Saturday, February 28, 2009

Week 8: Ethnographies

Blog Question: What distinguishes ethnographies from case studies, how does “triangulation” impact data collection and analysis, and what must ethnographers do to ensure their work is both reliable and valid?

Ethnographies require a much longer and deeper immersion with the subjects in their natural environment, but Case Studies are often performed in a slightly more sterile environment, or as broader and shallower research with individuals or groups. As a result ethnographers are faced with a mountain of data about a fairly narrow topic. Case Studies look for variables, whereas Ethnographies try to capture the process and the “feel” of people and their environment and look to find similarities and trends in the data.

Ethnographies use triangulation to go through and notice consistencies within the data to find the “truth” through a variety of research methods, subjects, on across time. Triangulation is used to ensure that ethnographer's findings are both reliable and valid, although it does have limitations.

Dohney & Farhina: Writing in an Emerging Organization
Research Question: How do writing processes shape the organizational structure of an emerging organization?

Subject Selection: The software company was picked because it was an emerging organization.

Data Collection: The ethnographer visited the company 3 to 5 times a week for 8 months and attended meetings. They collected field notes, tape-recorded meetings, open ended interviews, and discourse-based interviews.

Data Analysis: Data analysis followed the constant comparison method. The ethnographer developed categories for different events and linked them to form major themes for the study.

Beaufort: Learning the Trade
Research Question: What are the ways in which particular configurations of roles aid or hinder a writer’s socialization process in becoming a productive member of a community of practice? What differentiated simpler from more complex writing tasks? What determined writer’s social roles in this community? What methods of socialization were used for writers new to this organization and to what effect?

Subject Selection: The ethnographer chose the research site because of an overriding concern with issues of transfer of learning; in particular she wanted to examine the contrasts between academic and workplace settings for composition.

Data Collection: The ethnographer interviewed each woman almost weekly, kept records of their writing, and attended business and informal meetings between them and their colleagues.

Data Analysis: The ethnographer looked at field notes, transcripts, and writing samples for patterns and themes in relation to social roles for texts and for writers within the discourse community of the company.

Sheeny: The Social Life of an Essay
Research Question: Seeks to understand the standardization processes involved in the writing done by a class of seventh grade students, half of whom did not do well in school or on tests.

Subject Selection: The researcher picked seventh graders in a science classroom at the only middle school in a large city. Many of these students had a history of performing poorly in school and many were from underprivileged backgrounds.

Data Collection: The researcher collected data from two focus groups and from the class as a whole. She collected field notes, voice recordings, community surveys, and samples of the students writing; both from class assignments and from journals.

Data Analysis: The researcher didn’t really seem to have a very concrete idea of data analysis. She used triangulation to determine the results from her data collection.

Ellis: Shattered Lives
This research explored disastrous events using the author's own experience on a flight on September 11th, and used the methods of autoethnography to do so. The researcher did not explain subject selection, data collection, and data analysis.

Anderson: Analytic Autoethnography
This article did not seem to have as much focus on research as the other research papers we have read this week. The author discusses the history of autoethnography, it’s impacts on research, and it’s virtues and limitations. The author argues that autoethnography fits well into the larger group of ethnography and uses similar techniques of the researcher being actively involved with the subjects.


  1. Hi Bryan,
    I enjoyed your post. You provide a good helpful synopsis of all the case readings this week. I struggle a bit with the reliability of an autoethnography, such as suggested by Anderson and conducted by Ellis. Does such an approach lend itself to reproductability? It may be perfectly valid - afterall, who are we to question one's personal experience - but what is the value of such an approach when it cannot be applied more broadly? What are your thoughts?

  2. Glen, you are right regarding Ellis. The kind of autoethnography Ellis is producing requires us to see it from a different perspective than we normally analyse other ethnographies. The validity of her work, I think, depends on her involvement with the subject at hand. And she is deeply affected by the event and therefore can effectively reproduce the sorts of experiences the victims (those affected)of the Sept 11 underwent. The value of such writing lies perhaps not in its generalizability and accuracy (which it does not claim), but in its power to evoke emotions that can bring people together to avoid such occurances. A research done on the effects of the Sept 11 attack and its effects on people in terms of number or data may not be able to do what this sort of evocative ethnography can. This ethnography goes closer to the creative texts generated by similar events.

  3. You're right on, Hem! But Glen's point still obtains. As Anderson says, evocative ethnography (like Ellis) pays a price on the analysis and commitment to theory side.