Thick Description and Telling Discourse: An Ethnographic Writing Workshop

December 11, 2015 - December 12, 2015

Thick Description and Telling Discourse:
An Ethnographic Writing Workshop

Dr. Lindsay Bell
Assistant Prof. Anthropology, SUNY Oswego, and Associate Editor, North American Dialogue

University of Jyväskylä, December 11 & 12, 2015

Sponsored by the Peripheral Multilingualism research project and the Jyväskylä Discourse Hub

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
– E.M. Forrester

How can we write academic texts that evoke the poetics of people’s lives while keeping an eye on larger social processes? What kinds of writing strategies illuminate the textures of lived experience and highlight the role of talk, interaction and discourse in processes of world-making? This two-day workshop provides ethnographers with opportunities to generate vibrant writing using techniques borrowed from fiction and creative non-fiction. Our goals are two-fold. First, to advance a single piece of scholarly writing. Second, to develop useful tactics for future writing projects.

Registration is limited to a small number of “active writers” and priority was given to those who have never attended a similar workshop before.

Provisional schedule for the workshop (readings, writing activities, and the final program are available only for those registered):

Friday, December 11 (9:00-17:00, Lyhty conference room)

Morning 1:     Free writing: What is it? Why bother?

A short description of free writing and several exercises to find ways into writing (especially useful for reluctant writers). Participants should come with pen, paper and a sense of playfulness.


Morning 2:    Selecting key ‘scenes’ and building outwards

In general, a single article has two key “scenes”. These are the anchors of the argument. Compelling scenes often make scholarly writing more memorable than theoretical sophistication. Scenes “zoom in” on what is crucial and usually includes dialogue and description. We will experiment with ways of including these rich details in ways that drive an argument. We will recruit all of our senses to present the key moments of field encounters. By the morning’s end, participants will have two ‘scenes’ that will be scaffolded into a full length text.


Afternoon 1: Summary: Filling In the Missing Pieces

Transitions between ‘up-close’ scenes and ‘zoomed out’ contextual information are one of the most challenging aspects of ethnographic writing. We will brainstorm necessary summary information for each of your scenes and think about how to tack back and forth between scene and summary. We will discuss the work of one ethnographer who is particularly gifted in this regard.


Afternoon 2: Reflection: What do our scenes and summaries tell us?

The purpose of scenes and summaries is to present a larger, data driven argument. Reflecting on our material with fresh eyes, we will see if what our writing is saying the same thing as we thought before the process of pen on paper. We will free write a possible conclusion to our pieces to give us a sense of direction in the revision process. We will conclude the day with a 6 minute journal activity meant to deepen our ethnographic awareness of our world.


Saturday, December 12 (9.30-17, Building J – Puutarhurin talo)

Morning 1:     Workshopping a Draft

We start the day by completing two “morning pages”, a habit that many writers use to wake up and be surprised by what ideas are lodged in the liminal space of the mind. Next, we will move on to learning how to set up structures for feedback at various stages of writing. Making writing social sooner (rather than later) is one of the most important characteristics of successful writers. We will begin sharing selections of our texts-in-progress.


Morning 2:    Creative & literary ethnography: What forms serve our stories best?

Increasingly, other forms of ethnographic writing (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction) are being acknowledged as scholarly contributions and appear in peer-reviewed venues. We will look at several forms of ethnographic writing that are outside the standard academic article and asses how our material might benefit from such forms.


Afternoon:     Workshopping and Storyboarding

We will spend the remainder of our time together engaged with each other’s writing and with short writing prompts. Everyone will receive feedback on what they have so far and strategize a detailed outline for their pieces. This includes tips for writing precise literature reviews in only a day (yes! really!). We will conclude with the 6 minute journal activity we experimented with on Friday.

JYU Campus Map highlighting the locations of the Lyhty conference room and the J Building.



For more information on Dr. Lindsay Bell, her research, and her writing, please visit the following websites:

Her personal pages:

Her “Visualizing Canada’s Urban North” research project website regarding the urbanizing arctic:

A Special issue of Northern Public Affairs she recently edited called “Arctic Interruptions” includes a photo essay that focuses on the high rise tower that is her narrative anchor:

An experimental non-fiction text she wrote about the same building for the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography:

Her thoughts on Writing About Writing:

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