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Thinking through points of view (POV) in ethnographic writing

This post:

  • Covers the basics of POV in fiction writing
  • Examines the use of the first person limited in ethnography
  • Discusses possible pitfalls

What is POV?

Points of view (POVs) are present in all texts. Put simply, they are the position from which the narrative is being told. In academic non-fiction, authors often jump between phrases such as following:

This paper argues…
Let us now consider…
It is clear that….
I argue that…

Some authors jump around more than others. However, most of the time in these genres, while a jump can sometimes result in an awkward transition, a little bit of jumping often isn’t a problem, and it may serve a purpose (e.g. emphasising that an argument is your own).

In fiction, POV is incredibly important as it gives us the perspective from which the story is being told – and there are more options. Why? Because fiction takes us beyond the real world (whatever that is). In fiction, we can jump into several people’s heads or even assume a godlike perspective.

Ethnography lies somewhere in the middle. Jumping into different people’s heads (“headhopping”) would be downright creepy in an ethnography, while taking a godlike perspective could place your writing in a colonialist nineteenth century tradition.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the common POVs:

POVCommon in…Example bookExample
First person limitedSome modern novels, ethnography, experiential accounts, memoirBridget Jones’s Diary, The Hunger Games“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth, but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress”. The Hunger Games
Third person limitedMany modern novelsGame of Thrones (multiple POV characters), Harry Potter“Harry sat up and examined the jagged piece on which he had cut himself, seeing nothing but his own bright green eye reflected back at him”. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Third person omniscientFairy tales, almost all older works of fictionSnow White, Pride and Prejudice“Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty: he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise”. Pride and Prejudice

Which POV should I use and when?

Imagine you are doing a factory ethnography and work on the shopfloor. The first-person-limited approach will describe your thoughts and feelings as you experience life at the factory.

Now imagine you writing a novel about that factory. If you take a third-person-limited approach you can create slightly more distance between the reader and the protagonist by referring to them as they, she, he etc.

In a third-person-limited omniscient perspective, you could jump inside the perspectives of several characters, but not have a godlike knowledge beyond that. For instance, you could write one chapter from the perspective of the factory owner, and another chapter from the perspective of a factory worker etc. Third-person-limited omniscient is also useful if you want to tell several intertwined stories, or if you want to explore the feelings of two characters e.g. in a romance.

Meanwhile, third person omniscient takes a godlike perspective, viewing the characters and events from afar. One of the advantages is that a strong authorial voice can be developed.

But let’s return to ethnography…

For cultural anthropologists, first person limited offers us an emic perspective: the ethnographer’s position, thoughts and feelings in a certain moment during fieldwork.

Ethnographic texts will often shift between this first person limited and an impersonal expository style that describes an etic position of an academic researcher with a certain amount of knowledge about a topic.

In ethnographic description, we can expect to use the first person limited. Third person limited would sound quite creepy – but a fun exercise to heighten your awareness of POV would be to take a paragraph from your fieldnotes written in the first person, and transform it into the third person like this:


First person limitedThird person limited
The terrace vibe in Pula felt very different to the vibe with the Bad Blue Boys (BBB) in Zagreb. It was much more relaxed, less arrogant, looser and more anarchic, with people coming and going. With the BBB fan group, I sometimes felt like they were speaking to an anonymous mass. Here, I was introduced to people instantly, and importantly, I could stand right at the front for the first game, which would have been unthinkable as an outsider in Zagreb.He felt the terrace vibe in Pula was very different to the vibe with the Bad Blue Boys (BBB) in Zagreb. It was much more relaxed, less arrogant, looser and more anarchic, with people coming and going. With the BBB fan group, he sometimes felt like they were speaking to an anonymous mass. Here, he was introduced to people instantly, and importantly, he could stand right at the front for the first game, which would have been unthinkable as an outsider in Zagreb.  
(from my own fieldnotes)

This feels weird and unnatural, but it’s a useful exercise for shifting perspective and if you’re feeling stuck, it could give you some fresh insights.

Embedded versus retrospective first person limited

Now, there are two main kinds of first-person-limited POV: embedded and retrospective.

With embedded first person limited, the action is usually happening in the present. This gives it an immediacy and is often more readily combined with thoughts and feelings. There is little psychic (narrative) distance between the reader and the text, which makes the description more powerful. Beth Hill calls this deep or close POV. Time phrases are used incidentally rather than to give overarching expositions. Compare for example:

Embedded: Saturday was payday – finally!

Exposition: The salary would arrive on Saturday 23 August.

With retrospective first person limited, the action is happening in the past. A time is usually mentioned in a more specific way to frame the relationship with the present, e.g.

When I first arrived in the field, I went to speak with the village chief. She invited me into her office.

It was hot July day and we had been driving for hours in the sticky sunshine…

Now, in the book Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian made some comments on the use of the ethnographic present vs. a retrospective framing. He cautioned against a danger with the present tense (embedded), in that it could situate the encounter as outside of history. Personally, I think opting for the retrospective for this reason would be a blunt tool. While what Fabian describes certainly can happen, the immediacy of the ethnographic present can make for more compelling writing.


Embedded first person limitedRetrospective first-person limited
More immediate, more engagingTime phrases used to establish a relationship with the present – to mark out the focus of attention and produce the narrator as well as the event
However, it can situate the encounter as out of time, out of history – which can reinforce colonial ideologies of Otherness (see Fabian)Can come across as heavy handed, with the time distance creating a barrier and coming across as distanced, alienated or infused with a particular affect
There can be a split between embeddedness (in the moment) and exposition (abstract description that implicitly assumes a wider POV is assumed; in ethnography, usually that of the etic academic observer) 

Issues with the first person limited

Now, one of the main issues in ethnographic writing is navigating between the experiential snippets and the more abstract tone used for analysis. This is easier to achieve with retrospective first person limited as you – the older and more knowledgeable academic narrator – look back on a time when you had more limited knowledge of a situation.

One of the dangers with the embedded first-person-limited position is a slide into exposition, i.e. explanatory comments for the readers’ benefit that move beyond the first-person-limited POV.

How can POV issues be resolved?

One approach is to separate off the immersive ethnographic descriptions from the rest of the (academic, expository) text. However, it is easy to slip back into a more distanced expository style:

Payday is a happy day. It almost always falls on the Friday of every other week. Lately, in Alianza, payday has not been on time. Moreover, the associates [workers on a temporary contract] have not received the last two payments, and before that they were not getting their entire salary, just a portion of it. Only workers [employees] have been paid without disruption.

Because of these issues, today payday falls on a Saturday. There is no work today, plus it coincides with the Guanacaste Day festivities (a national celebration), so it feels extra special. The municipality has organised some activities in Laurel. These include their handing out free olla de carne for lunch in the park. Nuria, Silvia and I arrange to meet at 12 p.m. to have some olla de carne.

(From a recent job – shared with permission of the author)

Here there is a shifting between exposition, which feels authorial and includes knowledge of events possibly unknown to the ethnographer at that time, and relating an ethnographic encounter.

Is this a problem?

That’s a judgement call for the author to make, and it depends on your writing purpose. If you’re writing to convey information to the reader about a situation or context, it could work. However, if you want to focus on the craft of writing, convey immediacy and generate a deeper sense of reader involvement in the text, you should consider what information you can show the reader (through conversations between the various people and yourself for example). You could also leave some of the necessary telling for a non-ethnographic section in your book chapter or journal article.

In developmental or line-editing, I would usually comment on these kinds of issues for the author, but leave any intervening at sentence level up to them.

If you’re interested in exploring this further, check out the following books and courses:

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash


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