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Types of Ethnogropahy in Qualitative Research - D. M. Boje July 6 2013

This website uses excerpts from work I did, Boje, D. M. (2009). Postcritical Ethnography, Hermeneutics, and Storytelling Ethics of the New Mexico Arts Scene, August 17, Keynote address and paper presentation for the UK Ethnography Conference, Liverpool. Click here fore pdf.

In John Van Maanen's (1988) Tales From the Field, there are three kinds of storytelling for qualitative research: realist, impressionist, and confessional tales. To this I add Critical Tales, and Post-Critical Tales

Realist Tales

"Realist tales are not multi-vocal texts where an event is given meaning first one way, then another, and then still another. Rather a realist tale offers one reading and culls its facts carefully to support that reading. Little can be discovered in such texts that has not been put there by the fieldworker as a way of supporting a particular interpretation" (Van Maanen, 1988: 53).

Bakhtin (1973: 12), for example says, “Narrative genres are always enclosed in a solid and unshakable monological framework.”  The Realist Tale attempts to displace confessional, impressionist, as well as the Critical and Post-Critical tales we will introduce.                   

Realist Tales are an example of something called 'positive ethnography.' Positive Ethnogrphy is defined as “data provided by subjects is subsumed under a single master narrative” (Mary Mander, 1998: 22). Such master ethnography narratives inscribe a non-emotion, Cartesian, higher-order theory models, or Wittgensteinian linguistic transparency. The Confessional Tales are excluded; Ethnographer’s own subjectivity & complicity exorcised by “grounded empirical hermeneutic” (p. 22) or theory-driven categories. Ethnographic Narratives can filter out past differences, generalize to master codes, construct utopian futures, and commit other modes of abstraction, & are entirely hegemonic. Jameson (1981: 130) says Frye’s positive hermeneutic produces narratives that filter out historical differences and radical discontinuities of modes of production.Positive & critical ethnography can be Master Narratives, with detached objectivist ethics. Master (grand) narratives marginalize the microstoria differences, what I call the living stories. What is Living Story?

Impressionist Tales

With the linguistic turn, and recent versions of social constructivism, materiality has been sent to on the bench. For example, Dennis Polkinghorne (2007) takes a position that is opposed to Latoour/Barad/Strand/Haraway, and keeps to a focus that is against what Van Maanen calls realist tale.

Derrida (1979: 94) also sees narrative as hegemonic because they become terroristic inquisitions, posing as a logocentrism. Both Derrida, and Bakhtin oppose monologic narrative with little stories (petit récits). Living story, in contrast to logocentric narrative, is all about a diversity of voices and logics, instead of static there is movement, the tour, a founding of novel story spaces, a networking in the unfolding present instead of stuck in the past where each story is dialogically relational to another one, and must be told to tell of another social relationship, another context. Living stories are often without beginning, and are never-ending (unlike narrative).  There is for Bakhtin, a “Dialogical manner of story” (1981: 60). Living stories are morphed by narrative into something highly abstract and linear as narratives go. Narratives erase the living story “Little wow” moments. It’s a rather deadening, fossilizing, petrifying, and reifying process that narrative undertakes. In terms of economics, McCloskey (1990) makes the point that economists are storytellers, who often construct narratives of beginning, middle, and end, but with their own preferred endings.

Confessional Tales

These are also called, autoethnographies. See Boje and Tyler (2007) autoethnogrphy on workaholism. A Living Story, can also be microstoria resistance to grand narratives, the little stories edited out, or grossly used, in the realist tale, or the impressionist tale. It is possible to develop a confessional tale that is ontological.

Other kinds of Tales From the Field

We can add to Van Maanen's three-fold typology, some other important types of ethnography: Critical and Post-Critical ethnography.

Critical Tales

There is a growing group of scholars devoted to critical ethnography, to taking an ethical position the moves from “what is” to “what could be” and to what ought to be (Carspecken, 1996; Davis, 1999; Denzin, 2001, 2003; Fine, 1994; Noblit, Flores & Murillo, 2004; Thomas, 1993; Madison, 2005).

Critical Ethnography moves beyond realist tale “what is” and the relativistic impresionistic tale toward “what could be” and event to “what ought to be” (Carspecken, 1996; Davies, 1999; Denzin, 2001, 2003; Fine, 1994; Madison, 2005; Noblit, Flores & Murillo, 2004; Smith, 1990; Thomas, 1993). Uses Critical Theory, in liberatory interventions to oppose injustice, oppression, suffering.

Soyini Madison (2005: 5) says “critical ethnography begins with an ethical responsibility to address the process of unfairness and injustice within a particular lived domain.” By ethical responsibility I mean Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1990, 1993) answerability, where I am compelled by the living stories, to recognize that I am the one person in non-recurrent moment of Being who can intervene with care and compassion in the suffering of the Other.

Foucault rejects positive hermeneutics in order to embrace a more negative/critical hermeneutics. Beneath the surface of a historical narrative, there are assumed to be hidden micro politics that a negative hermeneutics can reveal (Pepa, 2004; Leiter, 2005). Jameson has a concern with Critical Tales: In Hegel and Marx, progress and regress plots convey ethical claims “projected onto political and historical phenomenon” as “historical inevitabilities” (Jameson, 1981: 235). Historical Materialism, for example, can become one more realist tale, one more Grand Narrative (Boje, 2001).

Cornel West (1991) accuses Fredric Jameson of engaging in positive hermeneutics, creating a utopian impulse, which no historical forces are capable of embodying.

Davis (1999: 156), gives us a link from grand narrative to critical ethnography:

“The ethnography moves on. [But] temporally, spatially and developmentally, the people he or she studied are presented as if suspended in an unchanging and virtually timeless state, as if the ethnographer’s description provided all that it is important, or possible, to know about their past and future.” (as cited in Madison, 2005: 10).

As I understand it, critical ethnography involves critical theory in ethnography, so that instead of being a bystander I intervene in a liberatory pedagogy of civic engagement and service learning. And it means trying to do something dialogical (Freire, 1970; Bakhtin, 1981) that is what Dwight Conquergood calls an “embodied interplay.”  I pick up on Bakhtin’s (1981: 60) approach to narrative as monological, and oppose it to the more “dialogical manner of story.”


A Post-Critical ethnography combines confessional with critical answerability ethics (Boje, 2008b, Critical Theor Ethics book). In listening to the Other, who experiences your intervention to bring about Answerability, there can be opportunity for frank exchange. And an opportunity for the ethnographer to reflect and own their own emotional experience, and listen to critique of their critique. In an Ethic of Care, the long view is to birng aobut healing, to resistuate (see Boje, 2001 deconstruction chapter), to forgive and move on. This means being self-reflective about one's own power, privielege, complicity, and control over the research scene being studied and changed by acts of observation or be intervention (Noblit, Flores & Murillo, 2004: 7; Madison, 2005: 8). Denzin (2001, 2003) roots postcritical ethnography in the “postmodern turn.” Davies (1999: 7) calls for a “reflexive ethnography” a “tracing back” on ourselve.


Some links

Boje, D. M. (2009). Postcritical Ethnography, Hermeneutics, and Storytelling Ethics of the New Mexico Arts Scene, August 17, Keynote address and paper presentation for the UK Ethnography Conference, Liverpool. Click here fore pdf.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), 801-831. click here

Strand, A. M. C. The Between: On dis/continuous intra-active becoming of/through an Apparatus of Material Storytelling (Doctoral dissertation, Videnbasen for Aalborg UniversitetVBN, Aalborg UniversitetAalborg University, Det Humanistiske FakultetThe Faculty of Humanities, Forskningsgruppen i Bæredygtig LedelseForskningsgruppen i Bæredygtig Ledelse). CLick here book 1.

Two articles by Polkinghorne may be helpful. I disagree a bit with both of them.

Polkinghorne (2000).

Polkiinghorne (2007) - he is dismissive of any agential aspects, and any ontology (between the line), and wants to place narrative in strictly a linguistic, social constructivist (but not material) role, in shortr he takes an epistemic position. He develops the reformist narrative position in a duality with an empiric-realist narrative stance. He just leaves out any ontologic position, by appealing to Ricoeur (1984) justificaiton of form