Anthropologist Rebecca Lester recently won the 2020 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing for her book, Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America. As part of #AnthroDay 2021, we reached out to Lester to ask about her advice for aspiring ethnographers. How do you write a successful ethnography? Lester shares her six tips for ethnographic writing below.
As far as advice for aspiring ethnographers, I have several guiding principles: Say what you mean and write clearly, always support your claims, work from a place of curiosity and respect, resist the imperative to have all the answers, read a lot of fiction, and accept that the process will be difficult.
Say what you mean.
Don’t make readers have to work too hard to figure out your point or your argument. It’s not a detective story where there’s a big whodunnit reveal at the end. And be mindful of the tendency to mistake impenetrability for substance. Remember that your job is to communicate something important about the material, not to spotlight how clever you are or how many big words or key theorists you know.
Connect the dots.
If you say something, be prepared to support it with the material in the pages. There’s a tendency in some recent academic writing to conflate political or moral indignation with skilled argument and to appeal to readers’ presumed shared orientations to carry the narrative. That is a cop out. The indignation may be entirely justified, and ethnography absolutely can be (and, some say, should always be) political. But no matter how right you may be, outrage is not a substitute for argument–your claims still have to be supported by what’s on the pages.
Work from a place of curiosity and respect.
By this I mean: take an intellectual and authorial position of openness and inquisitiveness rather than dismissiveness or unnecessarily vicious critique. If something seems completely ridiculous, incomprehensible, or even offensive to you, get curious about what that person’s world might be like such that their perspective would make sense to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them or giving them a “pass,” but arguments are much more effective when you engage from a position of respectful and grounded disagreement rather than reactive smack down.
Resist the imperative to have all the answers.
Become comfortable with ambiguity, incompleteness, and process. Life is messy, research is messy, and writing is messy–that’s part of what makes them worth doing. It’s ok to not know something. Bring the reader into that not knowing and make them curious about it, too, rather than trying to hide it or cover it up with artificial confidence about an argument.
Make time to read (or listen to) lots and lots of fiction, as this will help you with knowing how to recognize a good narrative arc, develop characters, conjure setting, and emotionally engage readers. Notice what you find compelling and what falls flat. Writing ethnography is telling a story with an argument. You need both pieces–the story and the argument–for good ethnographic writing.
It’s supposed to be hard.
Writing can be incredibly painful and difficult, and it’s certainly very vulnerable. Be prepared to write many, many, many drafts. Remember that the ideas often come as you write, so it doesn’t have to be perfectly conceptualized before you get to work. Expect that you will not like about 80% of what you write, but this is not wasted labor–think of it as having to get the mediocre writing out so the good writing can flow. Don’t let perfectionism paralyze you–three pages of bad writing is far better than zero pages of amazing writing.