Writing the New Ethnography (Goodall 2000, Review)

In his book, Writing the New Ethnography (2000), H. L. Goodall Jr. offers an alternative way of writing qualitative research: writing “creative narratives shaped out of a writer’s personal experiences within a culture

Writing the New Ethnography (Goodall 2000, Review)

We asked Kimberly Hirsh to write about one of her favourite books, and something that helped her PhD research. Let us know if you would like to see more book reviews in the blog!

Qualitative research offers unique insight into systems, processes, and relationships that quantitative methods might miss. In spite of qualitative research’s unique possibilities for knowledge building, many scholars continue to represent its results in a positivistic format: the IMRAD model, an acronym for Introduction-Methods-Results-Analysis-Discussion. Writers of qualitative research often use a distant voice, intended to signify objectivity and authority, to make their work feel more legitimate, more “science-y.” In his book, Writing the New Ethnography (2000), H. L. Goodall Jr. offers an alternative way of writing qualitative research: writing “creative narratives shaped out of a writer’s personal experiences within a culture and addressed to academic and public audiences” (p. 9).

Goodall was a scholar of organizational communication who worked as a professor at a variety of universities in the United States of America, an author of scholarly texts and textbooks, with the last of his work, a textbook co-written with Angela Trethewey called Why Communication Matters, published in 2013, after his death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. As a doctoral student at Penn State in 1978, he used creative and biographical writing as his method of inquiry. It was not, however, until after he earned tenure at the University of Alabama in 1984 that Goodall took “the ethnographic turn.” Upon receiving his tenure letter, he found himself unhappy when he should have been ecstatic. He realized that in undertaking the work necessary to achieve promotion, he had given up his “soul as a writer” (2000, p. 46). He wanted to regain that soul, without giving up his profession. He asked himself: was there a way to resolve “the tension between [his] desire for creative expression and [his] need for a life within an academic culture”? Could he write his way out of this apparent paradox?

Goodall determined that he needed to “find a new storyline” (2000, p. 47), to return to the rhetoric of his field’s scholarship and connect this new storyline, whatever it was, to the conversation going on in the field. He wanted to include human stories in his work, to represent the people in his studies as complex beings, and to ensure the relevance of his work to the undergraduates he taught who might never need to apply systems theory or any of the other theoretical perspectives valued in the field’s scholarship. Reading journal back issues, looking for clues as to how to create this new storyline, he happened upon Michael E. Pacanowsky’s and Nick O’Donnell-Trujillo’s essay, “Organizational communication as cultural performance” (1983). Pacanowsky and O’Donnell-Trujillo

told a story that posited “culture” as oppositional to, and a kind of narrative remedy for, the language and research methods associated with “systems.” They used the study of an organization’s culture as a way to challenge both the dominant social science paradigm for conducting research and the dominant traditional scholarly essay format for reporting it. (Goodall, 2000, p. 64, emphasis in original)

The essay was a revelation for Goodall. Ethnography was the tool he needed to resolve the tension between his desire to be a creative writer and his need to keep his job as an academic.

Goodall’s text has been as much of an epiphany for me as Pacanosky’s and O’Donnell-Trujillo’s was for him. In my discipline, library and information science, writing is often the last part of a research project. The IMRAD structure is standard in the discipline’s literature. It makes research easy to skim, but not very compelling to read. Goodall’s text serves as a guide to seeing writing not as the last stage of the process, but as a tool of inquiry itself: “New ethnographers are not researchers who learn to ‘write it up,’ but writers who learn how to use their research and how they write to ‘get it down.’” (2000, p. 10, emphasis in original) Goodall argues that writing ethnography is both a craft and an art, incorporating both person and process to reveal something about not only the culture studied, but the ethnographer’s relationship with that culture and what the culture and relationship can reveal to readers about the world.

Goodall elucidates the new ethnography in six chapters. In the first chapter, “On Becoming an Ethnographer in the Academy,” he discusses what it means to be an ethnographer and how people become ethnographers. In the second chapter, “Finding the Story in Ethnographic Words,” he offers advice for reading literature and identifying gaps; recognizing that all ethnographic representations are necessarily partisan, partial, and problematic; and using ethnography to fill gaps once you find them. The third chapter, “Representing Ethnographic Experiences: From Fieldwork to Fieldnotes to Stories,” is more pragmatic than the first two, more conceptual chapters. Goodall provides guidance for what kinds of things to look for when taking fieldnotes, how to use a personal diary and professional notebook to inform your research, and how to combine all these sources to find an ethnographic story.

Goodall discusses the possibility of using literary and popular narrative forms to inform research writing, including an example of an ethnography he wrote using the idiom of the detective story. In the fourth chapter, “Voice, Reflexivity, and Character: The Construction of Identities in Texts,” Goodall suggests ways of conveying the researcher’s or narrator’s character and position in ethnographic writing. In the fifth chapter, “The Ethics of Writing Ethnography,” he chronicles a variety of ethical considerations in ethnographic writing and recommends ways of addressing them directly in the writing and editing process. Finally, Goodall uses the sixth chapter to discuss “The Future of New Ethnographic Writing,” asking readers to consider what ethnography is for and how it contributes to knowledge.

Goodall does not focus on the mechanics of coding and data analysis, but what he does discuss is compatible with the use of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) such as Quirkos. His examples involve coding texts using an a priori framework of “basic forms of social exchange” based on communications studies literature (p. 107), but he emphasizes the importance of considering

whether or not the categories brought into the field actually represent what is going on, or whether they are impositions of order of a privileged (read: academic) kind on the otherwise perfectly understood cultural meanings held for talk by the local participants. (2000, p. 109, emphasis in original)

Using in vivo coding may mitigate some of this concern.

In addition to using Quirkos to analyze field notes, researchers can also use the blank source feature to create documents for both the personal diary and professional notebook Goodall recommends. Maintaining these documents within the software itself will ease the coding process and provide a simple way to explore the relationships between the researcher’s own perspective and what they observe in the field.

Goodall’s writing is simultaneously scholarly and accessible. He provides writing experiments for each chapter that ask readers to consider their own experiences and use them as ethnographic data. He also provides recommendations for further reading, both texts that explain the ideas in a given chapter and ethnographies that serve as examples of the types of writing he describes. This book would be valuable for any ethnographer, especially those new to this type of research.


Goodall, H. L., Jr. (2000). Writing the new ethnography. AltaMira Press.

Pacanowsky, M. E., and O’Donnell-Trujillo, N. (1983).Communication Monographs, 50, 126-147.