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The Ethnography of Everyday Life: Theories and Methods for American Culture Studies

Author(s): John L. Caughey

Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1982), pp. 222-243
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
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Universityof Maryland

beginifnotina disciplined
... [W]heredoes ethnography to discover
and describethe symbolicresourceswithwhichthe membersof a society
and interpret


assumptionthatordinaryhumanlifeis not,as itseems, an obvious,natural,
or simplephenomenon,butrathera problematic,complexprocess in need
ofexplorationand explanation.Those ofus who do such studiesalso liketo
assume thatit is not throughinvestigationsof nationalpolitics, or biog-
raphiesof greatmen, or telephoneattitudesurveys,or laboratoryexperi-
ments,but throughin-contextinvestigationsof everydaylifethatwe can
best frame an adequate understanding,not only of particularhuman
groups,but of humanthoughtand behavior generally.
This essay will focus on literaturedealingwithfieldworkapproaches to
everyday life. There are other methods, but it can be argued that
participant-observation-interview researchprovidesthemostdirectaccess
to thephenomenon.These ethnographicmethods,and studiesbased upon
them,provide an importantbase line forconsideringless directformsof
everyday life study. Furthermore,in American Studies, the fieldwork
approach is gainingincreasingacceptance as an importantsupplementto
traditionalhistoricaland literarymethods.This trendis exemplifiedby the
currentresearch of American Studies scholars and by the presence of

1KeithH. Basso andHenryA. Selby,MeaningIn Anthropology

New MexicoPress,1976),3.

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 223

fieldworkcourses withinAmericanStudies programs.2Many studentsof

American Studies are now leaving the libraryto pursue firsthandfield
researchin a varietyof everydayAmericanscenes. These include studies
of groups as varied as a privatedetectiveagency, gypsyfortunetellers,
countryclub tennis players, a psychiatricward, gay bars, state police
patrols,a Krishnaconsciousness group,governmentoffices,a martialarts
club, lotteryplayers, an Afro-Americanchurch, a Swedish immigrant
association, retirementcommunities,and urban streetmusicians.3A re-
view of the literatureon ethnographicmethods should be of interestto
AmericanStudies scholars who are planningto use fieldworkin theirown
researchor who are teachingcourses thatinvolvefieldwork.The literature
may also be helpfulto scholars concernedwithusingpublishedeveryday
lifeethnographies,foritis onlythrougha considerationofthemethodsby
which such studies are constructedthat one can adequately evaluate
the findings.Finally, this materialcan be of use to scholars seeking to
adapt fieldwork-derived methodsand concepts to the studyof literature
or history.4
In consideringethnographicmethodsitis importantto keep in mindthat

2Fieldwork coursesareofferedinAmerican Studiesprograms attheUniv.ofPennsylvania,

theUniv.ofIowa,Dickinson College,theUniv.ofCalifornia atDavis,California StateUniv.
at Fullerton,andtheUniv.ofMaryland, amongothers.Current researchinvolving fieldwork
methods includesa studyofa commercial stripin Iowa (RichardP. Horwitzand KarinB.
Ohrn,"The Strip:FieldWorkina ModernAmerican Community," paperdeliveredat the
Sept. 1979ASA convention inMinneapolis); a studyoftheThreeMileIslandcrisisandits
aftermath (LonnaMalmsheimer, "AndYou WereWorried AbouttheBomb:Image,Fiction,
andFrameDuringtheThreeMileIslandEmergency," paperdeliveredattheOct. 1981ASA
convention inMemphis);an interview studyofromancereaders(JaniceRadway,"Reading
theRomance:TextualMeaningas Behaviorand Event,"paperdeliveredat theOct. 1981
ASA convention inMemphis); anda studyofBoyScoutrituals (JayMechling,"The Magicof
theBoy ScoutCampfire,"Journalof American Folklore, 93 [1980],35-56).
3Theseexamplesare all drawnfromrecentstudentfieldwork projectsat the Univ.of
40n theuse of fieldwork-derived conceptsin historical research,see JamesBorchert,
"UrbanNeighborhood andCommunity: Informal GroupLife,1850-1970,"Journalof Inter-
disciplinaryHistory,11(1981),607-31;RichardP. Horwitz, AnthropologyToward History:
Cultureand Workina 19thCenturyMaine Town(Middletown: WesleyanUniv.Press,1978);
RichardBeeman,"The New Social Historyand theSearchfor'Community' in Colonial
America,"American Quarterly,29 (1977),428-43;andRonaldGrele,"A Surmisable Vari-
and Oral Testimony,"American Quarterly,27 (1975), 275-95.
ety: Interdisciplinarity
Ethnographic techniquescanbe appliedinthestudyofliterature whenfictionis treatedas an
imaginary socialworldorwhenfieldwork methods areusedtoinvestigatethesocialprocesses
involvedin thewriting, publishing,reading,and effects ofliteraryworks.Cf. R. Gordon
Kelly,"Literature andtheHistorian," American Quarterly,26(1974),141-59;andTimothy
P. Meyeret al., "NontraditionalMass Communication ResearchMethods:An Overviewof
Observational Case StudiesofMediaUse inNaturalSettings,"CommunicationsYearbook
(1980), 261-75.

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224 American Quarterly

fieldwork is itselfa distinctly socialprocess. In thestandardsituation, a

scholar-researcher approachesa social situation, a community, or an in-
thatis, a setofindividuals-often
stitution, strangers-whoseeveryday
livesare theobjectof study.Effective researchdependson establishing
close personalrelationships withthesepeople,and itsoutcomeis largely
determined bytherolesthescholarplaysin theirmidst.Throughexperi-
enceoftheserelationships-through casualconversations, watching what
goeson,participation, andformal interviewing-and throughtheconcepts
andmethods brought tothefield,theresearcher "collectsdata." Analysis
ofthesedataproducestentative modelsofwhatis goingon ina particular
system.Thesemodelsarethentestedinthefield.Finally,through further
analysisandediting, as filteredthrough personalexperiences andtheoreti-
cal concepts,thescholarwritesan ethnography - an interpretive account
ofa group'severydaylife.As a communication, thisaccountis typically
aimed,notat thegroupstudied,butat an audienceofoutsiders.Possibly
thisimaginedaudienceincludesthe "generalpublic,"but usuallyit is
aimedmorespecifically at scholarswithinthedisciplineand theoretical
campwithwhichthefield-worker This accountis typically
is affiliated.
intendednotonlytodescribethesystem inquestionbuttocontribute tothe
scholarlycommunity's current theoreticalandmethodological preoccupa-
tions.Thereare,ofcourse,oftenvariations intheprocess,butan under-
standingofitsstructure is important to a criticalevaluationoftheethno-


Whenanethnographer setsofftothefield,heorsheis enacting a cultural

rolewithitsown curious historicaldevelopment.Unfortunately, no com-
prehensive historyofthe development offieldworkmethods has yetbeen
written. her "Historical Sketch of Field Work" (1971), Rosalie Wax
notes descriptive
that studies of domestic
distinctive and foreigngroups are
almostas old as writing Nevertheless,
itself.6 studiescombining sustained
immersion inthelifeways ofthegroupstudiedwithself-conscious theoreti-
cal concernsaremainly a productoftwentieth-century socialscience,with
some important nineteenth-century antecedents.These antecedentsin-
cludereformers suchas CharlesBoothand Sidneyand BeatriceWebb,

see RobertA. GeorgesandMichael0. Jones,

'On thesocialprocessesoffieldwork, People
StudyingPeople: The Human Element in Fieldwork(Berkeley: Univ. of CaliforniaPress,
6Rosalie H. Wax, Doing Fieldwork: Warningsand Advice (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago
Press, 1971),21-41; cf. MorrisFreilich,ed., Marginal Natives at Work:Anthropologistsin
theField (New York:JohnWiley,1977),4-17.

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 225

whose desireto helpthepoor led themto makeextensivefieldobservations

in factories,jails, and hospitals.Like theirsociological counterparts,most
anthropologists of thetimewere armchairtheoristswho neverwentto the
fieldthemselves.They relied insteadon the informalreportsof travelers,
missionaries, and colonial administrators. Towards the end of the
nineteenthcenturyseveral anthropologistsbegan to go to the fieldand a
few, like the Smithsonian'sFrank Cushing,carriedout intensivepartici-
pant observation.Cushing not only lived forlong periods withthe Zufi
Indians, he became a Zuflipriest.7
In themythology ofAmericananthropology,BronislawMalinowskiand
Franz Boas are regardedas the fathersof fieldwork.8Malinowski spent
morethantwo yearsintheTrobriands,buthis extensivefieldresearchwas
partlyinvoluntary.Boas made numeroustripsto the NorthwestCoast to
study the Kwakiutl Indians, but he was more interestedin collecting
traditionalmythsthan he was in observingthe lifewaysof contemporary
Indian communities.However, the English and American studentsand
followers of Malinowski and Boas, includingthe Americans Hortense
Powdermaker,Robert Lowie, MargaretMead, Melville Herskovits,Ed-
ward Sapir, and Jules Henry, became dedicated participant-observation
field-workers. Eventuallysome ofthem,includingHortensePowdermaker
in her studyof a southerntown and WilliamLloyd Warnerin his Yankee
City studies, turnedtheirattentionfromthe study of nonwesterncom-
munitiesto the fieldstudyof contemporaryAmericangroupsand institu-
In American sociology, the Chicago School played a key role in the
developmentof fieldwork.Under the leadershipof W.I. Thomas, Ernest
Burgess, and Robert E. Park, studentswere sent out into Chicago to do
in-depthfield studies of the lifeways of Jewishghettodwellers, Polish
immigrants, streetgangs,hoboes, waitresses,and shop clerks.Manyofthe
leading figuresin sociological fieldwork,includingEverett C. Hughes,
HerbertBlumer,WilliamF. Whyte,Howard Becker,and ErvingGoffman,
eithertaughtor were trainedat Chicago. There was also some important
overlap withanthropology.Until 1929thedepartmentwas called "Sociol-
ogy and Anthropology,"and several anthropologists,includingEdward

CushingGo Native?"inSolonT. Kimballand

"Did FrankHamilton
JamesB. Watson,eds., CrossingCulturalBoundaries: TheAnthropologicalExperience(San
8Cf. RaymondW. Firth,ed., Man and Culture:An Evaluation of the Workof Bronislaw
(New York: HumanitiesPress, 1957); and Ronald Rohner, The Ethnographyof
FranzBoas (Chicago:Univ.ofChicagoPress,1969).
9HortensePowdermaker,AfterFreedom: A CulturalStudyin theDeep South (New York:
Viking,1939);and WilliamLloydWarnerand Paul S. Lunt,TheSocial Lifeofa Modern
Community (New Haven:Yale Univ.Press,1941).

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226 AmericanQuarterly

Sapir, taughtthere.RobertRedfield,a leadingproponentof anthropologi-

cal communitystudies, not only taughtat Chicago, he marriedRobert
Park's daughter. 10
A general picture of more recent developmentsof fieldworkcan be
gleaned fromstandardhistoriesof theoreticalschools in anthropologyand
sociology."' It is in the contextof these different
theoreticalschools that
Americanfieldworkdeveloped the formsit now has.


Roger Keesing divides contemporaryanthropologicaltheoristsintotwo

broad camps.'2 On the one hand are the various "cultural adaptionists,"
such as MarvinHarris, Marshal Sahlins, and R. Rappaport,whose views
are closely relatedto earlierevolutionaryand functionalschools. They see
thecustomarybehaviorsofeverydaylifeas an interrelated movingsystem
whose patternsare theproductofpast and currentadaptionsto theproblem
of solving human needs in a given environment.In theirethnographic
studies,culturaladaptionistsfocus on economic and subsistencesystems
whichtheysee as the most adaptivelycentralaspects of culture.Shiftsin
these systemsare believed to have a stronglyinfluential, or even determi-
nate, effecton otheraspects of life,such as social relationshipsand value
A second majorset of anthropologicaltheoristsconsistsof threegroups
of "ideational theorists,"all of whom argue forthe importanceof under-
standingany givengroup's lifewaysby discoveringthelearnedsystemsof
meaningby whichitis structured.In cognitiveanthropology, as developed
by Ward Goodenough, AnthonyF.C. Wallace, and Charles Frake, em-
phasis is placed on discoveringthe culturalknowledge-the cognitive
categories, rules, and plans used by membersof a given group as they

10SeeR. Faris,ChicagoSociology1920-1932(San Francisco:Chandler,1963);FredH.

Matthews, Quest for an American Sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School
ChicagoSchool:A Case Studyin Marginality,"Diss. Univ.ofMaryland1982.
" See JohnJ.Honigmann,TheDevelopmentofAnthropologicalIdeas (Homewood, Ill.: Dor-
Theory(NewYork:Crowell, 1968);and
Conn.:Greenwood Press,1979).
12Roger M. Keesing,"Theoriesof Culture,"in BernardJ. Siegelet al., eds., Annual
ReviewofAnthropology (Palo Alto:AnnualReviewPress,1974),III, 73-93.
"3SeeMarvinHarris,Cultural Materialism
graphicapplications,see Eric B. Ross, ed., BeyondtheMythsof Culture:Essays In Cultural
(New York:AcademicPress,1980).

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 227

perceive, think,and act.'4 In symbolic anthropology,particularlyas-

sociated with the work of CliffordGeertz, an attemptis also made to
discovercodes ofmeaning;however,in Geertz's phrasing,thesemeanings
are not "in people's heads" but are sharedand public. Attentionis placed
on the "thick description" of social discourse, the symbols and rituals
throughwhich meaningsare sustained.15In structuralanthropology,de-
rivedfromthe workof Levi-Strauss,the emphasis is on the unconscious
principlesofmindwhichare thoughtto underlyseeminglydiverseproduc-
tionsofeverydaylife.Ethnographically, attentionis focusedon mytholog-
ical forms,includingpopularcultureproductions,whichcan be interpreted
in termsof underlyingbinary contrasts,relationships,and transforma-
While there are some importantdifferencesin the orientationsof the
various ideational camps, these differencesare undoubtedlyoverem-
phasized by practitioners intenton warringwithrivals.Recently,important
progresshas been made in combiningthe concepts of cognitiveand sym-
bolic anthropology.17
In sociology a somewhat similardistinctionmay be drawn between
currenttheoreticalcamps.'18Much mainstreamsociologyis notorientedto
ethnography at all. Many sociologistsare moreinterestedin methodssuch
as questionnairesurveyswhichare amenable to statisticalmanipulations
and quantitativehypothesistesting.However, the "social facts" orienta-
tion underlyingthis work is still influencedby the structuralfunctional

14SeeWardH. Goodenough, Language,andSociety,2nded. (MenloPark,Calif.:

Addison-Wesley, 1981);JamesP. Spradley,ed., Cultureand Cognition(San Francisco:
Chandler,1972);and MichaelAgar,"WhateverHappenedto Cognitive Anthropology:A
PartialReview,"HumanOrganization, 41 (1982)82-86. Cf.JayMechling,"In Searchofan
American Ethnophysics"inL. Luedtke,ed., TheStudyofAmericanCulture(Deland,Fla.:
EverettEdwards,1977).Foran ethnographic see JamesP. Spradley,YouOwe
Yourselfa Drunk: An Ethnographyof Urban Nomads (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).
15SeeClifford (NewYork:BasicBooks,1973);Paul
RabinowandWilliam SocialScience(Berkeley:
Sullivan,eds.,Interpretive Univ.ofCalifor-
nia,1979);KarenLystra,"Who's AfraidofClifford and
JayMechling, "'PlayingIndian'andtheSearchforAuthenticity inModemWhiteAmerica,"
Prospects,5 (1980),27-28. For ethnographic see JanetDolgin,David Kem-
nitzer,and David Schneider,eds., SymbolicAnthropology (New York: ColumbiaUniv.
16See ClaudeLevi-Strauss, StructuralAnthropology(New York:Doubleday,1967);and
JohnG. Blair,"Structuralism andtheHumanities," AmericanQuarterly, 30(1978),261-81.
On applicationsto American culture,see W. ArensandS.P. Montague, eds. TheAmerican
Dimension: CulturalMythsand Social Realities (Port Washington,N.Y.: Alfred,1976).
W.D. Dougherty
17Janet and Cognition,"
and JamesW. Fernandez,eds., "Symbolism
AmericanEthnologist,8 (1981), 413-660:
18Oncurrentsociologicalschools,see GeorgeRitzer,Sociology:A MultipleParadigm
Science(Boston:AllynandBacon, 1980);andAlanWells,ed., Contemporary

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228 American Quarterly

theoryassociated withTalcott Parsons. To the extentthatsuch theorists

engageinfieldwork,theyattendto questionsderivedfromthisorientation.
For example,theymay seek out theeffectsthata givenpracticehas on the
functioning of the social systemas a whole.
There are, however, several sociological schools that are much more
stronglyoriented to fieldworkstudies of everyday life. These include
symbolicinteractionism,phenomenologicalsociology, and ethnometho-
dology. These groups explicitlyset themselvesagainstmainstreamfunc-
tional sociology:

Symbolic feelthatdeductive
interactionists reasoning
implies, thataction
are simplistically
and interpretation by priorevents.Sociologists
shouldinsteadconcentrate howpeopleina particular
see things, theuse,aboveall,ofparticipant
up fromthere.19

The symbolicinteractionists - whose workis derivedfromthewritings

of George HerbertMead as developed by HerbertBlumer- are similarto
the ideationaltheoristsin anthropologyin insistingthateverydaylifecan
onlybe understoodthroughthe carefulstudyof the meaningsthatthings
have forindividualactors.
A similarapproach is to be foundin phenomenologicalsociology,par-
ticularlyassociated withAlfredSchutz. One versionof thissociology-of-
knowledgeperspectiveis familiarto Americaniststhroughthewell-known
work of Peter Berger and his associates.20 Ethnomethodologyas devel-
oped by Harold Garfinkel draws on the theoretical foundation of
phenomenologyand focuses on thefieldworkanalysisof everydaylife.In
George Psathas's phrasing,"Ethnomethodologyseeks to discover how
membersconstruct,produce, and interpret,throughtheiractual ongoing
activities,what they take to be 'social facts. s'21
Once again, thedifferencesbetweenthese ideationallyorientedschools
are less importantthan theirsimilarities.

'9Ruth A. Wallace and Allison Wolf, ContemporarySociological Theory (Englewood

Cliffs,N.J.: Prentice-Hall,
1980),295. Cf. HerbertBlumer,SymbolicInteractionism:
Perspective N.J.:Prentice-Hall,
RelationsinPublic(New York:Basic Books, 1971).
20PeterL. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Constructionof Reality (Garden
City:Anchor,1966);andPeterL. BergerandHans FriedKellner,SociologyReinterpreted
(New York: Doubleday,1981).See also R. GordonKelly,"The Social Constructionof
2'GeorgePsathas,"Approachesto theStudyoftheWorldof EverydayLife," Human
Studies,3 (1980),3. Cf.RoyTurner,ed., Ethnomethodology

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 229


Fieldworkclearly opens an importantavenue of research on topics of

traditionalinterestto Americanistsand it fitswell withrecentprogram-
matic statementson what American Studies should be about. In his
"Elementary Axioms for an American Culture Studies," Gene Wise
suggeststhat Americanistsshould concern themselveswith the cultural
studyof ongoinghumanexperienceoutside academe.22Reflectingon the
introductory American Studies course, Lonna Malmsheimerhas argued
thatall AmericanStudies undergraduatesshould be given experience in
fieldwork.23MurrayMurpheywritesas follows:

The movefromthelibraryto thefieldis also of criticalimportance forboth

researchand teachingin AmericanStudies.In thefieldwe can deal withlive
respondents, generateourowndata,makeobservations whichhave notbeen
madebefore, experiment wewant..
Moreover, as a strategy
forAmericanStudies,ethnographic hasgreat
promise.It canbe doneanywhere thatthescholarandhisstudents happentobe.
No greatlibrariesorarchivesormetropolitan
centers forthestudyof
thetownor countyor neighborhood in whichyoulive.24

Finally,fieldworkstrategiescan be combinedwithhistoricalmethodsin
followingup the recent interestin developing a regional orientationin
Grantingthatfieldworkis of potentialimportanceto AmericanStudies,
fromwhich of the various theoreticalschools outlinedabove should the
Americanistselect his particularmodel of fieldwork?The answer should
probably be simultaneously"all" and "none." The Americanistfield-
workershould make use of what is practicaland valuable in the existing
literature.However, thereis everyreason to approachthefieldworklitera-
turein whatJayMechlingcalls a convergent-disciplinary manner.26There
is no reason why an Americanistethnographerneed link himselfexclu-
sivelyto one of thevarious theoreticalcamps thatcurrentlyexist. Rather,

22GeneWise,"Some Elementary Axiomsforan American CultureStudies,"Prospects,4

23LonnaM. Malmsheimer, "TeachingtheIntroductory Course,"paperdeliveredto the
1979ASA convention in Minneapolis.
24Murray G. Murphey. "Comment inModernAmerica,"'1979
ASA convention, Minneapolis.
25JayMechling,"IfTheyCanBuildA SquareTomato:NotesTowarda HolisticApproach
to RegionalStudies,"Prospects,4 (1979),59-78.

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230 AmericanQuarterly

he shouldborrowfromwhichever combinationofapproachesseemsperti-
nenttothestudyathand.Conversely,theAmericanist shouldbe properly
skeptical We shouldseektodevelop
formsof ethnographysuitablenotto sociologyor anthropology,butto
Americanculturestudies.Americanistsshouldadapt ratherthanborrow
techniquesof existing
perspectivesand methodological
the theoretical
camps - and innovatenew ones.
However,theAmericanist field-workerwillprobablywantto drawon
someoftheexisting perspectivesinthetheoretical schoolsoutlined above.
As we have seen,theapparentdiversity inthesecampscan be generally
reducedtoa differencebetweenideationalandadaptionist perspectives. It
seemslikelythatan Americanist field-workerwillwantto attendtoboth.
Givenourtraditionalinterestinmeaning, itseemsunquestionable thatthe
field-worker exploretheconceptual systemsbywhich
themembers ofthecommunity understand and construct theirworlds.It
also seems apparentthatmanyfield-workers will not wish to confine
themselvesexclusivelytoa focuson "thenatives'pointofview,"butwill
wantto step back and tryto analysethe social systemas a whole,a
perspective whichtheinsider'sknowledge willbe butoneelement ina
largersystemof parts.27Finally,we maysuggestthattheAmericanist
willwishtoattendtoa thirddimension
field-worker thatis oftenneglected
infieldworkderivedfrom thesocialscienceschools.Thatis,hewillwantto
attendtothecommunity notjustas anabstractsystem, eitherofknowledge
orfunctioningelements,butas a setofhumanindividuals whoseparticular
livesconstitute ofeveryday life.Withtheseperspectives in
mindletus considertheliterature on howto do fieldwork.


Itis nolongerappropriate

270napplying multiplecultural see Wise,"Elementary

analyticperspectives, Axioms."
One aspectof sucha strategy involvesswitching between"emic" (actor-
back and forth
oriented) perspectives.
and"etic" (observer-oriented) Cf.Kenneth L. Pike,"Etic andEmic
StandpointsfortheDescription of Behavior,"in AlfredSmith,ed., Communication and
Culture(New York: Holt,Rinehart,1966),152-68; Fred Davis, "The Martianand the
Convert:OntologicalPolaritiesin Social Research,"UrbanLifeand Culture,2 (1973),
333-43; and CliffordGeertz,"'From The NativesPointof View'; On theNatureofAn-
thropological inKeithBassoandHenrySelby,eds.,MeaninginAnthropol-
ogy(Albuquerque: Univ.ofNew MexicoPress,1976).

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of Everyday
The Ethnography 231

ical literatureon how to do fieldwork.28 Many ethnographerscontinueto

assume thatfieldworkis a quasi-mysticalriteof passage and thatthe only
way to learn to do it is to do it. However, it has been increasinglyrecog-
nizedthatreflectionson theprocess are important bothas guidelinesforthe
beginnerand as a means to induce betterfieldwork.
The methodologicalliteratureincludesarticlesand books thatattempta
comprehensivedescriptionoffieldworkand morespecialized monographs
and articlesthatfocus on particulartechniques.For theAmericanStudies
scholar the general literatureoffersa numberof problems. Sociological
treatmentsare oftenhighlyformalizeddiscussions thatare closely linked
to the esotericjargon of a particulartheoreticalcamp. Anthropological
overviews,while more culturaland humanistic,are oftenorientedto the
studyof nonwesterncommunities.In both fieldsthe literatureoftenad-
dresses scholarsalreadyversedin fieldwork.Fortunatelythereare several
exceptions.Amongthemostusefulare threevolumesby JamesSpradley,
mostparticularlyThe EthnographicInterview(1979), butalso Participant
Observation(1980), and (withDavid McCurdy) The CulturalExperience:
Ethnographyin ComplexSociety(1972).29 All threevolumesare addressed
to studentsand professionalsunfamiliarwith fieldwork,all of them are
orientedto thestudyofeverydayAmericanlife,and all ofthemfocuson the
investigation ofculturalmeaning.Spradleyoffersthereadera step-by-step
sequence that begins with a discussion of locating informants,moves
througha considerationof interviewand observationstrategies,and ends
withsuggestionson writingethnography. The straightforward buteffective
methodshe suggestscan be readilyadapted to a wide varietyof specific
researchsituations.The practical of
utility these books is clearlyconnected
to Spradley and McCurdy's ten years of experience in teachingunder-

28Fora survey andG. Sankoff,
see P.C.W.Gutkind
"Annotated onAnthropological
Bibliography FieldWorkMethods,"inD.G. Jongmans and
P.C.W.Gutkind, intheField(NewYork:Humanities
eds.,Anthropologists Press,1967).On
the morerecentliterature,see the bibliographyin MichaelH. Agar,The Professional
Stranger:An InformalIntroductionto Ethnography(New York: Academic Press, 1980). For
a goodcollection J.Filstead,ed., Qualita-
see William
tiveMethodology:FirsthandInvolvementWiththeSocial World(Chicago: Markham,1970).
RobertEmerson's"Observational FieldWork,"in RalphH. Turnerand JamesF. Short,
eds.,AnnualReviewofSociology, 7 (1981),351-78,provides reviewoftherecent
29JamesP. Spradley, TheEthnographicInterview(NewYork:Holt,RinehartandWinston,
1979);Spradley, (NewYork:Holt,Rinehart
Participant andWinston, 1980);and
Spradley and David W. McCurdy, The Cultural Experience: Ethnographyin Complex

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232 American Quarterly

graduatestudentshow to conductfieldwork.30 Focusing as theydo on an

ideational approach, Spradley's works can be usefullysupplementedby
more comprehensivetreatments,includingMichael Agar's The Profes-
sional Stranger:An InformalIntroductionto Ethnography(1980), and
Pertti and Gretel Pelto's AnthropologicalResearch: The Structureof
Inquiry(1978). Very useful sociological accounts include JackDouglas's
InvestigativeSocial Research (1976), B. Junker'sField Work(1960), and
JohnLofland's AnalysingSocial Settings (1971).31
In consideringaspects ofthemorespecialized literature,itwillbe useful
to examine several of the basic stages in the "fieldworkenterprise."The
literatureon selectinga groupto studyinvolves suggestionson feasibility,
availability,theoreticalpertinence,and gettingfunds. Caution is recom-
mendedin reviewingthe existingliteratureon a givengroup.In fieldwork
one wantsto discover the structureof the systemunderinvestigation,not
to impose preconceived outsidercategories. "Enteringthe field" has re-
ceived an appropriatelyextensivetreatment.As George McCall and J.L.
Simmonswarnthewould-befield-worker, "The role whichhe claims-or
to which he is assigned by the subjects - is perhaps the single most
important determinantofwhathe willbe able to learn.32 Crucialissues here
include the question of whetheror not to work throughthe authority
structureof the group studied, and the mannerand extentto which the
researchershouldexplain his purposes. A numberof writersadvocate use
of "covert participation,"in whichthe researchertakes some local role in
thecommunity, hideshistruepurposes,and makes such observationsas he
can fromthis undercoverposition. While theremay be some occasions
wherethiscan be justified,mostcommentatorsargueforan open statement
ofone's researchintentions.Even froma pragmaticperspective,thecovert

30SeeEvanJenkins's course,"The New
Ethnography:Languageas theKeytoCulture,"Change,1(1978)16-19.Ontheconductand
courses,see JuliaCraneandMichaelV. Angrosino,
direction FieldProjectsin
Anthropology(Morristown: GeneralLearningPress, 1974);JacquelineP. Wisemanand
Marcia S. Aron,Field ProjectsforSociology Students(San Francisco: CanfieldPress, 1970);
and Conrad Phillip Kottak, ed., Researching American Culture: A Guide For Student
31Agar,Professional Stranger; PerttiJ. Pelto and Gretel H. Pelto, AnthropologicalRe-
ofInquiry Univ.Press,1978);JackD. Douglas,
InvestigativeSocial Research (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976); BufordH. Junker,Field Work
Analysing A
Social Settings:
Guide to Qualitative Observationand Analysis (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth,1971).
32GeorgeJ. McCall and J. L. Simmons, Issues in Participant Observation (Reading:
1969),29. Cf.Raymond
Social Forces, 36 (1957), 217-23.

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 233

role limitsthe kindsof information thatcan be gathered.However, many

writersalso reject covertnessbecause of ethical considerations.33
As Spradleyand McCurdywrite,"Because fieldworkrequiresinvolve-
ment in the lives of people, because it depends on intimatepersonal
relationships,it always raises importantethical issues. . . . What is the
anthropologist'sresponsibilityto informants?"34 Questionsofresponsibil-
ity not only include an explanationof one's purposes but also issues of
confidentiality, fair returnfor time given, interventionin activities ob-
served, various legal considerations,and the serious problemof the con-
sequences that research may have on the lives of those studied. Every
would-be field-workershould familiarizehimselfwith these issues and
theirapplicationto the research situationat hand.35
The quality of any field study depends on the extent to which the
field-workercan pass beyond the role of strangerand establish close
relationshipswith the people he studies. As many commentatorshave
observed, the relationshipbetween the ethnographerand his informants
contrastsstrikingly withthatwhichordinarilyobtainsbetween the social
scientificresearcherand his "subjects" or "respondents." The goal is to
achieve relationshipsin which the informantbecomes willing and in-
terestedin tellingtheethnographer in detailabout his or herown activities,
perspectives, experiences, and formsof knowledge. The relationship,
whichoftenbecomes close, can be comparedto thatof studentto teacher,
or apprenticeto master. Especially in the firsthalfof fieldwork,the re-
searcheris making,if not in so many words, the followingrequest:

I wanttounderstand
theworldfrom yourpointofview.I wanttoknowwhatyou
knowinthewayyouknowit.I wantto understand themeaning ofyourexperi-
as youfeelthem,to explainthings
ence,to walkinyourshoes,to feelthings as
youexplainthem.Willyoubecomemyteacherand helpme understand?36

33SeeKai T. Erikson,"A Commenton DisguisedObservation in Sociology,"Social

Problems,14 (1967),366-73;and R.A. Hilbert,"CovertParticipantObservation:On Its
Natureand Practice," UrbanLife, 9 (1980), 51-78. For a controversial
example-involving a covertstudyof homosexuals-withexcerptsfromthe subsequent
controversy,see Laud Humphreys, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places
34James P. Spradleyand David W. McCurdy,eds., Conformity and Conflict(Boston:
35SeeSpradley,Ethnographic 34-39; JoanCassell, "EthicalPrinciplesfor
Conducting Fieldwork,"American 82 (1980),28-41;and MichaelA. Ryn-
kiewich and James P. Spradley, Ethics and Anthropology:Dilemmas in Fieldwork(New

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234 American Quarterly

In the laterpartof fieldwork,the ethnographermay choose to switchto a

more dominantstance and may even take on certainadversaryroles in
tryingto test his or her understandings.37However, adequate testing
usually depends on passing throughthe "student role" first.
If successful,therelationshipsbetweenthe ethnographer and keyinfor-
mantsdevelop throughseveral distinctivestages: frommutualapprehen-
sion,throughexploration,to cooperationand fullparticipation.Guidelines
for interviewingtypically recommend differentkinds of questioning
strategiesat different stagesin therelationship.In thebeginningthegoal is
simplyto encourage informants to "open up," to get themtalkingabout
theirworld. Here very general kinds of descriptivequestions are useful
("Could you tell me what you do in a typicalday?" "Could you give me
some specificexamples?"). Later, morefocusedsystematickindsofques-
tioningshould be employedas the ethnographerseeks to elicitsystematic
information on particularaspects oftheculture.38It shouldbe notedthatno
experienced ethnographermistakes the surface contentsof every infor-
mantstatementas a validrepresentation ofeverydaybeliefsand behaviors.
Some informant texts can be treatedthis way, but usually theymust be
interpreted critically.In thefirstplace, therewillbe deliberatefalsification.
Oftentheethnographer willneed to penetratebeyondtheofficial"fronts"
and facades of everydaylifesystems.39Deliberate falsificationsare often
valuable, however, as data on values, on aspects of life people wish to
highlight or conceal. Second, even a relativelyreliableinformant speaking
on noncontroversialmatterswilloftenbe unable to fullyarticulateimpor-
tantpatternsin hisor herexperience.As JackDouglas notes, "Some ofthe
thingsthatmattermostto us inourindividualand social lives are notknown
to us, or at least are notverbalizablein any formthatwe can communicate
[directly]to a researcher.''40 Partlythere is the problem of mythsand
self-deceptions,but even more significantis the fact that much of our
culturalknowledgeis tacitratherthanexplicit;we operate withit but it is
noton thesurfaceofawareness and itcannotbe fullyarticulated.41 Probing

370ntheadversary roleand similartactics,see Douglas,InvestigativeSocial Research,

38Spradley,EthnographicInterview,78-91;cf.Loffland, 75-92.
39SeeMyronGlazeron "peeringbehindthestage"inhisResearch Adventure:Problems
and Promise of Field Work(New York:RandomHouse, 1972),73-96.
40Douglas,InvestigativeSocial Research, 79.
41JamesP. Spradleyand David W. McCurdy, Anthropology:The Cultural Perspective
(New York:JohnWiley,1975),31-32.

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 235

tacitareasofculture requiresuse ofspecialtechniques offormal interview-

ingand analysis.42
Thereis somedisagreement in theliteratureovertherelativevalueof
interviewingas opposedto participant observation.43 Mostwriters argue
thatobservation withoutinterviewing leadsatbesttoa partialunderstand-
ing-that itis onlythrough persistentsystematic questioning thatone can
hopetopenetrate themeaning ofanothercultural system.However,most
field-workers feelthatparticipant observation is also necessary.One not
onlywantstohearaboutthescenesofa group'slife,onewantstoobserve
themextensively firsthand.Itis crucialtodeveloprelationships thatallow
onetofollowinformants through thedailyroundsoflifeandtodo so often
enoughthatone ceases to be a disturbing novelty.Wherefeasiblethe
ethnographer shouldparticipate directlyinlocalactivities.Learning"how
to do it" notonlygreatlydeepensone's insight, italso raisesall kindsof
issuesforfurther questioning.
Observations can oftenbe documented byphotographic methods,44 but
as withinterviewing, themajorsourceofdocumentary evidenceis likelyto
be written fieldnotes.Bothduringinterviews andobservations itis virtu-
allyimpossible towriteeverything ofimportance down.Sketchyaccounts
areusuallythebestone can hopefor.As soonas possible,however,these
shouldbe developedintodetaileddescriptions. Writing up fieldnotes
usuallyrequiresmuchmoretimethantheoriginal observation. It is crucial
todevelopa codethatdifferentiates one'sownwordsfrom thosespokenby
an informant. It is alwaysimportant to tryto recordinformants' texts
verbatim -not somesummary ofwhattheysaid.Thetermsandphrasings
peopleuse providea keytohowtheythink.Thebestwaytogeta verbatim
recordis, of course,through use of a tape recorder, butthereare some
observational and interview situations wherethisis difficult. Some infor-
mantsmaybe intimidated bythepresenceofa taperecorder. As Spradley
observes,"It is possibletodo goodethnography without a taperecorder: it
is notpossibleto do good ethnography withoutrapportwithkeyinfor-

bywhichelements areincludedorexcludedfroma givenconceptual class),andthewaysin
whichculturalcategoriesare organizedintocombinations or "domains."Againthemost
usefuldiscussionis Spradley'sEthnographicInterview,
43Cf.Agar,The ProfessionalStranger,107-11;andLoffland,AnalysingSocial Situations,
44JohnCollier, Visual Anthropology:Photographyas a Research Method (New York:
and Winston,1967);and KarlHeider,Ethnographic
Texas Press, 1976). Cf. also thejournal Studies in Visual Communication.

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236 American Quarterly

mants."45 Even wherea tape recorderis disruptive,it is oftenpossible to

take notes duringan interview.Most informants seem to be flatteredthat
one cares enough to take notes on what theysay.
Another major issue involves the organizationof field notes, and a
varietyof different systemsis suggestedin the literature.46 Clearly, one
wantsto organizein a way thatallows one to rapidlylocate all thescattered
pertinentmaterialon a giventopic,even thoughitmayhave been recorded
monthsearlier. One systeminvolves keepingindexed notes of each con-
secutiveday offieldworkwithsome overallmasterlocaterindex. Another
system involves filingmultiplecopies of one's notes in termsof some
standardculturalinventorysuch as theOutlineof CulturalMaterials ofthe
Human Relations Area Files.47 A thirdalternativeinvolves filingnotes
undercategoriesderivedfromthe culturestudied,thatis, in termsof their
classificationsof their worlds. Whatever the system, it must facilitate
analysisinthefield.The field-worker shouldregularlyread and rereadfield
notes, brainstormon theirimplications,and then returnto observation,
participation,and interviewing in orderto followup these leads. As work
progressesone seeks ways oftestingone's understandings. Sometimesthis
may involve predictingor, as Charles Frake puts it, "appropriatelyan-
ticipating"the behavior of group members."I say 'appropriatelyantici-
pate' ratherthan'predict'because a failureofan ethnographicstatementto
predictcorrectlydoes notnecessarilyimplydescriptiveinadequacyas long
as membersofthedescribedsocietyare as surprisedby thefailureas is the
ethnographer.48 In otherinstances,testingmayinvolve"membervalida-

tion" -seeing ifone's interpretationsofactionsand eventsare accepted as

accurate by informants.49Alternatively,testingmay involve "interaction
effectiveness"- seeing if one can act in ways that are deemed locally
appropriate."The basic formis to be able to pass as a member,to not
arouse thoughtsin others' mindsthathe is merelydoingresearch. (I find
thatitis always reassuringto have themexpress shockwhentheylearnI'm
really a researcher. It's even more reassuringif they refuse to believe

45Spradley,The EthnographicInterview,38. Cf. EdwardD. Ives, The Tape-Recorded

46See Loffland,
AnalysingSocial Situations, 117-33.
47George P. Murdocket al., Outlineof CulturalMaterials,4thed. (New Haven:Human
RelationsAreaFiles, 1971).
48Charles0. Frake,"A StructuralDescription " inWard
H. Goodenough, ed., Explorations in Cultural Anthropology(New York: McGraw-Hill,
49Agar,Professional Stranger,77-81.

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 237

it.)' '50 Whateverthe testingmethods,duringthe middleto latterstages of

fieldwork,it is importantto develop yet anothersystemof classifyingthe
materialsobtained: one should develop a filingsystembased on the sub-
headingsof the articleor book one intendsto write.It is also important
duringfieldworkto writeroughdrafts.As Spradley indicates,writingis
partoftheprocess ofethnographicdiscovery.It aids immenselyinconcep-
tualizingthe materialand it helps the ethnographer to locate areas in need
of furtherclarificationor documentation.51
Given its complexity,no ethnographicstudyof everydaylifecan possi-
blyexploreall facetsofa givensystem;theethnographer always leaves the
field witha sense of incompleteness.The particularfocus that emerges
duringthe course of fieldworkwill determinethe particularkindsof data
collected. Nevertheless,itis widelyaccepted thatcertainkindsofmaterial
are usuallyimportant.Reviews ofpublishedethnographiesreveal a kindof
formulaicorganizationinvolvingthe sequential presentationof data on
threegeneral areas: the environmentand economic/subsistencesystem,
thesocial organization,and thereligiousor meaningsystem.This organiza-
tionof ethnographicmaterialis derivedfromtraditionalstudiesof distinc-
tive communities,but it is also applicable to the studyof institutionsand
transitorysocial scenes.
In describingthe environmentit is essentialto develop an accurate map
of the overall area and detailed maps of particularsubsettings.However,
objective mappingof thiskindmustbe supplementedby carefulattention
to theinformants'mentalmaps.52 The settingthatpeople respondto is the
environmenttheyperceive in termsof the categoriesof theirculture.As
Spradley writes,"Urban groups do not live in the 'city' but in theirown
socially constructeddefinitionof the city."53

50Douglas, InvestigativeSocial Research,123.Traditionally somefield-workers, espe-

ciallyinsociology,weredefensive abouttheirqualitative
methods. Recently therehasbeen
muchassertionthatfieldwork methodsare morereliablethandetachedquantitative ap-
proaches.Nevertheless theproblemsofreliability and validationare stillunresolved.Cf.
Emerson,"Observational FieldWork,"362-63.
52Foradviceand references on mapping,see Craneand Angrosino, Field Projectsin
Anthropology, 28-41.On cognitive maps,see A.I. Hallowell,"The SelfandIts Behavioral
Environment," in his Cultureand Experience(Philadelphia:Univ.ofPennsylvania Press,
1955),75-110;and PeterR. Gouldand RodneyWhite,MentalMaps (Baltimore: Penguin,
53James P. Spradley,"AdaptiveStrategies ofUrbanNomads,"inSpradley, Cultureand

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238 American Quarterly

Similarconsiderations applyto each oftheothergeneralareas. While

monetaryconsiderations are likelyto be important in mostAmerican
groupsand scenes,thesubjects'sense of "economics"maynotmatch
academiccategories, andtheirmaterial goalsormodesofsubsistence may
notconform to middle-class understandings. In considering socialorgani-
zation,theethnographer willwanttoattendtobasicdemographic statistics
and otheroutside"etic" measures.54 He will also wantto explorethe
internalorganization of social relationships. Of special importance are
techniques thatallowtheresearcher todiscoverthecategories informants
use to classifythepeople in theirworlds.This involvesidentifying the
termstheyhave forkindsof social rolesand personality attributes.It is
important to investigatethetacitand explicitculturalrulesthatgovern
particular roles and the kindsof ideal and fearedidentities withwhich
peopleare preoccupied.55 The literature on studying valuesis muchless
welldeveloped,buthereagaintheethnographer can profitbothfrometic
schemesthatattemptto identify universalvalue orientations and from
internal investigationsofthe"conceptionsofthedesirable"important to
individuals in thecommunity studied.56
The ethnography of theseand otheraspectsof everydaylifeinvolves
comparison.It is largelyby contrastthatone discoversthepatterns ofa
social scene. Oftencomparison is implicit.Thatis, theethnographer de-
scribesa group'sbehavioras distinctive becauseitcontrasts withthatinhis
orherownsocialcircles.Ifthisis thebasisofcontrast, thenthisshouldbe
madeexplicit,andreflexively examined.Comparison can also be usefully
employed ina varietyofotherwaysas well.57In thefirst place,thereis the
issueofsharing anddiversity within thesocialsystem studied.Behaviorin
mostAmericangroups,institutions, and scenesis partiallytheproductof
diversity intheknowledge ofmembers. Evenina relatively homogeneous
Americancommunity, knowledgewillbe divided up among specialized
roles.Furthermore, most Americans are "multi-cultural"in thattheyare
fluentinthediverseandsometimes contradictory beliefsystems ofdiffer-
entsocialsectors.Even microethnographic studies,culturalsharing can

54See Peltoand Pelto,AnthropologicalResearch, 193-214.

55See ErvingGoffman, The PresentationofSelf in EverydayLife (NewYork:Doubleday,
1959);WardH. Goodenough, 'Status'and'Role"' inMichaelBanton,ed., The
Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology(London: Tavistock, 1965); and John L.
Caughey,"PersonalIdentity Ethos,8 (1980),173-203.
and Social Organization,"
56SeeEvon Z. Vogtand EthelM. Albert,"The 'Comparative Studyof Valuesin Five
Cultures'Project,"in The People of Rimrock(New York:Atheneum, 1966).Cf. Milton
Rokeach, The Nature of Human Values (New York: Free Press, 1973).
57Cf.RaoulNarollandRonaldCohen,eds.,A Handbook ofMethodin CulturalAnthropol-
ogy(New York:ColumbiaUniv.Press,1973).

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 239

neverbe assumed.58Variationis importanton otherlevels as well. Oftenit

will be useful to study several differentfield sites and to systematically
compareone withanother.59In othercases the ethnographer may wish to
use cross-culturalcomparativeperspectivesbydrawingon thehistoricalor
nonwesternliterature.60 Sometimestheresearchermaycarryoutcompara-
tive nonwesternfieldworkhimself.As Jay Mechlingsuggests,an Amer-
icanist interestedin Japanese-Americanlife mighteventuallybe led to
carryout fieldworkin Japan.61
For the AmericanStudies ethnographerthereis yet anotherimportant
area of concern. All of the above topics involve abstractionsand gener-
alizations, but all of themare derivedfromthe actual behaviorof human
beings.Whateverelse itmayinvolve,a humanisticorientationto everyday
lifeshould include attentionto the people whose everydaylifeis studied,
thatis, to a portrayalof how particularindividualslive out theirlives. This
goal requiresas much methodologicalattentionas does any other.Tech-
niques include observationskeyed to the descriptionof a particularper-
son's style of action in cultural scenes and require the recording of
dialogue, gestures, and facial expressions. Also of importancewill be
in-depthinterviewsand the collection of life historymaterials.62 A ne-
glectedbutpromisingarea hereinvolvesmethodsby whichone can collect
material on a person's inner life (i.e., texts of dreams, stream-of-
consciousness, fantasies,anticipations,and memories).63This material
can be used as a means for"gettinginside" and showinghow particular
individualsmake theirown way througheverydaylife.


All fieldworkinvolvesimportantreflexivedimensions.In thepast itwas

as the NormalHumanExperience,"in
58WardH. Goodenough,"Multiculturalism
Elizabeth M. Eddy and WilliamL. Partridge,eds., Applied Anthropologyin America (New
York:ColumbiaUniv.Press,1978),79-86.Cf.Anthony andPersonal-
F.C. Wallace,Culture
ity(New York: RandomHouse, 1970),22-36; and PerttiJ. Peltoand GretelH. Pelto,
"Intracultural 2 (1975),1-18.
59See SherriCavan, Liquor License: An Ethnographyof Bar Behavior (Chicago: Aldine,
60Cf.Herbert AreaFiles,"inHarry
andUses oftheHumanRelations
C. Triandis,ed., Handbook of Cross-CulturalPsychology(Boston: Allynand Bacon, 1980),
6'Mechling, Square Tomato, 67. Cf. FelicitasD. Goodman,Speaking in Tongues: A
Cross-CulturalStudy of Glassolalia (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972).
62See L.L. LangnessandGelyaFrank, Lives: An AnthropologicalApproach to Biography
andSharp,1981).Foran ethnographic
(Novato,Calif.:Chandler example,see RobertColes
andJaneHallowellColes, Womenof Crisis-(New York:Dell, 1978).
63JohnL. Caughey,"Ethnography,

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240 American Quarterly

oftenassumedthattheethnographer wasanobjectiverecording instrument

whosejob was merelytodescribehonestly thesocialworldstudied.It has
becomeincreasingly clearthattheethnographer's ownconceptsand ex-
perienceshavean important effecton whatgetsdescribed.Thishas been
strikingly in cases in whichtwoethnographers have sepa-
ratelystudiedthesamegroup- andcometoverydifferent conclusions.64
To deal withthis,theethnographer awareofwhat
needsto be reflexively
happensin thefield,to monitorand to recordobservations of personal
consciousness throughout theprocessofgaining understanding ofanother
culture.Recentlywe havebegunto getmuchmoresophisticated autobi-
ographicalaccountsof the fieldwork experience,manyof whichfocus
on therelationship
particularly betweentheethnographer and keyinfor-
mants.65 Because thisrelationship is so important, KevinDwyerargues
thatan accountofitshouldbe an obligatory partofanyethnography, and
he even proposespublishing completeuneditedtranscripts of his own
conversationswitha keyinformant.66 Inthisformsuchmaterial is likelyto
be moretediousthanvaluable,butthisis an important area forfurther
research.For AmericanStudies,personalaccountsoffieldwork are also
valuableforwhattheytellus abouttheAmerican ethnographer's thinking
whenhe or she is immersed as a temporary immigrant inan aliencultural
system.Another dimension ofreflexive studiesinvolvesthepossibility of
usingethnography to studyone's owneveryday lifeathome.In anthropol-
ogy and muchof sociologyit is generallyassumedthatfieldwork in
Americainvolvesthe studyof someoneelse's everydaylife.However,
thereareimportant possibilitiesforadaptingethnographic methodsto the
studyofeveryday lifeinone's ownsocialcircles.67 Thesewouldseemtobe
particularly forreflexively orientedAmericanculturestudies.

"The Interpretation
64Cf.JohnBennett, A QuestionofValues,"South-
westernJournalofAnthropology,2 (1946), 361-74. Cf. Agar,ProfessionalStranger,7-8; and
Emerson,"Observational FieldWork,"361.
65SeeHortensePowdermaker, Strangerand Friend(New York:Norton,1966);Arthur
Vidich,JosephBensman,andMauriceStein,eds.,Reflections on Community Studies(New
York:JohnWiley,1964);PeggyGolde,ed., Women intheField(Chicago:Aldine,1970);John
M. Johnson,DoingFieldResearch(NewYork:FreePress,1975);MichaelClarke,"Survival
of PersonalExperiencein FieldWork,"Theoryand Society,2
in theField: Implications
(1975), 95-123; and Georges and Jones,People StudyingPeople.
66Kevin 4 (1979),205-24.
67SeeCaughey,"Ethnography, and ReflexiveCultureStudies";Donald
Messerschmidt,ed., Anthropologistsat Home in NorthAmerica: Methodsand Issues in the
StudyofOne's OwnSociety(NewYork:Cambridge Univ.Press,1981);JohnB. Stephenson
andL. Sue Greer,"EthnographersinTheirOwnCultures: TwoAppalachian Cases," Human
40 (1981),123-30;David M. Hayano,"Auto-Ethnography:
Organization, Paradigms, Prob-
lems,and Prospects,"HumanOrganization, 38 (1979),99-104;and MargaretR. Yocom,
"FieldWorkinFamilyFolkloreandOralHistory: A StudyinMethodology," Diss. Univ.of

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of Everyday
TheEthnography 241


Mostofthehow-to-do-it literatureis concerned withmethods forcollect-

ingandanalysing fielddata.Muchless has beenwritten on theprocessof
writing itup.68Yet this,too,is clearlya criticalissue.How does onetake
whatonehaslearnedabouta givenworldandcommunicate iteffectivelyto
an audiencewitha different set of culturalunderstandings? Once again
ethicalissuesmustbe considered. Themostimportant involvestheobliga-
tionto protectone's informants. It is generally agreedthatsubjectsare
entitled to anonymity. Personalnamesshouldbe changedunlessexplicit
consentis obtainedinwriting. Less clearis theextenttowhichinformants
shouldhavetheright toreviewwhattheethnographer writes.Itis confirm-
ing,andflattering, to haveinformants agreethat one has Butwhatif
some them disagree orwish to suppress certainmaterial? This is thekind
ofissueanethnographer mustcarefully consider.Itsresolution willdepend
on thecircumstances oftheparticular case.69
Apartfromethicalissues thereare a hostof questionson theproper
format, arrangement, and styleofethnographic writing.70 Assessments of
thewriting inconventional socialscienceethnography arejustifiably criti-
cal. The typicalethnographic accountis a dullseriesofgeneralities inthe
ethnographer's jargon.The particular lives,meanings, and voicesof the
individuals making up thesystemareeffectively neutralized andlost.This
is neitheras itshouldbe noras ithastobe. A secondtendency, theextreme
reactiontotheformal ethnographer' s voice,is foundintheworkofwriters
like Oscar Lewis, Studs Terkel,and JohnGwaltney,who give us the
informant's voice withoutinterpretive comment.71 In some cases such
material is effective, butas a rulesomecombination oftechniquesshould
be developedsuchthatonenotonlyhearsfrom theinformants butalsogets
the ethnographer's interpretations of the culturalsystemencountered.
Effective ethnographic writing mustsomehowtake the readerintothe
underlying logicofthewaypeoplethink.It mustdescribepatterns inthe
systemand linktheseto mattersof significance in therealmof culture
theory.At thesametimeitmustbalancegeneralities withspecificexam-

680n the underlyingdynamics, see Vincent Crapanzano, "On the Writingof Ethnog-
raphy," Dialectical Anthropology,2 (1977), 69-73.
69Agar,Professional Stranger, 183-87; Douglas, InvestigativeSocial Research, xiv-xv;
RichardNewbold Adams, "Ethical Principlesin AnthropologicalResearch: One or Many?"
Human Organization,40 (1981), 155-60.
71Cf.Oscar Lewis, La Vida (New York: Random House, 1966); Studs Terkel,American
Dreams (New York: Pantheon, 1980); and JohnL. Gwaltney,Drylongso (New York: Ran-
dom House, 1980).

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242 American Quarterly

andalso specific
in whichindividuals
of particular
descriptions think,act, and
speakinthescenesoftheireverydaylife.73Hereis anareawhereAmerican
Studiesethnographersshouldexperiment and innnovate.


Whyshouldwe engagein ethnographic studiesofeverdaylife?Three

generalkindsofanswersare commonly foundintheliterature. In thefirst
place, ethnography can greatlycontribute to a betterdescriptiveunder-
standing ofthepluralistic natureofthecomplexsocietyinwhichwe live.
Second, ethnography is crucialforculturetheory.Throughsustained
firsthandcontactwithongoing communities,
institutions, andsocialscenes
we can develop,test,modify, and refineourtheoretical constructs.74
Fieldwork also holdsspecialkindsofbenefits fortheethnographer and,
potentially,forthereaderof ethnography. In ourmulti-cultural society,
fieldwork oftenconfronts theethnographer, facetoface,withpeoplewho
liveotherrealities.As such,fieldwork ofteninvolvesa powerfully affecting
andself-transforming experience. Effectively communicated, thisconfron-
tationgivesthereadera similar ifvicariousexperience. Goodethnography

72Forexamplesof shortethnographic see JosephG. Jorgensenand Marcello
Truzzi,eds.,Anthropology Life(EnglewoodCliffs, 1974);
E. NashandJamesP. Spradley,
Jeffrey Approach(Chicago:
eds.,Sociology:A Descriptive
Rand McNally,1976);JamesP. Spradleyand MichaelA. Rynkiewich, The Nacirema:
Readings on American Culture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975). Ethnographicarticles are
publishedregularlyin thejournals QualitativeSociology, UrbanLife, and UrbanAnthropol-
ogy. Interestingbook-length studiesincludeElliotLiebow, Tally'sCorner
(Boston:Little,Brown,1967);JosephT. Howell,HardLivingon ClayStreet(GardenCity,
N.Y.: Anchor,1973); ErvingGoffman, Asylums(New York: Anchor,1961); Barbara
Myerhoff, NumberOur Days (New York: Simonand Schuster,1978);Kai T. Erikson,
Everythingin Its Path (New York:SimonandSchuster,1976);RobertB. Edgerton, Alone
Together:Social Orderon an Urban Beach (Berkeley:Univ. ofCaliforniaPress,1979);Elijah
A Place on theCorner(Chicago:Univ.ofChicago,1978);JamesP. Spradleyand
BrendaMann,The CocktailWaitress(New York: JohnWiley,1975);ConstancePerin,
EverythingIn it's Place: Social Orderand Land Use inAmerica (Princeton:PrincetonUniv.
Press, 1977); and David M. Hayano, Poker Faces: The Life and Workof Professional Card
73Onadapting novelistic suchas scene-by-scene
techniques of
to description
theactual,see TomWolfe,TheNewJournalism (NewYork:HarperandRow,1973),31-33.
OneofWolfe'sownbestexamplesis "The TruestSport:JoustingWithSamandCharley,"in
his Mauve Gloves and Madmen (New York: Bantam, 1977), 24-58. Cf. Joan Didion, The
Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: HoughtonMifflin,1941).
74Spradley,EthnographicInterview,9-14; cf. WardH. Goodenough,
Description and
Comparison in CulturalAnthropology(Chicago: Aldine, 1970).

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The Ethnographyof EverydayLife 243

enhancesour understanding of the powerand complexityof cultural

forces.Ithelpsusbreakthrough thecageofourowncultural conditioning.
Butwhatofthe"subjects" and "informants?" How, ifat all, do they
benefit?How can we justifypryingintotheirlives? If the researcher
communicates hisintentions,
theycan alwayssay "no" to theresearch.
Thefactthatpeopleusuallyaccepttheethnographer suggests thattheytoo
oftensensesomeofthebenefits listedabove.75Manywriters argue,how-
ever,thatthereshouldbe something moreas well. Some argueforthe
designof"strategic"or "applied" formsofethnography, thatis, ethnog-
raphyaimedatthesolution ofsocialproblems. In-contextstudiesofhuman
problemscan contributeto theirunderstanding andalso to theirsolution.
Through consultation
withinformants, can be directly
fieldwork oriented
to theproblemsgroupmembersare concernedabout.76
Whatever thetheoretical
ormethodological approachchosen,themulti-
ofeveryday lifeworldsincontemporary Americansocietyprovides
us withan extraordinarily
richarenaforethnographic research.*

can also be important.

75Other "Fieldwork:Towarda
Cf.R. ColbyHatfield,
Model ofMutualExploitation,"AnthropologicalQuarterly,46 (1973), 15-29;Johnson,Doing
Field Research, 56-58; and Agar, Professional Stranger,88.
16-20;and Eddy and Partridge,
thropologyin America.For ethnographicexamples,see RobertS. Weppner,ed., Street
Ethnography:Selected Studies of Crimeand Drug Use in Natural Settings(Beverly Hills:
Sage,1977).ForanAmerican "MythandMediation,"
Soundings, 52 (1979), 338-68.

*Fortheirsuggestions to GeneWise,Karen
ofthisessay,I am grateful
Lystra,HenryShapiro,LonnaMalmsheimer; RichardP. Horwitz,FrancesCaughey,Law-
renceMintz,Pat Secrist,and ConnieElsberg.JoEllenLaissue providedable research

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