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Weaving a Realist Tale

A realist tale is a type of ethnographic reporting characterized by four
representational conventions that serve to differentiate it from other literary forms, to
elevate the intellectual status of anthropological study and, in turn, to reinforce the
professional image of ethnographers.1 The conventions implicitly encapsulate the criteria
for what constitutes a good cultural account. 2 Consequently, when they are implemented,
the four conventions ideally give rise to a valid, authentic and useful ethnography.
However, standards of excellence change with time as older theories and methodologies
fall out of favour. Therefore, realist tales must be evaluated within the context of the
expectations relevant to the time in which they were written. In the course of evaluating T.
F. McIlwraiths The Bella Coola Indians, this short paper will demonstrate that the
ethnography fundamentally conforms to the paradigm of the realist tale but also deviates
from it in minor respects.
A realist tale is characterized by a pervasive tone of experiential authority. McIlwraith
creates this effect by presenting information in a morally neutral fashion with an impartial
and institutional voice.3 McIlwraiths authority as an expert is further enhanced by
conveying information impersonally; he consistently avoids the use of first person
pronouns in the body of the work. Instead, he employs sentence structures that dont
require them such as the following list of Bella Coola villages was obtained 4 and it
was discussed repeatedly with various Bella Coola.5 In this way he establishes the

John Van Maanen, Realist Tales, Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988): 45, in Uvic
coursepack for History 358 (fall 2007).
Ibid, 46.
T. F. McIlwraith, The Bella Coola Indians Vol. 1 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948),5.
Ibid, 293.

impression of objectivity. Moreover, in the introduction to the text he emphasizes his
professional and academic affiliations. On the basis of his credentials and his
professionalism the reader is encouraged to establish good faith assumptions regarding
the accuracy and verifiability of the ethnography.6 Infrequently, however, McIlwraith will
refer to himself directly, such as when he writes the present writer paid little attention to
the subject. 7
The second convention of ethnographic realism is a documentary style of typical
forms distinguished by: a high level descriptive detail, the systematic categorization of
observations and the exclusive use of the past tense. The McIlwraith ethnography is
extensively detailed; its more than 1200 pages catalogue even the most mundane facts of
everyday life. Additionally, the report is highly structured by being organized into sections
such as Religion and Medicine as well as subsections such as Omens and Shamanism. In
every section of the ethnography, McIlwraith writes frequently in the active present tense.
In a typical sentence he states The aim of every ambitious man is to hold potlatches. 8
This method of writing conveys a sense that the Bella Coola culture remains vital even
The natives point of view features prominently in realist tales - especially in the form
of extensive quotations from the people being studied. The credibility of a realist tale is
strengthened by incorporating the natives perspective. In the section dealing with origin
myths, McIlwraiths ethnography contains vast tracts of paraphrased material and some
direct quotes. Each story recorded in this way provides invaluable insight into the native
point of view. Yet no other section of the text was found to contain direct quotations

Van Maanen, 46.

McIlwraith, 292.
Ibid, 163.

integrated into the authors description or analysis. Instead, in the remaining sections, the
reader is left to infer the native perspective.
Realist tales are further defined by the convention of interpretive omnipotence.
Within this paradigm assertions are expressed with finality and confidence and without
doubt or uncertainty. The practice reinforces the image of the anthropologist as an authority
but ignores alternative and equally useful interpretations, methodologies and conclusions.
McIlwraiths style of documentation is consistent with this model. He claims, for example,
in a typical statement that comparatively lengthy journeys were neither difficult nor
uncommon9 for the Tlio people. There are instances, though, where McIlwraith is
clearly uncertain about his subject matter. This is evident when he writes, it is impossible
to estimate the former population of the Bella Coola valley with any degree of accuracy.10
McIlwraiths ethnography can justifiably be categorized as a realist tale. All four of
the defining conventions can be successfully identified in the text. This analysis affirms the
utility of the realist tale as a construct for classifying ethnographies.

McIlwraith, T. F. The Bella Coola Indians. Vol. 1 Toronto: University of Toronto Press,

Ibid, 22.
Ibid, 5.


Van Maanen, John. Realist Tales, Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988): 4555. in Uvic coursepack for History 358 (fall 2007).