Session 6: Wednesday 3rd June, 14:00-16:00, room 731        


Professor Paul Dowling

Carolyn Ellis, mentioned in the notes for the previous session, describes her work as autoethnography. I would place this approach closer to narrative research than to ethnography as such. An autoethnographic account may be solely produced by the subject of the study, or it may be co-constructed with a researcher. In either case, however, it concerns individual life history Ethnography is very different from this in that it seeks to access and present meanings generated and maintained within a definable cultural or subcultural group or community. The example in Creswell’s book, for instance (Ross Haenfler in Creswell, 2012) focuses on individual and shared meanings within the Straight Edge movement (sXe) in the US; Park (2011) studied tensions between meanings generated by Korean American Christians in an American college; Catarina Player-Koro (2011) reports on part of an ongoing study of mathematics teacher education at a Swedish university, concentrating, in particular, on the way in which the potential of students to gain understanding of mathematics is thwarted by the performance demands of the programme; Herbert Kalthoff (2013) explores how meanings in terms of high school student assessments are established in teachers’ individual and collective assessment practices; William Foote-Whyte (1993 edn) was the first anthropologist to take the discipline to an urban industrialised setting in his study of a street gang; the chapter by Clifford Geertz—a celebrated anthropologist—describes tensions in meaning in the playing out of a funeral of a young boy in Java. Tensions are very often in evidence in ethnographic studies and this is appropriate: cultures—even the most well-tempered ones—are never univocal.

There are no set data collection strategies associated with ethnography, but Geertz, advocates the collection of very rich data, covering situations from all sides, as it were to produce what he calls ‘thick description’, an expression that he borrows from Gilbert Ryle (1968), a layered description that generates meaning upon meaning upon meaning. A reading of Ryle’s original lecture gives a good sense of the problem.

Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, were a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code. It has very complex success-versus-failure conditions. The wink is a failure if its intended recipient does not see it; or sees it but does not know or forgets the code; or misconstrues it; or disobeys or disbelieves it; or if any one else spots it. A mere twitch, on the other hand, is neither a failure nor a success; it has no intended recipient; it is not meant to be unwitnessed by anybody; it carries no message. It may be a symptom but it is not a signal. The winker could not not know that he was winking; but the victim of the twitch might be quite unaware of his twitch. The winker can tell what he was trying to do; the twitcher will deny that he was trying to do anything. (Ryle, 1968; no page numbers)

… and so on.

Because of this requirement for ‘thick description’, researchers adopting an ethnographic approach will often use both formal and informal interviews, participant and non-participant observation and documentary evidence, but they may also use other data collection strategies as well, even employing quantitative methods where this is deemed to be appropriate; the aim is to generate sufficient and sufficiently rich data to enable what can be defended as a valid and reliable interpretation—but not the only possible interpretation—of the meanings that are produced within the culture.

Because of the need for ‘thick description’, it is generally taken for granted that ethnography will involve an extended period in the field, a period that will very often involve years of study. As is the case with GT and other institutionalised approaches, however, it is legitimate to recruit some of the techniques used by ethnographers in more limited studies. In recruiting from GT or from ethnography, however, it is probably not a good idea, in such cases, to refer to one’s study as GT or as ethnography as such, but rather to say that one is borrowing from these approaches. Just what is borrowed, how it is deployed, and the interpretations that are made will, of course, need to be justified. Ethnography in particular can be a rigidly policed term: I recall a former doctoral student (not, as it happens, one of mine) who was required by examiners (again, not me) to remove every instance of the word ‘ethnography’ from their thesis before resubmitting it; the student had spent too little time in the field, it seems, to qualify for their use of the word.

Extended and intensive study in an inevitably small setting that can be interpreted as a group or (sub)culture clearly raises questions about generalization: if research cannot be generalized, what’s the point? One way in which ethnographic studies can claim relevance more generally is through their contribution to the accumulation of cases of cultures. In her works, Purity and Danger (2002 edn—everyone should read this book!) and Natural Symbols (2003 edn), Mary Douglas is able to draw on extant anthropology—including her own—to develop cultural theory, which is capable of interrogating and perhaps organizing understanding of all cultures.
The use and/or development within an anthropological study is a somewhat different way in which more general relevance can be established. Player-Koro, for example, claims to have presented a Bernsteinian analysis, which is to say, an analysis that is structured by Basil Bernstein’s theory of the pedagogic device. It is not clear from the paper at what point Bernstien’s theory entered the frame of the research: was this theoretically driven research, or did Player-Koro recognize the theory in data that had already been collected? In my opinion, the GT principle—let the data speak—is one that might productively be applied to qualitative research in general. If, in interpretive research, the researcher starts out with a commitment to a well-developed theory, then it is not always clear that the data is being heard. A theory can, of course, see only itself and so too close an adherence to the theory can entail that the research can only ever be a reassertion of the theory. This is precisely the scenario that Glaser, in particular, was resisting in developing GT—not, despite the name, itself a theory, but a way of generating theory. In fact, it is not at all clear to me that Bernstein does a great deal of work in Player-Koro’s analysis, it seems to me to be both unnecessary and distracting, but you may judge for yourself.

The article by Catharine Ann Simmons (2014)—a reading set for this session—reports on research on primary school children’s play. Simmons draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of dialogism and carnival in describing what she thinks is going on in her setting. This is a much lighter use of theory than that in the Player-Koro paper. Arguably, Bakhtin’s politicizing of language helps the reader to understand the children’s play as itself political, operating to establish and maintain sub-cultural identity. I sense that this is a more productive use of theory than in the Player-Koro case, though I’m still just a little ambivalent on the issue of whether I need this help: could it be that Bakhtin’s presence is primarily intended to academicise the work? I would say that its’s an interesting paper in its own right and doesn’t need Mikhail’s endorsement, but then that’s me.

Ethnographic writing is often rich in detail of the setting, including sketches and/or photographs and extended descriptions from fieldnotes. This tends to suggest, as Geertz (1988) suggests, that it is the affirmation of the presence of the anthropologist in the field—I was there—that establishes the validity of their story. Geertz, however, ends his account of major figures of anthropology in Works and Lives with a chapter on Ruth Benedict and, in particular, her wonderful ethnography of Japan (2006(1946)) produced at the behest of the US government during the course of the second world war. Benedict, of course, could not and did not visit Japan, she was never there. She had to rely on documentary evidence and on interviews with shamefully interred Japanese Americans etc. As Geertz points out, it is not so much being there in the field that validates anthropological writing as being here, in the academy, having undergone training in anthropology and having submitted one’s work to the scrutiny of peer review. When all is said and done, ethnography is the interpretation of culture, not its capture, similar, as Geertz says, to literary criticism in many ways. This is the case with qualitative research more generally: it produces interpretation and so is always open to alternative interpretation. Interpretation, in this sense, is always abductive and not deductive.

Preliminary Reading

SIMMONS, C.A. (2014). Playing with popular culture—an ethnography of children's sociodramatic play in the classroom. Ethnography and Education. 9(3). 270-283, DOI: 10.1080/17457823.2014.904753.
GEERTZ, C. (1977). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books. c. 6 (and c. 1, if you have the time)

Further Reading

BENEDICT, R. (2006 [1946]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: patterns of Japanese culture. New York. Mariner Books.
CRESWELL, J. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: choosing among five approaches. Third Edition. Thousand Oaks. Sage. Sections on ethnography and also Appendix E.
DOWLING, P.C. (2009). Sociology as Method. Rotterdam. Sense. c. 7.
DOWLING, P.C. & BROWN, A.J. (2010). Doing Research/Reading Research: re-interrogating education. London. Routledge. c. 6.
DOUGLAS, M. (2002 [1966]). Purity and Danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London. Routledge.
DOUGLAS, M. (2003 [1970]). Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Oxon. Routledge.
GEERTZ, C. (1988). Works and Lives: The anthropologist as author. Cambridge. Polity.
KALTHOFF, H. (2013). Practices of Grading: an ethnographic study of educational assessment. Ethnography and Education. 8(1): 89-104.
PARK, Julie, J. (2011). ‘“I needed to get out of my Korean bubble”: An ethnographic account of Korean American collegians juggling diversity in a religious context’. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 42(3). 193-212.
PLAYER-KORO, C. (2011). Marginalising students' understanding of mathematics through performative priorities: a Bernsteinian perspective. Ethnography and Education, 6:3, 325-340, DOI: 10.1080/17457823.2011.610583
RAHEJA, G.G. (1988). The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, prestation, and the dominant caste in a North Indian village. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
RYLE, G. (1968). The thinking of thoughts: what is Le Penseur doing? Retrieved from
WHYTE, W.F. (1993 [1943]). Street Corner Society: social structure of an Italian slum. Third Edition. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.