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Paul Atkinson, For Ethnography

Simon Ridley
For Ethnography
Paul Atkinson, For Ethnography, Londres, Sage, 2015, 232 p., ISBN : 9781849206082.
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  • 1 See: N. Halstead, E. Hirsch, J. Okely (eds), Knowing How to Know: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Pr (...)
  • 2 Some of Paul Atkinson’s work on and with qualitative research methods include: “Ethnographic writin (...)

1Qualitative research methods, methodological literature, and ethnographic fieldwork in particular, have known a boom of popularity in recent years; never have they been so widespread. Paul Atkinson has himself taken part enthusiastically in what is seen by Narmala Halstead, Eric Hirsh and Judith Okely1 as a special and distinctive way of being a social scientist2.

2For Ethnography is half personal statement half manifesto. Personal statement as Paul Atkinson draws on forty years of experience practising, reading, teaching and writing ethnography. Manifesto as he stresses that despite its success ethnography is not a fashion, not all qualitative research methods are ethnographic, and it is certainly not easy. Paul Atkinson argues for a classic, “old-fashioned” approach to ethnography, emphasizing the importance of fieldwork and its proper analysis, allowing the researcher to grasp the complexity of the social world and make it comprehensible, even meaningful.

3The first two chapters draw an outline of the basic commitments of ethnographical research. “The perspectives of ethnography” insists on the importance of “disciplined inquiry” and “systematic analysis” of everyday life, as ethnographic research is defined here as a collection of methods with “some form of participation in the everyday life of the social world under investigation” (p. 25). “Fieldwork commitments” cycles through the elementary principles of ethnographic research showing the ebb and flow between participatory fieldwork and ethnographical theory. Although these first two chapters may seem self-evident for some scholars, the reaffirmation of these basic principles are helpful as they allow Paul Atkinson to set a solid basis for his further arguments.

  • 3 Oddly, Mills’ famous work is not quoted here, but it is obvious that Paul Atkinson is very much ins (...)

4The third chapter focuses on the “Analytic perspectives” of ethnography and seeks to shed some light on the paradox of theory, a necessity which can sometimes prove to be a hindrance for the ethnographical researcher. The basic criticism stems from what Charles Wright Mills3 calls “grand theory”, which is too often disconnected from reality. Paul Atkinson then discusses the idea of grounded theory, first developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, that he refers to as “unexceptional” since “it describes what any sensible researcher would do” (p. 56). However, the idea proves useful as the cyclical relationship it advocates between ideas and data is deemed to be so essential that Paul Atkinson coins the idea of “ethnographic abduction”. This logic is based on drawing out possible analytic ideas from in situ observation, comparing and contrasting them with other research settings in order to allow the researcher to refine ideas and to do justice to, and certainly not reduce, the complexity of everyday life. This critique of grounded theory also lies in what Paul Atkinson identifies as a rigid “prescriptive orthodoxy”. This allows him to be critical of “theory-building” functions in software, and in a more general sense, of reductionist social research that fails to be empowered by the demands of theory. Indeed, theory should stimulate and not intimidate social scientists.

5The four chapters which follow are dedicated to discussing the key issues ethnographers need to focus on. “Interaction and the ceremonial order” is devoted to the analysis of social encounters. Faithfull to Erving Goffman’s ideas concerning interaction order, Paul Atkinson urges ethnographers to pay proper attention to different forms of interaction, social encounters and events, and to incorporate them into their descriptions so as to properly analyze the structure of these performances. “Accounts and narratives” turns towards the large amount of conversational material collected in the course of fieldwork and investigates the relation between participant observation and interviewing. Again, his criticism rests on the analytical use made of this material. An interesting point made by the author is the idea that we are in what he calls an “interview society”; in this regard the interview itself is a cultural phenomenon. Therefore social researchers need to analyze spoken activity as performances where actors construct themselves in a variety of different manners framed by culturally shared conventions, and not simply take narratives or accounts at face value. “Aesthetics, artefacts and techniques” continues Paul Atkinson’s main argument: ethnographic research is not about seeking to describe chosen research objects, it is about the proper analysis of social action and organization. Ethnographic research must pay full attention to the social world and question the variety of cultural acquisitions. Paul Atkinson also points out the dangers of relying uncritically on catch-all modes of explanation. The term habitus is particularly criticized here as it is actually invoked “in such a way as to avoid giving proper analysis of technique and its physical realization” (p. 125). The last chapter, “Structural forms”, focuses on key issues for ethnographers, in which the emphasis is put on space and place in ethnographic research. Their organizational structures are also dependent on cultural conventions, and they contribute to shape the social interactions that take place within these spaces. Ethnographers need to pay close attention both to the social construction and to the multiple uses of space. Rhythm and movement in space are important aspects here, and technological tools such as GPS are also discussed. Again, these tools may offer descriptive data to the researcher, but they are in no way sufficient without proper analysis. Furthermore space is marked by many different symbols and used in such a variety of ways that it offers multiple sensory dimensions that shape everyday life. Paul Atkinson suggests that if they don’t need to become specialists of such specific fields, ethnographers must at least take into account rhythms, sounds, and various symbols found in places and spaces.

6In the last two chapters, Paul Atkinson shifts his focus to more contemporary issues that ethnography is facing. “Representations” is concerned with the writing of ethnography. There are many different styles, shaped by cultural conventions and personal choice. Paul Atkinson rapidly exposes the debates on how to construct, manage and interpret field notes, and then moves on to what has been called the “crisis of representation”, classical ethnography having been criticized for the impersonal and sometimes authoritative place taken by the author. Paul Atkinson points out that Clifford Geertz’s identification of a classic style of “transparent” writing has been replaced with a self-conscious approach as well as textual experimentation. Autoethnography, ethnodrama, ethnographic novels and other forms of experimental styles of writing are described. Paul Atkinson doesn’t want to take a simplistic approach creating a distinction between “realistic” and “romantic” textual forms. He sticks to his main argument: if contemporary forms focused on personal experience hinder the analysis of social life they are to be rejected; however he recognizes their potential if they can prove to serve an analytic purpose. “The ethics of ethnography”, final chapter of the book, argues that ethnography is one of the most ethical forms of social research. The scientist’s approach is unique in the sense that it implies a personal intellectual and emotional commitment to the fieldwork. Biomedical research may have set the standard for ethics-committees, but their application to ethnography is near impossible as ethnographers do not work in such a sterile environment. Informed consent is another topic for discussion, as there are many levels for the use of collected data, so where should one stop? The danger feared by Paul Atkinson is that research ethics transform the whole research process into a formulaic procedure, thus destroying the methodological creativity at the heart of ethnography. He therefore argues for a different sense to the term protocol, and would like to see it “driven by values rather than procedures” (p. 184). Furthermore, he deems essential for ethnography to shake off the old image of the heroic anthropologist coming home from a faraway land, and the more modern image of the moral hero gaining personal virtue from fieldwork. Instead Paul Atkinson advocates “the hard intellectual work of analysis” (p. 188).

7In his conclusion Paul Atkinson discusses all too quickly the problems of funding and the timescale of ethnographic research. These subjects deserve to be developed at length as they are, in my opinion, the two major areas threatening the pursuit of that “hard intellectual work” as it is both time consuming and expensive. The problem of book sales and the publishing culture forced upon scholars are also briefly mentioned. I am not as optimistic as Paul Atkinson about digital ethnography if only because it is clearly too labor-intensive and too expensive. Regardless, e-book formats and links to sound and moving images don’t save the ethnographer from Atkinson’s main point: proper analysis. Therefore this book offers a critical view of under-analyzed studies. Thoroughly sourced and referenced, it gives a good overview of classic and more contemporary ethnographic fieldwork, with plenty of well-chosen examples that will surely help researchers ask the right questions – pedagogically some crucial questions stand out with the use of bullet points in the four chapters dedicated to discussing the key issues ethnographers need to focus on – which will in turn hopefully lead to better analyses in the future for anyone having read this book.

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1 See: N. Halstead, E. Hirsch, J. Okely (eds), Knowing How to Know: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Present, Oxford, Berghahn, 2008.

2 Some of Paul Atkinson’s work on and with qualitative research methods include: “Ethnographic writing: the avant-garde and a failure of nerve”, International Review of Qualitative Inquiry, 6 (1), 2013, p. 19-36; Everyday Arias: An Operatic Ethnography, Lanham, AltaMira, 2006; Medical Talk and Medical Work: The Liturgy of the Clinic, London, Sage, 1995; “Blowing hot: the ethnography of craft and the craft of ethnography”, Qualitative Inquiry, 19 (3), 2013, p. 397-404; Sociological Readings and Re-Readings, Aldershot, Avebury, 1996; The Clinical Experience: The Construction and Reconstruction of Medical Reality, 2nd edn., Aldershot, Ashgate, 1997; The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions of Reality, London, Routledge, 1990; “The mastersingers: language and practice in an operatic masterclass”, Ethnography and Education, 8 (3), 2013, p. 355-370; Understanding Ethnographic Texts, Thousand Oaks, Sage, 1992; “Writing Ethnography”, in H. J. Helle (ed.), Kultur und Institution, Berlin, Duncker and Humblot, 1982, p. 77-105.

3 Oddly, Mills’ famous work is not quoted here, but it is obvious that Paul Atkinson is very much inspired by many key aspects of The Sociological Imagination. See: Charles W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination, New York, Oxford University Press, 1959.

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Simon Ridley, « Paul Atkinson, For Ethnography », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2015, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Simon Ridley

Doctorant en sociologie à l’Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, laboratoire Sophiapol (EA 3932).

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