Ethnography in Writing

In my consumer insight marketing course this quarter, we’ve been discussing ethnography. This is the research method where the researcher immerses himself in the field: he joins the group of people he’s observing, acts like them, and observes just about everything they do. Of course, it was originated by colonialists entering African villages and whatnot, making those observations easily revelatory, but in the field of consumer research, ethnography is not so easy. It’s generally an American observing an American, or a suburbanite observing a suburbanite. So what my professor stressed was the importance of putting aside all of our assumptions and observing things as if we had never seen them before.

For example, if we were observing someone wearing sunglasses, we would have to note that they had pieces of dark plastic or glass held over their eyes by plastic frames. The idea is that by stripping down our assumed observations, we can reach more interesting conclusions than if we simply said the person was wearing sunglasses.

This is an idea that I think should be applied to writing as often as possible, with a variation. As a writer, you have to immerse yourself, at least imaginatively, in the character’s world, but you cannot do it as an outsider. You have to be seeing the character’s world through the character’s head. So instead of writing down that sunglasses are pieces of dark glass, you write down what that character would find different about those sunglasses. There were rhinestones on the temple arms. They sat on the bottom of his nose. It is the quirky things that only a specific character would notice that make reading from a character’s perspective so interesting.

Often, the manuscripts I read by novice writers spend too much time trying to capture all of the scene, as if we were watching a movie instead of reading a book from a limited perspective. The writer wants to show us every character’s reaction and give us insight into all those reactions and also make sure we notice the carpet is red to symbolize the antagonist’s anger. This may work in omniscient third person, and sometimes also in limited third person, but if you have chosen to write a scene from a particular character’s point of view, then you must remain in that perspective. This does not mean that you can’t show us the other character’s reactions or even the red carpet, but the key is how you do it.

This is where ethnography comes into play. What does the character notice that you wouldn’t notice? How is the character’s world unique to them? You have to learn to leave behind yourself and your assumptions to accurately portray a character’s observations. Sometimes that means they observe nothing at all about the beautiful scene you’ve constructed.


Point of View

This quarter I’m taking a class on Dickens, and the first book we are reading is David Copperfield. I’d heard of this book, of course, and had some vague idea that it was about a little boy and how he grew up. I also knew there was a magician called David Copperfield, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t related. All the other Dickens books I’ve read have been in third person, so when I opened* David Copperfield, I was almost shocked to see it in first person.

A quick Wikipedia search tells me this isn’t Dickens’ only book to do this, but I still found it a wonderfully pleasant surprise. Instead of getting the somewhat removed, observant narrator who always has a comment up his sleeve, I got a narrator who is so much in the moment that it’s hard to know whether his version is really what happened. It sucked me right into the book.

The reason I mention this is that oftentimes writers struggle with choosing whether to write in first or third person (most people don’t consider second person). Not many modern writers assume the type of third person I’m accustomed to from Dickens, but first person can still offer more of a connection with, and more of an insight to, a character than third person, especially if that character is the focus of the story (as in, the title character) or has a particularly interesting viewpoint (as in, a child’s).

*I say opened somewhat metaphorically because I am reading my Dickens books on my new Kindle, which is wonderful, and I recommend it to everyone. It’s especially nice carrying to class instead of a thick hardcopy of David Copperfield.