Ethnography: Principles in Practice

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Imprint London ; New York : Routledge, Physical description p. Online Available online. Full view. Green Library. H35 Unknown. More options. Find it at other libraries via WorldCat Limited preview. Contributor Atkinson, Paul, Bibliography Includes bibliographical references p. Contents Acknowledgements Preface 1. What is ethnography? Research design: problems, cases, and samples 3.

Access 4. Field relations 5.

Ethnography: Principles and Practice

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Goodreads is hiring! If you like books and love to build cool products, we may be looking for you. About Martyn Hammersley. Martyn Hammersley. Books by Martyn Hammersley. Trivia About Ethnography: Prin No trivia or quizzes yet. Later, the same kind of approach came to be applied to the cultures of occupations, organizations, and social groups of various kinds. According to the naturalist account, the value of ethnography as a social research method is founded upon the existence of such variations in cultural patterns across and within societies, and their significance for understanding social processes.

Ethnography exploits the capacity that any social actor possesses for learning new cultures, and the objectivity to which this process gives rise. In this way, the culture can be turned into an object available for study. Naturalism proposes that through marginality, in social position and in perspective, it is possible to construct an account of the culture under investigation that both understands it from within and captures it as external to, and independent of, the researcher: in other words, as a natural phenomenon.

Thus, the description of cultures becomes the primary goal. The search for universal laws is downplayed in favour of detailed accounts of the concrete experience of life within a particular culture and of the beliefs and social rules that are used as resources within it.

Indeed, attempts to go beyond this, for instance to explain particular cultural forms, are sometimes discouraged. In the next section we shall explore the ideas that stimulated this. There has been considerable diversification in qualitative research, including the rise of discourse and narrative analysis, of various kinds of action research, of autoethnography and performance studies, and so on. At the same time, there have been growing calls to combine qualitative methods with quantitative techniques. What is pointed to here is that, despite their differences, positivism and naturalism share much in common.

They each appeal to the model of natural science, albeit interpreting it in different ways. As a result, both are committed to trying to understand social phenomena as objects existing independently of the researcher. And they therefore claim that research can provide knowledge of the social world that is superior in validity to that of the people being studied.

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Equally important, they both regard practical and political commitments on the part of the researcher as, for the most part, extraneous to the research process — indeed, as a source of potential distortion whose effects have to be guarded against to preserve objectivity. Many ethnographers have begun to question the commitment to naturalism, chal- lenging these assumptions. Doubts have been raised about the capacity of ethnography to portray the social world in the way that naturalism claims it does.

Equally, the commitment of the older kinds of ethnography to some sort of value neutrality has been questioned, and politically interventionist forms of ethnography have been recommended. We shall look at these two aspects of the critique of naturalism separately, though they are sometimes closely related. Questioning realism Many critics of naturalism today reject it on the grounds that, like positivism, it assumes that the task of social research is to represent social phenomena in some literal fashion: to document their features and explain their occurrence.

What is being ques- tioned here is sometimes referred to as realism. As we saw, ethnographers portray people as constructing 10 What is ethnography?

But this constructionism and relativism is compatible with naturalism only so long as it is not applied to ethnographic research itself. This internal source of doubts about realism was reinforced by the impact of various external developments. Kuhn argued against views of the history of science that portray it as a process of cumulative development towards the truth, achieved by rational investigation logically founded on evidence.

Critical Ethnography

An example is the shift from Newtonian physics to relativity theory and quantum mechanics in the early part of the twentieth century. The replacement of one paradigm by another, according to Kuhn, does not, because it cannot, occur on the basis simply of the rational assessment of evidence. Paradigms are incommensurable, they picture the world in incompatible ways, so that the data themselves are interpreted differently by those working within different paradigms. He also proposed an alternative conception of science that contrasted sharply with the positivist model.

However, his critique counted as much against naturalism, against the idea of the researcher getting into direct contact with reality, as it did against positivism. On his account, all knowledge of the world is mediated by paradigmatic presuppositions. Furthermore, the alternative view he offered made natural scientists look very similar to the people that ethnographers had long portrayed in their accounts as constructing diverse social worlds. And sociologists of science have subsequently produced ethnographies of the work of natural scientists and technological innovators along these lines see Hess For a detailed discussion see Sharrock and Read This was the source of the idea, mentioned earlier, that socio-cultural under- standing takes a different form from how natural scientists go about understanding physical phenomena.

It does this because it argues that meanings are not stable; nor are they properties of individuals. This has led to recognition of the fact that the language used by ethnographers in their writing is not a transparent medium allowing us to see reality through it, but rather a construction that draws on many of the rhetorical strategies used by journalists, travel writers, novelists, and others.

Some commentators have drawn the conclusion from this that the phenomena described in ethnographic accounts are created in and through the rhetorical strategies employed, rather than being external to the text; in short, this concern with rhetoric has often been associated with forms of anti-realism. On Foucault more generally, see Gutting He stresses the fact that the psychological and social sciences are socio-historical in character, and claims that they function as part of the process of surveillance and control, which he sees as the central feature of modern society.

Thus, what is treated as true and false, in social science as elsewhere, is constituted through the exercise of power. Moreover, in the work of Foucault especially, we have a direct link with the second criticism of naturalism: its neglect of the politics of social research. From a traditional Marxist point of view the very distinction between facts and values is a historical product, and one that can be overcome through the future development of society. Values refer to the human potential that is built into the unfolding of history.

In this sense values are facts, even though they may not yet have been realized in the social world. Moreover, they provide the key to any understanding of the nature of current social conditions, their past, and their future.

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On this argument, ethnography, like other forms of social research, cannot but be concerned simultaneously with factual and value matters, and its role inevitably involves political intervention whether researchers are aware of this or not. A similar conclusion about the political character of social research has been reached in other ways, for example by those who argue that because research is always affected by values, and always has political consequences, researchers must take responsibility for their value commitments and for the effects of their work.

It has been suggested that ethnography and other forms of social research have had too little impact, that their products simply lie on library shelves gathering dust, and that as a result they are worthless. There are differences in view about the nature of the change that should be aimed at. Sometimes the concern is with rendering research more relevant to national policy- making or to one or another form of professional practice see, for example, Hustler et al. Alternatively, or as part of this, it may be argued that research should be emancipatory.

This has been proposed by feminists, where the goal is the emancipation of women and men from patriarchy Fonow and Cook ; Lather ; Olesen ; but it is also to be found in the writings of critical ethnographers and advocates of emancipatory action research, where the goal of research is taken to be the transformation of Western societies so as to realize the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice Gitlin et al.

Of course, to the extent that the very possibility of producing knowledge is undermined by the sort of anti-realist arguments we outlined earlier, a concern with the practical or political effects of research may come to seem an essential alternative goal to the traditional concern with truth. This too has led to the growth of more inter- ventionist conceptions of ethnography. In this way post-structuralism and postmodern- ism have contributed to the politicization of social research, though in a far from unambiguous way because they seem simultaneously to undermine all political ideals Dews For example, they threaten any appeal to the interests or rights of Humanity; and in the context of feminist research they challenge the concept of woman.

A sharp distinction between science and common 14 What is ethnography? It is this that leads to their joint concern with eliminating the effects of the researcher on the data. Both positions assume that it is possible, in principle at least, to isolate a body of data uncontaminated by the researcher, by turning him or her either, in one case, into an automaton or, in the other, into a neutral vessel of cultural experience.

However, searches for empirical bedrock of this kind are futile; all data involve presuppositions Hanson Also, it is emphasized that the production of knowledge by researchers has consequences.


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In fact, it may change the character of the situations that were studied. Moreover, the consequences of research are not neutral in relation to what are widely felt to be important values, nor are they necessarily desirable. Indeed, some commentators see social research as playing an undesirable role in supporting one or another aspect of the political status quo in Western societies. As we saw, for Foucault, the social sciences were part of a modern apparatus of surveillance.

In our view it only undermines naive forms of realism which assume that knowledge must be based on some absolutely secure foundation. For us, the exclusive, immediate goal of all research is, and must remain, the production of knowledge. See also Hammersley Fortunately, though, this is not necessary from a realist point of view.


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  6. And in doing this we can still make the reasonable assumption that we are able to describe phenomena as they are, and not merely how we perceive them or how we would like them to be Hammersley ch. All of us, in our everyday activities, rely on presuppositions about the world, few of which we have subjected to test ourselves, and none of which we could fully and independently test.

    Most of the time this does not and should not trouble us, and social research is no different from other activities in this respect.

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    And it is true that some aspects of this process have not been given the attention they deserve until recently. To believe that this is implied is to assume that the only true form of representation would involve the world imprinting its characteristics on our senses without any activity on our part, a highly implausible account even of the process of perception Gregory But we can also exploit it: how people respond to the presence of the researcher may be as informative as how they react to other situations.

    Indeed, rather than engaging in futile attempts to eliminate the effects of the researcher completely, we should set about understanding them, a point that Schuman made in relation to social surveys: The basic position I will take is simple: artifacts are in the mind of the beholder. Barring one or two exceptions, the problems that occur in surveys are opportunities for understanding once we take them seriously as facts of life. A person who proceeds in this way is quite likely to trip and fall right on his artifact.

    Schuman 23 16 What is ethnography? In order to understand the effects of the research and of research procedures, we need to compare data in which the level and direction of reactivity vary. As has long been recognized by ethnographers, he or she is the research instrument par excellence. Indeed, it can be exploited for all it is worth.

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    Different research strategies can be explored and their effects compared with a view to drawing theoretical conclusions. Interpretations need to be made explicit and full advantage should be taken of any opportunities to test their limits and to assess alternatives. And in this way the image of the researcher is brought into parallel with that of the people studied, as actively making sense of the world, yet without undermining the commitment of research to realism.

    By contrast, as we have seen, some critics insist that research has a social function, for instance serving to legitimize and preserve the status quo. And on this basis they argue that researchers must try to make their research serve a different function, such as challenging the status quo, in some respect. Often, this point of view is organized around the question: whose side is the researcher on? Becker b; Troyna and Carrington ; but see Hammersley ch. As we saw earlier, others argue that what is wrong with ethnography is its lack of impact on policy-making and practice, its limited payoff in the everyday worlds of politics and work.

    These criticisms of naturalist ethnography seem to us to involve an overestimation of the actual and potential contribution of research to policy and practice, and an associated failure to value the more modest contributions it offers Rule ; Hammersley Indeed, there are good reasons for research not being directed towards such goals. But this view relies on an elaborate and unconvincing philosophical infrastructure Hammersley ch. It is worth emphasizing that to deny that research should be directed towards political goals is not to suggest that researchers could, or should, abandon their political convictions.

    Nor are we suggesting that researchers should be unconcerned about the effects of their work on the world. And, as we have indicated, there are good reasons why it should not be so directed. Conclusion We began this chapter by examining two contrasting accounts of the logic of social research and their implications for ethnography.

    Neither positivism nor naturalism provides an adequate framework. All social research is founded on the human capacity for participant observation. By including our own role within the research focus, and perhaps even systematically exploiting our participation in the settings under study as researchers, we can produce accounts of the social world and justify them without placing reliance on futile appeals to empiricism, of either positivist or naturalist varieties.

    On the other hand, it has a much more powerful contribution to make to social science than positivism allows.

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