My personal crisis of representation: How I read and wrote myself into ethnography

Sometimes events happen with timing that seems almost planned. I’d read Jim’s plans for the presentation of his thesis, plans he made because he was concerned that it was important that his participants’ voices be heard in a pure form, and that his voice as commentator should not be privileged over their voices.

From Jim’s blog

The thrust of the seminar was the provision of an historical and methodological account of my mixed method approach. The focus was on reviewing aspects of my qualitative data (30 semi-structured interviews) and quantitative data (NVivo analysis of a component of the project's 2005 national online survey of doctoral candidates). I highlighted major features of narrative and practice theory - both of which have assumed a level of significance above and beyond my original conceptual framework that constituted a tri-focal lens of learning, socialisation and knowledge production.

In preparation for the panel meeting I had previously circulated material that included a 2006 annual report; a draft outline for my thesis comprising an abstract and proposed chapters; and a series of milestones for 2007. Given that there are aspects of my thesis plan that could be described as unconventional — for example, a set of case narratives will form a key component, and aspects of the literature will be integrated across the text (rather than include a literature review as a discrete chapter) — I was apprehensive that some members of the panel would be concerned to say the least. However, some constructive suggestions were advanced, and following discussion a modified version of the plan was endorsed. Given increased accountability processes regarding PhDs at the ANU, there is a level of formality involving signed documentation around annual reporting.

As a result of yesterday's seminar and the meeting, I now have a sense in which I am entering the final and most challenging stage of candidature—a process that will involve extensive drafting and re-drafting of chapters. However, I also feel reasonably optimistic at this stage given that the basic structure, content and argument seem to be in place.


I talked to him about this when I visited Canberra soon after. We even discussed fonts and typefaces, and he talked about his reading of narrative theory, which had informed the way he had made his decisions. The next day I sat in library at ANU reading Fields of Play (Richardson, 1997). In the early chapters Richardson writes about the difficulties of  re-presenting the stories people give us, and when I logged on to check the blogs in my study one of my participants had given me a story about feeling completely mis-represented in a conference presentation.

Cait’s story

Which brings me back to remembering the first conference I ever went to. It was in Adelaide, and I didn't mind going alone but somehow I imagined that Adelaide would have a proper train system, which it didn't. Strike one in getting there. Then I entered, and who did I find but one of my former teachers, who I really wasn't at all fond of. It was nice to see a familiar face, in any case. Not so nice when I realised that she was presenting a paper on our class, which she'd done some research on years and years back. And that I was one of her case studies. She was keen for me to watch it, and she was on before me. It was pretty awful - I disliked the way I'd been presented, I felt she was relying on stereotypes etc etc.

As for the former teacher, she has since published a journal article about our class - I wasn't misquoted or anything, but I still feel very uneasy over the way I was presented. I've shown my participants my drafts of papers, interestingly enough they often do want things to be extended upon so as to give a fairer picture....

And in response I commented:

This made me feel quite anxious. I have been reading about the difficulties of representing your 'subjects' ethically and don't want any of you to feel like this about my eventual work. Maybe a good rule would be that I wouldn't be embarrassed if any of you heard me present or read what I'd written about you.

To which she replied:

It's funny, M-H, I know it sounds petulant of me, but it really did matter. I was involved in a study with this teacher and it was a very different context - IQs and social backgrounds - and she presented me as an underachiever and said that it was related to my "dreadful home background and lack of encouragement from uneducated parents", which was a VERY unfair assumption to make. And it was an assumption - I think I achieved fine, and if I underachieved, it was from sheer adolescent bloody-mindedness in a couple of subjects and nothing else!

I think the important thing when presenting your results is not to try and rely on stereotypes - one of my friends, also in the study, was equally outraged by hearing that she was an overachiever and achieved beyond her ability because of her privileged background - again an assumption, and quite untrue given that she had significant problems at home despite their wealth. Studies of social class have the potential to really rile their participants!

Around this time a friend, an experienced supervisor in another discipline, fixed me with a firm eye and demanded to know if my inquiry was going to be naturalistic or interpretive. Although I hadn’t thought about it consciously, with Jim, Laurel Richardson and Cait fresh in my mind I immediately replied ‘naturalistic’.

I had no idea, really, what the question meant, so I went back to the ethnographic theory and reread what I’d previously found helpful, especially Richardson (1997; 1999) and Denzin (1999), and clarification fell out of the pages into my lap. I know, now, that I will feel comfortable with interpreting the stories I am given. In fact, I would now question the possibility of *not* interpreting my participant’s stories. I’ve realised (and the theories of postmodern interpretive ethnography confirm) that it’s better to be clear about what you want to do and how you are going to do it than to pretend you’re doing something else.

The traditional five-chapter structure of a thesis, written in a formal, distanced, academic style, provides both a safety net and a straitjacket for candidates and for markers. It is, after all, the thesis that is being judged, not the candidate (Kiley & Mullins, 2004). The literature needs to be reviewed; the candidate needs to describe and critique both their methodology and their method in detail; they need to report their results and discuss that report. And of course they need to draw everything together in a way that indicates both the significance of what they’ve found and what else could be done. Kiley and Mullins show how inexperienced thesis markers are uncomfortable with theses that move outside the expected parameters, and although the more experienced markers in their earlier study were more inclined to take a holistic view of the work in front of them, there is still an unspoken assumption that the presented thesis will not stray too far from a traditional structure (Mullins & Kiley, 2002).

However, there are more subtle, philosophical analyses of the process of thesis marking. An important article by Lovat, Monfries, & Morrison (2004) examines the ways that theses are examined, using Habermass’s ‘ways of knowing’ thesis, and were unimpressed to discover that most theses (in a range of disciplines) in their study were examined in the empirical-analytic way of knowing, and consequently markers did not have a framework to value original expressions and structure or even, sometimes, original work. They conclude

… this fact has to raise questions about the extent to which the doctorate is truly working for individuals and society as the agency of new knowledge and creativity that is supposed to be its signature. (p176)

The tension between the need to present a thesis in a ‘regular’ format while expressing originality was also taken up by Brew’s (1998) report of a conversation with an academic with whom she was discussing issues concerned with the presentation of her own thesis. She proposes an ‘experiential methodology’ with guidelines (looking again, relevance and unbending intent) to ensure rigour and validity. However, apart from the fact that she admits her approach is more aimed at post-doctoral work and may not be suitable to PhD candidates, I did not find much assistance with my dilemma there – my approach to writing is much more post-modern and messy. Richardson’s statement The product cannot be separated from the producer or the mode of production or the method of knowing” (1999, p661), taken with her guidelines (see Appendix) seemed to me more in tune with my way of ‘writing to think’. I quite literally write in order to figure out what I’m thinking. I throw ideas into a document, read, think, revise, think, re-read, revise, re-read, think, revise and then I edit and revise again and I finally have the ideas firmly in my brain. I also feel aligned with Lee’s view that thesis writing is more than acquiring a set of skills; it is a way of writing oneself into academic practice, into research discourse, and into the status of ‘doctor’(Lee, 1998).

However, my question remained: how to present a multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative and get all the academic structuring in. The reflexivity of my study is profound – first of all I’m not in any sense a visitor – I’m a fully-fledged member of the community (although admittedly it is a community I have created – it will literally not exist when my study has finished). Secondly I asked myself if my ‘field notes’ have any more weight than the blogging of the candidates (of whom I am one) – although I am aware they are the basis of my thinking – they capture and investigate the significance of what I am reading. I read Ellis’s and Ellis and Bochner’s reflexive writing on ‘autoethnography’(Ellis, 2004), but found most of it generally unsatisfying. Although these works are brave attempts to integrate personal writing with academic prose and the stories of other ‘characters’, I found them overly didactic and, frankly, not very interesting to read.

Returning to The Handbook of Qualitative Research I read that Vidich and Lyman describe the mission of the postmodern ethnographers as “disproving all received texts and established discourse on behalf of an all-encompassing scepticism about knowledge; also replacing certainty with contingency” (Vidich & Lyman, 2000, p. 60) And they conclude that the final ethnography should be “an integrated synthesis of experience and theory (p62).” That sounded like what I was intending.

And again I was reminded of how important I had found the musings of Denzin in the special millennial issue of the Journal on Contemporary Ethnography, his insistence that “Ethnography like art is always political.” ((Denzin, 1999, p. 512) I know that there is no political point to be made without an interpretive framework. I have already written in my PESSA presentation how interesting I found the prospect of investigating power relationships in the academy around the PhD process, and already my participants remind me of how these games play out.

An entry from Denise

Anyway, I wanted to share about my progress interview and meeting up with my Supervisors. Well, first, after all the rushing around to get my chapter to my Supervisors at their request - they never even got around to reading it by the time we met. So no feedback from them regarding that. All well - I will just post the Data Presentation off to my participants without my Supervisors' feedback. When we met, I did take in my laptop to show them slideshows of my artwork that corresponds to my Data Presentation and they were EXTREMELY impressed. Seriously! They acted more positive than ever - I mean with "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs" - I had never heard them be so positive towards my efforts. It made me feel so good. It was like the best day ever with them. They made comment that even though they hadn't seen me in so long, they could tell I have been working really hard. And then they started going on about all these positions in the Faculty that are opening up and how I would be a good candidate for them. They did, however, recommend that I should spend this next year trying to get as many academic articles as possible published and be sure to attend another overseas conference. Which is great and all - BUT HOW DO I FIND THE TIME??? I'm trying to submit here, afterall! I'll see what i can do... But nice to know my Supervisors now think of me as good enough to take on a position in the Faculty.

As Denzin goes on,

… ethnography inscribes the human crises of a specific culture. It endeavors to connect those crises to the public sphere, to the apparatuses of the culture that commodify the personal, turning it into a political, public spectacle.” (p 512)

My brave participants have willingly agreed to put their confusion, their uncertainties, their frustrations and their achievements into my hands, and I would not be doing them a service if I didn’t interpret these within the framework of what I am coming to understand about the politics and process of doing a PhD from my reading. I am morally bound, in Denzin’s words, to search “for those moments when humans resist these structures of oppression and representation, and attempt, in the process, to take control over their lives and the stories about them.” (p512)

So, through my reading and writing I think I have confirmed that I do want to write an interpretive ethnographic account of the process of PhD development. But my issue is still how to present the outcomes of my study in a way that presents the polyvocal and multilayered narratives created by my bloggers and myself, along with the theoretical background, the path of the development of my thinking and my own emotional journey. It is at this point I begin to realise how many ‘other’ PhD bloggers there are online – I have amassed nearly 10 whom I consider are worth following, most in Australia, and rejected many more as not being sufficiently interesting to spend my time on. After attending the Association of Internet Researchers conference I gain confidence in myself, and I begin to write to these PhD bloggers when they post something interesting to me – something that relates to my project – asking if I can save their words in case they illustrate a point I want to make, and of course they generously agree to this. So the complexity of my project is increased. (And I wonder if I have to take this new idea to the ethics committee….)

But, partly as a result of attending the conference and talking to other PhD students, and party from my reading, I am becoming clearer about the place of my own blog-recorded journey – it will be privileged over those of ‘my’ bloggers. I’m the one who decides what the significance of their writing is, because I am more aware then they are of the political and institutional context within which their development is occurring. They also understand something of their own journey, and they may take time to understand more about the context. (They do, and they share it, often.) But it is the time that I have spent reading and thinking about my theoretical framework that will determine exactly how significance is assigned to their narratives. Their stories will, in the end, be an illustration of the points that I want to make. That’s what they have given them to me for.

Finally, I returned to Ruth Behar’s (1999) contribution in the millennial issue of JCE. And there I found solace and comfort and strength and confidence that I am, indeed, worthy and capable of the task of interpreting my participants’ stories. She refers to the “intense and sustained reflection, even angst, that you find in ethnography about telling a story that isn’t yours.” (p484) Apparently I am not alone (in fact it’s amazing to me now that I could have thought I was). Her words could have been written for me, sitting here in another continent more than seven years after they were written:

This is something quite profound and unique. Everyone steals stories, absolutely everyone, except us. Or rather, we steal them too, but we feel rotten about it. I have come to think that what ethnographers do best is worry about why a story came into their hands in the first place. This worry precedes ethnography; it is what gives our pursuit humility and earnestness and hope. Ethnography should go everywhere ethnographers want it to go but never with too much confidence. We must keep our heads a little bowed. Greatness eludes us. It is our loss of nerve that makes us ethnographers. That and our need, our irrepressible need, to go to real places to find the lost home of our imaginations. (p484)

It may be concerning that ‘the lost home of my imagination’ might be the internet, but that’s a reflection for another day.


I found this list of questions from Richardson’s Critical Analytical Practice ethnography (CAP) (Richardson, 1999, pp. 664-665) to be a useful practical kind of guide for me to keep in mind as I write.

1. Substantive contribution.

Does this piece contribute to our understanding of social life? Does the writer demonstrate a deeply grounded (if embedded) human-world understanding and perspective? How has this perspective informed the construction of the text?

2. Aesthetic merit.

Does this piece succeed aesthetically? Does the use of creative analytical practices open up the text, invite interpretive responses? Is the text artistically shaped, satisfying, complex, and not boring?

3. Reflexivity.

How did the author come to write this text? How was the information gathered? Ethical issues? How has the author’s subjectivity been both a producer and a product of this text? Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about the point of view? Do authors hold themselves accountable to the standards of knowing and telling of the people they have studied?

4. Impact.

Does this affect me emotionally? Intellectually? Generate new questions? Move me to write? Move me to try new research practices? Move me to action?

5. Expresses a reality.

Does this text embody a fleshed out, embodied sense of lived experience? Does it seem true—a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the real?


Behar, R. (1999). Ethnography: Cherishing Our Second-Fiddle Genre. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(5)

Brew, A. (1998). Moving beyond paradigm boundaries. In J. Higgs (Ed.), Writing Qualitative research (Vol. 2). Sydney: Hampden Press.

Denzin, N. K. (1999). Interpretive ethnography for the next century. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(5), 510-519.

Ellis, C. S. (2004). The Ethnographic I: a methodological novel about autoethnography (Vol. 13). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Kiley, M., & Mullins, G. (2004). Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41, 121-135.

Lee, A. (1998). Doctoral research as writing. In J. Higgs (Ed.), Writing qualitative research. Five Dock: Hampden Press.

Lovat, T., Monfries, M., & Morrison, K. (2004). Ways of knowing and power discourse in doctoral examination. International Journal of Educational Research, 41, 163-177.

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27.

Richardson, L. (1997). Fields of Play: Constructing an academic life. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Richardson, L. (1999). Feathers in our cap. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(6), 660-668.

Vidich, A. J., & Lyman, S. M. (2000). Qualitative Methods: Their history in sociology and anthropology. In N. K. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.