This week I’m going to be focusing on the art, science and mystery of ethnography as it applies to my ongoing research in the Bronx. This is dedicated particularly to students on the MA in Childhood Studies at Oxford Brookes University who are exploring the theme of ethnography this week.
I’d like to begin with an obvious question: What is ethnography? We’ll explore some definitions, a brief historical account of ethnography, the state of the art and possible future directions for ethnography. We’ll then move on to explore an example of school ethnography from my current research. This will set us up for an engaged and critical discussion during around the positives and pitfalls of ethnography as a method for social analysis within specific examples.
The term ethnography is derived from the Greek ἔθνος or ethnos “folk, people, nation” and γράφω, grapho, “I write”. In short, ethnography is an account of culture and society. The OED says that ethnography is ‘the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences’ – I’m not always sure about the ‘scientific’ part (we’ll get to that later), but otherwise this a good working definition. I’d like to complicate this by suggesting that ethnography can also be considered as: 1) A practice; 2) A product; 3) A way of being (seeing the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar). Let’s explore each of these in a bit more detail through a series of statements and associated questions/caveats.
When thinking about Ethnography as a Practice, we are asking: How do you do ethnography? In short, the practice of ethnography involves: sustained engagement in a research field (but where? For how long?); and participant observation – a combination of reflective observation and engaged interaction (but are these mutually exclusive?). Ethnographers are interested to find out what people say, what do people do, the inconsistencies between actions and utterances, and how people make things meaningful. Ideally this means gaining an emic analytical perspective, walking in people’s shoes or seeing culture and society from within (but is this really possible?). It involves ‘data’ gathering, primarily in terms of fieldnotes or observation notes, interview data, and other media. It often involves a ‘magpie’ approach to research, picking up whatever one can about a particular community and then sifting through to find those artefacts that will be most valuable for your research. Some would say that this basically equates to just hanging around and talking to people…so surely this is the easy option for social researchers? Well…maybe not. For many ethnographers it is the unpredictable, surprising, personal, uncertain and occasionally chaotic nature of ethnography that makes the method as fraught as it is exciting and rewarding.
Ultimately, the practice of ethnography should lead to a representation of the ethnographic data, which is ethnography as product. This can come in many forms (film, blog, documentary, verbatim theatre, etc.), but most often the product of ethnography is a text that adheres to certain generic qualities familiar to the tradition of writing ethnography, and often referred to as a monograph. So, how do you write ethnography? Ethnography is a dynamic genre of writing: it is prone to change, reflecting the social and historical context of the writer, and theoretical and ontological shifts in the social sciences. It is an accurate representation of the field experience (but does accurate mean the same as ‘truthful’? We’ll get on to this); and it involves the critical, reflexive analysis and representation of data in a way that tells a story, often in relation to theory.
As with the practice of ethnography, the way that a person chooses to produce ethnography raises important ontological and epistemological questions related to how one interprets ethnography, and ultimately about how one perceives the knowable world. These are the big questions of ethnography: built into the nature of ethnographic work are issues of perception and the representation of perception. The ‘scientific’ nature of ethnography, for example, is therefore up for grabs depending on what you think you are recording through ethnography; and similarly, some will challenge the methodological value of ethnography if all it entails is an idiosyncratic account of a moment in social time (a story, in other words) that has no bearing on objective ‘truth’ and few claims to generalisation, representativeness or even validity. On the other hand, we can also argue that the power of ethnography is to critically address the kinds of ‘truth’ claims or assertions to generalisability that are made through other social science methods. Once again, if ethnography is about hanging out, it’s also about hanging out and thinking hard.
Ethnography as a way of being
This leads us on to the notion of ethnography as a way of being. Through the practice and production of ethnography (which also involves reading and engaging with ethnographic literature), individuals are able to develop new, critical, ethnographic ways of seeing the world. By this I mean that you may begin to see in a more complex, profound way the subtle social and cultural practices that make up what you take for granted about your own existence, while at the same time developing a better understanding of the seemingly strange cultural practices of other people. This can be an unsettling process because it can involve challenging some of your most fundamental beliefs and practices. But it can also be deeply rewarding because it opens up the world through the nurturing of a critical tolerance for all social and cultural practices. Therein lies the challenge, magic and mystery of developing ethnographic sensibilities.
A (very) brief history of ethnography
There isn’t really space here to go into too much detail about the historical development of ethnography as a practice within the social sciences, but click here http://www.sunypress.edu/pdf/60804.pdf for a quick but critical romp through the method’s history. In brief, ethnography has developed from accounts of voyagers, conquerors and missionaries, through the work of late 19th century ‘armchair’ anthropologists (who did no real ethnography to speak of, really), to early 20th century anthropologists championing the method (notably Malinowski, Boas, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard) who provided accounts of exotic, ‘isolated’ islands, Aboriginal Australians, African ‘tribes’ (note colonial context), and so on. In the Chicago School of Sociology ethnography was being adapted at the same time for urban Western contexts, and in the early 60s in the UK Max Gluckman and the Manchester School began developing ethnography ‘at home’ – especially in educational settings. This led to the emergence of a ‘new’ sociology of education, with figures like Hargrieves, Lacy, Paul Willis, Ball and others adopting interpretivist/symbolic and interactionist accounts of childhood and schooling. A reflexive turn came in anthropology in the late 80s and early 90s with Clifford & Marcus’ Writing Culture, which repositioned ethnography as subjective and literary, as an intepretive process involving the writer. This reflexive turn troubled the ‘truth’ claims made by earlier ethnographers, but was also critiqued for encouraging a kind of post-modernist navel-gazing that detracted from the substance of research. Gladly, many ethnographers have since found a happy medium where their research can be informative and evocative while also being critical and reflexive.
Ethnography has in the last 40 years spread in popularity through the social sciences, so there are now many versions of ethnography depending on disciplinary background and epistemological outlook, rather than one single ethnography. Ethnography for the 21st century is also more complex, accounting for globalization, for example through multi-sited and virtual ethnography. Ethnography has also more recently become ‘sexy’ in the commercial world with ‘drive-by’ ethnography and pseudo-ethnography being used widely for marketing, advertising and consumer insight purposes. Ethnography in 2014 is a broad church indeed.
Brookes in the Bronx: practice, product, way of being
I’d like to now turn to the contemporary example of ethnography from my own ongoing research at a high school in the Bronx. In brief, this study comprises a comparative two year ethnography of secondary education in London and New York City, exploring the themes of aspiration, imagined futures and transitions to adulthood. I am now three months in to the project and at the juncture in the research where I am becoming much more familiar with school while still wrangling the disparate possible threads of the research into a coherent whole. In this section I’d like to work through a number of ongoing methodological queries, in relation to the points explored above, before suggesting a few questions for discussion.
Doing an ethnography of schooling in a developed country where English is the predominant language provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the ethnographic process. For an English ethnographer of education, a US high school is at once familiar but also very strange – and it requires an ethnographic sensibility to take a step back and question both the things that are peculiar (from the credit system, to the process of going to the college, to issues with gangs, violence, and disadvantage) and those things that you take for granted (the age grading of schools, that nature of teacher-student relationships, the presumed content of the American Dream). When starting this research, some colleagues suggested that the similarities between the US and the UK would outweighs the differences and render the research less interesting. An important part of conducting the research has been to think critically about the supposed similarities (speaking English or American pop culture for example are not so simply dissected when the school context is largely non-white, first or second generation migrants with English as a second language), and to look for ways be make sense of both the very familiar (cheerleaders and American football players) and the rather strange. As for the process of ethnography, it has been very interesting to reflect on my positionality within this research and my reception as an individual in the school. Being English is suitably strange but also familiar (and harmless enough) enough for students to engage openly and in a friendly way that helps the research to progress. This raises interesting questions about positionality in the research and gender, ethnicity, and the confluence of these markers of identity with assumptions about cultural identity – all of which are important to keep in the balance when moving through data gathering to analysis. In this research I have been more conscious than in the past about the ongoing coding of observation notes, and of writing about the field experience (as I am now) as part of the process of analysis. By this I mean that writing (in this case reflective writing) is both part of the process of ethnography and the route to the finished product – the ethnographic monograph itself. Finally, this research is reminding me to be open and accepting of the uncertainty that comes with ethnographic practice. It is important to accept that you will not have all the answers at many points during the process, and that this uncertainty is what helps lead you to unexpected revelations and insights that will ultimately enrich and enliven the research.
Ethnography: opportunities and challenges
Bearing in mind what we have discussed so far, I’d like to propose the following questions to explore:
Choose one of the following contexts for an ethnography:
An ethnography of a prison:
An ethnography of a Master’s programme:
An ethnography of sneezing
An ethnography of Harcourt Hill
Activity: In a short paragraph, state your ethnographic context and then provide a few lines or bullet points on each of the following questions:
What topic would you choose to focus on?
How would you go about doing the ethnography?
What would be the major challenges in conducting these ethnographies?
Please respond with reflections or constructive comments on the contributions of at least two other students in the forum.
DELAMONT, S (2014) Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas. London: Sage.
YON, D (2003) Highlights and Overview of the History of Educational Ethnography, Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 32: 411-429. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro32.061002.093449
LANCLOS, D. (2003) At Play in Befast: Children’s Folklore and Identity in Northern Ireland, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.