Saturday, February 28, 2009

Week 8: Ethnographies

Week 8: Ethnographies

Some of the key differences between ethnographies and case studies are the duration of the studies, the researcher’s role in the study, and the triangulation of data in ethnographies. In a good ethnography, the researcher assumes a participatory role in the research and immerses him or herself in the study for several weeks, months, or even years. Case studies, rather, can be observed from the outside and might only entail a brief period of time.

Lauer and Asher give these suggestions for ethnographies:
Things that should be a part of a good ethnography: -minimum of overt intervention by the researcher
-based on extensive observations, researchers generate hypotheses
-researchers validate hypotheses by returning to the data
-thick descriptions—detailed accounts of writing behavior in its rich context
-researchers identify and define the whole environment they plan to study
-triangulation occurs: there is a mapping of the setting; selecting observers and developing a relationship with them; and establishing a long period of investigation.
-validity comes from a continual reciprocity between developing hypotheses
about the nature and patterns of the environment under study and the regrounding of these hypotheses in repeated observation, further interviews, and the search for disconfirming evidence
-researchers must be careful to report the types of roles they played in the study.
Their perspective becomes an important part of the environment studied.
-three kinds of notes should be taken: observational, methodological, and
-there must be reliability amongst data coders and the testing of schemas in new
-reporting of conclusions that suggest important variables for further
-findings are not generalized beyond subjects of study
-study is replicable and would produce the same or similar variables for
other observers and those variables would remain stable over time

What to look out for/problems to avoid when doing an ethnography:1. data overload
2. tendency to follow first impressions
3. forcing data to confirm hypotheses
4. lack of internal consistency, redundancy, or focusing too much on novel information
5. missing information
6. base-rate proportion—basing impressions on a small population, ignoring total size of population
7. genreralizations

Strangely, though, based on these recommendations, I found myself thinking that of the published ethnographies that we read, only one really closely followed these suggestions, and it was the one I would have thought seemed the most un-academic and useful had I not read Lauer and Asher’s article. To me it seems odd, but the almost creative non-fiction piece by Carolyn Ellis seems to most closely adhere to the ethnography description.

Shattered Lives: Making Sense of September 11th and Its Aftermath – Carolyn Ellis
The first half of this story is very much a creative non-fiction piece, simply immersing the reader in a narrative about personal experience. However, following the recommendations of Lauer and Asher, it appears that this was, in fact, an effective ethnography. The latter half of the article grounds her experiences in theories that have been tested and defined. She provides a thick description of the entire environment—Washing D.D., New York, Charlotte, airports, rest homes, etc. She validates her hypotheses about what she is experiencing by the theories she quotes and she specifically details her role in the ethnography—she is victimized in unique ways and is an airline passenger during the attack, only on another airplane. What she experiences is never generalized, though it is conceivable to think that what she writes could/would be replicated theoretically in others’ experiences as they went through the same moment in similar situations. Ellis has provided us with something useful and replicable, and has thus made for an effective enthnographic study.

The Social Life of an Essay: Standardizing Forces in Writing – Margaret SheehySheehy starts off by explaining her role as researcher in a classroom of Seventh-Graders that will be assigned to design a new school in which they will be asked to attend. She, as Lauer and Asher recommend, explains her relationship with the two instructors. She explains the concern for standardization as described by theorists such as Foucault and mentions that she risks “perpetuating Street’s concern that literacy has been constructed as an autonomous, a-cultural ability to produce and reproduce a seemingly stable set of characteristics that looks like an essay” (336). The study will research the forces of standardization in youths’ essayist writing at school. It was determined in a previous ethnography by Shuman that students were “dependant on the community in which texts were produced” (337), that they were dependent on patters of exchange, notions of audience, and situations of use of texts. To determine the standardization of the writing in this classroom, Sheehy examined the articulations of relations across the 8-week Building Project.

Sheehy asks when doing this research project: “What are the standardizing forces as work here, and what are the ones that stratify?

A description of the environment and participants (students) is given, naming specific demographic information, the number of students, the allotted time for teaching each day. However, there is ambiguity as to what exactly is going on here and what Sheehy is really doing. A more thick description here would be helpful and less description later about what students actually said would be good. Sheehy explains her role and awkward position as researcher in the classroom. Established triangulation occurred as Sheehy mapped the environment, got to know her subjects and observers, and established a long period of investigation. Sheehy codes data by interpreting what students talked about regarding the School Board’s decision to rebuild the school. A great deal of the article is spent describing the student comments in two levels of analysis observed: 1)production, consumption, and distribution, and 2) Centripital and centrifugal forces in writing.

Ultimately, I was left thinking there was strong potential here—Sheehy gives good theoretical background to support what she is attempting to argue. However, when I think in terms of replicating the project, it is difficult to understand what she and the teachers were actually doing in the classroom. Less time spent on specific data and a much more thick description of what was going on and how the interactions between teachers, researchers, and students is necessary. Honestly, I had a difficult time understanding what really was researched.

Writing in an Emerging Organization – Stephen Doheney-FarinaExigency is stated that professional communication students need to learn how complex social contexts can and should affect their writing in the workforce. Author asks: how are writers’ conceptions of rhetorical situations formulated over time? And how do writers’ perceptions of their social and organizational contexts influence the formulation of these conceptions of rhetorical situations? What are the social elements of writers’ composing processes? How do writers perceptions of their organizational contexts influence these processes? How do writing processes shapt the organization structure of and emerging organization?

Hypotheses: 1) rhetorical discourse is situated in time and place and is influence by exigence, audience, purpose, and ethos; 2) the rhetor conceives of these situational factors through interactions with persons, events, and objects that exist external to the rhetor; 3) the researcher attempts to explore human interaction as it is evident in social and cultural settings; 4) a microscopic investigation of important parts of a culture can elicit an understanding of that culture; 5) individuals act on the basis of the meanings that hety attribute to the persons, events, and objects of their worlds; 6) researchers seek diverse interpretations of the acts under study; 7) the researcher is the primary research instrument, and as such he or she must play a dual role.

Data recorded in four ways: field notes, tape-recorded meetings, open-ended interviews, and discourse-based interviews. Status of startup company given, explaining crisis of not generating revenue and the rhetorical decisions that had to be made in the writing of a business plan to be given to investors. The writing of the Plan required agreement upon writing strategies, which caused hierarchies to change and cooperation to happen, thus changing the company and the writing process. Details are given to describe company’s woes and triumphs, primarily related to power struggles.

Theories are described to analyze the findings. Implications for teaching is given.

Overall, the story that is given is interesting and has potential to teach and instruct. However, this “ethnography” doesn’t closely follow Lauer and Asher’s suggestions. First off, little is known about the researcher and his direct involvement during the research process. All that is known is that for several weeks he met with organization members to observe and interview. It is difficult to comprehend his rapport with the company members. What he does do well is validate his hypotheses by returning to his observations. The problem here, though, is that data doesn’t seem to be coded and there is no inter-rater reliability. Also, little is known about the kinds of notes he took—are they observational, methodological, or theoretical? Mostly, they seem methodological. Variables are certainly discovered that could be used for further research—rhetorical writing strategies in Business plans, for one—but Doheney-Farina problematizes his findings by suggesting that what he found should apply to the classroom, thus indirectly generalizing what was found. Finally, it is hard to know if this study is replicable because little was explained about the methodology.

Learning the Trade: A Social Apprenticeship Model for Gaining Writing Expertise--Anne BeaufortResearch questions are given: what defines the social status of texts and, by association, the social status of writers within discourse communities? If writing is a social act, what social roles aid writes in learning new forms of wring? Is there a developmental continuum for writers who are in the process of being socialized into new discourse communities?

Much theory is reported about the social experiences that affect student behavior and learning processes. Description of the site of ethnographic study given: a nonprofit organization in the heart of an urban area. Two newcomers to the organization are named as the subjects that will be interviewed over a year-long process. Data was collected through a series of interviews with several workers, mostly with Pam and Ursula, who claim to spend 50% of their time at work writing. Interviews were audiotaped and all writing was photocopied, including drafts and revisions. Field notes, interview transcripts, and writing samples for patterns and themes in relations to social roles for texts were taken. Triangulation is described: 1)data sources were compared with each other, 2) caparison of difference responses of the informants over time, 3) and solicitation of informants’ response to drafts of the research report.

Findings are given but at first they don’t seem very ground-breaking. It is found that more difficult, rhetorically driven writing (like large government grant proposals) were given to more experienced writers who ranked higher in the organization’s hierarchy, whereas those simpler tasks were given to the less experienced employees. A detailed description of the writing tasks that were performed, primarily by Ursula and Pam, is given. It is shown that there are five areas of context-specific knowledge that the expert writer or older had acquired: discourse community knowledge, subject matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and task-specific procedural knowledge. Six of the writing roles observed—observerer, reader, clerical assistant, proofreader, grammarian, and document designer—did not require context-specific knowledge.

Overall, theoretical approaches are taken to observe and analyze data. However, the information seems fairly useless and obvious. The main findings seem to indicate that writing responsibilities increase in importance to the organization as local knowledge increases while the employee moves from novice to expert writer in the company. Doesn’t that seem obvious? Most problematic, however, is Beaufort’s attempt to generalize her findings, even saying that “it is likely that most of the elements needed to duplicate the kind of writing apprenticeship that occurred at JRC are readily available in other workplace settings.


  1. If I may, you provide a rather good point for Ellis (Shattered Lives) and its use as an academic piece, but sitting on the other fence, I desire to argue the merits of "Shattered Lives" as an academic work. While incorporating theory into an unique experience is entertaining, this type of "qualitative research" is the reason that my work as a qualitative social science researcher is difficult to present to quantitative oriented transportation engineers. I could apply Ellis' method, with all the theory, to an highway interchange, car accident, neighborhood, or my time sitting in traffic and I would end my career as a transportation planner. While it is a nice story, it does not inform the state of the knowledge, has limited retest capabilities, nor did it have any sort of pre-identified research methodology. She does not validate, but rather matches theories post-facto. I still maintain that this only has historical value as a primary resource.

  2. I tend to agree with you whole-heartedly. But according to Lauer and Asher, she did what she was supposed to. So I ask, is the whole concept of ethnography flawed?