Narrating narratives: a meta-analytical voyage between the potentialities and limitations of ethnographic language.

scan-2 Narrative and story telling are central to making our selves, the events in our lives, and our relations to others into coherent stories. As argued by several of the authors we have read this week, some anthropologists have made it their mission to elicit and study individual stories and the way these unveil and are tangled with social, historical, and political powers. In this piece, I do not question the importance of narrative or its relevance to our discipline. Indeed, in my previous and present work, I have embraced many of the theoretical insights of the authors we have read for today, taking people’s narrations as the object of my study and the locus to seek insight into linguistic, experiential, social, and political analytical observations. Rather, my goal is to think about narrative as a genre, not only for the ethnographic informant or research collaborator, but also for the ethnographer herself.

Although the analysis I propose may seem merely informed by anthropology’s reflexive turn, which invited ethnographers to critically study their own writing as text, what I suggest is that we go somewhat beyond this to explore the advantages and limitations of written word and other media to convey narrative. How do we narrate narrative? What do our stylistic choices imply? What are their effects on readers? Our readings themselves showcased different ways to narrate and re-count stories. For instance, Kleinman alternates objective, quasi-clinical description with quote excerpts that he proceeds to carefully interpret in a psychoanalytical key. Biehl privileges first-person accounts, quotes short interactions, and “free-rides” the lyrical effects of Catarina’s fragmented poetry as well as the power of photographic portraits, seasoning all of this with a work of interpretation and analysis that – at times – stood out to me as quasi-“voyeuristic” – in Kleinman’s terms (see e.g. the “black lion” episode, p.97-98). Janelle Taylor’s article constitutes a dramatic narration itself, and Mattingly’s authorial skills do not only emerge in her thorough descriptions of medical interactions, but also in the rich stratagems that she uses to turn her theory almost into poetry (e.g. “the small dramas of ordinary life” p.39, “the plotting of hope” p.141, or “healing dramas” p.142).

scan-3How, then, do anthropologists tell other people’s stories? In what formats; and what do these formats convey? What can words, versus images – for instance – communicate? I have long interrogated myself on these matters, especially questioning what, despite its infinite possibilities, language – and written language in particular – leave behind. As someone who is personally drawn to visuals, I have thought about the power of image through photography and ethnographic film – two media I have had the change to experiment with, although not in my own projects. Lately, however, I have become increasingly intrigued by the genre of graphic art that is gaining growing attention in academic realms (see here the first “graphic dissertation” in anthropology). In the field of narrative medicine, graphic novels have already affirmed as a genre that opens a plethora of narrative possibilities through communicative devices that go well beyond word and image (see “Graphic Medicine Manifesto” for reference). As I familiarized with this genre while assisting to the making of an “ethno-graphic” novel project, I was drugged into reading novel after novel, in amazement at the narrative potential of illustration to open windows on imagined worlds, experiential universes, and human’s deepest feelings.

As medical anthropologists we often narrate about suffering – but how do we convey such profound experiences through text? How do we represent distraught, distress, helplessness, or pain in anthropological writing? I make it my aim to continue exploring means to narrate and recount that go beyond written script. Not only I think that is helpful for the  ethnographer to find appropriate media to make justice to informants’ stories; it can also offer platforms to voice, interact, and work through narratives of illness or suffering in more satisfying ways for informants themselves.

11 thoughts on “Narrating narratives: a meta-analytical voyage between the potentialities and limitations of ethnographic language.”

  1. I am clearly not very skilled in attaching images to this (even following instructions). If anyone has insights please let me know!

    1. Alice and Troy, I appreciate both your commentaries and am sharing my two cents on the usefulness of visuals as a medium available to medical anthropologists. Visuals, are concise and encoded images. They depict abstract concepts in aesthetically pleasing, tangible, and familiar ways and engage an audience that is repeatedly and rapidly consuming new information. As a medium, it lends itself to making anthropological writing accessible; instead of ‘putting a name to a face’ in our case we are bridging terms and ideas that capture the biological and cultural complexities of the human experience.
      Of course there are ethical and methodological concerns that arise with the use of visual aids. We, as researchers, intentionally seek to present ideas that support our writing. When it comes to utilizing images to aid our work we have to filter and commit to particular design choices in order to direct a point. As a consumer of these images, I recognize that I fail to ask particular questions: What cannot I not see in these pictures? Were these events or people staged? How does this visual representation agree or disagree with the imagined reality going through my head whilst reading the text?
      One thing that I must constantly remind myself is that these are images, meant to be used for articles or presentations. We cannot expect these images will capture the realism we attempt to describe in our work. The messiness of a setting, interactions, and other processes are not always neatly packaged into a clear image. Nevertheless, these visuals serve as supports in the literary narratives, not replacements. I believe that images can be used as an alternative platform to do justice by our informants. Thick description that is supplemented with an image holds the anthropologist accountable to that reality, which has been described through text. If an image and text are juxtaposed against each other and do not align well, its evidently problematic and anyone reviewing such a piece would point that out.
      As we observed in the readings, there are different approaches within ethnography that anthropologists take besides incorporating images which include the use of fragmented poetry and first-person narrative. All these techniques contribute to the tempo one takes while reading these pieces and inject a liveliness which serve to remind us that we are reading about dynamic, living people with a voice. I could not agree more with Alice that whatever medium of communication an anthropologist utilizes to share their work, respect for one’s informants’ experiences should be acknowledged. There are a range of stylistic choices that can be implemented, so there is no reason not to do this.

      1. Hi Fabi, I totally agree with you on the point that visual images and some other media can aid ethnographic writing. I think what I was trying to stress in the previous comment is that I don’t quite see how they can replace the significance of writing in ethnography. There is data and there is interpretation. Indeed, simply presenting or telling a story by writing does not make ethnography. For some reason I have yet to ponder on, written (or even spoken) language seems to do a better job in interpretation, whereas, say, photos, leave the room for multiple interpretations wide open. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Maybe yes, maybe no. This goes back, I think, to the fundamental question of what ethnography is and what purpose it should serve. So far, I think it’s quite far-fetched to say that any other media can replace writing as the major form of ethnography.

  2. Hi Alice, thank you for bringing up the question of how ethnographers can better represent experience and suffering especially. While I do not have an answer for that question, it reminds me of a curious act I took when I was reading Biehl’s monograph. I made an effort, without knowing why, not to look at the photos in the book at all. It only came as an after-thought. Why indeed would I avoid looking at those photos? Is it because I’m so used to ethnography as written texts? Or is it because I wanted to construct an image of Vita and Catarina in my mind, images that will make the most sense to me (“Of course this is how Vita and Catarina should look like!”), whether or not they match reality (but whose realty really, as said in the book).

    But one thing is for sure to me. While I recognize the effects visual images, sound, etc. can sometimes have in assisting written language to convey a message, I insist writing should still be the major form of ethnographic product. To begin with, there is always the difficulty of accessing theory through other channels other than written texts. And then there is the problem of capturing the past, something that sound recorder or any other electronic devices cannot accomplish. Furthermore, I think reflexivity is extremely important for ethnography. This is still a problem in writing ethnography. “How does one make one’s perspective and positionality visible in writing?” “How does one not present a piece of ethnographic work as the presentation of THE reality and truth?” In other formats such as film, sound, or picture, it seems even more difficult to figure out the writer’s positionality.

  3. Hi Alice, your thought-provoking discussion on narrative makes me wonder about the centuries-old question: What’s the nature of ethnography? Is ethnography merely the representation of various forms of experiences—such as the experiences of our informants or the experiences of our own interactions with them—or does it also involve explicitly articulated analytical insights and critical reflections? Or, as Yifeng alluded to in his first comment, does anthropology belong to the humanities—such as art and literature—where the success of one’s intellectual labor is measured on the basis of aesthetic values (e.g. whether the novel provides its audience an imaginative experience or philosophical inspirations)? It’s also possible that it belongs to social science where the ultimate goal is the production of some kind of systematic observation and generalizable statement.

    For instance, you asked in your blog whether text is the most appropriate means to convey the profound experiences of suffering and illness. While this question is valid from an aesthetic perspective, I think anthropologists oriented more toward the social science perspective would instead ask: What does the narrative of suffering tell us about the features of a given social group or a given society?

    Often, I see anthropologists struggling between these competing, if not entirely incompatible, demands imposed by our discipline and awkwardness in trying to balance the two.

  4. Alice, thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post! As a student of public health, I don’t spend much time reading about patient narratives. However, as I moved through this week’s readings I certainly found myself more invested and more intrigued than I often feel when reading about patient experiences with illness, disease, and suffering. Like you, I too am impressed by the power of language to paint such vivid stories.

    While I am not as familiar with the different styles of narrative voice in anthropology, I could still recognize the varying styles between authors, and I noted how some stories were more impactful than others. As you articulated in your post, the resonance of each reading varied significantly, depending on the narrative style. I originally thought that that reading about Vita and Catarina stayed with me long after I finished because of the poetry and the intense first-person account from the author. Now though, I wonder if it was also due to the images that accompanied the narrative. Even though I wasn’t consciously aware of the photographs while I was reading, choosing instead to focus on the written word (similar to Yifeng!), my subconscious clearly noted and processed them, thereby creating a clear picture in my mind of Vita and its residents. Was it the photographs that made that narrative seem more real, more urgent than the others? I think you’re right in saying that images, especially those done in a way that fits the emotional undertone of the narrative (like the black and white images of Vita) helps to represent “profound experience” even more so than text.

    I have to say though, that I often have favored language over more visual media because I find it to be more objective. I’m not sure if this is due in part to my indoctrination as a science student, or if it is a mechanism of a much larger, more penetrating cultural norm. I sometimes worry, though, that the subjectivity of images leads much interpretation up to the reader. For example, the images that you posted for the blog: what I see when I look at them, what I take from them, could be much different from what you see, what you take. If that is true for all images (although perhaps it is less true for photographs) does that pose a danger to transmitting narratives in an accurate way? Or, is there no “accurate” way to develop a narrative, as long as the respect for an experience is acknowledged? I have no answers to these questions, but I do think that visual media, including films and graphic novels, will continue to grow in popularity — especially because many people feel more comfortable expressing themselves through image rather than word.

  5. Excellent post Alice, thank you! Like you, I have also struggled with the desire to “go beyond” written script. You mention that finding the appropriate media can offer platforms to voice narratives in ways that are meaningful to the informants themselves. I find this particularly striking because I have felt frustrated in the past by an inability to present my research to my informants in a way that was meaningful and accessible to them. I worked with the Deaf community for my master’s research and, following data collection and analysis, I did what every master’s student is expected to do: I wrote a thesis and participated in an oral thesis defense. What was frustrating about the experience, however, was the fact that the physical products that came out of my work (a written manuscript and an oral presentation) were not easily accessible by my informants whose first and primarily language is American Sign Language, a visual-spatial language. At the time, providing them with a written copy of my thesis felt inadequate, and in hindsight I wish I had had the time and resources to translate the major findings of my work into ASL and to create a visual medium through which to present my findings to them. At the heart of this experience, I think, was the acknowledgement that what our discipline dictates as the “traditional” way of communicating findings isn’t always appropriate. The written medium is not always the best medium to achieve the ends we hope to achieve with our work, and it is heartening to see increasing numbers of anthropologists (and researchers in other fields as well) utilizing different forms of media to convey their work (as well as innovating new ways to use the written word).

    On a side note, Schonberg and Bourgois’s book Righteous Dopefiend is an excellent example of how spectacularly visuals can add to (and in my opinion improve) medical anthropological work.

  6. Thank you for your interesting commentary Alice. I think the approach to thinking about the role of the visual in ethnographic representations is crucial, and it is especially important to think about in terms of a responsibility of the ethnographer in representing her subjects, especially considering the real concerns of straying into the realm of voyeurism in representing the suffering of subjects.

    One of the most famous examples of this point is certainly the photo of the vulture stalking a child, which depicts a starving child during a famine in Sudan, which one the photojournalist Kevin Carter the pulitzer prize. While this image brought about an outpouring of attention to this issues from readers of the NYT who may have previously had no knowledge of the famine in Sudan, or Sudan in general, there are further debates by photographers and photojournalists about the way this image was framed, to appeal to people’s understandings and expectations. For example, the photograph leaves out all of the surrounding context, and the fate of the child in the photograph is largely unknown. Additionally, there was a large amount of criticism about the role of the photographer, and why he chose to frame a photograph, instead of helping this child. https://www.jmu.edu/evision/Volume12/Witko.html

    This debate is central to photojournalism and the ethics of documentary photographers and filmmakers, and here I think of Susan Sontag’s work, Regarding the Pain of Others, as a great example of how images can be used in different ways to explicate suffering, especially during war, to those who do not experience it.
    https://monoskop.org/images/a/a6/Sontag_Susan_2003_Regarding_the_Pain_of_Others.pdf

    I found myself more concerned with this possibility in Vita, than I was with the use of photographs in Biehl’s other major work, Will to Live. In Will to Live, the photographs are portraits of AIDS patients that more clearly detail a photo essay and complement the text. In reading this chapter of Vita, I did not find the photographs to create the same compelling portrait, as it was not clear to me what story they were meant to be telling. Perhaps this is intentional? Another thought I had throughout reading Vita was a sort of general discomfort with the way Biehl represented Catarina’s work on her dictionary as a form of poetry and art. Perhaps it is explained more thoroughly in the parts of the book we did not read, but this display felt rather voyeuristic to me and left me feeling unclear if an artistic pursuit was Catarina’s intention when producing her dictionary. If not, how do we reconcile her intentions in producing her work with the representation of it?

  7. Thanks for a very interesting post, Alice. I wanted to take up one of the questions you brought up at the end of the post which was “How do we represent distraught, distress, helplessness, or pain in anthropological writing?”

    I think the question of depicting or representing pain is particularly interesting especially when I opened the link to the graphic medicine website and the first depiction on the top left panel could be understood as someone in pain. I recently started reading a book (one that I need to finish) called “The Body in Pain” by Elaine Scarry. And one of her main points early on in the book about pain is that pain is something that is inherently unrepresentable and indescribable. That there is something about pain (she is mostly referring to physical pain) which eludes representation. So the question for me would be in the cases of these ethnographies, is how do we represent pain? Can we even really accurately represent pain? Whatever that might mean. The image opens up some possibilities that I would like to think about more. An image might not necessarily be able to translate the kind of pain a person if feeling but it is possible to recognize when someone is in pain. I think that it is safe to say that most people are able to recognize when a person is in pain and that is something we do sensorily. The question then becomes for me: is recognition satisfactory for the work we are doing as ethnographers.

    1. Thanks for your comment Samee! I have engaged with literature on pain a bit in the past and there is really a lot of interesting work out there, especially on the intersections between medical and linguistic anthropology (see Sontag – mentioned by Whitney, but also some work on metaphor by Kirmayer). I have recently reviewed a Buchbinder’s book “All in Your Head: Making Sense of Pediatric Pain” that takes a slightly different stand, reading pain experience not as solipsistic and uncommunicable, but as fundamentally social. Could be an interesting read if you are interested in this. Your questions on the ‘representability’ of pain are on spot, though, and worthy of discussion. I think answers can only be tailored to specific cases, and attained through continuous experimenting with both research methods and representational media.

  8. Hello Everyone,

    Sorry for the late reply. Like many others, I agree that images (and other media) can be powerful and depict that which writing cannot. Visuals also engage different groups of people. Ethnography and ethnographic writing is not always picked up by people, however, photo essays and movies are appealing because in some ways they take less time to initially glean what the artists point is than in a book.

    However, if we zoom in on Alice’s point about suffering, I think we tread a very fine line. I do not necessary agree with Erin, in that I think Bourgeois’ images in his book Righteous Dopefiend are quite problematic. At first, when I tried to identify what was wrong with them, I thought “well this is pornographic.” And by this, what I meant was not to stigmatize porn–as it is a profession that people willfully enter and a category of visuals that at times serves as forms of art. However, what I am uncomfortable about is the pleasure it gives to feel that we “know” said person and their suffering. A feeling of intimacy, and a false feeling of intimacy in that. With ethnographic writing, that feeling is checked. There is a barrier, the words, that prevent us from knowing the characters in such an intimate way. However, with pictures, there is something transported, a series of affects, that make us feel in ways that writing doesnt. And the reality is, that we dont know these people. That we dont know there suffering. And to feel, with our hearts and minds that we do, is I think a tragedy.

    Visuals, though, can capture other things, which are not necessarily suffering. And it is in these situations that they offer the most use. As supplements that do not trick us into knowing the lived experience of said interlocutors. But as supplements to complementing and framing writing. As supplements that make a description real, but not falsely real.

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