Ethnography

Ethnography is often used to refer to a set of qualitative methods of data collection, including observation, interviewing and document analysis. Ethnography can also refer to a methodological perspective that highlights that knowledge is produced in situ, privileging prolonged, in-depth fieldwork in a small number of sites. Like multimodality, ethnography draws attention to the range of social and cultural resources that people use in their everyday life. This leads to analysis of a variety of data sets, including visual data (e.g. buildings, drawings, photographs, video recordings); and verbal data (e.g. field notes, policy documents, audio recordings, transcripts). Indeed, in both approaches –ethnography and multimodality- the aim is to produce ‘thick’, ‘semiotic’, and ‘microscopic’ (Geertz, 1973) descriptions of cultural practice. However, significant differences remain in the procedures used to produce an ethnographic, and a multimodal, account, respectively (see Dicks et al., 2011). Typically, researchers adopting a multimodal approach analyze data synchronically, focusing on how meaning is made on a particular occasion, or in a particular artifact, whereas ethnographers analyze data diachronically, focusing on how people participate in social and cultural groups and move between them over a certain period of time—a year, say. Ethnographic researchers insist on familiarity with the context in which data were collected, whereas multimodal researchers may choose to analyze a corpus of texts without having observed the authors. Ethnography attends to the values and epistemologies of the researched as well as the researching participants in a study. This asks for a reflexive approach to data collection, and a commitment to an ethnographic imagination (Willis 2000). The production of cultural ‘stuff’ then leads to insights about the way in which multimodal texts are made and formed, and how people make sense of them. This provides a dense, layered account, drawing on the understandings of participants, of meaning making processes and practices (Finnegan, 2007).

Editor: Jeff Bezemer
Other contributors: Andrew Burn, Kate Pahl

Key References
Dicks, B., Flewitt, R., Lancaster, L. and Pahl, K. (2011)
‘Multimodality and ethnography: working at the intersection’
Qualitative Research, 11: 227

Finnegan, R. (2007)
The ‘Oral’ and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa
Oxford: James Currey, University of Chicago Press, and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, South Africa

Geertz, C. (1973)
“Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”: The Interpretation of Culture
New York:  Basic Books

Willis, P. (2000)
The Ethnographic Imagination
Cambridge: Polity Press

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