Writing Up/Writing Down a Textual Ethnography:

Documentary Practices in a Mental Health Boarding Home


Kathryn Alexander
Simon Fraser University

In 1993 I completed an extensive "textual" ethnography which argued for a critical examination of literate practices in workplace and professional contexts. My textual Ethnography practices of mental health workers in a community mental health boarding home. At the time I was unaware of the extensive range of research on genre theory and workplace writing, but it appears that I was writing alongside some of the discourses of genre theory and workplace writing.

The working title "Writing Up/ Writing Down" was inspired by ethnographer Paul Atkinson who describes the "triple" constitution of the ethnographic field in the following manner. First, the field is constructed through the ethnographer's gaze; second, it is reconstituted through writing down the "texts-of-the-field"; finally the field is reconstructed as "writing up" research and then recontextualised through the reader's work of interpretation (Atkinson, 1992, 9). The same kind of constructed, reconstructed and recontextualised work also occurs in workplace writing and reading, although we often encounter these texts as factual and objective. It is exactly this "facticity" which connects the documentary text to the larger social mechanisms of contemporary life. Dorothy Smith writes: "The text comes before us without any apparent attachments. It seems to stand on its own, to be inert without impetus or power. But in the situations of our everyday life as contrasted with our scholarly activities we find texts operative in many ways (l990b, 122).

As an on-call mental health worker I experienced many contradictions and conflicts between the purported goals of care and support of independence of the residents of the boarding home and my role as a mental health worker. I suspected that many practitioners across the social institutions of education, literacy, social work, health care and crisis intervention also experienced similar contradictions.. I wondered if my project would shed light on the ways that these contradictions are manifested in the conflict between the everyday/every night lived experience of workers and the social control mechanisms that are concealed in the documentary procedures of social institutions.. Dorothy Smith calls these control mechanisms the "conceptual relations of ruling" and claims that they are primarily activated through our everyday textual activities as the writers, readers and subjects of documentary texts (Smith, 1987, 1990a, 1990b).

Why a textual ethnography?

I called my research a textual Ethnography because my site for analysis was comprised of a large corpus of almost a decade's accumulation of handwritten anecdotal workplace diary entries or log notes. I claimed that the historically extensive, longitudinal and detailed narrative nature of this corpus of documentary

text qualified as an ethnographic field. This text was known in the community as "the daily log." I described the function of the daily log as the major "organ" of communication in the mental health boarding house. It organized the "eyes, ears and voices workers, and represented a kind of central nervous system in conjunction with the supervisor (PIC) who coordinated our activities with the care of the residents. As a non-profit organization, adequate staffing was constrained by financial resources and therefore relied on reliable "textual" co-operation and coordination of workplace knowledge and household duties through written directions in the log notes and log book.

I was an on-call staff member for several years while I completed a degree in English. My "text" work at the university sensitized me to the text-talk of the staff, and the inter-textual writing within the log. Later, as a novice researcher immersed in the analysis of the daily log, I was faced with the implications of reading and analyzing the entries that I personally had written as a worker. I discovered that removed from the original context of their writing, I had to discover new ways of reading and understanding the implications of the log notes. I wrote:

Working in such an intimate and intense setting offered an opportunity to witness the complexities of administration, caregiving, and daily coping within the mental health system, and to participate in the official writing and reading through which these complexities took their shape. The daily log not only documents life within a mental health community boarding home, it also provides a textual annotation of the complexities of life and work in a documentary mediated setting (Alexander, 1993, 6).

What is a log note?

Since work shifts seldom overlapped, it was mandatory that a worker read the log book prior to her shift. Workers were instructed to read as far back as their previous shift, and up to a week's worth of log entries prior to engaging with residents, especially if there had been an absence of more than several days. It took approximately an hour to read the 30 - 40 or so hand written pages that could represent a week's accumulation of log notes.

After each work shift, the mental health workers wrote an account of what occurred during their shin, and what was considered important to communicate to other workers. Log book entries included details about the emotional or physical condition of each resident, housework duties, administrative details, information about changes in medications, and any critical events that occurred in the house and among the residents. On occasion, they also contained scraps of poetry, jokes, and illustrations from the artistic and gifted supervisor who strove to develop strong community bonds among workers and residents.

A typical log note consisted of usually one to two pages unless special circumstances warranted a need for more written instruction. The number of sheets of double sided loose-leaf paper representing a month of log book entries ranged from 60 - 87 sheets, with the average being 140 recorded pages a month (Alexander, 1993, 11). The purpose for all this "counting n of pages is to acknowledge the tremendous amount of textual and intellectual labour that took place with this workplace writing. My sense is that few of my co-workers took notice of this aspect of work as "writing" even though much of their daily physical, professional and emotional contact with residents and each other was coordinated through this crucial inter-textual literacy work.

I note that it is in reading and writing up activities that workers' understanding and reception of the community and residents is mediated. I posed the following illustration of a shift change after a worker engages with her mandatory reading of the log, prior to entering the bustling chaotic world of the community life of the residents.

Preloaded with the events and descriptions of the past few days, this institutional worker encounters a textually inscribed community; her understanding of what has occurred has been mediated by the log entries of her coworkers and by her own lived experience. She has read a text of a particular "world., now she closes the text and enters that world. Or does she enter the text? She simultaneously enters as a potential reader, a soon-to-be writer, and a woman immersed in a mental health worker identity (Alexander, 97).

The next excerpt is what Janet Giltrow has described as evidence of "meta-genre-, that is "situated language about situated language" which orients readers and writers how to participate with a genre (Giltrow, 1998, 3). This entry was written by the PIC (person in charge or house supervisor) and is quite atypical in that it calls explicit attention to the importance of specific kinds of writing and reading practices. Normal practices seem to have been jeopardized because of a recent spate of novice (on-call) workers.

Thursday October 6
General Request to All Staff
Please be more careful and thorough about reading the 109 & making your log entries.
In order for us to function as a staff team -- and especially when there are many different on call staff working, it's very important to pick up info from the log and to log and pass on info more clearly. If a general request or a specific one-to-one staff person request has been made you either get it done, get 1/2 of it done or can't get to it (which is fine) please acknowledge in the log that you've read about it -- what you were able to do or not do -- so the info gets passed onto the next shift to pick up . . . .

The better we all get at this, the easier it is for us all to do the job -- function co-operatively smoothly as a staff team -- thanks C

Typically, the replicability of reading and writing strategies for log book entries was taken for granted. Apart from minimal instruction in the staff orientation, most workers learned through direct participation and peer example how to read and write in the log. I argued that they came to approximate the right "feel" of a good log note largely through the kind of situated learning which Lave and Wenger describe as "learning as increasing participation in communities of practice [that] concerns the whole person acting in the world" (Lave and Wenger, 1992, 51). Thus the novice mental health workers were instructed through written participation with the textual models of veteran workers which gradually coordinated all workers into a seamless interpretive and textual community (Stock, logo, 150; Smith, 1990a, 1990b; Lave and Wenger, 1992 51).

As Dorothy Smith notes, the power of the documentary text is that it is geared for instrumental use, not contextual or interpretative action. Little analysis is required (and is likely discouraged). Rather IT requires routine reception and action. The reader of documentary texts becomes an objectified reader, the reader for which the text is intended and the text is assumed to be the same for everybody, at all times. Smith writes: "Objectified knowledge. . . subdues, discounts and disqualifies our various interests, perspectives, angles and experience, and what we might have to say speaking from Them" (Smith, 1990a, 80).

Regardless of  the anecdotal and narrative quality of the log book entries, workers could not argue with The "facticity" of others' log entries. They might add to The stock of knowledge about a situation or person, but the question of wrong interpretation was rarely called up, unless a novice inadvertently "diagnosed" a resident. The PIC. and the other veteran workers relied on Their well honed experience and knowledge of the women in their care to construct inter-subjective and inter-textual "readings" of the ongoing complexities of the lives depicted on the pages of the log book.

Ethical implications of textual practices

I was initially alerted to The significance of The ethical consequences of writing practices because on several occasions the full-time workers literally voted to maintain a particular style of writing which they stated facilitated their working relationships with each other and the care of die residents. When they were confronted with external demands to change the way they wrote in the log, they split the log into two separate formats and maintained a dual entry system. One fulfilled The mandates of external authorities and supported what I described as The "rhetoric of management." The other, the narrative anecdotal entries of the original log, I described as the "poetics of care." I examined these textual practices in considerable detail in later chapters of the thesis. Each genre or form had material and social consequences for the women who worked and lived in the "textual community" of the group home. The following entry describes a transition back to the "old method" after a trial experiment with "progress notes."

Trial system discarded July 18: Today we resume old method of logging as per staff meeting discussion and decision. For particulars/ comments see yellow pages, end of this section, and staff meeting minutes [no longer attached to log]. As for the resident's log i.e. resident summary, profiles, special routines etc. Let's give it some thought next few days.

July 22, . . .Good to see the log back in its original form, easy to read

As I read through the historical corpus of the daily log, I recognized that the issue of the kind of writing that would be practiced in the workplace emerged as an important nexus of care, ethics and community building, and this sometimes placed the women who worked in this community in direct conflict with external discourses of the medical models of psychiatry, professional service and legal accountability.

To briefly summarize, my exploration settled on how workplace literacies and documentation practices created particular identities for the worker/writers as wed as for their "subjects/clients." I wanted to shift attention to the processes and practices of writing up, to show how these texts might also "write us" possibly toward unintended outcomes and perspectives. I thought that ethical problems were created by institutional ways of knowing and writing which had the capacity to conceal dominant power relations that might work against the emancipatory and care-giving intentions of front line workers. Although this research took place in an unfamiliar setting, a community mental health boarding home, it seemed that theory in a strange place might be useful when developing a critical lens with which to re-examine a familiar practice or home place.

Works Cited

Alexander, Kathryn. (1993). Writing Up/Writing Down a Textual Ethnography: Documentation Practices in a Mental Health Boarding Home. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser University. Unpublished thesis.

Atkinson, Paul. (1992). Understanding Ethnographic Texts. Sage Qualitative Research Methods. Vol. 25. Newbury Park, CA Sage Publications Inc.

Giltrow, Janet. (1998). Meta Genre. (unpublished manuscript).

Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne. (1992). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Dorothy E. (1990a). The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Smith, Dorothy E. (1990b) Texts, Facts, and Femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling. London: Routledge.

Stock, Brian. (1990). Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


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