Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography

John Van Maanen

The University of Chicago Press 1988
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995 http://dannyreviews.com/
Tales of the Field is an exploration of some of the rhetorical and narrative devices used in ethnographic writing, both sociological and anthropological. Van Maanen divides the genre into three major categories — realist, confessional and impressionist tales — and treats each separately, illustrating his analysis with examples drawn from his own fieldwork (on a United States police force). He restricts (or tries to restrict) his attention to literary matters and, although the refusal to take a stance on the theoretical and epistemological issues involved seems strained in places, this works reasonably well. I didn't feel there was anything particularly original in Tales of the Field, but it is a very nice exposition of modern critical insights into ethnography.

Van Maanen writes that Tales of the Field is aimed at what he calls "collegial readers" rather than at "social science" or "general" readers. I'd like to think, however, that most academics writing ethnography would already be aware of most of the material he covers, and I think his work is most valuable as an introduction to the complexities of ethnographic writing for the student, general reader, or explorer from non-ethnographic disciplines. In particular, it is refreshingly free from technical jargon and, while it does reference other work in the field, it doesn't assume any background knowledge. It is also short enough for the limited attention spans of lower level undergraduates.

July 1995

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%T Tales of the Field
%S On Writing Ethnography
%A Maanen, John Van
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1988
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0226849627
%P xvi,173pp