Horner, Bruce. “Critical Ethnography, Ethics, and Work:  Rearticulating Labor.” Ethnography Unbound:  From Theory Shock to Critical Praxis. Ed. Stephen Gilbert Brown. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004. 13-34.

Main Claims/Executive Summary

In this chapter Horner advances the argument that critical ethnography’s approach to collaboration, multivocality, and self-reflexivity have been steps in the right direction to distance ethnography from the myth of the “Lone Ethnographer” toward a more accurate researcher.  This new, “critical” ethnographic model developed in light of feminist, postcolonial and poststructuralist conceptions of knowledge and experience.  Yet, in making this step toward a more accurate ethnographic project, researchers in the field have not, according to Horner, adequately addressed the social/cultural materiality of the research process.  In eliding this question, researchers often push up against ethical dilemmas that could be preempted with an extended treatment of the materiality of ethnographic research.

Specific Claims:


In making his argument, Horner addresses three aspects of ethnography where he believes a material consideration will be most useful.  First he addresses collaboration.  Traditionally, critical ethnographers have viewed the position of collaboration as essential in order to 1) challenge the hierarchical relationships between the researcher and the researched and 2) gain more detailed accounts of research participants in the “context of their daily lives” (17), and 3) allow research subjects the space to gain new knowledge about themselves and their lives through the project.  The problems with this position include: 1) the subject may not care about the research, 2) the “social positioning” of the participants might complicate the ideal.  To address this issue, Horner recommends that researchers consider

unexpected questions of labor, value, and capital (symbolic and otherwise) [about] who will do what work, determined by whom, to produce what use value and exchange value realized by and for whom, paid for how, on whose time, by what means. (21)

In recognizing these factors, the ethnographer will “recognize and confront the material differences at the research site among the researchers and researched rather than assume an ideal of shared interest among equal partners, and we need to recognize the labor all contribute, and factor in the values to be accrued through such labor and how such values are realized, in planning and taking  up such inquiry (22).


In this section, Horner recognizes that embracing multivocality in ethnographic research allows for the “Other” to speak in the text instead of being merely spoken about.  Unfortunately, under the current ethics based model of ethnography, the ethnographer is hemmed in by 1) the desire of the participant NOT to participate in producing texts and 2) the “commodity fetishism” that develops when researchers make gestures toward incorporating multivocality as a textual nod (genre?) instead of as a recognition of the labor involved in creating those multivocal texts.  To correct the ethical problem of multivocality, Horner recommends considering the “specific material social conditions of the audience” of the ethnography as well as adopting a multiplicity of texts (perhaps in an appendix?) that can demonstrate the context of the study.


In this section, Horner investigates the practice of self-reflexivity in critical ethnography.  While acknowledging that the practice has meaningful import as a way to ensure that one’s own view doesn’t color the views of the study or the researched subjects, Horner also recognizes that the “No more metanarratives” (he uses ‘ideologies’) position of many pomo’ists is really an affirmation of the metanarrative of no more metanarratives.  I guess it’s kind of the uber-metanarrative.  Instead, Horner argues that the practice of self-reflexivity is another textual commodity of ethnographic form.  Further, he also likens it to a gesture toward enhancing one’s ethos as a researcher instead of a real act of reflection.  In addressing this issue, Horner recommends that researchers 1) use self-reflection on a personal level (via re-visiting diaries, etc.), 2) recognize self-reflexivity as an activity rather than a “textual production” to meet the genre and 3) by recognizing that researchers aren’t alone, but actually part of the larger social.  Finally, Horner recommends that if self-reflexivity is to be used in ethnography, we must accept that it is a material social practice that needs to be accounted for in the planning and budgeting process.

Working With:

Bizzell, Patricia.  “Marxist Ideas in Composition Studies.”  Contending with Words:  Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age.  Ed. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb.  New York:  MLA, 1991.  52-68.

Cintron, Ralph.  “Waring a Pith Helmet at a Sly Angle: or, Can Writing Researchers Do Ethnography in a Postmodern Era?”  Written Communication 10 (1993):  371-412.

Working Against:

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Joy S. Ritchie.  “Beyond the Personal:  Theororizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research.”  CCC 46 (1995): 7-29.

Key Words/Phrases:



material conditions




1.  I found strong resonances between what Horner is discussing as the “commodity fetishism” of much ethnographic posturing and the commodification of publishing that Matsuda discusses in the article we read for Collin’s class.  Missy best articulated this problem in our class as one of publishing for purpose or publishing or perish. . . just an observation.

2.  I get the sense that what Horner wants – through a really rigorous qualification of labor and resources needed on the front end – is a program of possibilities instead of gestures on the back.  Does that make sense?

3.  Related to question two, I think Horner might see ethnography, in the gesturing/commodity fetishism of textual practice state as a calcification instead of what ethnography should be: possiblity.

2 Responses to “CCR691 – Ethnography Ch. 2 Horner – For Comment”

  1. Luce

    Under the multivocality section I was transported back to 601 (again) and remember my frustration in reading a Jonathan Alexander piece (the title I cannot recall due to a lack of proper noun uptake) in which he claims to be collaborating with folks but it is clear in tone and the way that the article was written, was not collaborative in delivery. My mother used to say: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and I used to roll my eyes and mutter incoherently in pubescent defiance, yet there is perhaps some truth to that. Was it Alexander’s intention to create a collaborative piece? Absolutely and fabulously so. And I think he worked very hard to make that happen. But it was not the model of multivocality that I would envision or that you would hope critical ethnographers to realize. Perhaps material conditions troubled his ability to do it.

    I think the one thing I wonder, especially in reading your response, is the bifurcation of possibility and gesture. In other words, while Alexander could have done it better, does his attempt, no matter how failed, count as a gesture toward the possibility of critical ethnography?

  2. Eileen E. Schell

    Horner makes it clear in the introduction to his essay that he’s going after the “road to [ethnographic] hell paved with good [postmodern] intentions.” He is bringing a cultural materialist perspective that questions some of the cherished maxims of critical ethnography. Horner faults maximistic claims about collaboration, multivocality, and self-reflexivity on the grounds that they are not “materialist enough in the framework in which they understand that model, and so the recommendations they present remain insufficient” (15). Horner wants us to question the unexamined issue of labor in our research practices in critical ethnography (thanks Bruce, we need to question the unexamined issue of labor in all we do, I would argue, but that’s another rant for another day). I think he’s right generally speaking, but I’d like to see more examples of how people can engage the materiality of research practices in ethnography. Ellen Cushman is an example of someone grappling with these issues in her book _The Struggle and the Tools_, and he mentions her briefly. But I’m left wanting more examples of researchers who balance materiality with their research practices. I agree with his concluding statement, but I want more about “HOW” to achieve/negotiate this mix and “develop a multiplicity of strategies” for ethnographic research that involve an acknowledgment of materiality.

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