Ethnography, toleration and authenticity: ethical reflections on fieldwork, analysis and writing

Hammersley, Martyn (2005). Ethnography, toleration and authenticity: ethical reflections on fieldwork, analysis and writing. In: Troman, Geoff; Jeffrey, Bob and Walford, Geoffrey eds. Methodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography. Studies in Educational Ethnography, 11. UK: Elsevier, pp. 37–55.



It can be argued that toleration is an essential component of an ethnographic orientation. But is this a matter of principled commitment, or simply a practical requirement for doing ethnographic work? And what does it entail? In its standard sense ‘toleration’ means not challenging – perhaps not even openly evaluating – actions or attitudes of which one disapproves, or views with which one disagrees. It is important to underline that this is very different from celebrating diversity or difference. Even so, it might be argued that ethnographers should not need to be tolerant, since as a matter of principle they ought to be open to the other, rather than disapproving of it. I will argue that this is false, that they do often need to be tolerant, both in the course of fieldwork and when analysing data and writing up their research. During data collection, toleration may be required when witnessing things that one believes to be morally wrong, finds physically disgusting, or judges culturally damaging; or when hearing views with which one fundamentally disagrees. In analysis and writing up, toleration means portraying beliefs or activities in a way that is unaffected by one's own attitude towards them, and writing about them in a manner that does not communicate any evaluation (and thereby necessarily runs the risk that readers will infer one approves of them when one does not). I will argue that the particular grounds on which the requirement of toleration can be based have implications for decisions about what should be its limits, but that a commitment to ethnography demands that those limits be broad. Finally, I consider what the implications of adherence to the principle of tolerance are for the ethnographer as a person. Does it condemn one to ethical inauthenticity? Or is research an ethical way of life that is of value in itself?

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