Publication details [#6117]

Humphreys, Michael, Andrew D. Brown and Mary Jo Hatch. 2003. Is ethnography jazz? 27 pp.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language


In this article, we extend and refine Van Maanen's metaphorical insight that ethnographers learn interpretive skills `more akin to learning to play a musical instrument than to solving a puzzle' by focusing on the parallels between ethnography and jazz. Our central argument is that ethnographers are engaged in a dual quest for self-identity and empathy that is improvised in ways resembling the musical `conversation' between performing jazz musicians. We suggest several ways in which ethnography can be articulated with reference to jazz in order to address three of the central problems ethnographers face: (1) handling the delicate balance between self and other in fieldwork and in writing; (2) engaging in the everyday life of the culture being studied; and (3) choosing criteria to apply in judging the quality of ethnographic research. Drawing a parallel between the ethnographer and the jazz soloist, we deliberately implicate a very broad conception of ethnography as a fundamentally creative, exploratory and interpretive process. The three co-authors consciously produced this article using the ethnographic equivalent of improvised conversation embedded in rounds of writing and revision. These interactions carried us beyond our initial understandings of our own practices and generated new understandings that fed back into our layered, textual reworkings. Our depiction of ethnographers as jazz soloists is an attempt to grasp some of the subtleties and complexities in the working lives of ethnographers, and to offer them up for inspection, comment, critique, and elaboration in a continuing conversation with our readers. (Michael Humphreys, Andrew D. Brown, and Mary Jo Hatch)