PhD Reflections

Ethnographic inquiry


I’m hoping to start a pilot for my classroom ethnographic study very soon, and Heath and Street’s primer has been an excellent guide to preparation for an ethnographic study. Whilst my pilot will be a ‘light touch’ version of my doctoral study, it is important for me to capture a sufficiently composite picture of my context. 


If situated phenomena which arouse our interest are crystallisations of various layers of contexts (micro-contexts and macro-contexts), then we can call a classroom a “nexus of contexts”. This is where ethnographic inquiry comes in. Things observed in the ‘micro-contexts’, regardless of how innocuous or routinised they may seem, draw on enduring and pervasive systems of power and social structure (cultural ‘habitus’) in the ‘macro-context’. Attending to these beyond the visible observables is part of ethnographic exploration, as such observables are symbolic and far from “innocent” (Bourdieu, 1991).


Focussing solely on one context seems to be a highly subjective thing to do in research. This is the point of ethnography. Bourdieu regards the distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ as a false one; as the ‘subjective’ is the basis of any form of objectivity. As such, in order to become truly ‘objective’, one must be unashamedly ‘subjective’. And herein lies another challenge for ethnographers.


That ethnography is a type of qualitative research is a contested view, as it seeks to capture the complementation, or rather ‘revelation’ of, emic (insider) accounts to etic (outsider) perspectives. It is for this reason that the key to ethnography is a deep curiosity for a phenomenon. Its approach is one of dialogicity between the researcher’s judgments and hunches, current theories and explanations, an evolving data set, and analysis. Yikes.


Bourdieu, 1991, Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press.


Heath, S. B., and Street, B. V., 2008, On Ethnography. Approaches to Language and Literacy Research, NCRLL

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