Category Archives: Ethnography

Ethnography, ethnographic methodology, news, conferences, updates about the UTS ethnographic community.

New co-authored book on doing team ethnography published


Just a quick post to announce the publication of my 3rd book.

Doing ethnography in teams: a case study of asymmetries in collaborative research (Springer Press)

I wrote this one with Teena Clerke (who is first author), about what we learned from doing ethnographic research together.

The book offers detailed insights into ethnographic fieldwork, note-taking, analysis, and writing up – all from a perspective that explores collaboration through the idea of asymmetry: exploiting our differences as researchers.

I’d like to point out how important it is to me that Teena is first author on this book. Teena joined me in my ethnography at Karitane as a Research Assistant, funded through a research grant that was about developing collaborative methods in ethnography. While it is more common for research assistants to be second authors (or to disappear from authorship completely at times), in this case Teena took a lead on putting our book together, and so it’s right that she has the glory of being first author! Our asymmetries as different people and researchers continue to play out through single and joint authoring of publications relating to this work, on a text by text basis.

I think it speaks volumes about the nature of our collaboration, of how we conceived our roles and what ‘research assistantship’ can be, and of the significant contribution Teena has made to the project. Thanks, Teena!


UTS ethnographic community featured in U: Magazine

Just a quickie to highlight a nice piece in U: Magazine about the cross-faculty community for students and staff that I have set up and been developing at UTS.

The group is open to anyone with an interest in ethnography (however you wish to define it) and has no membership criteria other than people who wish to interact with others with shared interests.

We have over 130 members now, several from outside UTS.

We have a revolving door coffee morning coming up next week – get in touch with Nick if you’re interested in turning up.

There have also been fireside chats (informal seminars), and themed events: one on materiality/things, and one on fieldwork and data. A couple of panels / showcases are also in planning.

Martyn Hammersley’s framework for critical reading of (ethnographic) research: why I like it

This is just a short blog post to accompany a linked podcast, video, and prezi that go into these issues and the framework in more depth.

I’m often involved in teaching students about critical appraisal of educational / social science research.  I’m not convinced by arguments that we should judge research only by the criteria that apply within a particular perspective or paradigm. Notwithstanding my prior post, based on Schatzki’s arguments, about why ontology is important and how it changes the game in terms of judging research, I do believe that there are some dimensions of research that can be subject to a broader-based critique.

This refers to a framework presented by Martyn Hammersley in chapter 2 of: Reading ethnographic research: a critical guide, published by Longman (eg. 1998 2nd edition).

I think Hammersley’s framework (originally written with a focus on ethnographic research) provides a sound basis for precisely such an approach. The content does not overly prescribe what good research is, nor does it replace rules, conventions and quality criteria associated with particular perspectives or approaches.

But, as I say in the podcast, I’ve yet to come across a piece of social science research where asking probing questions about the focus, empirical context / case, methods, claims [and their links to the case] and conclusions [and their links to the focus] have not been useful as a means for assessing research quality.

Reader-listeners will detect my strong attachment to the idea of ‘evidence’ in educational / social  science research. I doubt everyone shares this, and I’d be surprised if everyone agrees with the views expressed in the podcast.

Part of my motivation for the podcast was a reaction to constructions of Hammersley (and others like him) as rather old-fashioned empiricists. I hope the podcast shows how a concern for evidence, quality of evidence, and relationships between claims and evidence does not automatically position one as a naive realist who’s never heard of the crisis of representation etc.

I conclude the podcast by arguing that the aesthetic dimension of research (something I’ve blogged about elsewhere, too), is something that is not excluded from Hammersley’s framework, but isn’t given the emphasis that it might deserve. I suggest that incorporating aesthetics into assessments of research quality (inspired by Silvia Gherardi, Antonio Strati and others), follows through on the original spirit of Hammersley’s framework. Hammersley is very careful in setting up a position that rejects a doctrine of immaculate perception, and has an explicit role for modes of writing, relationships between researchers and participants, and varying degrees of insight, inference and so on. I simply suggest that highlighting these complements and enriches a focus on claims and evidence.

In summary: a lot can be achieved in terms of critical appraisal of educational or social science research by thinking about:

1. The Focus (wider topic), its articulation (scope, boundaries), importance, relevance

2. The Case(s) studied [not that all research is a case study] – the spatially and temporally limited aspect of the wider focus that is the actual subject of empirical research

3. Methods – including processes through which data are generated [and not collected: see Pat Thomson’s blog for more on this], relationships between researchers and participants, analytic techniques etc.

4. Claims made about the case – different kinds of claim and the different kinds of evidence that would warrant them

5. Conclusions drawn – not letting go of evidence completely, but saying something about the wider focus, moving beyond the specific case (eg. via theoretical inference, empirical generalisation).

If we concern ourselves with these questions, and relationships between focus, case, methods, claims, and conclusions, while keeping a close eye on evidence (whatever that may look like), we can’t go far wrong. And if we are sensitive to aesthetic dimensions when we do this, too, so much the better!

Ethnographic fieldwork: transparency, uncertainty, and what is going on here?

On Tuesday 19th February, the Ethnographic UTS group met once again, this time for a themed event focused on fieldwork and data. We had a lively discussion and exchange of ideas among research students and staff from several Faculties. As is typical of our meetings, we found that members have very different perspectives, theoretically and methodologically. Marie Manidis, Deborah Nixon, Paul Thambar and Sarah Stewart all provided us with engaging entry points into their research worlds. Here are some reflections on the issues that came up during the afternoon.



“Transparency is about what is not there”. Marie introduced us to this quote from Silvia Gherardi, prompting us to think about just what you can see or observe as ethnographers. This thread was woven into our subsequent discussions, and links were made by some participants to related qualitative traditions of oral history interview methods.


What can we see as ethnographers? What do we interpret or infer on the basis of this? How can you observe a practice? How can you observe learning? What did Silvia Gherardi mean when she referred to transparency?


In a way I think Silvia’s statement is quite useful. I believe (others may disagree) that ethnographic fieldnotes should be dull. They document material artefacts, social doings and sayings, spatial arrangements etc. The meaning and significance of these comes later, the act of observing is in many ways a mundane (and of course selective) documentation of quite boring things. This really struck me in my own fieldwork in a health setting when a nurse read my notes and remarked how boring they were.


So what are we seeing here? Not the higher level concepts that we are interested in, such as practices, learning, business strategy, collective memory. Perhaps our mundane seeing (through observation) and listening (through interviews) can become transparent, rather like a pane of glass can provide us with a view through to a world beyond. We do not see that world directly, we have to look through the glass; and it filters what we see.


I like the metaphor of the window also because it captures something about what is strange in ethnographic fieldwork. In everyday life, we look through windows as if they weren’t there. The ethnographer makes the familiar strange, notices things that are normally taken for granted. It’s as if we turn our gaze from what lies beyond to the glass itself. We notice its thickness, features, cracks, specks of dirt. That’s what is often hard in observation and interviewing – getting and maintaining that focus on what is normally so obvious it becomes invisible; or transparent.


Trust in uncertainty

All four presenters described uncertainty in terms of what they were looking for in their fieldwork, particularly in early stages of the research. How do we live with ignorance of what we are looking for? Ethnography is often touted as valuable because it offers a degree of holism that goes beyond what other approaches can achieve. But we know that our observations and other methods are always selective. How, then, to be selective in a state of ignorance or uncertainty?


One answer is perhaps simply to trust: to trust in oneself that the data you are generating are highly likely, on the whole, to be useful in one way or the other; to trust in the world that it is fascinating enough to let you follow where it takes you, confident of arriving somewhere interesting. But blind trust is unwise, so what are the checks that balance our faith? It’s unlikely that after a few field visits or interviews, an answer to your research questions will emerge. In my experience this kind of creeps up on you, semi-consciously, as you become embedded in the field, immersed in your data, and develop a sense, often intuitively, of what is going on here. Yes, we then subject this sense to rigorous analysis and theoretical interpretation, but I think it often has soft and hard-to-pinpoint origins in our extended time in the field.


Fine – but looking for answers to our research questions early on isn’t going to work as a counter to misplaced trust is it? Sharing fieldnotes or transcripts with peers and supervisors can help see where gaps are, identify what other people might have been looking at or for, what might be needed to create a fuller vicarious window (here comes the metaphor again!) into what was happening. But I come back again to trust: diligent researchers, with well thought-through questions, elegant designs, and theoretical fluency seem pretty likely to be on the right track or not far off. Of course what the right track is may change, and those qualities I mentioned can all help us achieve the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of good ethnography.


So what is going on here?

I return now almost to where the first theme left off – how do we move from our boring fieldnotes, to beautiful and fascinating insights about the world? As we look at the everyday in its magnificently dull detail, how do we see the bigger picture? This is where our ethnographic sensibility of noticing changes register – from noticing that underpins our fieldwork, to a noticing that provides foundations for analysis and interpretation. Just as concepts and theories may help us focus or filter our fieldwork, so they provide crutches in our analysis. In my own work, I rely heavily on conceptual understandings of what learning is and how it is brought about in order to make claims that quite mundane actions are in fact instances of learning. I don’t claim to see learning, but rather to see certain conditions that tick the boxes that my theoretical approach tells me are required if learning is taking place.


But we also have creative insight, a-ha moments, and intuition at our disposal too. Just because they may not fit elegantly into pseudo-scientific accounts of rigorous, systematic analytic techniques doesn’t mean they don’t happen or aren’t important. An analytic idea or interpretation may result from highly accomplished technical procedures but ultimately be weak, dull, and far from offering any new or meaningful insights. One borne of intuition or something more fuzzy could be brilliant, radically changing how we understand our data, and thus offering something new and interesting to say about the world. Of course we want to subject that brilliant idea to rigorous testing, throwing various things at it to see if it holds (doubt, the data, our peers, supervisors, reviewers of journal manuscripts).


Two things leapt out at me from the presentations that touch upon the issue of ‘what is going on here’ in fascinating ways. Deborah’s description of photo elicitation techniques with elderly people who had experienced partition in India was fascinating. Rather than taking a photo as a snapshot record of an instant and asking ‘what was going on there and then?’, she used photographs to open up a much more temporally and spatially fluid, and affectively rich, set of responses. The stimulus of the photo was taken up by her participants such that the question ‘what is going on here?’ took us through memories and sentiments, to times and places far from those depicted in the image.


As I sat listening to Deborah and looking at her photographs, I realised that images created as part of my own data (line drawings based on photographs) were doing similar work. Rather than just being visual representations of moments, they were helping me ask ‘what is going on here’ in a different way, inviting me to play with temporality and spatiality, and make connections between bodies, things and practices that I hadn’t made before. The drawings are (I admit) quite uninteresting: it is their function as a window (here we go again!) into something else that is where their real value lies.


Finally, Sarah’s description of her fieldwork approach introduced a lovely idea about complementing different techniques. She is using observation and interviews in a fluid and responsive relationship to each other, in order to maximise the light that can be shed upon a particular event or situation. This does not mean forgetting that these are different windows (!) onto the world reflecting different processes of selection and production. But it does keep a nice focus on our purpose: drawing on all the resources and sources at our disposal to arrive at the best sense of what is going on here. What ‘the best’ means… well that would be a whole new blog post.


Postscript – some amuses-bouches for posts to come…

  1. How do you observe a meeting?
  2. What can we do when participants are (overly) generous in their treatment of us? Don’t we sometimes get too worried about being a burden, about compensation or reward, when really the best we can do and our primary obligation is go ahead and do our research to the best of our ability?






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.