Analyzing Vietnamerica

Perhaps the most overutilized term in academic settings is “analysis”–you’re probably being asked to analyze texts or patterns in every one of your classes and probably each of your instructors seems to mean something different when he or she uses the term. I am also guilty of using “analysis” to mean lots of different things depending on the context, so before I lay out the specific assignment prompt, let me define what I mean by analysis here:

For this specific assignment prompt, when I say that you will be “Analyzing Vietnamerica,” I mean a specific type of comparative analysis common in the humanities: you will use one text as an analytical lens to shed light on another in order to show readers something they would not have been able to see if they had examined the texts in isolation.

Specifically, you will use the analytical lens of autoethnography to analyze Vietnamerica. Which means that we need to define still a few more terms1 before we can get to the details of the assignment:

Ethnography: A research method associated with the sociology and anthropology, drawing on a variety of methods “that share the assumption that personal engagement with the subject is the key to understanding a particular culture or social setting.” The “core of ethnography” are descriptive methods that take as their goal communicating “the intense meaning of social life from the everyday perspective of group members.”


Autoethnography: “A form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context. It included methods of research and writing that combine autobiography and ethnography. The term has a dual sense and can refer either to the ethnographic study of one’s own group(s) or to autobiographical reflections that include ethnographic observations and analysis.” Some key types of autoethnography include: “first, native anthropology or self-ethnography – in which those who previously were the objects of anthropological inquiry come to undertake ethnographic research themselves on their own ethnic or cultural group; second, ethnic autobiography – in which autobiographers emphasise their ethnic identity and ethnic origins in their life narrative; and third, autobiographical ethnography – a reflexive approach in which ethnographers analyse their own subjectivity and life experiences (usually within the context of fieldwork.)”

And finally, one more key term to define:

Thick Description” is a key term for ethnography coming from the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who found that the first wave of anthropologists and sociologists merely described factual accounts of what they observed when performing field work. Geertz believes such “thin description” not only insufficient but misleading because it implies a sort of objectivity that is in fact impossible to achieve. In his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” Geertz proposes, instead, that observers should provide layers of observation and interpretation, with the goal of not merely describing factual accounts of what is observed, but also providing “commentary, interpretation and interpretations of those comments and interpretations” with the goal of understanding the “meaning structures that make up a culture.” Geertz argues that the primary subject of of anthropological interpretation should be the flow of social discourse, and he demonstrates how this method works in what is probably his most famous essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.”

Now, with those background definitions in place let’s get to a discussion of the assignment itself.

Due: 4/24

Your primary text for this assignment is G. B. Tran’s Vietnamerica.

The key text that you will use as your analytical lens is “Autoethnography: An Overview” by Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner, which was published in the journal Forum: Qualitative Social Research in 2011.2 We will discuss this article in class on Monday 4/13.

In your analytical essay, you should be able to defend some central claim(s) about Vietnamerica by linking moments in that text to categories or ideas in the lens text. You will need to continue to employ the close and distant reading skills that you have developed in the first two projects this semester. In an ideal essay, you will complicate
your reading using some complicating evidence from Vietnamerica to reflect critically back on the lens text itself–in other words, to find ways not only to understand Vietnamerica better by understanding what autoethnography is and how it works but to complicate our understanding of autoethnography is and how it works through a careful analysis of Vietnamerica.

As with the other major projects this semester, you will publish to your course site a splash page and a set of interlinked subpages constituting your analysis of these texts. Your essay should be approximately 1000-1250 words of text.

We can discuss organizational strategies for this project over the next couple of weeks, but for this assignment I do expect that your essay will include a specific thesis statement.

Other Details

  • Audience: You should assume an audience that has read Vietnamercia and thought about it a little bit, and who has some basic sense of what autoethnography means, but who understands Vietnamerica and autoethnography not quite as well as you do.
  • I expect clear, coherent, sophisticated, and grammatically correct prose. You do not need to be especially formal or “academic” with your prose, but I do expect you to come across as a thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful reader.
  • You need to use direct quotations from “Autoethnography” to support your argument. Whenever you include a quotation, make certain to make a quote sandwich: introduce the quote first with a signal phrase, reporting verb, or both; then include the quote; and then make certain to explain the quote further.
  • You also need to use quotations and images from Vietnamerica in your essay.
  • Cite all your sources using MLA in-text citations and also hyperlinks (not URLs). Notice how I cite the article in the footnote below.

  1. These definitions are adapted from the SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods, quoted in David Hyatt. “Introduction to Ethnography and Autoethnography.” University of Strathclyde, Humanities and Social Sciences. 

  2. Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 12.1 (2010): n. pag. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.