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Turning Points and Textual Strategies in Ethnographic Writing

Turning Points and Textual Strategies in Ethnographic Writing

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Turning points and textual strategies in ethnographic writing DEBORAH REED-DANAHAY University of Texas at Arlington In an essay on infertility and pregnancy, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod (1995) places her own personal experience of IVF and a resultant pregnancy in the context of her work and life as an ethnographer among Bedouin women. The article is quite ``self-re¯exive,’’ but the author makes use of her own experiences in order to convey a sense of what it means to be a pregnant or trying-to-get-pregnan t woman in another cultural context. This essay gives ethnographic insights about Bedouin cultural prac- tices and belief about pregnancy, while at the same time tells us about the ways in which an ethnographer both shapes and is shaped by her encounters ``in the ®eld.’’ Lila writes: ``In being pregnant, I was ®nding that the cultural resources I had at my disposal to think about what I was experiencing and to ®ll in gaps in my knowledge of an uncertain terrain included both those `from home’ and those `from the ®eld,’ often juxtaposed’’ (1995, p. 347). This type of writing is considered ``experimental’’ in anthropology because it does not use the conventions of what Marcus and Cushman (1982) have identi®ed as the ``realist’’ approach to writing, in which an omniscient narrator would detail and analyze Bedouin women’s behavior and belief with an aim of ``objective’’ description. I take the liberty of assuming that Abu- Lughod’s desire is not primarily to be ``scienti®c’’ (if this means objectively categoriz- ing and analyzing ethnographic research), but, rather, to convey to the reader the ``human’’ qualities of both the ethnographer and Bedouin women ± to ``humanize’’ the ethnographic encounter. So-called ``experimental’’ ethnographic writing has become increasingly promi- nent in recent years, as ``new’’ ways of representing ethnographic encounters have emerged. It can be seen as a mode of writing against realist conventions of ethno- graphic description, in which the self of the ethnographer is de-emphasized or hidden altogether. Here, as in Abu-Lughod’s essay, the ethnographer is revealed to be vul- nerable, to shift ethnographic perspectives according to her own life experiences. While the ways of establishing the authority of the author associated with realist ethnography have been questioned, new forms of credibility are emerging. ``Authority’’ of the author may not be the most accurate term to apply to the newer forms of writing, in which the voices of ``native’’ informants are not always overshadowed by that of the anthropologist. In newer representations of ethnography, authors seek to be persuasive and credible, rather than to position themselves in some type of conclusive ``authority.’’ In self-re¯exive ethnographic writing, this is estab- lished through the ethnographer’s ability to write sensitively and engagingly about (and, above all, to problematize) the border zones and sites of encounter between his or her life story and that of ``the natives.’’
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