Methodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography: Volume 11

Cover of Methodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography

Table of contents

(16 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 issues and practices in ethnographic methodology. It does not try to present a single coherent view but, through its heterogeneity, illustrates the strength and impact of debate.

There are certain accepted points that influence ethnographic work, even though they do not condition or fully determine it. They include the notion that in order to develop theories about human life, an ethnographer must study human activities and the way people interpret their realities in their every-day context and must also identify and then synthesise the conditions of the field, the perspectives of the participants, the latent meanings of the context and the researcher's own ideas for the grounding, generation and expansion of propositions about what is actually going on in the events and places researched. In this process, foreshadowed problems are accepted to frame the initial focus, but producing and analysing materials from multiple sources and perspectives are also important in order to prevent over-steering from private ideas and concepts. Once formed, ethnographic propositions, descriptions or theories are explored and tested in terms of their general scope against further data. Ethnographic field-notes are one of the most important foundations in this activity.

Photographs have been used in ethnography for some time now; Pink (2001, p. 49) has argued that the camera has become a ‘mandatory element’ of the ‘ethnographer's toolkit’. Photographs were primarily used in ethnographic studies as mere illustrations or to add authenticity to the written text (Davies, 1999). But as time has progressed, the photograph has moved from the ‘sidelines’ of ethnography to claim a more central position. One of the first studies to use the visual as a central method in the ethnographic process was the study ‘Balinese Character’ completed by Bateson and Mead (1942). Davies (1999) reports that their use of the visual was central to the research process; it was as much a part of the collection of data as it was the analysis and the final written report. Pink (2001) suggests that due to these advances in visual research it is now possible to speak of a ‘visual ethnography’.

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?

Education ethnographers have long recognised the significance of the researcher's self upon the research process (Burgess, 1984; Walford, 1991; Troman, 2000; Russell, 2005) This chapter attempts to define and examine the relationship between the ‘Personal’, ‘Professional’ and ‘Political’ dimensions of ethnographies and the researcher's self set within the institutional and societal context. We argue that these three aspects form an important part of ethnography, implicitly or explicitly. However these are variously presented depending upon how the ethnography is experienced by the researcher and the researched. The Personal, Professional and Political are often closely related and can at times be difficult to distinguish. The importance that the researcher attributes to each of these aspects and the level of significance they have on the ethnography varies.

Previous attempts to develop theory from qualitative case study research have employed the underlying principles of John Stuart Mill's system of logic, albeit in different ways (Mill, 1973). In his analysis of inductive proof, Mill proposed a set of formulae, or methods, to guide the process of induction. The two most important methods are considered to be the methods of agreement and difference. In the method of agreement, a constant association is sought across cases between the phenomena of interest, effectively identifying necessary conditions, but excluding extraneous conditions unconnected with the theory. Using the method of difference, however, the search is for sufficient conditions, those that must be present for a particular outcome to occur. Used together, the cannons comprise a stronger test than when employed individually, since the method of difference offers some security against the threat of alternative interpretations. Following the logic of both methods implies a search for conditions, which are always present when a particular phenomenon is present and which are never present when that phenomenon is absent. The basis for theoretical inference therefore rests on the comparison of similar and dissimilar cases as stated in Mill's methods of agreement and difference, and which finds its ultimate expression in experimental method (Cook & Campbell, 1979).

To answer, at least initially, the question posed in the title, in the sense of observing others ethnography is another form of surveillance. However, there are specific connotations in the term ‘surveillance’ which evoke the concept of ‘the gaze’ (Foucault, 1977, 1989) as well as something more sinister such as illicit behaviour or even subterfuge. Further questions then arise, particularly with regard to personal experience research that I draw on here. These are: as ethnographers are we merely contributing to the mass of data already accumulated about society members as a result of state supported forms of monitoring? What are the ethical issues involved in personal experience research, entering people's homes and documenting our observations? To what extent, (if at all), does the contribution to knowledge and understanding outweigh the concerns with these ethical issues? Are there particular implications in researching controversial issues such as ‘race’ and education in this ethical debate?

Ethnographers in the field aim to familiarise themselves with processes and practices of local cultures in their chosen research setting. This usually means that they collect a wide range of data using diverse, multiple methods such as participant observation, interviewing and document collection. As we have suggested previously, the gaze of ethnographers often tends to be drawn to visible and audible activities; therefore, we also wanted to ask how to observe, record and analyse silence. We argued that it is more difficult for participant observers to focus on mundane everyday practices and stillness and silence than it is to record the use of voice and movement during lessons and breaks (Gordon, Holland, Lahelma, & Tolonen, 2005). Here, I shift the focus and examine how a researcher looks at what is eventful and striking in the field. Usually, in the course of a school day there are numerous incidents that are clearly visible to the ethnographer's gaze or loudly audible to her ears. I ask what strikes the researchers as particularly symptomatic among the many observations they make in the course of the day; why and how are some incidents interpreted as laden with significant meanings.

I am the oldest daughter from a family of five girls. I was born in the 1950s and had my first real encounters with feminism as a social movement during the second wave women's liberation movement in the United States in the 1970s. This movement had an important impact on me. Despite the appeal of the women's movement for me, I lived a powerfully gendered life. I had not been allowed to read The Lord of the rings series in school because I was a girl. I detested Barbie dolls and yet was sentenced to hours of play with them if I was to have any social life at all. I had to pretend that I neither liked nor was competent at math and science. My high school boyfriend was paying me a compliment when decades after high school he told me, “At least you never let on that you were smart. I always appreciated that about you.” When I attended the first day of a basic calculus class at a public university in 1981, the professor announced, “No female has ever passed a class with me.” In 1983, I was reprimanded by my elementary school principal for wearing slacks to teach. This was reminiscent of my childhood days when my parents finally, but only, allowed me to wear trousers to school on Fridays. In 1990, my 5-year-old daughter told me, “Well, mom, everyone knows boys are smarter than girls” (of course she has since changed her mind!).

Barbara Korth puts forward a feminist view of the relationship between values and research, and assesses my position from this perspective, agreeing in some places but disagreeing in others (see previous chapter). In response, let me begin by sketching out four significantly different positions that map the terrain concerned, thereby providing some sense of the options available.

I am persistently struck by how easy it seems in academic discourse to polarize positions and people. Ming-chu Hsu, a graduate student at Indiana University, recently wrote an essay discussing western academic discourse and its propensity to pit people's positions against one another as if this were the sole way to have a legitimate intellectual claim. I have worries about being a participant in an interchange with those rules because I do not, in the end, believe in them. In my paper, I am trying to explore what it means to have partisan (feminist) concerns and commitments in the world when I do ethnography. I am sure there is fallibility in my perspective and I welcome the dialogue on non-polarized grounds. My paper was an opportunity to reflect using Hammersley's position as a mirror for my own. And the mirror talked back! It is in this context that I offer the following comments on Hammersley's response to my paper.

Within current educational management literature, it could be argued that the cultural perspective that is generally articulated is one in which the social context of education policy, school culture and educational management is almost entirely overlooked (Angus, 1996). The emphasis is typically on individual school ‘leaders’ and an internally constructed organizational culture in which principals are expected to become manipulators of culture and belief. School principals, in this literature, and in current government policy in many countries, are expected to construct or impose corporate control within their institutions in the increasingly decentralized organizational form that is considered necessary for organizational efficiency and, most importantly, market success and legitimacy in the increasingly complex post-industrial society (Parker, 1992). My general argument is that this perspective misconceives culture as an internal aspect of organizations that may be manipulated by management in order to enhance organizational commitment and efficiency (Caldwell & Spinks, 1993, 1998; Deal & Peterson, 1999).

There is currently a growth of interest and activity in the area of comparative cross-national partnership research. This is stimulated by methodological, ideological, political and economic developments particularly within the European Union, where European Commission funding has supported numerous projects. Whereas the ‘old’ comparative education focused solely on large-scale quantitative projects to establish differences in educational effectiveness of different nations, the ‘new’ comparative research is developing innovative methodologies in order to undertake studies which take account of tradition, context and national and local education policy (Broadfoot, 2002a, b; Osborn, 2004). Both these forms of research, however, are subject to broadly the same set of methodological issues surrounding their effectiveness.

Alexandra Allan is a doctoral research student based at Cardiff University, Wales. Her research interests mainly lie within studies of genders and sexualities, children and childhood and educational success and achievement. Her doctoral research is a qualitative investigation of how primary school girls manage their gender identities as ‘girls’ with their academic identities as ‘pupils’ in a single sex, selective, private school setting. This research is mainly based in the primary school, but extends to the early years of secondary education where it is concerned to explore the transition process and how identities are managed during this important period. Alexandra also has a strong interest in qualitative research methods and methodology. In particular, she is interested in using photographic methods in her research as a way of encouraging children to participate in research and to (re)present themselves visually.

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