The Stigmatized Vernacular: Where Reflexivity Meets Untellability

The Stigmatized Vernacular: Where Reflexivity Meets Untellability

The Stigmatized Vernacular: Where Reflexivity Meets Untellability

The Stigmatized Vernacular: Where Reflexivity Meets Untellability


As part of this multilayered conversation about stigma, this volume discusses the relationship between the stigmatized individual and our role as researchers. Here we address our own perspectives as researchers struggling with stigma issues and tellability, as well as scholarly reflexive concerns dealing with what can't be said when working with stigmatized groups or topics. The disciplinary focus of folklore positions us well to concentrate on the vernacular experience of the stigmatized, but it also propels us toward analysis of the performance of stigma, the process of stigmatization, and the political representation of stigmatized populations. These perspectives come to the fore in this book, as does the multilayered nature of stigma--its ability to reproduce, overlap, and spread, not just in terms of replication but also in terms of the ethnographer's ability to apprehend it and her ability to research and write about it.


Ann K. Ferrell

1 “It’s Really Hard to Tell the True
Story of Tobacco”: Stigma, Tellability,
and Reflexive Scholarship

During my time as an American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellow in 2008–2009, I was asked to speak to a Vermont aauw chapter about my research on Kentucky burley tobacco farming. I began my talk this way:

Imagine that you are a fifth-generation farmer of a farm product that is
now in less demand. Much of it is being imported from overseas, and the
product is associated with illness and death…. Now imagine that prod
uct is milk. What would that mean in Vermont?

I thought for a long time about how to open my talk to this Vermont audience. Based on the responses and reactions that I had previously experienced when I talked about my research, I knew that their ideas about tobacco were probably based in particular stories that have contributed to the construction of a dominant and publicly acceptable way of speaking about tobacco. I wanted to acknowledge these ‘tellable’ narratives—and couch tobacco farming in other, more locally (and publicly) resonant discourses—so that my audience would be willing to hear about my research.

In this chapter, I describe how I came to examine assumptions about tobacco production and tobacco producers—both my own assumptions and those of others that I encountered—in order to discover what was deemed tellable in public discourses. a number of scholars have explored the idea of tellability, most often with regard to personal narratives and small-scale interactions. For instance, in their classic 1967 study William Labov and Joshua Waletzky describe “evaluation” as necessary to successful personal narratives: the narrator’s evaluative moves . . .

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