Monday, February 11, 2008

Reading :: Ethnography Step by Step

Ethnography Step by Step
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For my particular interests, the most interesting and simultaneously out-of-date chapter was Chapter 4, which covered ethnographic equipment.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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bonnie lenore kyburz said...

i read Fetterman in grad school and used much of his thinking to guide my ethnographic study of a local poetry subculture. i found the book useful, but while i am always happy to entertain magical notions associated with research, i wondered/worried about the method for the reasons you mention . . . talk of miraculous insights and the like. but i also find in both Geertz' Interpretation of Cultures and even in some Giddens that same sort of apologia for sociology's, um, *human-ness" (in terms of how research is always subjectively inflected and yet still capable of producing valuable data/insights/miracles). i don't know the other book you mention; what is that title? thanks ;)

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Hi, Bonnie. The Miles and Huberman book is Qualitative Data Analysis, and it's a massive book focused solely on different methods for analyzing data. I think they barely touch on design and data collection. They think a lot about analytical rigor, and the result goes well beyond anecdotes and epiphanies. Terrific book.

bonnie lenore kyburz said...

thanks, Clay. i do love "anecdotes and ephiphanies," but, um, yes . . . more is good :)

i'll check it out.