This paper asks whether there are ways and means available in cultural narratives to get beyond simplistic binary opposites that, as Kenneth Burke puts it, “divide the world where the world does not.” Specifically, I explore the image and symbol of “terrorist” as abject and Other. Using an analytical pathway provided by the anthropologist Gert Baumann, I review ethnographic evidence of contested cultural systems that manage to transcend binary oppositions, at least until the real issue becomes one of power. To resolve these narrative tensions I weave into the text an example of a complex narrative of post-9/11 cultural identities found in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I derive lessons from that text that may be of practical use to global leaders and managers.
John Van Maanen’s account of the evolution of ethnographic narratives provided far more than insight about classic anthropological and sociological texts. By encouraging qualitative researchers to focus on the rhetorical and political qualities of voice, style, authority, and representations of selves and others, he exposed the often hidden assumptions built into fieldwork and scholarship. It is not too much to say that no other single text has so forcefully shaped and inspired our understanding of qualitative research and narrative writing across the social sciences. Van Maanen’s work inspired two cross-disciplinary projects. One charted the cultural, rhetorical, and narrative influences that constructed classic ethnographic texts; the other created a common cultural code for new explorations of organizations and cultures. One result of those projects is that those of us doing qualitative became more comfortable in our textual diversity if at times challenged to find the appropriate evaluative standards to determine its worth and contribution. We have also embraced, if not fully acted upon, a perceived need to make our scholarship more relevant to diverse publics inside and outside of the academy.
Keywords: narrative; ethnography; autoethnography; communication; globalization
When I went into this line of work I was running away from home. I didn’t know that learning how to conduct research and write ethnographic narratives would “lay down a path in walking”1 that eventually would lead me back full circle to the place, to the moment, to the reason I ran away in the first place.
Nor did I realize that my graduate training in rhetoric and communication theory (with a little interpersonal and small group on the side) would help me develop not only the “equipment for living”2 but also the observational and analytical skill set necessary to become a self-proclaimed organizational detective.