Appealing Work: An Investigation of How Ethnographic Texts Convince

  • Golden-Biddle K
  • Locke K
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Abstract

This paper examines iiow written research accounts based on ethnography appeal to readers to find them convincing. In particular, it highlights the role of rhetoric in the readers' interaction with and interpretation of the accounts. Extending relevant work in the litera-tures of organization studies, anthropology and literary criticism, the paper develops three dimensions—authenticity, plausibility and criticality—central to the process of convincing. Further, through the analysis of a sample of ethnographic articles, it discloses the particular writing practices and more general strategies that make claims on readers to engage the texts and to accept that these three dimensions have been achieved. Through authenticity, ethnographic texts appeal to readers to accept that the researcher was indeed present in the field and grasped how the members understood their world. Strategies to achieve authenticity include: particularizing everyday life, delineating the relationship between the researcher and organization members, depicting the disciplined pursuit and analysis of data, and qualifying personal biases. Through plausibility, ethnographic texts make claims on readers to accept that the findings make a distinctive contribution to issues of common concern. Plausibility is accomplished by strategies that normalize unorthodox methodologies, recruit the reader, legitimate atypical situations, smooth contestable assertions, build dramatic anticipation, and differentiate the findings. Finally, through criticality, ethnographic texts endeavor to probe readers to re-examine the taken-for-granted assumptions that underly their work. Strategies to achieve criticality include: carving out room to reflect, provoking the recognition and examination of differences, and enabling readers to imagine new possibilities. The empirical analyses, which highlight both the rhetorical and substantive aspects of convincing, suggest that at a minimum ethnographic texts must achieve both authenticity and plausibility—that is, they must convey the vitality and uniqueness of the field situation and also build their case for the particular contribution of the findings to a disciplinary area of common interest. These analyses also suggest that the most provocative task and promising potential of ethnography is the use of richly-grounded data to not only refiect on the members' world, but more importantly to provoke an examination of the readers' prevailing assumptions and beliefs, (CONVINCING; QUALITATIVE RESEARCH; RHETORIC INTERPRETIVE PER-SPECTIVE; ETHNOGRAPHY) As in the social sciences generally, in the field of organization studies, accepted standards and practices exist for writing and for assessing the convincingness of written work which falls within the purview of normal science; that is work which adopts the positivist perspective and employs quantitative methodology (cf. Campbell and Stanley 1963, Cook and Campbell 1979, Kerlinger 1973). Some researchers using qualitative data have integrated their work into this perspective and have adopted these generally-accepted standards and practices. Specifically, they argue that qualita-tive data can be "triangulated" with quantitative data (Jick 1984, Mintzberg 1979) in order to generate theory which can later be tested more rigorously by quantitative approaches. However, when the interpretive perspective of science is adopted, as in much of the work based on ethnography, the generally-accepted standards and practices for writing and assessing the convincingness of this work become increas-ingly difficult to apply. • Accepted by Richard L, Daft; received June 1990, This paper has been with the authors for two revisions,

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Authors

  • Karen Golden-Biddle

  • Karen Locke

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