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Becoming a Social Scientist
Sociology & Policy Department
TP2 Developing Research Skills and Practice
Week 7: Ethnography III
Theory and Reflexive Ethnography
Dr Igor Calzada
• Reminder of the Quantitative Methods:
• Week 2: Quantitative Data Gathering I.
»Surveys, What The Are and How to Do with Them.
• Week 3: Quantitative Data Gathering II.
»Statistics and Content Analysis.
• Quantitative Methods: Ethnography
• Week 4: Ethnography I.
»What it is, Where It Came From and How to Do It.
• Week 5: Ethnography II.
»Data Analysis and Writing Ethnography.
• Week 7: Ethnography III.
»Theory and Reflexive Ethnography.
The Question we are addressing this lecture is:
• As long as, we define the Ethnographer as the Social Scientist
researching qualitatively the social sphere:
– How can we make sure that viability of the ethnographic ‘naturalism’?
– Do we need a ‘reflexive’ turn in Ethnography? Yes.
– Do we need to consider ‘ethnographic reflexivity’ in terms of realist and
anti-realist positions? Yes.
– Do we need therefore to provide an assessement? Yes.
• Bryman, A. (2004), Social Research Methods, Oxford: Oxford University
Press. Pp. 288-289,
• Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2007), Ethnography: Principles and
Practice, London: Routledge. Chapter 1.
• May, T. (1999), ‘Reflexivity and Sociological Practice’, Sociological
Research Online, 4 (3).
• Pink, S. (2007), Doing Visual Ethnographyl London: Sage. Chapter 1.
• Skeggs, B. (1997), Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming
Respectable, London: Sage. Chapter 2.
• Sayer, A. (2000), Realism and Social Science, London: Sage. Chapter 2.
‘Realism for Sceptics’
• Willis, P. (1997), ‘Theoretical confessions and Reflexive Method’, Gelder,
J. and Thornton, S. (eds.), The Subcultures Reader, London: Routledge
• What ethnography is
• Ethical issues ethnography raises
• How ethnographic data may be stored and analysed.
This lecture provides a more focused consideration of:
• Role of Social Theory. (Veblen, Gramsci, Frankfurt School,…)
• Action Research in Ethnography.
• In previous lectures:
• We highlighted that Ethnography provides ways for us,
as social researchers:
• to get close to people and to participate in their lives
• to know in some detail how they live
• to comprehend their experiences and lived realities
• To ascertain how they understand and attach
meanings to the people and institutions that make
up their daily lives.
• This emphasis on knowing the meanings that people
possess (i.e. ‘hermeneutics’).
1) It differentiates qualitative research from the ‘positivism’ of
quantitative research through the belief that the
phenomena that constitute the social world are markedly
different to the phenomena that constitute the natural
2) These meanings form the basis of human action; people act
on the meaning they hold and are capable of applying
these meaning to their worlds.
3) Ethnography clarifies how different groups within society
hold different meanings, so that we can speak of society
being differentiated, for example, according to gender or
• This implication of this concern with the SUBJECTIVE – with
human understanding – has in recent years produced intense
debate within ethnography.
• If people understand the world in different ways, then perhaps
we need to speak of multiple ‘realities’ rather than a single one?
• Moreover, if ethnography reveals how people construct their
own social worlds according to their understanding of it, then
perhaps there is no ‘objective reality’ for ethnography to
• And given that ethnographers cannot escape their own subject
positions – they carry their own meanings and understandings
with them into the field – then perhaps the ethnographer is
involved in the construction of ‘reality’, rather than its discovery,
through the ways in which she/he represents the world that
she/he has discovered.
• Attention to the implications of
these subjective positions has
produced much discussion of
the need for a REFLEXIVE
ETHNOGRAPHY and for
ethnography as involving the
construction and representation
of knowledge, rather than
accounts of a ‘real’, external
REFLEXIVITYAction Research Participatory Techniques
• Interpretivist ethnography argues that humans construct their social worlds
• These human constructions are responsible for producing distinct/different
social ‘worlds’ – e.g. social organisations, cultures, sub-cultures etc.
• But ethnographers/researchers also construct and interpret the world – they
• There is thus a tension/conflict within naturalistic realism between a concern
with the meanings/understandings (held by human beings) and the creation of
meanings/understandings (by other human beings) about these (Giddens’
• So, the claim that naturalistic ethnography represents ‘real’ external worlds is
not so straightforward i.e. research cannot simply ‘mirror’ the real world but
must produce accounts/representations of that world
• Ethnographies are, in fact, social constructions! They are part of the world as it
is socially constructed, since they are constructed accounts of that world
• A telling critique – naturalistic ethnography as foundational knowledge (i.e.
ethnography ‘mirrors’ reality) is untenable
1.- REFLEXIVITY: What is the problem?
• Ethnography has to contend
with the double hermeneutic
(Giddens) – researchers give
meaning to their subject’s
meanings and these, in turn,
can feedback into their
subject’s meanings (e.g. ‘moral
• To ‘solve’ this problem
ethnography has become
‘reflexive’ in conceptualisation
• There are, however,
disagreements about what this
reflexivity should involve and
the implications of adopting a
‘Mods and Rockers’ Moral Panic – Stan Cohen
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Where does this leave Ethnography?
• What is reflexivity?
– Human understanding of how one stands in relation to the
world and how this world relates to one
• For ethnography this means giving central importance to the
subjectivity of both the objects of research (i.e. human
participants) and the researcher his/herself
• Ethnography must recognise this subjective dimension and
develop a ‘reflexive methodology’ which acknowledges research as
a social relationship between researcher and his/her subjects
• Researchers must also understand that their own orientation to
the social world is contextually produced (i.e. their assumptions,
ideologies, values, subject position)
• Influence of feminist thinking on ‘reflexivity’ – not to eradicate
value judgements but to understand their place/role within
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Reflexive Ethnography
• Reflexive research practice entails: “an understanding
of the social conditions of social scientific knowledge
production and its relation to knowledge reception and
context and thus its capacity for action.” (May 2001:
• What are the consequences of this for ethnography?
– Reflexivity as the means to produce a better/more adequate
understanding of social reality? (To defend a non naturalistic
– Reflexivity as requiring the abandonment of the commitment
to ethnographic realism? (To abandon realism)
1.- REFLEXIVITY: The Reflexive Turn
• To defend the claim that ethnography can comprehend a ‘real’ world that exists
independently of our capacity to represent it, researchers must:
– Recognise that one cannot observe or describe the world in
theoretically/conceptually neutral ways
– Acknowledge that ones orientations are shaped by ones social origins and
– Make concepts (assumptions) held and subject positions clear (positionality –
– Make overt political assumptions/implications clear
– Recognise that research involves power relations (in the field and the ability to
represent the lives of others)
• So, researchers must make explicit their position within the research process; and
critique their own ways of thinking/researching the world, or at least open these
up to the scrutiny of others
• We can thus accommodate or transcend researcher subjectivity
• The goal is to produce reflexive ethnographies able to produce better (i.e. more
useful) accounts of social life: ‘to examine our pre-theoretical knowledge in the
spirit of producing more adequate accounts of the social world’ (May 1999;;
Hammersley and Atkinson 2007)
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Reflexive Ethnography / Realism
• Reflexivity as anti-realist ethnography
• Post-structuralist and post-modernist theoretical influences deny
the‘authenticity’ of ethnographic description
• Instead, ethnography is itself socially constructed. Ethnography is:
– A representation that inevitably reflect the viewpoint/perspective of
– Always partial and contextually specific narratives (i.e. we cannot
generalise from them)
– Jointly constructed accounts and agreed ways of representing the
world (Pink 2007)
• Ethnography is one among many ways of creating narratives about the
world; or representing the experiences of those whose lives we are
• Ethnography is not a search for the truth, since this is not possible and
thus not desirable
• Ethnography creates ‘fictions’ (Geertz), stories about how people live from
a particular point of view and with a particular purpose.
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Post-structuralism & Post-modernism
• These are points of theory and debate – for knowledge (epistemology) and for how things
• But they also have crucial practical consequences for ethnographic fieldwork, including:
– The extent to which we can ever know the reality of other people’s lives
– Whether or not ethnography can provide authentic accounts of the lives of others
– Our ability to research/know the lives of categorical ‘others’
• For instance, can men do feminist research, can adults research children, can blacks
r3esearch whites? (Power inequalities, exploitation, whether or not we need a
– The ethnographer/academic as vanguard (e.g. ‘we’ know how people feel or what is in
their best interests) or providing a god’s eye view (i.e. ‘we’ can raise ourselves to a
position of all-seeing and all-knowing
– Ethnographic data is constructed and not ‘out there’ to be collected
– Against grounded theory, data collection can never be theoretically neutral – fieldwork
inevitably proceeds from certain assumptions
– Against grounded theory, data analysis involves constructing categories from the data,
rather than discovering categories already existing within the data
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Some practical consequences
• Naturalistic (naïve/simple)
ethnographic realism is
unsustainable – it cannot
acknowledge its own
• Reflexivity as abandonment of
– Explicit about values and politics
– Reveals power relations and
– does ethnography as
2007) lead to relativism?
– Inward-looking and self-
referential (rather than publicly
facing and issue orientated)
• Must abandon naïve realism but can
retain a ‘subtle realism’
(Hammersley and Atkinson 2007)
• To say that we can only know world
as it is represented/constructed
does not necessitate abandoning
• A pragmatic realism – work with
what we have while recognizing it to
• A critical realism (Sayer 2000): social
research can represent the world in
more or less ‘practically adequate’
• Practical adequacy provides a guide
1.- REFLEXIVITY: Assessment.
Giddens, for example, noted that constitutive
reflexivity is possible in any social system, and
that this presents a distinct methodological
problem for the social sciences. Giddens
accentuated this theme with his notion of
"reflexive modernity" – the argument that, over
time, society is becoming increasingly more self-
aware, reflective, and hence reflexive.
2.- ACTION RESEARCH
Action research is either research initiated to solve an immediate
problem or a reflective process of progressive problem solving led
by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a
"community of practice" to improve the way they address issues
and solve problems.
3.- PARTICIPATORY TECHNIQUES
• Participatory action research (PAR) is an approach to
research in communities that emphasizes participation and
• It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it,
collaboratively and following reflection.
• PAR emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation
grounded in experience and social history.
• Within a PAR process, "communities of inquiry and action
evolve and address questions and issues that are significant
for those who participate as co-researchers" (Reason and
Bradbury, 2008, p. 1).
• PAR contrasts with many research methods, which
emphasize disinterested researchers and reproducibility of