W.C.'s Reviews > The Ethnographic Interview

The Ethnographic Interview by James P. Spradley
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's review
Aug 18, 2007

it was amazing
Recommended for: authors
Read in April, 2002

The most valuable (and most expensive) book I own. Spradley describes the means by which someone learns a new language and culture specifically for the purpose of writing about it to people seeking to know the culture.

This book is valuable for two reasons: first, it describes the fracturization of culture in the first world, and formalizes a way to translate between disparate cultures within the same language. This skill has proven invauable in translating "deb speak" at work and avoiding misunderstandings between two parties that don't share the same cultural expression.

The second (and primary) reason to own the book is as primer for the fiction author: the book describes the way you select and interview an informant (that's anthropology-speak for someone in the culture willing to talk to you about the culture) to describe the world in which the informant lives. The magic here involves turning inward: invent an informant to a new culture that exists only in your psyche, or part of a culture yet undescribed as part of a historical narrative. Conduct an internal interview and take notes; bam! You're the next Tolkien. (It seems to me from biographies that this is, in fact, what Tolkein did to develop his extraordinary world). This book more valuable to this end than other works of anthropology for two reasons: firstly, it is COMPETENT. This book is rapid and wholly instructional; I found the first readthrough solidified the concepts in my mind for life. Secondly, it describes the difficulties in learning a new cultural language when it is spoken in the same mother tongue, in our case English. Hobo english is obviously different from Harvard english, but this book describes the ways in which is is likely different and how to avoid letting the similarites confuse what a word really means to a hobo if one is from Harvard, or vice versa.

If you want to write good, immersive, utterly original fiction, get this book. Period. It is the secret weapon.

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