Herndl: "Writing Ethnography: Representation, Rhetoric, and Institutional Practices"

Herndl, C. G. (1991). Writing Ethnography: Representation, Rhetoric, and Institutional Practices. College English, 53(3), 320-32.



Situating ethnography as social construction issues. Considering discourse, rhetoric, context... "we need to understand the way our disciplinary discourse appropriates the experience of the research subject and represents it in our institutions" (320).


Other arguments/ claims: Ethnography as a discursive practice (321). Ethnography is a product of research rather than a research method (321). Cites Derrida-- in act of denouncing ethnocentrism, ethnographer brings ethnocentism into discourse (322).


Purpose of essay is to move toward a "critical relationship to ethnographic discourse" (323).


Rhetoric and Textual Practices


question, essentially, is how is ''reality''-- messy, chaotic, disorganized-- "transformed" into writing, and what rhetorical methods are used? (323).


Uses Doheny-Farina''s "Writing in An Emerging Organization" to illustrate how ethnographies are rhetorical.


In essence, analyzing the piece as an artifact of academic culture.


Historicizing Our Ethnographic Practice


Cites Foucault-- Discourse isn''t "the truth revealed by the ''founding subject,'' by the description of ''originating experience,'' or by the ''universal mediation'' of language but an ''event'' linked to the exercise of power" (Archaeology 227-29; qtd. in 328). Cites Berlin-- rhetoric always serves ideological claims. Herndl disagrees-- thinks that this view disregards/ minimizes role of material and institutional. Notes Berlin''s 3 rhetorics: cognitive, expressive, and social. Agrees that social-epistemic rhetoric of ethnography makes "ideological self-consciousness possible" (329), but this doesn''t guarantee liberation.


Continues with dissecting Heath''s Ways with Words. Discusses her cultural/ institutional (working as pt within university; historical background of desegregation). Odell and Goswami as a resistance to the belletristic essay (330).


Herndl claims "The problem Berlin faces in his claims for social-epistemic rhetoric is that we
have yet to articulate a theory that both recognizes the power of ideology over
writers and provides a grounds for resistance" (329).


Concluding paragraph seems to sum it up:


The goal of a careful historical study of ethnographic discourse would be to describe the conflict between postmodern ethnographic theory and the institutional language and non-discursive practices within which ethnographers work. We should not attribute an unassailable determinism to the material or reduce the writer completely to a function of the ideological conceived in a simpleminded way. Certainly the domination of ideology or the institutional is not complete, and resistance and change do occur. We must, however, recognize the way our discourse responds to the demands placed on us by the state sponsored institutions within which we work. We need a sense of the "everyday social force" that makes the kind of reflection and revision Berlin advocates a difficult process of working against the grain in a physical and everyday sense. Given this difficulty, I question the inevitability with which social rhetorics support democracy and the viability of calls for revolutionizing our rhetorical practices. I am not sure that these laudatory goals can survive the demands placed on practitioners. If they can, they will do so only by confronting the ideological question not only in theory but also on the plane of the material and institutional.