Methodological Developments in Ethnography: Volume 12

Cover of Methodological Developments in Ethnography

Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Ethnography has become one of the major methods of researching educational settings. Its key strength is its emphasis on understanding the perceptions and cultures of the people and organisations studied. Through prolonged involvement with those who are being studied, the ethnographic researcher is able gradually to enter their world and gain an understanding of their lives.

What counts as ethnography and what counts as good ethnographic methodology are both highly contested. This volume brings together chapters presenting a diversity of views on some of the current debates and developments in ethnographic methodology. It does not try to present a single coherent view but, through its heterogeneity, illustrates the strength and impact of debate.

This paper addresses the problem of access in ethnographic research from a learning theory perspective. It extends a recent symbolic interactionist approach to the problem (Harrington, 2003) by conceptualizing access as a process of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, broadly understood as the processes that enable ‘newcomers’ to become part of the sociocultural practices of a community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). I present evidence from my journey of gaining access to three social structures of a group of heroin addicts in India: a non-governmental organization (NGO), a small group of ‘brothers’, and a friendship with a key informant. Using this evidence, I argue that the ethnographer negotiates identity roles, acquires an understanding of the ‘rules’ of interaction, and engages in educative processes that make him or her a legitimate peripheral participant.

I cannot subject listeners to such a long list. At my age I cannot always remember all 12 items myself. But I keep them in mind as a guide for discussions about ethnography, especially for assessing works that seem to be questionably ethnographic, that is, works that claim to be ethnographic but are suspect in that regard. I do not think that whether one meets these conditions is necessarily that important, except that recognizing what ought to be included to warrant the label ‘ethnography’ serves as a convenient shorthand for describing a study and judging its contribution.

As I sit here typing, I take a long, hard, registering look at my hands. I see them as someone else would: dirt embedded in cracked, dry, stained skin, with small cuts, some covered in bright blue waterproof plasters, others healing nicely. Hands that, as a child, I imagined belonged to the wicked witch of the west or hands a gardener or other craftsperson may be proud of…(Diary notes, 20 May 2002)

The roles that ethnographers adopt in their fieldwork are “perhaps the single most important determinant of what he [or she] will be able to learn” (McCall & Simmons, 1969, p. 29). My purpose in this paper is to demonstrate that these roles can be in a state of rapid flux, depending not only on who the researcher is interacting with, but also on a complex system of constantly changing settings for those interactions.

Critical ethnography first emerged as a distinctive research approach in education studies in the late 1960s (Anderson, 1989, p. 250). It has now achieved a degree of respectability and has taken its place as part of the qualitative tradition in universities (Jordan & Yeomans, 1995, p. 399). Critical ethnography reflects what Geertz (1983) identified as a ‘blurring of genres’. As the name suggests, it is marked by a confluence of interpretivist field studies and critical streams of thought (Goodman, 1998, p. 51). These converging streams, arising from a variety of sources and pushed along by the currents of Marxist, neo-Marxist and feminist social theory, swirl together into a dynamically enriched mixture of the methods and theories of anthropology, sociology and education. Not surprisingly the streams formed in different parts of the globe, while composed of all of the elements just named, are configured slightly differently. As Priyadharshini (2003, p. 421) recently noted in comparing British and American strands of educational ethnography, the Western side of the Atlantic is marked by a much stronger tradition of educational anthropology than in the UK. And these differences make a difference.

Writers present very different descriptions of what constitutes ‘ethnography’ and ‘case study’. While not attempting to review the literature, nor to comment on or endorse the overall quality of argument and presentation of research methodology made by each of the authors considered here, the following demonstrates how different the explanations and definitions offered can be.

This article begins with a brief reading of the state of the practice of empirical social science research on measurement before proceeding to the discussion of an exemplary instance of this researcher's ethnographic effort to improve indicators of social capital formation. Given the central role measurement plays in social science research, it is appropriate, that a volume on methodological innovations in ethnography would contain a chapter about the relationship of ethnography to measure development. However, it is worth acknowledging that the line of argumentation advanced in this chapter is unconventional. The central tenant of this chapter – that ethnography has much to offer to the field of measurement and that ethnographers ought to take the contribution that they have the potential to make to the field of measurement seriously – at present might be thought to have little agreement either among those researchers whose primary focus is measurement or among ethnographers. This chapter contends that the features and strengths of ethnography specifically, and qualitative research more generally, makes it uniquely suited to contribute to the development of new indicators and the improvement of existing indicators. This chapter modestly hopes to encourage discussion of this contention and illustrate how this author sees his own ethnographic research into indicators of social capital formation as an attempt to address a pressing methodological dilemma within the field, more general of social scientific measure development.

Current practice, reified through typical IRB guidelines, has its roots in traditional positivist frameworks about research. The positivist research paradigm is traceable back to Enlightenment epistemologies, which emphasized the fact-based, value-free nature of knowledge (Christians, 2000; Cunningham & Fitzgerald, 1996; Howe & Moses, 1999; Muchmore, 2000). Christians (2000) suggests that researchers who were grounded in positivist approaches used utilitarian perspectives on research ethics. The utilitarian approach suggested that a single set of moral considerations could guide all inquiry; these considerations were outlined in a generally accepted code of ethics that emphasized informed consent, privacy/confidentiality, and accuracy, and that opposed deception in research. Many of these conventions were codified in national legislation in the USA beginning in 1974, in response to several experiments that had mistreated research participants (Hecht, 1995; UCRIHS, 2004). According to Christians (2000), ‘Three principles, published in what became known as the Belmont Report, were said to constitute the moral standards for research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice’ (p. 140). These principles were intended to ensure that people participated in research voluntarily and anonymously; that researchers protected the well-being of their participants; and that both the benefits and the burdens of research be distributed equitably (Christians, 2000). This legislation established requirements for IRBs that would review and monitor federally funded research conducted by universities and other institutions. Most universities and other research-conducting institutions have since expanded the purview of their IRBs to monitor all institutional research – not just that which is federally funded (Hecht, 1995).

Willis presents just one example of a fundamental and longstanding dilemma within qualitative and ethnographic research (Walford, 2001). The method requires a focus on a very small number of sites, yet there is often a desire to draw conclusions which have a wider applicability than just those single cases. Within the ethnographic literature about education there is a plethora of examples where schools, or particular groups of children or teachers within schools, are researched because they are seen as ‘typical’, or because they can offer ‘insights’ into what may be occurring in other schools. Thus, for example, we have many studies of single schools where racism and sexism has been shown to occur. Strictly, such studies can only show that events that have been interpreted as racist (usually by the researcher alone, but sometimes by those involved as well) occurred in that one particular school, with those particular teachers and students, at a time that is often many years before the publication of the academic article or book. Such studies cannot provide information about what might be happening now even in that same school and, most importantly, cannot provide any evidence about what is happening or what was happening in any other schools.

Current ethnographic research is marked by an expanding variety of approaches that indicates not only the infusion of paradigmatic proliferation into the field but also the expansion of technologies mediating ethnographic exploration as well as the growth in research agendas of educational research. Current researchers therefore have much to draw upon but the diversity of approaches indicates and presents major challenges (Walford, 2002). In particular, the double crisis of representation and legitimation that has become apparent in qualitative research has problematized the very possibility of valid/trustworthy/authentic/useful research. Thus, before an ethnographer even steps one foot, gingerly, in the research site, she would have had to grapple with weighty issues, such as the transparency of language, that have considerable bearing on the formulation of research questions and on the construction of an initial frame for her study. More importantly, the agency of the researcher, as well as the agency of her research subjects – vis-à-vis the structural constraints of epistemic access to the nature of reality – has been cast into doubt, as has the capacity of the researcher and the research subjects to produce a meaningful, dare we say truthful, account of their ways of knowing.

Working as a teacher and an educational psychologist in England and in Iceland for a number of years, I slowly realised that I had to abandon much of what I had learned during my training in psychology and research methodology. The social world of school children was simply far more complex and uncharted for the known theories and methods to suffice. I had to function at a different level to that of a traditional scientist or a clinical psychologist if only to be accepted by the children I worked with let alone gain answers to the type of questions I had been asking for some time (Marinósson, 1998): Why are so many children and youths disaffected by school since the purpose of education is ostensibly to serve their needs? How do children who find their life in school difficult perceive the school and other people there? How do the adults at school understand these pupils and their work? What shapes their reactions in the school context?

Autoethnography is ethnographical and autobiographical at the same time. Here I intentionally place ‘ethnographical’ before ‘autobiographical’ to highlight the ethnographical character of this inquiry method. This character connotes that autoethnography utilizes the ethnographic research methods and is concerned about the cultural connection between self and others representing the society. This ethnographic aspect distinguishes autoethnography from other narrative-oriented writings such as autobiography, memoir, or journal.

Dalia Aralas is a doctoral research student at the University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies. Her doctoral research study, ‘Investigating Mathematical Imagination’, is supported by a four-year JPA Malaysia scholarship. She is a pure mathematician by training. She is a lecturer of Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) where she was the Coordinator of mathematics and science education before she left on study leave. She had academic and administrative responsibilities for coordinating academic programmes run jointly by the two Schools (faculties) of Education and Science. She has taught many undergraduate and postgraduate courses at UMS, including mathematics education, educational foundations and issues (philosophical perspectives). She was the head of the teacher training programme in mathematics and science. She directed the first of statewide UMS mathematics camps which have been held annually. She has also tutored and examined an undergraduate class in a course in mathematics education at the University of Oxford. Besides additional training in teaching mathematics, she also has a teaching certificate in dance. Her research interests include mathematics education, particularly the philosophical strand; imagination and agency; and research methodology.

Cover of Methodological Developments in Ethnography
Publication date
Book series
Studies in Educational Ethnography
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN