Ethnography

So I embark on a thread of blogs about ethnography. My PhD involved ethnographic research in secondary schools, focussing on geography lessons. I spent much of 2011 in a very different environment – the Residential Unit at Karitane, a health service for families with young children. Both were fascinating, exhausting, inspiring experiences, over sustained periods of time. I’ve also been involved in more intense (what some might call ‘drive by’ or ‘parachute’) observational work that draws on an ethnographic sensibility.

I’m generally interested in learning about how people practise ethnography, how ethnographic methodology is responding to changes in the world, the kinds of questions we are asking of the world, and the kinds of answers or accounts of the world we wish to produce.

I have been lucky at UTS to find over 100 people with interests in ethnography, and to have had chances to explore with them what it means to do ethnography, how they do it, and why.

As we meet, and as I read and continue my own ethnographic work (which is now in analysis and writing stages, for a book) I will post more substantial writing.

If any of you have comments or issues relating to your own ethnographic work I’d be delighted if a kind of forum gets going here.

 

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8 thoughts on “Ethnography

  1. Lisa Hjelmfors

    Dear Nick,
    I would be very happy if you have time to give your opinion on a
    question I have.

    In my PhD project I’m interested in how communication
    about end-of-life is enacted and constructed between health care
    proffesionals and patients (in the context of chronich heart failure).
    My supervisors have video-recorded data with health care professionals and
    patient conversations. Do you think it would be possibly for me to watch
    these films and do “video ethnography”?
    If my only data is these video recordings, does it make sense to have an
    ethnograpic method?

    Look forward to hearing from you!

    Best regards,
    Lisa Hjelmfors

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for your question Lisa

      This is a very interesting point.

      There are great debates, particularly among anthropologists, about how long fieldwork should last in ethnography (see George Marcus vs Judith Okely in ‘Social Anthropology’ Vol 15. Some people would ask how many hours your video are and take this as a proxy for time in the field. Some still say years are required. I personally think plenty of site visits are required just to get a sense of what is going on. Total hours is one indicator, their spread over time (eg 100 hours over 10 visits might be less useful than 100 hours over 20 visits depending on what your question is and what the site is like).

      Part of me would be queasy about using pre-recorded video data and calling it ‘ethnography’.

      I think ethnographic fieldwork involves and requires a kind of embodied sensibility of the researcher. It is about sights, sounds, smells, feelings, touch etc. Video reduces these to rather 2 dimension experience, and the video already pointed the lens for you.

      The pre-selection implied in your use of existing material also rules out any of the organic, responsive elements in fieldwork. You can’t really shift your attention or have progressive focusing as might happen if you were actually going into the field yourself and adjusting your focus and the notes you take as you go along. Why would what other people filmed be what you would have chosen to look at or for if you’d been there yourself?

      Also as a conventional ethnographer, you’d have been able to see what led to the conversation and what happens after it – to put it in wider contexts of organisational culture, how things get done etc. Video of the conversation alone won’t permit this.

      Video ethnography in the classic sense (on my understanding) involves the researcher creating the video, and being there. As well as using it to show back to people who were in it, in order to stimulate conversations etc (as Rick Iedema does here at UTS Centre for Health Communication).

      What you’re proposing seems to be doing ethnography based (exclusively) on video. This is quite different.

      Despite my reservations about the applicability of the term ethnography, there are some interesting things potentially here.

      There’s no reason, in my view, why an ethnographic sensibility might not be applied in the way you look at, analyse, interpret the videos. Some people use ethnography as a means to get ‘up close’ – which this video would allow. I tend to use ethnography and see it as valuable less for closeness and more for holism and its ability to emerge with and respond to the world. But not everyone agrees with me on this. Video will certainly help you get up close, and because you can watch it infinite times, you can really get at bodily gestures etc. This could be fascinating, but I’d struggle to call this ethnography.

      I find giving an answer challenging because part of me sees the games involved in policing what is and isn’t ethnography as unhelpful – it is brilliant because it is plural / contested, and because it has not remained frozen in time.

      That said, we have to draw the line somewhere otherwise we evacuate all meaning and usefulness in the term ‘ethnography’.

      I think what you propose sounds fascinating and depending on your questions and analytic approaches, potentially enormously rich empirically. Would I call it (video) ethnography? Probably not.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Hjelmfors

        Thank you Nick for your reply! I feel the same, it would not really be (video) ethnography but could still give much interesting data. I will think further on how to proceed with this study.

        Very nice blog you have, this will be one of my favourit places on the web!

        Greetings!
        Lisa

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    With havin so much content do you ever run into any
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    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi. An interesting question. I don’t put copyright statements on my blog (maybe I should). Partly because I think too much of academic output (eg journal publications) is ‘held back’ under pay-to-access walls. I see the blog as a way to make things open and accessible. Yes I could do this and put copyright statements everywhere, but this isn’t about setting out a territory of my IP, but rather trying to enter and engage in conversation with people. In your case it may be different.
      That said, I do manage what I put in the blog, and ideas (particularly research-based outcomes) that I would want to publish in a journal are not reported in depth here: the blog has a different purpose and content.

      Reply

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