writing ethnography for a wider audience

So you’re thinking about writing up your research for a wider audience.  How can you effectively communicate your findings and claims to a general public?

Here are some “how-to” guides:

Howard S. Becker.  1986.  Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  (Now in 2nd edition, 2007.)  Tempted to shroud your writing in academic jargon?  Read the chapter “Persona and Authority.”

Howard S. Becker.  2007.  Telling About Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  Becker discusses different ways of communicate our understanding of phenomena, ranging from fiction to film to mathematical maps.

William Germano.  2005.  From Dissertation to Book. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  The seminal text for understanding how these two publications differ.

John Van Maanen. 1988.  Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  Another seminal text on different styles of presenting the material.

For academics, writing publications that can reach a wider audience may be the most difficult, uncertain, and labor-intensive step of the research process.  For my book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event (2009, University of Chicago Press), I had to figure out how to convey complex and not widely-known phenomena without getting readers lost in the details.  Believe it or not, I spent the bulk of 9 months reframing, rewriting, and resequencing the introductory chapter.

During this time, I also intensively read other academics’ and journalists’ books to think through different ways of communicating materials.  Here are some examples of different techniques for presenting material:

Arrange materials chronologically:  Laurie Graham.  1995.  On the Line at Subaru-Izuzu: the Japanese Worker and the American Worker.  Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.  For example, this book starts with recruitment.

Divide material into “themes”:  Gideon Kunda.  1992.  Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-tech Corporation.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Present material by “types”:  Pamela Stone.  2007.  Opting Out?  Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Arlie Russell Hochschild.  2003 [1989].  The Second Shift.  NY: Penguin Books.

Compress material into an “average day in the life of [phenomena]”:  Sarah Thornton.  2008.  Seven Days in the Art World.  W.W. Norton.

Please add your suggestions for writing guides or models in the comments!

BTW, for those of you who are in the Bay area, I will be giving a talk and hosting discussion on Burning Man this Fri., Oct 9, 2009, 7:30pm PST (the same weekend as Decompression!) at PariSoMa Coworking space, 1436 Howard St. San Francisco, CA 94105. Doors open at 7:30pm. RSVP at


Written by katherinekchen

October 5, 2009 at 1:47 am

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  1. […] have another guest post at orgtheory. In this post, I share recommendations for guides and models for writing up qualitative […]


  2. […] Hello fellow orgtheory readers!   Orgtheory was kind enough to invite me back for another stint of guest blogging.   For those of you who missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography. […]


  3. […] the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography, I discussed various questions and challenges of conducting ethnography.  In this post, I want to […]


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