Witness to all ways of life

October 25, 2002

Ethnography has been started as an international interdisciplinary journal addressing "ethnographic findings and methods in a broad interdisciplinary understanding of culture and social structure". While the subject matter of articles is international, most contributors are based in US universities.

Anthropology and sociology provide the bedrock for this venture, but the journal aims to be of interest "across the board of the social sciences and the humanities". Ethnography, as the editors argue, is a group of methods involving a "disciplined and deliberate witness-cum-recording of human events". The journal claims to have four distinguishing characteristics: recognition of the role of theory, the centrality of culture, a critical focus on research and writing and an interest in cultural policy and cultural politics.

Howard S. Becker reminds the editors that classic ethnographic studies - from the 1930s and 1940s in particular - still have a contribution to make, through their findings and their approaches to method, and therefore should perhaps be revisited in the journal. In the spirit of re-evaluation, in a subsequent article, he analyses the work of the French writer Georges Perec and argues that some of his key works can be understood as a form of ethnographic writing, so broadening the remit of ethnography.

Most articles, however, are reports of relatively traditional fieldwork and identification of underlying linkages and theory development. Locations range from El Salvador to Algeria. Subjects range from a study of how Russian families have devised strategies to survive in capitalist Russia to observations of the struggles over religious space in Nazareth.

Some editions explore a theme such as global ethnography. The editor sees the current development of global ethnography, which links the local and the global, as a reaction to the globalisation of academic communities.

As well as reports of studies, there are also articles that reflect on the experience of undertaking ethnographic work. An Israeli academic, on leave in the US, describes the stresses she experiences writing what is seen as negative text about events in her country that family and friends wish to suppress to stop it being used against Israel. An American anthropologist tells of the hostility she encounters when she returns, after 25 years, to a rural Irish village about which she had written a book that was academically successful but seen as a betrayal by the residents.

Most articles report on research carried out in another country, unlike the classic studies recalled by Becker that were home based. This may be a reflection of the globalisation of academic communities referred to above, or perhaps such home-based studies are seen as more appropriate for submission to sociological journals.

The studies are interesting, but it is difficult to know yet if this journal, based around a particular "family of methods", will reach the broad sweep of the social sciences and humanities as intended and whether it will contribute to the development of those methods.

Patricia Ellis was formerly senior lecturer in refugee studies, University of East London.


Editor - Paul Willis and Loic Wacquant
ISBN - ISSN 1466 1381
Publisher - Sage
Price - Institutions £235.00, Individuals £41.00
Pages - (quarterly)

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