There’s been a lot of talk among sociologists lately about the status of ethnographic research and knowledge, and writing has been at the center of it. Does well-written, powerfully argued fieldwork enhance our sociological understanding of others and the world around us, or is a powerful narrative something ethnographers use to draw readers in and convince them of the veracity of claims that may lack strong supporting data or careful engagement with existing literature and social theory?

I think this larger debate is important context for Matthew Desmond’s argument–offered in the conclusion of Evicted, and highlighted recently at the Sociological Imagination blog–against first person narrative in the presentation of ethnographically driven social science. In Desmond’s view, this approach fails to “capture the essence of a social world” because “the ‘I’ filters all.” He explains: 

“With first-person narration, the subjects and the author are each always held in view, resulting in every observation being trailed by a reaction to the observer. No matter how much care the author takes, the first-person ethnography becomes just as much about the fieldworker as about anything she or he saw.”

“At a time of rampant inequality and widespread hardship, when hunger and homelessness are found throughout America, I am interested in a different, more urgent conversation. ‘I’ don’t matter.”

I really respect Desmond and his book (not to mention his writing chops, of which I am embarrassingly jealous–I mean, I really love that “I filters all” line). And I completely agree that sociological research should not be about the researcher, if only because we sociologists tend to insist that no one is really that special or unique in the modern world. (For years I’ve joked about writing a memoir entitled “It’s Not About Me.”)

However–there it is, you knew it was coming–I am not entirely comfortable with eliminating first-person perspective from all sociological writing, ethnographic or otherwise. In fact, sometimes I believe it is appropriate and even necessary for social scientists to write this way. At least, that’s what I argued in the conclusion of my new book on Midnight Basketball–a book that has a good bit of fieldwork in it and that I decided, against many of my other impulses and principles, to write in the first person. 

I did this partly to construct something of a narrative thread–the thread of my discoveries and idiosyncratic insights–for a potentially dry historical narrative/case study. More importantly, though, I took this approach because I wanted to “openly acknowledge, if not highlight, the constructed nature of the narrative and research process.” I wanted my readers to know and thus be able to assess my research and its various findings, interpretations, and claims. In other words, as I put it in the end,

“I think the more we know about the research process–what data is collected and how it is collected, the manner in which it is analyzed and interpreted–the more I am able to understand and assess the relative strength and power of the claims and findings that are offered.”

That doesn’t mean Desmond is completely wrong, or that I would write every book or article the way I did my midnight basketball book. But it is to say that there are many different reasons for writing in the voices and rhetorical styles that we social scientists do, and that, given the complexity of the social worlds we live in, as well as the wide array of sociological approaches to analyzing and understanding these worlds, I think having a diversity of narrative devices in our tool kit is something worth preserving.