Van Maanen, Genre Development, and its Relation to Paradigm Shifts

This week, our reading focused on works by Robert Brooke, Van Maanen, and continuation in Stake’s Qualitative Methods. This post will specifically discuss Van Maanen.

In Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, Van Maanen lays out several sub-grenres of ethnography, which he calls “tales”, defined by their narrative and rhetorical  conventions. There are three major categories and four smaller ones we did not read about:

  • Realist: objectively toned, portraits of a culture; assume personal field’s theoretical beliefs and unapologetically use them to interpret culture.
  • Confessional: more focused on the narrative-making than the culture, per say;  often, the ethnographer is the hero, or center of a “character building conversion tale” (77); epic; acknowledges the limitations and difficulties of the researcher’s work, but having confessed them, still argues for the validity of their knowledge-making.
  • Impressionist: focus on particular moments of observation, told in a dramatic style; more interested in the non-normative case than the normative; rely less on theoretical interpretation, and allow the dissonance of the tale to provoke reader’s own conclusions
  • Critical
  • Formal
  • Literary
  • Jointly told

I especially appreciated his summary of how rhetorical conventions change withing the genre of ethnography:

“Only during the first third of this century did ethnography itself become a recognizable topical and literary genre set off from similar written products such as traveland-adventure stories, fiction, biography, social history, journalism,statistical surveys, and cultural speculation (Clifford, 1983a; Marcus and Fischer, 1986). Shifts within ethnography occurwhen, for example, new faces enter the field, novel problems areput forth, funding patterns change, or, of special interest here, new narrative styles develop as older ones fade and become somehowless convincing and true. 6 These changes may be gradual andmay pass without notice, or they may shock and awaken slumbering writers and readers of ethnography unprepared for the blurringor overthrow of previously uncontested ways of doing things.” (6)

I feel it would be safe to say that this process holds for most written genres of communication. A genre/field/method of investigation emerges as particular cultural interests intersect with problems of praxis and sponsorship to create a new disciplinary matrix from which new ways of speaking and writing, crystalize, so that epistemological negotiations can continue to move forward. Van Maanen’s description of the evolution of ethnography is almost the Composition parallell to Kuhn’s description of paradigm shifts in science, with the Latourian notion of articulation /enrollment. But of course, that’s the rhetoric of science scholar coming out in me.

A final note: last week, syntaxfactory posted a thread on Blogora about “accidental cannon formation” in methods of research. We might see Van Maanen’s study of the rhetorical patters in various ethnographic methods as different types of delivery tailored to particular audiences, to garner ethos within those communities (certainly this makes up a large portion of Van Maanen’s analysis).