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Telling the Stories of Domestic Violence in Philadelphia: Examining Narrative Ethnography

FatCatRex's picture

Telling the Stories of Domestic Violence in Philadelphia:

Examining Narrative Ethnography


To my initial surprise as a senior majoring in Anthropology, ethnography has become a topic of discussion several times this semester. Looking back at the texts we have considered with respect to ethnographic ‘non-fiction’ brings authors like Sagan, Berko and Coles to the forefront. To be confronted with ethnography in an English class was temporarily disorienting for my academic sensibilities, until I became fully cognoscente of the link between our literary studies of truth and that of the social scientists’ I am expected to emulate. In both situations, the onus is placed on the investigating individual to explore, and perhaps reveal, any discovered truths in a narrative form. In my own senior thesis research, I am not only looking at the presentation of thousands of truthful narratives, but am required to describe my findings in my own narrative of social science certainties. This paper will examine the ways in which social science handles ethnography and narrative, positing that true narrative ethnography is impossible to come by. In order to do this, I’ll first touch on ethnography as it has developed, what ethnography seeks to accomplish, and later move to the practice of ethnography in my own research.

Social scientists have perfected the practice of ethnography in order to learn about the social and cultural practices of communities by spending time among them. Traditional anthropological methods focused first on observation, later progressed to participant observation, and today the trend in anthropological inquiry centers around engaged participant ethnography. As an aspect of social science, ethnography relies on the researcher’s interpretation and framing of social constructs. This extremely individualistic method of study promotes a fair amount of reflexivity, a privilege the discipline of anthropology relishes at every opportunity. A self-aware researcher has the ability to both consider the community in question as well as how such a community or research is affected by his or her presence. Ethnographies thus serve as records of social constructs, with a small side of intended or unintended autobiography. Particular research projects present steep ethical and moral dilemmas as well, although the issue of representing a culture that is not native to researchers is a long-standing favorite.

While these are the intentions and basics of what ethnography is, there is of course also the matter of how it is to be done and why. Many of the most famous and celebrated ethnographies speak to work done almost a century ago now: Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, for instance, or Franz Boaz’s study of Kwakuitl Indians. Boaz in particular is credited with the creation of ethnography, as he was one of the first to announce that all aspects of social life create culture (thus the push to record everything) and that all cultural is both relative and relevant. That is to say, the daily reality of one group is no more advanced than another; it is merely a result of differing socio cultural factors. As a student of anthropology and thus a student of ethnography, I was taught that culture is everywhere, waiting to be probed through the right research questions and epistemological framework. In so doing, the assumption is that we will be better able to understand the structure and function of our ever-globalizing surroundings.

To frame our class discussion of The Path to Paradise by Anat Berko, Anne highlighted for us five criteria to evaluate ethnography, as written by L. Richardson. The third and fifth pieces of criteria on this list, reflexivity and expression of reality, speak to our class discussion of ethnography most of all. Expressing reality through ethnography seems even simple enough, but how can we trust that the reality or its expression to be authentic when we are merely relying on the observational, deduction and writing skills of an individual? Obviously this person is likely trained in the craft of social science and the ethnographic method, but how can we be sure that is enough?

In the case of Berko, we were not convinced that her personal bias was appropriate to her study of a community in which she so clearly had a personal investment. Her critical and theoretical lens was quite poignantly affected by her role in the Israeli military, and as an Israeli mother. Sagan on the other hand, would I imagine condone the consistent questioning present in ethnography. He may not find the rigor of ethnography to match that the natural sciences, but if an ethnographer expressed enough wonder in his exploration, perhaps Sagan could approve. Coles finally, would likely and admittedly feel most at home in the field of ethnography. To him the power of narrative, as related to another person or as stand-alone fiction, is undeniable. As a researcher myself, I’ve found it difficult to balance the search for truth in narrative (expressing a reality, if you will) while still believing in my own ability to locate and interpret cultural truths.

All anthropology majors are expected to produce a thesis based upon his or her own primary research. For most of us, this means ethnography of some variety (because finding archived primary source documents is tedious at best). My thesis considers institutional and community responses to issues of domestic violence in the search for justice. I’m looking at the levels of institutional intervention in issues of domestic violence; these layers start at the state and legal level, with the nonprofit understanding next and followed by communal and individual interventions and reactions to intimate violence. My fieldwork is at the Women’s Law Project (WLP) which is a nonprofit legal advocacy network for women that advises and refers women on issues, most commonly domestic violence and other family law concerns. They offer services primarily through a Telephone Counseling system that gives women information and advice, either legally or communally, or through the work of related nonprofits. Telephone counselors are trained volunteers who record notes in an electronic database which stores information on each caller. My ethnographic research at WLP is primarily through the interpretation and study of women’s stories as recorded in the database, although I also record the happenings around me in the present.

Obviously reading counselor notes in the database brings me to these stories third or fourth hand. Even further diluting the words of these women is that in order to generalize among thousands of narratives to find the commonalities that will yield information about the classifications of violence and limitations of WLP, I am forced to tag each story with what seems most relevant or applicable. I am, essentially, diagnosing these women’s stories as Coles learned early on to move away from. My job as an ethnographer has become a translator of truth—taking kernels from each woman’s story and extrapolating widely without being able to check with them for authenticity or intent. I worry that Berko, Sagan and Coles alike would each despair at the state of my research. How can the truth be represented by me? Despite my good intentions and sense of ‘wonder,’ I am using narrative as a tool, and instead of a discovery itself (Sagan and Coles). Perhaps in my defense, Boaz would argue that as culture is everywhere, it would be possible to glean information from stories no matter which part I decide to sample or consider closely. I worry though, that in my attempt to learn from the stories of domestic violence, I am merely butchering their narrative value.

My frustrations with ethnography as a medium have only become clear to me recently, as I’ve attempted to push towards (with help from my advisors and professors of course) answers and conclusions. I wish that I could follow Coles’ lead and simply record these stories, memorialize and appreciate them, and turn in a long document, reporting these findings with Sagan-esque wonder and Berko-like clarity. I unfortunately doubt my advisor would receive such a thesis warmly, if at all. Instead I think I have learned through our consideration of Coles, Berko, Sagan and non-fiction narrative inquiry in general that much is to be gained through a social science lens—the question is, how can I reconcile the search for cultural reality and narrative truth in my own ethnography? At stake is not only my second semester of thesis research, but also my approach to the world as a budding social science graduate. I do feel that ethnography has huge value, particular an engaged and politically motivated anthropology that seeks to make a difference in the world. My concern however, which I look forward to examining more closely in my final paper, is that ethnography is not a place for truthful narrative. The consequences of a considering ethnography as fiction and considering narrative as scientific will be explored in the paper to come.



Pleasanton domestic violence's picture

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Anne Dalke's picture

and again


I'm really pleased that you are using this class as a location for interrogating your major work: how does anthropology, as a field, construct the world? How does it try to, and claim to, represent that world? What are the assumptions, in the field of anthropology, regarding the existence of "truth"?

You say here that your own job as an ethnographer is that of "a translator of truth—taking kernels," but you end this introductory portion of your project by fretting that "ethnography is not a place for truthful narrative." Does it claim to be? (Did it ever?) Is the language of truth actually the language of your field of study? How much checking for authenticity or intent is generally involved in field note-taking? How much attention is given to what you call "narrative value"? How much value is placed on "scientific" methodology, how much on fictional qualities of the writing-up? What's the relation between "cultural reality" and "narrative truth"? Do you see these as oppositional? (I'm remembering that my own first encounter w/ the notion of "turtles all the way down" --the essential unfinishedness of cultural inquiry--was in Clifford Geertz's 1973 essay on "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.")


Anne Dalke's picture


as you note, our questions about ethnography first arose in our study of Berko's text, but there is a way in which Coles' book, which we're reading as the final text in this course, really highlights the problematics of the work you are doing. Women call the WLP w/ their stories; counselors take notes; you tag them with keyterms. And in the background to your generating this "third hand" report, I hear one of Coles' mentors asking, "Who's against shorthand? No one I know. Who wants to be shortchanged? No one I know."

If "the beauty of a good story is in its openness" (Coles, p. 47), and the (contrastive?) value of theory is that it "gets to the core of things" (p. 29), then maybe, in your looking for patterns, finding commonalities, you are inevitably shortchanging individuals...but w/ the hope that you're creating a shorthand that serves a larger social good?

I'm REALLY interested, now, to see where you'll go w/ this line of inquiry...