The Ethnographic Society (1999)


The ‘Ethnographic Society’ at Century’s End :

Clarifying the Role of Public Ethnography (1999)


Ken Plummer

University of Essex, UK

‘Ethnography : Reflections at the Century’s Turn,’eds Donileen R.Loeske & Spencer E.Cahill. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Vol. 28 \6 December 1999[1]


The practices and arts of describing the cultures we live in have long been with us.  All cultures have their storytellers and oral traditions through which accounts of social worlds get relayed and replayed with varying degrees of ‘authenticities’. And for much of the relatively recent past, the task of telling such tales has been the charge of writers, scholars, authors, travellers: often a rather gentlemanly and genteel occupation producing distanced monologues of others’ lives. It is perhaps interesting to see Chaucer as the ethnographer of the middle ages, or Dante as the ethnographer of Florence? Certainly it is not hard to sense the role played by Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Honoré Balzac, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Orwell, Umberto Eco and many others in creating descriptive fictions out of the worlds in which they lived.

Only in the modern world, however, has that curious species of person, the ethnographer, arrived on the scene purporting through the hospitality and patronage of science to describe a culture  impartially and objectively. Ethnographies now have a genealogy and a classic corpus : I think – as probably many people would – of  Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific,  Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa,  William Whyte’s Street Corner Society, and many others. These are the classics on which social science students were brought up, and they establish an image of a ‘scientist’ type wandering into a culture of differences, hanging around the ‘campfire’ (so to speak) and bringing back home the objective field report of what it was like ‘being there’. They are elaborate ‘tell it as it is’ stories. The practices of describing the cultures we live in have entered the modern scientific age.

But now, at the turn of the twentieth century, ethnography may be taking a new twist in its fortunes, maybe even returning to its more pervasive ‘folk’ roots. For ethnography escapes the formally academic to enter the common parlance of  everyday folk. Not just in scientific tomes or great books like the past, but everywhere : in films, photos, magazines, press, television, music, dance, videos, computers, and web sites. And it comes with a variety of new names  – documentary, docudrama,  new fiction, faction, auto-ethnography, video diary, rap, performance art, photo-journalism; not to mention the television interview, the live talk shows on ‘social problems’, or the soap operas which come perilously close to day to day life.  If one writer has recently called this late modern world ‘the interview society’ and another the ‘cinematic society’, then it is at least as plausible to also call this ‘the ethnographic society’. We seem to have developed the tools with which to constantly watch, record and represent  ourselves and our ‘others’ going about the business of our lives. Indeed, through the power of the video camera we can now record our births- and our deaths! Everywhere one turns, society plays back on itself – with a proliferation of stories about its own realities, an ethnographic simulacrum. There are few nooks and crannies nowadays that have not been invaded by this ethnographic imagination.

We do not have to go anywhere near the academy or the distanced elite to seek out ethnograpy anymore : they are now the stuff of most people’s everyday lives. To take just an example from one common enough source: watching television. An evening channel hopping would soon convince of the reality of this. I can start with a version of Oprah and an audience taking me through the problems of anorexia. I can  jump to a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ docu-soap, where lives are watched by cameras as they are lived – in the Hotel, the Airport, in Paddington Green.[2] And then I can move back into a real – which is to say fictional- soap opera, dealing with many of the latest cultural concerns: from rape and terrorism to getting through the day in the pub, from marital breakdown and lesbian love affairs to AIDS. Here are the fictional lives displaying key elements of the culture at work. The programmes roll on : through a ‘documentary’ of life in an East European village under siege; a challenging drama on the murder of a young black man Stephen Lawrance which takes as its script the transcripts of a public hearing on a charge of police racism- the court text becomes the script which becomes the television re-enactment of life. Later at night, it can all become a bit more risqué : first, a self confessed roaming ‘sexual ethnography’ of one Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City, where four women reveal the sexual language and mores in New  York  City and introduce the argot of the life : ‘a toxic bachelor’, ‘a modeliser’, ‘a power flip’, ‘a serial dater’. Next comes a comedy show about sex chat lines. In the space of half an hour, I am introduced to phone sex, chat lines (having never used a sex chat line, I learnt a lot about another cultural form very rapidly), and web sites where I see sex workers  writhing around naked on beds! Should I wish, my next option is between a documentary on ‘Tranvestites and Transexuals’ or a  ‘true story ‘ of sex workers. And on, and on.

Whilst ethnography-of many spliced genres! -now stares at us from all  media forms, some social scientists have started to dramatically shift out of the objectivist gaze fondly fashioned by their predecessors. For some, postmodern ethnography – with its textual repositionings, its polyvocal texts, its loss of authorial truth, its deconstructions , ‘blurred genres’  and ‘representational crises’ –  has brought simultaneously a much more problematic reading and telling of culture. In quite startling displays of contempt for their past, some ‘new ethnographers’ (my term) invite their audiences to chant out the stories they have studied, to turn them into mini-dramas, resistance narratives, poetry, or fiction/faction. The subjective voices of the ethnographer starts not to just creep in (as it has long since done in the work of a Malinowski or a Mead),  it now starts to assume pride of place : auto-ethnography and self analysis become the aim. And a deep ‘reflexivity’ is encouraged in which  ethnographers and subjects exchange not just voices but embodied emotions. Subjects, researchers, stories, feelings, bodies, selves, truths, languages all become entwined. There is no distant, aloof, objective ‘ethnography’ after all, and certainly no all-knowing, all-wise ‘social science ethnographer’.

So just when it seems that there is a proliferation of new ethnography in new media, so some social scientists are coming to assume a more critically reflexive role. As we enter ‘the ethnographic society’, these ‘new ethnographers’ find the very reality being relayed and replayed back in so many forms to be deeply problematic. Just what is going on and what sense can be made of this at the start of a new century?

One way of seeing all this is as the blurring of ethnographic boundaries and the creation of a newish sphere of what might be called, borrowing from Norman Denzin,  ‘public ethnography’ – one which is no longer simply the domain of the expert social scientist and which carves out these descriptions for a public debate about the moral and political life of a society. New public ways of describing and telling stories about our cultures are in the making, invading the whole public sphere and becoming more and more accessible. This is partially what Richard Rorty and others were advocating a decade or more ago : that the moral life should centre less and less on what the philosphers in the academy say and more and more on debates over good stories richly told in the public sphere. No doubt social scientists of all kinds will continue to have a role to play in all this, but it is no longer one in which they can presume their superior distance. More and more they will be challenged if they do (though others may see this a ‘dumbing down!)

But we have to be careful. For, at the same time, I can clearly not be happy with these as the foundation for our moral debates. When I am watching some of the ‘trash’ on television that passes as ‘docudrama’ – and imagine the exploitation, the posing, the faking, the deceptions, the cheque book journalism, the invasions of privacies, the betrayals, even the destruction of some people’s lives – and on and on – I start to sense the need for a new role: that of the ethically skilled public ethnographer whose work should be held accountable on a number of dimensions. A public who see, hear and read ‘ethnographies’ should be increasingly tuned in to the issues that such descriptions pose; and should critically challenge those which do not meet adequate criteria.

Desperately Seeking ‘Standards’?

What is required in an ‘ethnographic society’ seems to me to be a much greater public clarification of the difficulties and role of ethnography. Put bluntly : how are citizens supposed to make sense of the ethnographies that now invade and pervade their lives? How may the watchers and the readers come to assume a more critical stance in relation to the ethnographies they may be given? And indeed, closely allied, what issues should the ethnographers themselves see as crucial to the better shaping of their work. Briefly, in a mass of ideas, here are some starting suggestions.

A first  concern is to locate any ethnography through its moral and political  dimensions. Several issues are at stake here  in both the doing and the telling of the story. Unlike ethnographers of  old who could travel to alien lands, and presume they had the right to make their study, no one any longer just has this right.  To commit ethnography nowadays requires confronting and making clear a whole panoply of ethical issues: invasion, deceptions, disclosures, betrayals, lies.  Every ethnography needs a warrant – what right have I to tell this story? ; and a credo-  what are the damages I could do, and how are they to be avoided? Although some ethnographies have instigated ethical debate – most famously Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails and Laud Humphrey’s TeaRoom Trade – ethnographies in general simply gloss over their warrant to do such work, their ethical guidelines, and their potential damages. At its bluntest, the dangers of fakery, of tabloid and check book journalism, of blatant exploitation and damage to subjects can never be far away. Readers and viewers need increasingly to scrutinise the ethnographies they encounter and demand full accountability from their producers. ( One writer who reveals these dilemmas very clearly is Robert Coles whose recent analysis and review of his own work  – Doing Documentary Work – is shot through with anxieties and problems in this area).

But it is more than this. For most ethnographic work is also work that tells moral tales : it shows moral life as a process at work. It is not interested in abstract philosophical debate so much as sensing the stories of moral drama : showing how ethical dilemmas are worked out less by abstract principles and more by everyday folk in their everyday lives – facing all  the ambivalence, contradiction, stress, and situatedness of living a life. When we read or watch ethnography, we should never be far from entering the moral life of a society. And we may even be forced to take sides in all this. (Something of this is revealed in George Noblit and Van Dempsey’s study of the moral life of schools – The Social Construction of Virtue).

A second simple concern is to ask how far the ethnography strives to ‘create new cultural insights’? I do not mean we should go for the ‘new’ for newness’s sake, but it is clear that some ethnographies tell dead , repetitive or stylised stories that give little insight. For researchers, there are ethnographies which look like they were done following a field work recipe book – for a PhD or an article; and for some media ethnographers, there are some stories that have been told once too often. What we should be looking for are ethnographies that are awash in imagination and originality,  and which inform us ‘cultures’ in new and challenging ways. Thus one recent leap of the imagination may be found in the work of Judith  Halberstam who has tried to envision worlds of  Female Masculinity. Whilst the ‘drag queen’ and the ‘male transvestite’ have been endlessly investigated by the ethnographer, the worlds of female masculinities are much less known about . Using a queer theory method,  she takes us into a world of women displaying maculinities that we hitherto knew little about : butch lesbians, dykes, drag kings, tomboys, black -’butch in the hood’ rappers, trans-butches, the tribade,  the gender invert, the stone butch, the female to male transexual, the raging bull dyke, predators, fantasy butches, and postmodern butches! All this research brings to the surface social worlds only dimly articulated hitherto – with of course the suggestion that there are more, many more, to be discovered. Though, again, even this raises ethical issues: are we committing a violence against secrets?

A third question to be asked of ethnography concerns how far it reveals its own ‘reflexivity’? Recently, ‘reflexivity’ has become a buzz word of much qualitative research, with a need to see where the ethnographer is located and how he or she impinges on the observation and analysis. Who are  these enthnographers and just what are they up to? In one sense this really is not that new; again I think of Malinowski’s famous diaries or  of  Whyte’s famous appendix. But much of this early writing may be more of a tidied up ‘confessional narrative’ and less of a reflexive telling of the actual interpersonal struggles of doing ethnography. It is easy to turn this into a gloss; harder to make the ethnographer’s involvement apparent and focused but not narcissistic and indulgent.

And closely related, does the ethnography help us to locate a range of  ‘voices, authorships and ownerships’. Thus, can we really hear the many voices in the text or are they being silenced by the author? Whose voice is dominant? Who is written out? Indeed, who may be demeaned and belittled? In reading an ethnography, is it possible to do a mapping of the (polyvocal) voices and sense their arrangement –  as exploitative, as hierarchical, as marginalizing, as co- equal ?

Fifthly, and related to ethics, reflexivity and voice, must be the issue of ‘Otherness’. Over and over again, classical ethnographies describe ‘the other’ – the Melanesian exotic, the Chicago deviant, the London street dweller. So how can ethnographers describe that which is not them without fostering an outsider, a marginal group, an ‘other’. How can the distance between those studied and those studying be narrowed? Some popular ethnography like the ‘video diary’ seems to be making successful moves in this direction – where the ethnography is assembled through the life of the filmers themselves. AIDS autovideo seems to be one area where people with AIDS have not been rendered outsiders but becomes more and more part of the video work. ( See Alexandra Juhasz’s book on AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video).

Sixthly, crucial in these days of ‘relativist charges’, ethnography should always be made accountable to ‘practices of truth’. What are the truth claims being made through the ethnography – realist, pragmatic, aesthetic, and so on? How are strategies at work in the ethnography to suggest a certain kind of truth and discredit others; and what overall judgements are being made. What are the different ways of establishing truths within the ethnographic text. The most apparent ‘positivistic’ or ‘realist’ truths may now be rendered more suspect and challenged. Recently, for instance, a number of classics have been unpacked – I think of Street Corner Society, The Jack Roller – to reveal how they come to work as ‘realist texts’. [3] When watching more popular ‘teledocumentaries’ we should learn to become equally aware of the strategies being used to ‘re-present’ cultures as ‘truths’.

Next, and one way of taking the above further, is to be attentive to the ‘array of dimensions’ that the ethnographer tries to capture. Clifford Geertz came near to this with his now over used idea of ‘thick description’: it is a phrase that suggests that ethnographies cannot be done too swiftly, recorded too lightly, written up too simply. There has to  be an immersion in language, in context, in mood , in identities, in bodies, in emotions. Tales which  overstate the rational and stay outside of the languages and feelings of those studied are not likely to be very valuable.

Finally, we should appraise an ethnography through it connectedness – its ‘embededdness and location in time and space’. Too much ethnographic story telling hangs suspended in mid air and  ethnographies that become dismbedded from their local histories and wider contexts tell only a very small part of the story.


At Century’s End, ‘the ethnographic society’ has arrived. Through all kinds of new media, we have developed a quite sophisticated set of tools to describe, record and re-present our lives. There could be mimetic dangers here : of endlessly copying and replaying life instead of living it. But I have suggested, in a very provisional way,that there may also be real opportunities for the clarification of the moral and political life of a society through the generation of a ‘public ethnography’ that is critically self aware. This short article has started to suggest some of these  clarifications.


Coles, Robert  (1997) Doing Documentary Work   Oxford : Oxford University Press

Denzin, Norman K (1997) Interpretive Ethnography London : Sage

Halberstam, Judith (1998)   Female Masculinity  Durham : Duke University Press

Juhasz , Alexandra (1995)  AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video  Durham: Duke University Press

Noblit, George & Van O Dempsey (1996) The Social Construction of Virtue : the Moral Life of Schools New York; New York University Press


Biographical Note: Ken Plummer is Professor of Sociology at the University of England, UK. He is the author of Sexual Stigma (1975), Documents of Life (1983, 2nd ed. 2000), and Telling Sexual Stories, as well as many articles. He has also edited Symbolic Interactionism (2 volumes, 1991) and Chicago Sociology (4 volumes, 1998) as well as The Making of the Modern Homosexual (1981) and Modern Homosexualities (1992). Currently he is editor of Sexualities, and is writing a study of Intimate Citizenship.

[1] The author would like to thank three colleauges at Essex for quick and helpful readings of the paper: Jane Hindley, Colin Samson, and Rob Stones.

[2] These are all very popular British television docudramas that were shown during 1998-9.

[3] See for example Norman Denzin’s discussion of Stanley, The Jack Roller,  in his Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies p36-45; as well as the symposium on Street Corner Society in JCE 1992 , 21.

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