“Let’s Bring It Up to B Flat”: What Style Offers Applied Ethnographic Work

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Ethnographic and design work share, deeply, the challenge of conveying the truth of the work we do to interlocutors from very different backgrounds. Writing is hard work even with the shared culture that an academic discipline or a single firm can draw upon. How, then, to write well for broad and varied audiences? By writing like novelists. Literary critic James Wood encapsulates the central tradition of the novel as: “Truthfulness to the way things are […] Life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.” (2008:247) It is hard to conceive of a better description of what most of us would like to achieve. “Truthfulness to the way things are” gets nicely to all of the important moments of what we do—observation, description, interpretation, inscription. In this paper, I try to move ‘style’ up the ladder of importance in how we think, write, and talk about the work we do.

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