briefly: writing for process vs. writing for product

Annette Markham

Feb 24, 2015


What’s the difference between writing for process and writing for product or publication?  I am asked this methods question frequently enough to respond in a blogpost.  But interestingly, I’m rarely ever asked the question in this way.  Instead, the question is buried within other questions about methods and particularly ethics, such as:  How can I protect others in my autoethnographic descriptions of events? How can I anonymize participants if I’m doing a study of a very select and public group? Or if I’m studying an online community that will have searchable archives?

These well intentioned questions could be addressed at the level of ‘how to anonymize’, but as I note in 2011, this is almost impossible in a globally networked digital era where so little information is truly private.  The questions could more effectively be addressed at a more fundamental level, as we examine the larger research project in all its phases.  The following three points and questions, while philosophical and epistemological, are also very practical.  I offer them here as a starting point for thinking about research as a series of phases, and to help researchers distinguish the collection, analysis, writing, and publishing phases.  While I fully embrace the interpretive stance that suggests these phases are always simultaneous, interwoven, and recursive, I nonetheless recommend a strong measure of separation toward the latter phase of reporting and publication, where issues of privacy, anonymity, and accountability come into play.  It’s one thing to have piles of confidential data in one’s office, containing private statements, participant’s secrets, the researcher’s criticisms of participants or situations, and uninhibited analytical writing. It’s another thing to include this stuff in presentations, publications, or other reports to stakeholders.  The different phases of inquiry will (and ought to) contain different stuff. This might be taken literally. Or it might be a way of thinking about how we present the study in writing, using a range of different styles, and configuring/reformulating whatever we might call data or findings.  I’ve called this ‘fabrication‘ or ‘remixing,’ but in any case, it’s about taking seriously that what we produce is an argument and story, based on what we have studied. It may be easy to forget that these could and perhaps should be distinct and separated, depending on the circumstances and the phenomenon.

  1. Fieldwork, including participation, observation, interviewing, and fieldnotes, can be a way of gathering and generating data, as well as working through various analytical points and arguments.  Where does the material generated from such activities end up? It does not necessarily need to be included in published reports. It also might not be part of the submitted dissertation.
  2. Descriptions, vignettes, and stories about the phenomenon.  These are useful genres of writing for qualitative and ethnographic inquiry.  But where do they end up?  What task do these perform in generating data? What role do they play in the analysis? What form do they take in a final report? You might consider: Why and how are describing others important in your work?  Are these descriptions important to your self exploration of the phenomenon? You might think these descriptions are important to your final argument, but you can’t know this yet, since the process is (supposed to be) inductive and the outcome cannot be known or seen yet.
  3. In any qualitative ethnographic project (or research in general, quantitative or qualitative), only a small fraction of the ‘stuff’ generated throughout the project ends up in any report that anyone else sees.  That is, good researchers generate much more than they show to others.  The end product is NOT the same as the generated data, including all the fieldnotes, stories, vignettes, descriptions, and other materials produced from your activation of and then subsequent reflections on your own memories.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to the open-endedness of qualitative inquiry (and perhaps counterintuitive to other statements I have made where I advocate showing more and more of the process to the reader), the process of research, especially one that is deeply reflexive, can be separated from the product.  That’s not to say it always should be, but especially when there are ethical dilemmas, privacy issues, or the topic is sensitive, it may be important to separate these phases arbitrarily and more sharply than a banal project might warrant.
In other words, writing to produce the ethnography is not the same phase as writing to produce the reports of the ethnography and reports of the ethnographic process. While the interpretive and postmodern shifts in the 1980s and 1990s may seem to conflate these processes, even the most transparent ethnographic writers can talk about the differences. What we might call layered accounts, messy accounts, or fragmented narratives present a pastiche of different parts of the ethnographic process. The final product is often polyvocal, in the Bakhtinian sense, or at least striving to be.  Despite the inclusion of many more layers of experience and reflections on the research process, these accounts are never all inclusive. They are selections of the experience, edited and produced in such a way as to make a particular set of arguments.  While many of the disturbing practices or rough qualities of inquiry remain, one should not mistake this selected performance of inquiry for raw data simply cut and pasted from fieldnotes, research journals, or interview transcripts.
  • For an excellent example of a layered account, I recommend the work of Carol Rambo Ronai or Lisa Tillman Healy.
  • For fragmented narrative as qualitative method, you could read my piece called “Go Ugly Early.”
  • For general advice on reflexive interpretive work, I am currently recommending Becker’s “Telling about Society.”
  • For an interesting discussion of how different stories emerge from the same study, read Margery Wolf’s Thrice Told Tale.