“Rhetoric” and “ethnography” are slippery concepts, each describing a practice or methodology as well as a class of textual objects. And while “rhetoric” describes an identifiable field of study more than does “ethnography,” which is most often associated with cultural anthropology, each is an inter- and cross-disciplinary enterprise whose character can vary depending on its disciplinary home. Both rhetoric and ethnography – in their multiple meanings – have been individually challenged by postmodernism, particularly by the loss of faith in grand, totalizing theories and the assumption that language plays a role in the construction of reality. But these challenges have also brought theorists and practitioners of rhetoric and ethnography together to explore how postmodern understandings of each concept can inform the other.
Postmodernism’s crisis of representation prompted what has come to be known as the “rhetorical turn” in the humanities and social sciences. Some scholars in disciplines such as history, economics, and anthropology recognized that their knowledge-making practices were thoroughly rhetorical – emerging through argument and contestation and inevitably expressed from some point of view. In cultural anthropology, one outcome of the rhetorical turn has been a reflection on ethnography (literally, “writing culture”) as both fieldwork practice and written account. The practices of participant observation and interviewing, central features of ethnography, are no longer viewed as neutral activities but as interested influences on the objects of study. In addition, the written account of fieldwork (also called an “ethnography”) has come to be seen as a kind of fiction, not in the sense of something necessarily untrue, but in the sense of something made (rather than simply reported) by an author (Geertz 1973).
Two publications have had enormous influence over subsequent discussions about the rhetorical nature of ethnography. The central concern of one collection of essays, informed by a postmodern sensibility, is the rhetorical construction of ethnographic authority (Clifford & Marcus 1986). The essays, by anthropologists and a comparative literary theorist, explore the ethical implications of representing cultural “Others” when these representations can never be neutral, as well as the nature of “experimental” writing (writing in forms that challenge the traditional ethnographic genre). Marcus and Fischer (1986) are more explicit about what experimental ethnographies might look like. Marcus and Fischer pay particular attention to the form of ethnography, arguing that any experimentation with form should illustrate the difficulty of representation. As a particularly successful (and early) experiment with form, they cite Bateson (1958), which examines one cultural practice of a tribe of New Guinea headhunters from multiple angles that parallel the author’s own emerging understanding of the practice. Marcus and Fischer also survey how experimental ethnographers juxtapose their own voices with the voice of the “Other”; such experiments are designed not only to decenter the authority of the ethnographer but also to illustrate that cultural representations are moments of exchange between differing worldviews.
Largely excluded from these two publications, feminist anthropologists have also contributed to the discussion about the rhetorical nature of ethnography and to experimentation with the genre. In the introduction to Clifford and Marcus (1986), Clifford asserts that feminism has not contributed to ethnographic experimentation; this assertion has been challenged by articles and edited collections, among them Di Leonardo (1991) and Behar and Gordon (1995). Moreover, Mountford (1996) argues that the gender of ethnographers is rhetorical in how ethnographies are written as well as in how the researcher conducts fieldwork. Mountford points to the work of Hurston, historically overlooked in her own discipline, as an example of rhetorical experimentation that highlights gender (as well as race and class); by foregrounding herself as an insider and attending to her own subject position as a researcher, Hurston (especially 1935, 1938) complicates the relationship between observer and observed as well as author and audience.
Ethnographic theorizing within anthropology has prompted contributions by contemporary rhetorical theorists, as well as the “discovery” of canonized thinkers such as Kenneth Burke (see, e.g., Abrahams 2005). But the discipline of rhetoric has also felt the influence of a revitalized ethnography. While compositionists and communication scholars interested in empirically investigating writing and speaking practices have borrowed methods associated with ethnography – particularly participant observation and interviewing – for decades, the rhetorical turn brought newfound interest in ethnography and culture to rhetoric studies. This interest has expanded beyond theorizing about the practice of ethnography; rhetoricians have begun to describe culture itself (e.g., its institutions, objects, practices, and the like) in rhetorical terms. Two such ethnographies are Cintron (1997) and Britt (2001). Questions of the grounding of rhetoric in culture and vice versa have also been taken up more broadly by the interdisciplinary International Rhetoric Culture Project (Strecker et al. 2003).
- Abrahams, R. D. (2005). Everyday life: A poetics of vernacular practices. Pittsburgh: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Bateson, G. (1958). Naven: A survey of the problems suggested by a composite picture of the culture of a New Guinea tribe drawn from three points of view. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (eds.) (1995). Women writing culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Britt, E. C. (2001). Conceiving normalcy: Rhetoric, law, and the double binds of infertility. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
- Cintron, R. (1997). Angels’ town: Chero ways, gang life, and rhetorics of the everyday. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (eds.) (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Di Leonardo, M. (1991). Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
- Hurston, Z. N. (1935). Mules and men. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
- Hurston, Z. N. (1938). Tell my horse. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
- Marcus, G. E., & Fischer, M. M. J. (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Mountford, R. (1996). Engendering ethnography: Insights from the feminist critique of postmodern ethnography. In G. Kirsch & P. Mortensen (eds.), Ethics and representation in qualitative studies of literacy. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 205–227.
- Strecker, I., Meyer, C., & Tyler, S. (2003). Rhetoric culture: Outline of a project for the study of the interaction of rhetoric and culture. International Rhetoric Culture Project. At http://rhetoricculture.org/outline.htm, accessed September 8, 2006.