The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree

Posted on March 4, 2016
Category: bibliography

This[1] introduces an intermediate modified constructionist interpretation of ethnographic results.

A constructionist view of ethnography is not new, and is well characterized (according to Heider) by this passage:

An account of a little community is not something that is given out of a vending machine by putting in the appropriate coins of method and technique. There is no one ultimate and utterly objective account of a human whole. Each account, if it preserves the human quality at all, is a created product in which the human qualities of the creator-in the outside viewer and describer-are one ingredient [2]

Open disputes between ethnographers are rare, but they are important.

What Heider argues is that ethnographic disagreements form a vitaly important source of information. A disagreement between ethnographers is not simply a matter of discerning objective truth, but requires a full accounting of the subjective truths that constructed the ethnographies and mediate the dispute. "Mistakes" (Heider's quotes) are potentially nothing of the sort:
That is, even “mistakes” may be made to reveal something of importance about the culture concerned as well as about the background of the ethnographer.

A summary of common reasons for disputes:

  1. Someone is wrong
  2. They are looking at different cultures of subcultures
  3. They are refering the same culture at different times
  4. They are looking differently at the same culture
    1. What of different personalities of the ethnographers?
    2. What of different value systems of the ethnographers?
    3. What of different cultures of the ethnographers?

[1] K. G. Heider, “The rashomon effect: When ethnographers disagree,” American Anthropologist, vol. 90, no. 1, pp. 73–81, 1988 [Online]. Available:

[2] R. Redfield, The little community and peasant society and culture. University of Chicago Press, 1960 [Online]. Available: