Perspectives on and from Institutional Ethnography: Volume 15

Cover of Perspectives on and from Institutional Ethnography

Table of contents

(10 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xix
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Abstract

The influence of extralocally produced texts, such as professional standards and systems of accreditation, on the ruling relations that govern teachers’ work and their learning about that work is a matter of concern in Australia, as it is in Canada, UK, and USA. This chapter explains how a dialogic analysis and the construction of individual maps of social relations were employed to reveal the influences that governed teachers’ learning about their work at the frontline. A dialogic analysis of research conversations about learning, based on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, revealed the existence of both centralizing, hegemonic discourses associated with a managerial agenda and contextualized, heterogeneous discourses supportive of transformative learning. It also revealed the uneven influence of extralocally produced governing texts on both the locally produced texts and the “doings” of individuals. The production and use of “individual” maps represents a variation on the way “mapping” has generally been used by institutional ethnographers. From these informant specific maps, we can begin to observe some broad patterns in relation to the coordination of people’s “doings” both within a given context and from one context to another.

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This chapter explores researcher reflexivity developed during an institutional ethnography (IE; Smith, 2005) of a primary school. It illustrates the use of a narrative method, “The Listening Guide” (Mauthner & Doucet, 2008), in particular my production of an “I” poem after being interviewed by research participants. This promotes an ethical approach to researcher reflexivity, enabling an explicit analysis of the researcher’s subjectivities in the use of ethnographic methods and a deeper understanding of privilege and power on the part of the researcher. The approach works to negate any researcher authority over the textual representations of the research participants and objectification of them. Consideration is given to the tensions between the sociological basis of IE and how this is troubled by particular approaches to narrative production. The point of reflection in institutional ethnography is not to learn about the researcher per se, but to learn about the researcher’s location in the “relations of ruling” (Smith, 2005), that is, the researcher’s standpoint. There are particular tensions for institutional ethnographers in seeking to avoid objectification of participants through both “institutional capture” and “privileged irresponsibility,” specifically; the imposition of researcher subjectivities in listening for, asking about, and producing texts. A significant concern, for example, in this research context is the researcher’s place and privilege in the education hierarchy. I argue that it is precisely because of the troubling nature of the Listening Guide and “I” poems that they can be utilized by institutional ethnographers in revealing and analyzing the co-ordination of social relations.

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Institutional ethnography (IE) is a sociology that focuses on the everyday world as problematic. As a theory/method of discovery, it focuses on how the work people do is organized and coordinated by text-mediated and text-regulated social organization. Actor-network Theory (ANT) is a theory/method that is concerned with how realities get enacted. ANT focuses on a multiplicity of human and nonhuman actors (e.g., computers, documents, and laboratory equipment) and how the relations between them are constituted and how they are made to hang together to create certain realities. In this chapter, we discuss some of the similarities and differences between IE and ANT. We begin with an overview of IE and ANT and focus on their ontological and epistemological “shifts.” We then discuss some of the similarities and differences between IE and ANT, particularly from an IE stance. In doing so, we put these approaches into dialog and allude to some of the potential benefits and pitfalls of combining these approaches.

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In this chapter, I highlight the need to turn the institutional ethnography (IE) lens of enquiry onto IE itself, and consequently, the importance for institutional ethnographers to attend to their standpoint in taking up and activating their understanding of IE. Many, including Wise and Stanley (1990) and Walby (2007), celebrate Smith’s sociology but raise important ontological and epistemological questions about IE’s own recursive power. While IE has developed from a critique of wider sociological inquiry, it is troubled by the institutional ethnographer’s own standpont when using IE uncritically, without reflexivity of their standpoint in relation with IE and knowledge generation. IE stands in relation between the researcher and the everyday of the research participants in a local research context that is particular and plural, situated and dynamic. The chapter highlights a particular critique by Dorothy Smith of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as a “blobontology,” yet considers the theoretical similarities between Smith and Bourdieu. I argue that institutional ethnographers and IE itself are not be immune from the kinds of unravelling that Smith undertakes of other approaches to sociological inquiry. Researcher standpoint, reflexivity, and their relation to knowledge generation are therefore critical aspects of approach without which there is potential to “other” and develop morally questionable representations of people that diminishes the actuality of their subjective experience.

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Abstract

Institutional ethnography (IE) is a social ontology pioneered by Dorothy Smith, the Canadian feminist-sociologist. Conceptualizing discourse as social relations that are organized by the activities of people and are empirically investigable, IE has been increasingly employed by researchers outside of sociology in fields such as education and health. The goal in these cases has often been to explicate the effects of power flowing through textually mediated discourses that work to reconfigure local practices to align with official policy mandates. Yet the discourse analysis performed in much IE to date has not paid close linguistic attention to the way specific actors utilize texts in an active appropriation of what Smith calls the “ruling relations” constituting official discourses. Using data from an IE of student equity practices in Australian higher education, this chapter illustrates how a Fairclough-inspired critical discourse analysis (CDA) of the “orders of discourse” assembled within a relay of university and government texts is able to provide useful analytical purchase on how equity policies are actively appropriated within a university outreach practice. It demonstrates how the accomplishment of student equity outreach involves the hybridizing of equity and excellence discourses in ways that bolster the dominant position of an Australian university. This working together of distinct IE and CDA approaches offers possibilities for more nuanced accounts of individual and collective agency in the process of semiotic and social change.

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In this chapter, we explore the use of participatory and community-based research (CBR) strategies within institutional ethnography. Reflecting on our current, past, and future projects, we discuss the utility of community-based and participatory methods for grounding one’s research in the actualities of participants’ lives. At the same time, we note ontological and practical differences between most community-based participatory action research (PAR) methodologies and institutional ethnography. While participants’ lives and experiences ground both approaches, people’s perspectives are not considered as research findings for institutional ethnographers. In an institutional ethnography, the objects of analysis are the institutional relations, which background and give shape to people’s actualities. The idea is to discover something through the research process that is useful to participants. As such, the use of community-based and participatory methods during analysis suggests the greatest utility of this sociological approach for people.

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This chapter reports an institutional ethnography (IE) which seeks to explicate the everyday experiences of learning mentors (LMs), introduced into English secondary schools 15 years ago. Within the context of the New Labour (NL) policy agenda characterized by an analysis of the relationship between “risk” and “social exclusion” as the root cause of many social problems, LMs were part of a transformative agenda which elevated ‘low level’ workers to paraprofessional status across a range of public services. The official narrative embedded in policy documents talked of LMs “raising achievement” by “removing barriers to learning,” but this tells us little about the way in which such texts are mediated in the sites where they were enacted. The starting point of the IE was to establish how the work of learning mentors was practiced, viewed, and understood within the school by all parties. The enquiry did not start with pre-existing conceptualizations of “pastoral care” or “disaffected youth” but tracing the genealogy of LM practice became more significant as the research developed, thus attention was paid to the legacy of the US tradition of mentoring and how that was re-imagined in the ruling texts of NL policy. The problematic of the study that emerged was that although warmly received by pupils, LM practices were marginalized, misunderstood, and relatively unseen, casting doubt on the influence suggested in formal prescriptions and giving rise to wider questions regarding the increasingly liminal nature of work undertaken by people working in similar roles in other institutions.

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In this chapter, I outline the key tenets of institutional ethnography (IE) as a framework for interpretivist social research. Through drawing not only on the key tenets of IE but also on the key findings and conclusions of the different chapters – empirical and conceptual – that make up the present volume, I argue for a critical reappraisal of IE. Through turning the IE lens of enquiry onto IE itself, I foreground the problematic within IE, and also the need to attend to the standpoint of IE. Finally, I consider the position of IE in terms of theory more broadly, as well as social theory more specifically, through focussing on the ways in which IE can be augmented through the use of other, compatible, theoretical, and/or methodological perspectives such as critical discourse analysis, actor-network theory, semiotics, and participatory and community models of research.

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Index

Pages 163-167
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Cover of Perspectives on and from Institutional Ethnography
DOI
10.1108/S1042-3192201715
Publication date
2017-11-17
Book series
Studies in Qualitative Methodology
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78714-653-2
Book series ISSN
1042-3192