Sometimes it’s the simplest questions …

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In the Q&A following my Confirmation seminar one question floored me, perhaps because of its simplicity.

‘What is your ethnography an ethnography of?’

The answer to me was obvious, but because it was being asked by someone much more experienced and acknowledged than I, I assumed there must be more to the answer than the obvious. But perhaps it was more a case that I hadn’t actually stated that anywhere in my presentation and it simply needed laying out. So here’s my attempt to set that record straight.

It’s worth saying from the outset that the ‘Digital Ethnography’ I described in my presentation ought to be more accurately described as an ethnographic approach. I make the (subtle?) distinction since I will not be immersed in the ‘culture’ under study in the anthropological sense, and though I will be aiming for ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973), this may or may not be written as a traditional ethnography. That might be a good place to unpick the origins of the term:

The word ethnography comes from the Greek—ethnos means “folk/the people” and grapho is “to write.” Ethnography is the writing of the people, the writing of society, the writing of culture.
(McGranahan, 2015)

So yes, I’ll be writing about people, at least in some sense. I’ll also be involved over a long period of time, during which I’ll be bringing multiple methods to bear, so my study can be classified as ethnographic on Miller and Slater’s (2000) terms:

Ethnography means a long term involvement amongst people, through a variety of methods, such that any one aspect of their life can be properly contextualized in others.

I haven’t yet however, answered the questioned posed to me in the Q&A. My ethnography is ‘of’ teachers, but more specifically teachers using Twitter, and even more specifically teachers using Twitter for professional learning. So the focus is on the teachers and the practice in which they’re engaged, which happens to be mediated by a particular tool. It’s important to note at this point that I don’t see Twitter as a bounded field site where all the action takes place. Despite the claims that teachers make about how Twitter provides them with professional learning, I feel it is important to be open to possibilities, to allow the field site to unfold and to track the phenomenon as the participants perform it (Burrell, 2009). It is an ethnography of ‘connection and mobility’ (Hine, 2007), rather than of a predefined field site where all the action takes place.

I’ll conclude by stating what my ethnography is not. Despite the connections that participants make and despite the collaborations in which they participate, this is not an ethnography of a culture, community, collective or group. I’d argue that that would presuppose the existence of those structures and I’d find myself looking for evidence of them.  I’m not sure that would sit coherently with an actor-network theory approach, which for me is much more about asking ‘what is happening here?’ Any structures or groupings will become evident as they are performed into being. Perhaps then my ethnography is not of people after all, but the actor-networks or sociomaterial assemblages which are performed into existence through the practice of professional learning … whatever that might be.

 

[Footnote: I’ve used the word ‘practice’ a number of times here and I’m becoming increasingly aware that some words carry more semantic weight than others. I was tripped up in my talk through using the terms space and place too loosely, and in the past, I’ve let ‘affordance’ slip out. So as a note to myself, at some stage I’m going to need to clarify what I mean by practice.]

 

Burrell, J. (2009). The field site as a network: A strategy for locating ethnographic research. Field Methods.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays (Vol. 5019). Basic books.
Hine, C. (2007). Connective Ethnography for the Exploration of e‐Science. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 12(2), 618-634.
McGranahan, C. (2015). What is Ethnography? Teaching ethnographic sensibilities without fieldwork. Teaching Anthropology, 4(1).
Miller, D., & Slater, D. (2000). The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Berg.

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