Scott Grills, editor. Doing Ethnographic Research: Fieldwork Settings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998, 256 pp. $21.95 paper.

Scott Grills, a noted field researcher in the area of radical political parties in Canada, has put together an exciting collection of papers dealing specifically with a question asked of field researchers, “What are some of the key research problems in my field site and how have they been managed?” The book, and the topic under consideration, developed from the various Qualitative Research Conferences held at major Canadian universities since 1984. Though not a collection of papers from them, the conferences nevertheless served as the point of initiation for an intriguing collection of works by a diverse collection of ethnographers, all intellectually concerned with different subject matters. Contributors include noted field researchers such as Kathy Charmaz, Robert Prus, William Shaffir, and Scott Grills himself.

According to Grills, this edited volume has two primary goals. The first is to introduce the novice ethnographer to the trade, and maybe most importantly, to alert her to the various problems and varied experiences that she will encounter while there. The second goal is, to quote Grills, to create an edited volume that would appeal to us who enjoy teaching field methods courses. By inviting something of an ethnography of ethnography, the behind-the-scenes accounts offered provide some unique glimpses into the work of ethnography and accompanying theoretical concerns (p. vi)

In order to meet the two stated goals of the text, the editor organizes the volume into four primary sections: Pursuing Intimate Familiarity and the Problem of Membership; Issues in Methodological Practice; Ethics, Intervention, and Emotionality; and Ethnographic Text and Ethnographic voice. For the purpose of review, essays from three chapters will be discussed, with a final discussion of the text as a whole to follow, showing both its contributions and its few failures.

Focusing on the problem of membership, Robert Stebbins considers the problems that those who are “outside” of a particular ethnicity or culture face gaining entry to a field site and becoming an accepted member of that local culture and the wider culture of which it is a part. Drawing from his own experience, Stebbins describes the problems faced by an anglophone performing research among the francophone community in Canada. In an intriguing section, he describes becoming part of and publishing in the academic world of French-Canadians, and the barriers he has overcome in achieving this rather elite status. The author explains very well the problems incurred in field research in another linguistic community, but the essay does present a significant problem. Primarily composed of and edited by Canadian sociologists, the collection is nevertheless an international volume and is marketed as such. Yet most sociologists, especially those from the United States, have little or no experience performing fieldwork among groups which speak a different language. While fieldwork is certainly performed in local sites in which the ethnographer is an outsider, dealing with the hurdles discussed by Stebbins is unique and very different from that experienced by most sociologists. In addition, though it has become increasingly common, sociologists, especially those involved in introductory level field research courses, do not generally have the struggles of attempting to enter into the academic circles of another culture.

Emerging from the section on Ethics, Intervention, and Emotionality, Leslie Irvine’s essay, “Organizational Ethics and Fieldwork Realities: Negotiating Ethical Boundaries in Codependents Anonymous,” engages a topic that all field researchers, novice or “expert,” are concerned with – the Institutional Review Board! Irvine establishes an historical framework for the development of these, and most importantly, examines the ways in which they conflict with the basic aims and methods of qualitative field research. From her own experiences in conducting fieldwork in an anonymous 12-step program, Irvine shows the basic problems with the IRB and fieldwork: “in my experience, however, the IRB requirements can constitute a force that shapes research according to a formality that does not exist in ongoing social interaction” (p. 168). Using examples from her fieldwork, the author provides an intriguing account of the ongoing difficulties the field researcher must grapple with, most notably in terms of ethical boundary work. The field is certainly a murky and many times “unsafe” place, and Irvine’s essay does much to explain an oft experienced occupational quandary of the field researcher.

In “Telling Tales and Writing Stories: Postmodernist Visions and Realist Images in Ethnographic Writing,” Mitchell and Charmaz engage in a conversation regarding the use and function of a “good story” in ethnographic work. The authors document and explain the literary techniques used by writers of fiction to draw the reader in and make the tale one well worth reading. It is an interesting and intriguing chapter that is indeed well written. As a colleague commented one day, they are contending that in writing an ethnographic piece, “one should lead the reader along by the hand.” The authors embrace a Romanticist view of writing style and process. However, this proves cumbersome when engaged with postmodernism, which is often at odds with the project of literary Romanticism. In fact, a postmodernist writing style, such as that embraced by Milan Kundera, seems to be disregarded. However, despite the theoretical oppositions, the chapter still alerts the novice field researcher to a lesson that is well learned in a discipline that has for too long paid scant attention to producing work that is both easily read and understandable. It is appropriate that field researchers learn this skill at the beginning of their journeys and carry it with them throughout their careers.

Taken as a whole, the collection assembled by Scott Grills is very important for those learning the wonderful art of ethnographic fieldwork. Used in combination with a text that speaks more to the “nuts and bolts” of fieldwork, it would make a unique and needed contribution to “novice” ethnographers. The field is a difficult and messy place to work, but a wonderful setting to, “get the seats of your pants dirty,” as Robert Park so eloquently put it. Doing Ethnographic Research will alert introductory field researchers to the problems they will face in both the field and the writing of their research – a very important contribution indeed.

Christopher A. Faircloth
University of Florida

May 1999
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