One movement which has frequently been embraced by sociologists who are sympathetic to postmodernism, and has been conflated with postmodernism by its opponents, is the playfulness, especially in the presentation of ‘results’. For obvious reasons postmodern sociologists never use quantitative methods: their philosophical stance demands qualitative ones. Many enthusiasts for postmodernism are also keen on textual innovation. It is possible – even likely – that postmodern work will be written in an innovative and stylistically self-conscious way. The postmodern work is likely to be couched in terms of an open, ‘messy’ text, rather than a monograph or paper that conforms to all the conventions of scholarly factual writing. This text may well incorporate a mixture of different literary styles and genres. It may, for instance, include highly impressionistic, introspective and autobiographical passages of prose which are transgressive of the normal canons of academic discourse. Feminist sociologists and anthropologists have been particularly keen on challenging and transgressing the orthodoxies of academic writing. They have been delighted that personal, autobiographical and emotional texts are publishable in 2002, in ways unthinkable in 1962, or even 1982.
Since the Enlightenment, rhetoric – once a respected and canonical discipline – had been relegated to the margins of intellectual life. With the rise of modern science, rhetoric became a marginalised, even despised activity. It contrasted with the rational and factual status ascribed to science, having connotations of sophistry and persuasion. In recent years, however, there has been a growing movement to rehabilitate rhetoric, not least in the recognition that the ‘sciences’ and other factual enterprises are themselves inescapably rhetorical in character. The natural sciences, economics, history, among many other domains, have been shown to deploy their own rhetorical conventions – not least in their characteristic literary conventions. Such analyses have the consequence of demystifying those conventions. For instance, they can
show how scholars convey their own authoritative status; how they persuade their readers through the use of metaphors and other figures of speech; how they use examples and other illustrative materials to build plausible arguments.
One of the consequences of the literary and rhetorical turn is an enhanced awareness of the social processes involved in analysis. In the collection edited by Sanjek (1990), anthropologists reflected upon field – notes – how they are constructed, used and managed. We come to understand that fieldnotes are not a closed, completed, final text: rather, they are indeterminate, subject to reading, rereading, coding, recording, interpreting, reinterpreting. The literary turn has encouraged (or insisted) on the revisiting, or reopening, of ethnographer’s accounts and analyses of their fieldwork. Wolf (1992), for example, revisited her fieldnotes, her journal, and a short story she had written while she was doing fieldwork in a Taiwanese village.
Different kinds of prose may be interspersed with poetry, resulting in a more promiscuous mix of styles and genres. Such experimental writing will serve a number of purposes. It subverts the smooth surface of the text in order to disrupt the monologic style in which the ethno – grapher/observer occupies the sole vantage-point, and from whose standpoint the entire account is provided. The kaleidoscopic presentation of different textual styles and fragments thus allows the writer and the reader to shift from one perspective to another. Couched in such innovative ways, the ethnographer may well be seeking to ‘evoke’ a social setting and social action. The writing may, therefore, be impressionistic in character. Moreover, the evocative text is evaluated in terms of its connotative or affective quality as much as, or more than, its denotative precision.
Moreover, there will be a multiplicity of ‘voices’. The ethnographic text under the auspices of postmodernism aspires to be a polyvocal one. That is, in addition to the voice of the ethnographer/author, there will be the voices of social actors. Their experiences will not always, perhaps never, be filtered through the interpretative framework of the author. Rather, the text will reproduce the actors’ own perspectives and experiences. This may include extended biographical and autobiographical accounts, extended dialogues between the researcher and informants, and other ‘documents of life’. Typically, there is an emphasis on the kinds of narratives or stories through which social actors construct their own and others’ experiences.
The ethnographer will be visible or audibly present in the text. Her or his own feelings, actions and reactions will be inscribed in the text. The mechanics of the research as well as its emotional content will be integral to its reportage. The postmodern text will be imbued with the work of research, which will not therefore be relegated or marginalised
to a methodological appendix or an autobiographical confessional entirely divorced from the ‘real’ work of analysis and reportage. Indeed, some postmodern ethnographic texts may have the air of a ‘confessional’ throughout. The presence of the researcher reflects the principle of reflexivity. Reflexivity has a range of meanings in this context, but its most general sense, it captures the extent to which the researcher is inescapably a part of the social world that she or he is investigating. The researcher cannot wish away her or his presence or the fact that the social world under investigation is, in principle, being negotiated or co-produced with its members through the transactions of research. The reflexive ethnography is thus permeated with the presence and work of the ethnographer. Moreover, the postmodern ethnographer exhibits multiple identities, refracted through the variety of social relationships and transactions that constitute ‘the field’ of exploration. There are, therefore, multiple selves or identities associated with the ethnographer under the rubric of postmodernism, just as social actors in general are portrayed as fragmentary and fractile. The researcher may indeed become so much a part of the enterprise that she or he becomes not merely an observer or an interrogator, but the subject-matter of the research itself. The term ‘auto-ethnography’ is currently used to connote a wider range of issues than this alone, but among the practitioners of auto-ethnography are those who use introspection, memory, autobiography and other constructions of ‘self’ as the subject-matter of their own research. The genres of research text here blur with those of biographical work.
voice and polyvocality
The representational practices and devices alluded to relate closely to the analytic strategy of evoking multiple ‘voices’ in the reconstruction of social realities. If research dissolves the privilege of the observer/author, then it also implies that there should be multiple voices identifiable in the analysis. This goes well beyond the perfectly ordinary practice of quoting informants or including extracts from fieldnotes in order to illustrate ethnographic texts. The polyvocal text – and hence the analytic strategy that underlies it – does not subordinate the voices and press them into the service of a single narrative. Rather, there are multiple and shifting narratives. The point of view of the ‘analysis’ is a shifting one. There is no single implied narrator occupying a privileged interpretative position. A relatively early example of such a text is Krieger’s (1983) account of a lesbian community. Krieger, as author/analyst, constructs a collage or palimpsest of narratives, juxtaposed in the style of stream-of-consciousness literary work. Her analysis of the community is implicit in those textual arrangements, which are
not superseded or supplemented by a dominant authorial commentary. The expression of voices has become a major preoccupation of many qualitative researchers in recent years, and to some extent, the force of polyvocality has become blunted: in some contexts it can seem to mean little more than ‘letting the informants speak for themselves’, with little or no theoretical sophistication. On the other hand, it can give rise to complex and dense representations (see Atkinson, 1999, for a review of different kinds of recent contribution). Equally, the celebration of voices can allow the author to find her or his ‘voice’ in a way that differs from the canons of conventional academic writing: it provides permission for first-person narratives that insert the author in her or his texts, rather than suppressing the personal in the analytic.
Reflexivity and first-person narratives lead directly to the possibilities of autoethnography. The term itself has several connotations. Here we will focus briefly on analyses that are based substantially or even exclusively on the writer’s personal experiences, memories and actions. This, therefore, moves the personal from the marginal notes of the confessional tale to occupy the central place of sociological or anthropological analysis. Autoethnography and autobiography can be virtually indistinguishable. The resulting accounts can be highly charged emotionally for the author and reader alike. Tillmann-Healy (1996), for instance, has written a highly personalised account of her own experience of bulimia, while in the same anthology Ronai (1996) writes a moving account of her ‘mentally retarded’ mother. Latta (1999) did her PhD on the narratives of five women writers who, like her, had writer’s block. She reflects on how postmodern theory paralysed and silenced her, on how her father explained Marxism to her and the members of his trade union, and why she chose her thesis topic. Reed-Danahay’s (1997) collection, and her overview (2001) showcase these developments.
Because of the feminist mantra ‘the personal is political’, autoethnography fits very well into feminist sociology, whether or not its inscribers enjoy playing with postmodernism.
The freedom provided by postmodernism to write in innovative ways, and the vogue for polyvocality are probably the most important aspects of postmodernism for sociology as a whole, and therefore for feminist sociology. If the disputes over postmodernist feminism can be resolved, the long-term legacy of textual freedom will be liberating for all of feminist sociology.