Ethnography & Women’s Reading Rituals


Ethnography is the study and documentation of a specific group or area of a particular culture. It is the study of cultures. Jennifer Pehlke, University of Illinois at Chicago, explains, “Ethnography is basically the study of the everyday rituals and practices of a particular group of people.” Ethnographers observe many different aspects of a culture. Ethnographic studies are often conducted on language, physical characteristics of the members of a particular culture, material products, social customs, location, geographical environment, diet, governmental customs, shelter, dress, transportation, manufacturing, customs regarding marriage, customs regarding adolescents, customs regarding birth, adulthood initiation rites, death, religious ideas and idols, mythological interpretation, and social environment.

Ethnographers study people, their customs, and social hierarchies. The ethnographer may also research the geographic history of the group being studied as well as their place in the global society. Often, the ethnographer resides with the group in order to observe more closely their day-to-day activities. This close association between ethnographer and study group can be characterized as participant observation. The participant observation places the ethnographer directly into the group she or he is studying. The ethnographer may assume a function within the group in order to better understand all dynamics of the practices and rituals of the group (Pehlke).

While a survey is often used within the workings of an ethnographical research project, there is a difference in how it is used compared with survey or experimental research, according to Annette Lareau and Jeffrey Shultz in their report, “Journeys Through Ethnography.” Whereas a survey researcher might give a standardized questionnaire to one thousand students, a researcher using participant observation will give it to a select group of people. And there are differences in how the data is analyzed. Survey researchers may seek to control almost all aspects of their study but researchers, who use participant-observation, have a different set of goals. Rather than being interested in how frequent a behavior is, they wonder about the meaning of a behavior. They seek, generally, to understand the character of the everyday lives of the people they study (4).

Participant observation is often viewed as one among a number of techniques of social research – archival, survey, demographic, or experimental, writes Michael Burawoy, University of Illinois at Chicago, in his report, “Ethnography Unbound.” The distinguishing feature of participant observation is the study of people in their own time and space, in their everyday lives. The advantages of participant observation are assumed to lie not just in direct observation of how people act but also in how they understand and experience those acts. Participant observation enables ethnographers to compare what people say they are doing to what they actually do. One of the problems involved in this type of research, Burawoy says, is that too close contact with participants can lead to a loss of objectivity (2).

Professor Herve Varene’s lecture notes for her class, “Ethnography and Participant Observation,” at Columbia University reveal some problematic points in conducting participatory investigations. Varene says that one of the first questions one must think of—and then leave behind—is the issue of whether or not a respondent is telling the truth. Varene states further that truth is not the issue but rather the issue is: a) what the observer is to make of what has been told and b) what the observer is to do next. The following are some cautions this professor lays forth for students of ethnography—for recognizing one’s position as a participant-observer and what difficulties may be encountered in that position
A. no control of the setting by the observer
B. no way to prefigure where one will stand (how one will be interpreted by the observed)
C. no response
D. no way to know whether what one has seen is all there is to see
E. no “sampling” possible
F. no way the observed can construct themselves as “observed” and fit
themselves within the observer’s categories. (the observed may reveal the categories to which they hold each other accountable, but these are not those which will be useful for the observer even (particularly if) the goal is “the discovery of the participants’ own categories” (after all participants do not need to discover their own categories!)
Varene further cautions students that the research is not going to be conducted by an abstract human being. It will be conducted by an “I,” who has many “ME’s” and who is a YOU to various persons. Thus YOU are not doing the research by yourself but in concert with others—those whom you study and those who will read your final report.

Tania Modleski discusses a number of problems involved in the study of a particular subculture, if conducted with predetermined attitudes and, perhaps, misguided goals such as those of Janice Radway, who studied the Smithton women and their reading of romance novels in the 1980’s. “Throughout her study Radway is concerned to justify the superiority of her approach over that taken by the elitist “professors of English,” as she calls them, since the latter in her view fail to take into consideration the real women who read romances and who are in the best position to inform scholars about what the women call the reading “habit” (42). If one of Radway’s main goals is to prove that her research methods are better than other academics’, how can she listen to what her subjects are telling her and learn from their responses?

Modleski asserts, too, that women-oriented criticisms can only emerge when feminists began to collectively explore their private experiences. The feminist critic’s work should have many voices and should not deny the differences of other women but learn about them through dialogic exchange. But she finds further fault with Radway and her research methods: “…because Radway never admits the similarity between herself and the women she studies and…adopts the pose of the disinterested “scientific researcher,” she winds up condescending to the very people she wants to rescue from critical scorn—this despite her claims never to have contradicted the women” (43-4).

Taking into consideration that the Modleski vs. Radway battle has raged for a number of years over who is the best researcher and that each of them takes every opportunity to discredit the other, one might question Modleski’s motives in writing as she does. Still she has some viable points to consider for the would-be ethnographer. “Today, we are in danger of forgetting the crucial fact that like the rest of the world even the cultural analyst may sometimes be a “cultural dupe”—which is, after all, only an ugly way of saying that we exist inside ideology…” Additionally, she warns that feminist critical writing should embody a promise to and for women. “…it remains importantly the case that feminist critical writing is committed writing, a writing committed to the future of women (45-7).

Ien Ang, in “Feminist Desire and Female Pleasure,” expresses concern over Radway’s—and other feminist researchers’—use of feminism as the only answer to women’s problems. “What makes me feel so uncomfortable…is the unquestioned certainty with which feminism is posed as the superior solution for all women’s problems, as if feminism automatically possessed the relevant and effective formulae for all women to change their lives and acquire happiness.” Unlike Radway’s decision to end her research with a “complete restoration of the authority of feminist discourse,” the ethnographer must put herself into a “vulnerable stance” that puts her assumptions at risk (518).

Ang agrees with Radway’s contention that the relationship between feminism and women is one of the most troublesome issues for the women’s movement. Her concern, however, is that Radway comes dangerously close to political moralizing. “…to see feminist consciousness as the linear culmination of political radicality…is to uncritically overload the potential of the women’s movement and to underestimate the resources and capacities of “ordinary” women—by virtue of age, class, race, and culture—to participate in their own struggles as women but quite autonomously. I am afraid, therefore, that Radway’s radical intent is drawing dangerously near a form of political moralism, propelled by a desire to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’” (418).

My research project on women’s reading and reading selection habits is an ethnographic study in which I will examine a variety of choices that women have made and are making in selecting the fiction they read. A few of the things I will be looking at include their reading histories, how their reading choices have changed in the last several decades, and where they are today; how much mass-media advertising plays a part in their choices; and other specifics on reasons for reading.

I plan to reach out to fifty or more women with this survey. It will be interesting to learn the answers to my questions. My challenge then will be to assemble this information and try to make some sense of it all. The survey (attached at the end of this report) will be one of the main tools used in completing this research. Will there be a clear answer to my question of the impact of mass-media on women’s popular fiction selections? It remains to be determined and I look forward with eager anticipation to the process and final results.

By Coralie Cederna Johnson

Ang, Ien. “Feminist Desire and Female Pleasure. 518.

Burawoy, Michael. “Ethnography Unbound.” University of California Press. Berkeley, California. 1991. 2.

Lareau, Annette, and Shultz, Jeffrey. “Journeys Through Ethnography. Westview Press. Boulder, Colorado. 1996. 4.

Modleski, Tania. “The Scandal of the Mute Body.” 42-7.

Monette, Duane R. et al. Applied Social Research. Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Fort Worth, Texas. 1994. 161.

Pehlke, Jennifer. “Terms for Cultural Rhetorics.” 8 June 1998. Online. Netscape. 11 May 1999. Available:

Varenne, Herve. “Issues of contact and participation.” 16 Sept. 1997. Online. Netscape. 13 May 1999. Available:

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