Ethnographic opera

Deborah Britzman

In Chapter 7 of the 2003 edition of Practice Makes Practice, Deborah Britzman asks questions of her own ethnographic studies.

… the ethnographic promise of a holistic account  is betrayed by the slippage born from the partiality of language .. .From the unruly perspective of poststructuralism, ethnography can only summon, in James Clifford’s terms, ‘partial truths and ‘fictions.’ …These positions undermine the ethnographic belief that reality is somehow out there waiting to be captured by language. (244)

Her solution is to

borrow discourses and tack them onto other discourses …  my narrative was to write a Rashomon of student teaching, an ethnographic opera where voices argued, disrupted, and pleaded with one another; where the high drama of misunderstanding, deceit, and the conflicting desires made present and absent through language and through practice confound what is typically taken as the familiar story of learning to teach. I tried to write against the discourses that bind the disagreements, the embarrassments, the unsaid, and the odd moments of uncertainty in contexts overburdened with certain imperatives. I tried to do this by provoking and contradicting multiple voices: the ethnographic voice that promises to narrate experience as it unfolds, the hesitant voices of participants who kept refashioning their identities and investments as they were lived and rearranged in language, and the poststructuralist voices that challenge a unitary and coherent narrative about experience. 247

And her rationale for this approach is to remind us of the purpose of this kind of research, which is not to authenticate a particular truth but to trace ‘but not without argument, the circulation of competing truths’ (251).

The reason we might read and do ethnography, then, is to think the unthought in more complex ways, to trouble confidence in being able to observe behavior, apply the correct technique, and correct what is taken as a mistake. Ethnographic narratives should trace how power circulates and surprises, theorize how subjects spring from the discourses that incite them, and question the belief in representation even as one must practice representation as a way to intervene critically in the constitutive constraints of discourses. 253

Writing ethnography as a practice of narration is not about capturing the real already out there. It is about constructing particular versions of truth, questioning how regimes of truth become neutralized as knowledge, and thus pushing the sensibilities of readers in new directions. 254


I find this both reassuring and unsettling.

It’s reassuring because I think this is what I’ve done in my own writing, though without the sharp self-awareness and introspection that Britzman is so good at. I’ve written case studies with competing viewpoints from different perspectives, ethnographic opera.

But it’s also unsettling. Isn’t there something in all of this that is unsaid? When we write this kind of ‘ethnographic opera’, we make decisions about which voices to include, how to present them, and we make judgments about structure and balance and tone. Britzman says all this; ‘It is about constructing particular versions of truth’.

But what she doesn’t say is how this differs from writing fiction. Presumably she is using her records of actual conversations and actual observations, and she is not consciously editing these to present a particular point of view … yet she must be. I do. I can’t see how you can do a piece of ethnographic research without doing this.

And once you’ve started down that (very useful) track, where is the line between, on the one hand,  making decisions about (say) form and, on the other,  inventing dialogue, especially when in the end one’s purpose is to ‘think the unthought in more complex ways’ or ‘push the sensibilities of the readers in new directions’?

I think in all this I’m wanting to make the case for fiction, rather than wanting to cast doubt on Britzman’s approach, which I find stimulating and liberating. Perhaps I’m just wanting to go a bit further than she seems to be wanting to go. If all poststructuralist ethnographic research can be seen as ‘degrees of fiction’, what stops us from creating composite characters and inventing scenes?


I’d welcome comments from researchers or writers more experienced than I.


6 thoughts on “Ethnographic opera

  1. Yes, Britzman writes seductively but this doesn’t convince me either. She travels a long way from what I understand to be ethnography (how can there be an ethnography with one subject in it?). Like you, I suspect, I find myself wanting to see some frameworks and methodologies identified, imperfect, partial and subjective as these might be. Recently, a colleague talked to me about how he has found ‘standpoint epistemology’ useful in his own work; it is a way of beginning by identifying the lens through which you are seeing the world & how it is shaping what you are writing. I wonder if this might be useful in thinking about the differences between Britzman’s ideas about ethnography and your ideas about the uses of fictional writing in educational research too.


    • Thanks Rachel. I think you’re more sceptical than I am about what Britzman writes, and I don’t find myself searching for missing frameworks and methodologies. I can see how important it is to identify the lens as explicitly and self-reflectively as possible, though there’s still something uncomfortable (to me) about the idea that the problems are solved by the author identifying his/her standpoint. I’m guessing I’m influenced here partly by the existence of the unconscious, which makes claims about transparent standpoints a bit suspect. I’m also influenced by discussions you and I have had in the past about the death of the author … though your grasp of the implications of that are much more developed than mine!

  2. I think Foucault (to whom Britzman appears to be extensively referring) may be of assistance. My apologies for mentioning my own work here! I hope you don’t mind!

    In my book Michel Foucault, (London: Sage, 2005) I have included a section titled Foucault’s ‘fictions’ -pp. 84-5 and I also have provided a list of references as to where Foucault talks about this difficult question of fiction and truth on p. 136

    I have noted that if Foucault describes his works as ‘fictions’ he doesn’t mean that what he is saying is not true and not rigorously researched according to strict academic cirtieria of verification and documentary evidence, rather that his works are particular accounts or ‘stories’ about reality, not transparent representations of what is really out there. But these accounts need to observe certain rules of academic rigour in order to function properly as contributions to the relevant intellectual discussions and to have truth effects in the field.

    • Thanks Clare. I’ve since read those pages and have been thinking about the issues you raise, in particular about what rules of academic rigour might apply to the kind of writing and research I’ve been trying to describe. I’m going to keep mulling about this, and am planning to write some more about it in my next blog post.

  3. Pingback: Visiting the Morgan Library: worlds of scholarship and fiction « degrees of fiction

  4. Pingback: The ethnographic challenge « degrees of fiction

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