The authors conclude that a polyphonic approach to ethnographic writing questions the authority of the single voice of the ethnographer, and moves towards a representation of complexity and diversity.