Ethnography and Speculative Fiction

Clare Anzoleaga

Clare Anzoleaga

Editor’s Note: In this third post in our “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction” series, Clare Anzoleaga (@ClareAnzoleaga) from Fresno City College and Porterville College discusses the potential of fictional accounts of ethnographic work. In doing so, she complements the piece by Anne Galloway and the article by Laura Forlano: this time it’s less about design or design fictions and more about writing. More specifically, she highlights the rhetorical possibilities of such approach for understanding knowledge and shared meaning.


In 1991 famous ethnographer, Dwight Conquergood, published a piece titled, “Rethinking Ethnography.” One important point from this piece deals with the ethnographer’s challenge to appropriately convey the experience of the “Being There” of fieldwork with the rhetorical final product of the “Being Here.” It begs the question: What rhetorical/communicative strategies should we use to adequately tell the story of a culture? This came into play a bit further for me the other night when I had a dinner party for some colleagues. One of the topics we playfully debated had to do with whether ethnography should reside in the field of Communication theory or not (to me, this is a no-brainer). Ethnography is Communication because whether the researcher is in the field talking to people or at their laptop storifying analysis, one of its intents is to elicit a communicative and performative response. Ethnography sends a message through the form of a story either through text, performance, images or all of the above. This got me thinking, however, about this article on speculative fiction and ethnography that I was writing for While many speculative fiction writers have been incorporating the practice of ethnography into their work, few Communication scholars incorporate speculative fiction into their ethnography. Thus I began to wonder about Conquergood and his discussion on the rhetorical possibilities of ethnography and the differences between a researcher who writes ethnographic, peer-reviewed journal articles who uses speculative fiction, and a writer who uses ethnography as a way to write in the genre of speculative fiction. In this essay, I direct my focus of inquiry at some of the benefits and challenges of the ethnographer in the field of Communication who uses speculative fiction in their research. While my focus is oriented in the field of Communication, I acknowledge these concepts are also applicable to the broader work of any social researcher.

I should start with making two distinctions here first. On one hand, there is the question of where and how ethnography, which weaves in speculative fiction scenarios as part of the ethnographic analysis, is being produced in such scholarly fields as Communication. I ran a quick keyword search of “ethnography” and “speculative fiction,” at “Communication & Mass Media Complete” and found no journal article or book results on this matter. This means there are few ethnographers in the Communication field who are currently producing peer-reviewed journal articles who use speculative fiction in their storified analysis (but I hope they start soon, ahem!).

San Francisco Man Hole, July, 2013, Picture by Clare Anzoleaga

San Francisco Manhole, July, 2013, Picture by Clare Anzoleaga


I imagine that in the field of Communication (or any field in the Humanities), ethnography written with speculative fiction would exist as a type of storified analysis. The data that had been gathered in the field would depict a present or future where the rituals, feelings, and performances that had been documented originally would come alive through aesthetic stories of dystopian futures, horrors, or any other genre-specific speculative fiction narrative. As a Communication scholar, I see this new genre as an offshoot, extension, or evolution of ethnography as a way of addressing the ever-important concept of the “evocative” detail (Ellis, 2009). I see this rhetorical strategy capable of conveying meaning and emotions just as leading Communication-based ethnographers like Carolyn Ellis, Art Bochner, Shane Moreman, Kurt Lindemann, and Robin Boylorn are writing today. Furthermore, one of the main benefits of a speculative fiction narrative in ethnography offers ways into the forecasting of a possible future that may or may not happen. I think this strategy should be used more. As an ethnographer, we should use our unique position and the insight we obtain from the field to report, celebrate, or warn what we interpret in the making of what is to come. While ethnography is a useful method for gathering, coding, and analyzing data, incorporating speculative fiction can give the researcher the ability to talk about the possibilities of what might happen in an informed yet creative and entertaining way. It is a rhetorical platform to suppose, postulate, predict, or otherwise caution our readers on what the ethnographer sees could potentially be problematic or unique for that culture in the future.

And then there is the other hand, where ethnographic speculative fiction is not written with a scholarly intent but is published more widely and reaches more speculative fiction fans. In this scenario, the stories being produced here would be about character(s) writing and conducting ethnography, as they say in Star Trek, to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” On this side of the coin, speculative fiction writers like Ursula K. le Guin, Michael Bishop, or Gene Roddenberry have been incorporating the stories of the practice and product of ethnography into their works of speculative fiction for decades.

So I write this essay from the position of inquiry as a mother of five with a Masters degree from the field of Communication. I also write from a position of speculative fiction fan who grew up in a home where the parental units were die-hard Trekkies. I also have a hard time with disciplinary and genre boundaries in general, so in many ways, I feel strongly connected to works of scholarship that do not adhere to traditional epistemological ways of knowing as a general rule. Ethnography to me is appealing because as a rogue methodology in the social scientific sense, it pushes boundaries toward new phenomena by which to explore how we understand cultural value, ritual, and performative meanings.

Caldecott Tunnel, July 2013, Picture by Clare Anzoleaga

Caldecott Tunnel, July 2013, Picture by Clare Anzoleaga


For those of us who write ethnography, it is widely known that the truths we encounter and write about will never have a capital “t” in its purest, most-reducible sense. Ethnography written as speculative fiction fits smoothly into this understanding of interpreted truth-painting. It is an analytic approach which interprets data collected from the field and reimagines that data through narratives of fantasy, horror, and utopian/dystopian adventures with academic theory. One foundational ethnographer out of the field of Communication, H. L. (Buddy) Goodall, reminds us that non-traditional scholarship should work at incorporating new methods. Goodall said it is a “myth to assume that our field – or perhaps any of the humanities fields – has a common literature, much less a common theoretical or methodological ground” (2000, p. 196). Ethnography written as speculative fiction therefore is one effective way to expand how we produce theoretical/methodological foundations. It provides us with a platform where epistemological understanding of everyday life can be reconstructed and explored without the confines of space and time. As a sub-genre of ethnography, it has limitless possibilities by which to understand how emerging social conditions and hierarchal power function together and in spite of one another.

This genre also creates a space for traditionally overlooked voices and narratives of a given culture that have been silenced or objectified. Sarah Amira de la Garza says a text should have the look and feel of the culture it describes and its “shared systems of meaning” (de la Garza, 2004, xv). When united, ethnography and speculative fiction offer better ways to understand morals and lessons of many cultures as they might exist in the future as a result of current political, educational, religious, or familial policies and norms of which they are encountering at their particular intersection of life. It is a way into wondering and discussing how cultures might evolve and develop and naturally includes people who have been ignored by previous scholarship.


One other exciting idea about ethnography which is written with speculative fiction is its potential to move away from traditional scholarly avenues (such as published papers sitting behind an expensive pay wall) and into the hands of the public. From an individual standpoint, a writer could use their ethnography to depict a future where the concerns they have in the present (and are gathered from the field) evolve into a diabolical situation in the future. As Soyini Madison says about critical ethnography, it is a way to begin to “probe other possibilities that will challenge institutions, regimes of knowledge, and social practices that limit choices, constrain meaning, and denigrate identities and communities” (Madison, 2005, p. 5). This artifact then provides a glimpse into the individual’s personal fears and concerns from an informed, yet researched perspective. It allows the writer the benefits of positionality by which to tell the story of concerns and fears while reporting on an injustice, and how that injustice might manifest in the future as they see it.

Of course this does not just apply to one scholarly camp, but should be applicable to all. As an ethnographer in the field of Communication, I imagine my work being published at such places that anyone can access the work for free with certain keyword searches at Google. Furthermore, ethnography as a storified and theoretical analysis of culture naturally belongs on coffee tables in households and doctor’s offices across the globe. This type of scholarship brings subjective ways of knowing and theory to areas of our culture that have been traditionally excluded from academic conversations. We need to imagine and then produce theory of which the final resting place is not locked away in a database, and not written in code that only a certain group of elites can understand, but of work that produces valuable information that is easily accessible to all. The means to writing and sharing new methodological approaches does not have to move from the top of the hierarchy chain downward; our audience is everyone. As ethnographers, we should set an example by writing our own transparent scholarship. Stories of emerging social phenomena that affect us all should be in the hands of the public, and ethnography written as speculative fiction is one effective means for doing so.

Ethnography as speculative fiction must contend with challenges of legitimacy. The lessons in ethnography, whether it was written as a traditional first or third person narrative, poem, or speculative fiction, however, can all interpret data based on events, feelings, and emotions that quantitative methods cannot offer. Any genre of narrative should be considered for ethnographic strategies as it effectively storifies multiple perspectives of people over long periods of time. Furthermore, using speculative fiction provides the researcher with the ability to critique current social constructions by imagining the future and then offering up that hypothetical end result to the reader.

Speculative fiction connects data interpreted in the field without the confines of space and time. Returning to Buddy Goodall for a minute, he reminds us that “facts are interpretations” (Goodall, 2000, p. 92). If we embrace the concept that truth is hard to reducibly measure and pinpoint given the multiple possibilities of human standpoints, the use of ethnography as speculative fiction is likewise a natural fit for the scholar.

This new and exciting genre has great potential for bridging the worlds between academia and the public. Through fieldwork, coding, and finally analytical, storified strategies, this ethnographic method should continue to develop and evolve in effective ways. While hard science confines a researcher to strict guidelines, methods like ethnography which use speculative fiction as part of their storified analysis present unlimited rhetorical possibilities for understanding knowledge and shared meaning. Writers who produce speculative fiction who use ethnography have known this for a long time now. To further my cause, I think I’ll show the latest Star Trek movie to my colleagues the next time they come over for dinner.

Oakland Bridge, July, 2013, Picture taken by Clare Anzoleaga

Oakland Bridge, July, 2013, Picture taken by Clare Anzoleaga


Conquergood, D. (1991). Rethinking ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics.
Communication Monographs, 58, 179-194.

De la Garza, S. A. (2004). María Speaks. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Goodall, H. L. (2000). Writing the New Ethnography (Ethnographic Alternatives). Lanham,
Maryland: Alta Maria Press.

Madison, D. Soyini. (2005).  Critical Ethnography: Methods, Ethics, and Performance.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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12 Responses to “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction”

  1. September 27, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    Clare, very cool post and a great topic to consider, as you did, at length. Another point that just jumped out to me teaching Introductory Sociology to our freshman here at Penn State is that “speculative fiction” and “imagination” seem to have some strong affinities and, at least for early American sociologists like Cooley, imagination “used” to have a fairly large role to play in sociological inquiry. In fact, people still discuss the “sociological imagination” quite commonly, and yet rarely do I hear folks truly translate what they mean by calling imagination fiction.

  2. Clare Anzoleaga
    September 28, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Thanks for the comments and reference, Nicholas. Much of my current research looks at how imagination (and for that matter, meditation) impacts communicative and performative aspects of everyday life. 🙂

  3. Jofish
    September 30, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    You might find some interesting discussion of this in the special issue of Personal & Ubiquitous Computing on Science Fiction & Ubicomp that just came out digitally on In particular, I think Mark Blythe’s article is particularly relevant (, and my guess is he’d be happy to email you a “draft” if you don’t have institutional access to Springer). Mark has done some really nice work about the use of pastiche as a form for expressing ethnographic (& other) stories, which I think is very relevant.

    • October 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      Thank you very much, Jofish…what a wonderful discussion Blythe is providing! I am particularly interested in the rhetorical analyses it offers (as strategy)…very useful for feminist and critical/cultural studies. Will definitely try to get a hold of it. 🙂

  4. October 1, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    Jofish, that seems like a great direction to find source materials from if this movement in ethnography starts to take form. Thanks for the tip. Also, while we have you here, what other materials might you suggest? Do you write in this area?

    • Jofish
      October 19, 2013 at 12:33 am #

      Nicholas, it’s not a focus of my work, but I do engage pretty closely with a lot of people who do. I’ve seen some great speculative fiction work from (my ex-colleague) Julian Bleecker; I’d also mention having a look at the other papers in that special issue, notably, for this topic, the piece by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish, and the piece by the Bardzells.

      I think there’s also casual use of such fiction: I used to work in a group where when we came up with a new project we’d write the one paragraph Engadget post and photo about it as a way to help us focus the story. Lots to be said about that.

      • October 19, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

        I’ll give them a good look; thanks for writing back.

  5. josh
    April 26, 2015 at 5:54 am #

    The spirit of your passion is something to strive for, unfortunately the problem will always rely on the shoulders of the listener. We don’t accept the “truths”of others, which is why more truth is hidden in fiction than expressed in nonfiction. However; truth in fiction it is trivialized, in nonfiction it is validated to the point of normalization, to the extent that we lose all truth. I fear the more free access to information we have will only further the problem. For normal mode of thinking is to; use information, to eliminate possibility, to come to an emotion decision, validating a point of certainty, to force our will upon others, to establish order. I hope you find the wisdom to solve the problem, for I have none. I can only point out that it exists.

    • josh
      April 26, 2015 at 6:14 am #

      Another problem is the way our society has defined knowledge. Knowledge is not learned in school. The is no “informed opinion”, for all true knowledge comes from experiencing both cause and effect. People take information and come to points of certainty without experience. Once again I agree with you point about truth in fiction; but as it is trivialized, it can only serve as inspiration to knowledge through the self reflection of experience. Experience people choose to live without, as they strive to validate their lives instead of living them.


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