By David M. Fetterman
I've been really enjoying reading qualitative methods texts lately. On the hunt for another book, I spotted this one on the library shelves. It's part of the SAGE Applied Social Research Methods series, a very strong series for this type of book, and it's on ethnography, which I have always found to be very loosely defined methodologically. So why not give it a whirl?
I didn't regret it, but my world has not been turned upside down by this book. Ethnography is a big topic, and this slim book does a decent job of introducing it, but I didn't get a lot of new insights from it. Fetterman covers the basics in terms of describing rigor and validity in ethnographic terms, drawing the etic/emic distinction, overviewing interviewing techniques and other data collection techniques, and reviewing analysis techniques.
It's in the analysis chapter, by the way, that the methodological looseness of ethnography really shows. Fetterman lists analytical techniques such as "thinking," "triangulation," "patterns," and "key events" before going to more defined approaches such as maps, flowcharts, org charts, matrices, and content analysis. Fetterman also discusses "crystallization": a convergence of similarities that strike the ethnographer as relevant or important (p.101). And he adds here: "Every study has classic moments when everything falls into place. After months of thought and immersion in the culture, a special configuration gels" (p.101). As I implied, this orientation -- in which ethnography is seen ultimately as a road-to-Damascus moment in which opening oneself up to culture produces a crystallizing moment of insight -- engenders a methodological looseness. The truly rigorous work Fetterman describes serves to support such a moment of insight, but it is seen as useless without this moment of epiphany. (Lest I seem to be blowing this out of proportion, note that the next chapter is entitled "Recording the miracle.") I can see why Miles and Huberman's book on analysis made such a big splash.
For my particular interests, the most interesting and simultaneously out-of-date chapter was Chapter 4, which covered ethnographic equipment. Written in 1989, this chapter actually has a picture of a Toshiba laptop and talks glowingly about its "640K of memory, two disk drives, and a backlit supertwist LCD screen" (p.75). And the section on desktop computers speaks breathlessly of IBM PS/2s, with their 20MB hard drives. Wow.
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