Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Critical Praxis

By Wall, Susan V. | Composition Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Critical Praxis


Wall, Susan V., Composition Studies


Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Critical Praxis, edited by Stephen Gilbert Brown and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 352 pages.

The history of Composition over the last forty years would be unthinkable without the contributions of ethnographers, case study researchers, and their theorists and advocates. But their work also has its own particular history. The first generation of qualitative researchers in the 1970s and 1980s successfully challenged the dominance of quantitative approaches to research on literacies and learning. They redefined writing as a process and gave us a body of research to show us how it might be studied and taught. By the mid-1980s, however, the practices of qualitative researchers were called into question as postmodern, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and feminist theories began to transform academic scholarship. This second stage of development, detailed in this volume's final essay by Stephen Gilbert Brown, produced what the editors call "theory shock," an onslaught of by-now familiar ontological, epistemological, political, and ethical challenges that call the very enterprise of ethnography into question. Ethnography Unbound both marks and makes significant contributions to the third, current stage of ethnographic research on writing and literacies. Unwilling to continue spinning in the postmodern vortex, its sixteen contributors from English and Education aim, the Introduction says, to '"talk back' to postmodern theory to answer the fundamental questions the postmodern assault on traditional ethnographic practice raised" (2).

The editors claim that critical ethnography is the kind of research best suited to offer that kind of countercritique and produce a revised research praxis. But since "critical" is defined here by so many different terms-"rhetorical," "liberatory," "place-conscious," "political," "transformative," and so on-readers might usefully abandon hope of a coherent definition and, instead, appreciate the range of meanings these chapters offer. That would be more in the spirit of their authors, most of whom avoid arguing what ethnography "should" be. Instead, they typically ask what ethnography might become for particular researchers, informants, and readers who will bring different purposes and positions to the ethnographic "scene."

The opening essay by Bruce Horner sounds this pragmatic note, and so do many of the following chapters. Horner observes that critical ethnographers' response to the postmodern critique has been to raise an impossible set of ethical dilemmas about how to conduct and represent their work. Rather than call for yet more "strictures" to address these dilemmas, however, he argues that critical ethnographers have actually failed "to be materialist enough in their conception of the work of ethnography" (13). Proposed solutions such as self-reflexivity, multivocality, and collaboration with informants define ethnography in terms of textual gestures and "good" character, residual idealisms that keep us from understanding ethnography as entailing different kinds of labor in the material world. An ethnography defined as socially negotiated praxis rather than individual ethos will allow us to develop an "ethics of labor" that would be not only more pragmatic but, I would add, far more rhetorical in nature.

The most important chapters that follow might be classified as (to borrow terms from Lance Massey's chapter) either metamethodological essays or postethnographic reflections (271-72). In the first group, three essays propose definitions of what ethnography does and is. Mary Jo Reiff turns to theories that treat genres not as textual classifications but as forms of social action that function both pragmatically, to carry out a group's purposes, and epistemologically, to reproduce and interpret those acts and the ideologies they embody. We can, then, define ethnography as a "metagenre," at once a kind of text and a method of rhetorical analysis. …

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