Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ethnography Notes (or, blunt title, blunt blog)

First, the blog questions, answered by Lauer and Asher:

Ethnographies are distinguished from case studies by their emphasis on context.  Many variables are considered over substantial stretches of time, and thus interrelationships are easier to discern.  This can happen in case studies, but the key difference is the centrality of environment in the study of behavior.

Triangulation is the effort to incorporate a variety of approaches, sources, and  methods into the study.  In soccer, this is the way the ball is worked up the field and often the prettiest goals are scored.  The same applies for ethnography.  A single approach, a single method, equals single-mindedness.

To ensure their work is valid ethnographers must have an excellent understanding of the behaviors within an environment and be able to accurately interpret them.  This is a loose gauge of validity from Hymes, but it is the one the book offers up.  Reliability is determined largely from the selection of the environment.  A good setting will be representative of a number of other environments.

Onto the ethnographies...


PURPOSE: To call attention to the value of autoethnographic research, particularly the value of analytic autoethnography over evocative autoethnography (i.e., moving the reader to feel as the autoethnog. feels).  Analytic autoethnography should be 1) a full member of the environment/group being studied 2) obvious as such 3) focused on “improving theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena.”  

In sum: this is an argument for a particular methodology based on a review of the literature.

SUBJECTS: professional autoethnographers

COLLECTION: His data are previously published autoethnographic studies. The criterion used to select them, presumably, is their usefulness to Anderson's argument.

ANALYSIS: Anderson’s close readings of past ethnographies, supplemented by a survey of autoethnographic metacriticism.


PURPOSE: Not enough attention has been paid to writing in social settings, outside the classrooms.  D-F wants to know the ways writing factors into structuring organizations during their nascent phases.

SUBJECTS: Employees (5 executives, 2 managers, 2 consultants) engaged in the collaborative construction of a document at Mircroware, a software company founded by NSU students.

COLLECTION: 3-5 visits/week for 8 months at the Mircoware facilities, each visit lasting 1-8 hours, including formal and informal gatherings.  Sources include field notes, tape-recordings, open-ended interviews, and interviews based on drafts of the document being written. 

ANALYSIS: Data was reviewed chronologically, plugged into categories, each category in turn defined by properties.  The links between the categories formed the study's themes and sub-themes.


PURPOSE: To explore the connection between social roles and writing as well as the process by which novice writers and newcomers to a community advance within a social structure.

SUBJECTS: A non-profit organization located in an urban setting which offers ESL services.  The study involves four “informants” and a pool of “experts” (seemingly the executive directors and “experienced writers both inside and outside” the site), but focuses on the reports of only two of the informants, Pam and Ursula.  

COLLECTION: Weekly interviews (open and discourse based) with each informant, copies of the writing they produced each week, observations of a “full range of activity” at the agency.

ANALYSIS: Lots of looking over notes and texts for patterns.  Comparisons were made between complexity of texts and complexity of tasks.  Triangulation was possible via comparisons of interview responses, responses over time, and responses to the author’s own assumptions.


PURPOSE: To help others “work their way through” the trauma of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.  This includes encouraging others to tell their own story, to find companionship within her story, and to effect dialogue between those working in the social sciences (and, hence, the narrative’s appearance in an ethnographic journal; this begs a question: can we then say other tellings, like a film, like Greengrass’ United 93, could in fact be just as capable, if not more, of provoking this kind of dialogue?  What separates that film from ethnography?)

SUBJECTS: Primarily herself; also everyone she comes in contact with on her way to Dulles Airport.

COLLECTION: Her five senses.

ANALYSIS: She weaves into her account terminology and conclusions from social scientists, for examples, Karl Weick’s study of framing.


PURPOSE: To question standardization of writing in order to discover techniques of re-appropriation (i.e., how does idiosyncrasy reemerge through standardization?—ironic, me writing that here, in this way), and manners in which power is exchanged over modes of standardization.

SUBJECTS: 30 students from the seventh-grade class, working through a speech assignment based on the 5-paragraph essay. Also 3 teachers and an adult community organizer (aside: I’ve never thought of myself as a “Euro-American boy,” but I suppose that makes sense; also: does this include the British?).

COLLECTION: Sheehy admits she was not consistent as a participant observer, moving between roles of researcher and teacher.  She divided the pool up into focus groups “based on [her] rapport with some of the students in these groups.”  Methods of observation included field notes, taping, transcription, interviews, community surveys, student work, and classroom texts.

ANALYSIS...breaks down into two levels.  The first consists of charting the project as an event, broken into categories of production, consumption, and distribution.  The materials noted above for collection were then used to chart instances across the categories.  The second level attempts to isolate tensions in the chart and examine their centripetal (or “unifying”) and centrifugal (or “stratifying”) forces.


  1. This week had some interesting contrasts among studies. One of my main questions seems to be how to determine reliability. You mention that reliability can be determined from the selection of the environment - where a good setting is representative of a number of other environments. I am not agreeing or disagreeing because I frankly do not know. Beaufort states that “it is not possible to measure reliability in ethnography” (194). This is the most explicit statement that I could find in our readings, and so I have to assume that either the researchers decided not to address it, or as with your statement, determined they were being as reliable as possible under the circumstances by putting thought into their setting selection. However, I just do not know how it can be measured. Our other studies have either illustrated the fallacy of how they instituted reliability/validity or not, and in these particular studies, it seems to be more a feeling, as measured against prior ethnographies, than true science. And yet, does that make it any less scientific? It is hard to use reliability in a study such as Ellis, where her emotions and senses are the main modes of collection, and the data is analyzed using frames of reference. Yet the study is interesting and does make a contribution. I will have to wait for class to hear how we evaluate the study.

  2. Why "blunt title, blunt blog"?

    BTW, like the way you distilled things here, but you need to consider a bit more the triangulation techniques used for data collection and analysis in the studies. That's key for ethnographies.