Qualitative Research: (Critical) Ethnography Guidelines

The following guidelines are provided for submissions to TESOL Quarterly adopting an ethnographic approach by developing a firsthand, contextualized, naturalistic, hypotheses-generating, emic orientation to the study of TESOL through the study of culture. Ethnography represents diverse research approaches (Atkinson, Coffey, Delamont, Lofland, & Lofland, 2001), and the form and content of ethnographic reports thus vary considerably.


Research approaches that use the qualifier critical differ from descriptive or interpretive approaches, which historically adopted a more detached, objective, value-free orientation to knowledge, although there is some convergence between critical and descriptive approaches within contemporary ethnography. Critical approaches align themselves with the post-Enlightenment philosophical tradition of situating research in its social context to consider how knowledge is shaped by the values of human agents and communities, implicated in power differences, and favorable for democratizing relationships and institutions. A critical approach questions the traditional separation of theory and method, interpretation and data, subjective and objective, and ethics and science, and particularly the treatment of the second term in each pair as constituting valid research. Critical ethnography prefers to see these binary constructs as interconnected, making mutual contributions to knowledge.

Ethnography (and critical ethnography in particular) adopts a complex theoretical orientation toward culture. Culture--in collectives of differing magnitude, whether educational institutions, student communities, classrooms, or activity groups--is treated as heterogeneous, conflictual, negotiated, and evolving, as distinct from unified, cohesive, fixed, and static. Also, in contrast with a relativistic view of cultures as different-but-equal, critical ethnography explicitly assumes that cultures are positioned unequally in power relations. Furthermore, critical ethnography sees descriptions of culture as shaped by the interests of the researcher, the sponsors of the project, the audience, and the dominant communities. Therefore, cultural representations are acknowledged as always being somewhat partial and partisan. Studies that claim to adopt an ethnographic approach should be informed by the theoretical assumptions motivating this research practice.

  • Because of the diversity of perspectives represented within ethnography, be as explicit as possible about the disciplinary traditions or models of ethnographic scholarship that have influenced your work (e.g., cultural anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, ethnography of communication, cultural studies). A wide array of approaches exist, including but not limited to hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, critical theories, feminist theories, postmodernisms, constructivism, and critical humanism.
  • State explicitly your specific approach and its underlying assumptions and beliefs about the nature of ethnographic knowledge. For example, do you believe that ethnographic findings are scientific, aimed at uncovering patterned social realities? Or do you believe that the purpose of ethnography is interpretive, aimed at developing insights into the symbolic meanings of experiences for participants? Or do you believe that the purpose of ethnography is, more critically, the pursuit of social justice?
  • State explicitly the conventions for data collection, analysis, and reporting that are typical within your chosen school(s) of thought, and cite exemplars from previously published work.


  • Show evidence of residing or spending considerable lengths of time interacting with people in the study setting, observing and recording their activities as they unfolded through means such as field notes (see, e.g., Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995), audio and video recordings, or both. A hallmark of ethnography is extended, firsthand participant observation and interactions with participants in the study setting.
  • Record participant beliefs and attitudes through such typical means as notes or transcribed recordings of informal conversation and interviews, and participant journals (see Salzman, 2001).
  • Include several different sources of data. Besides participant observation and interactions with participants, these sources might include life histories (Darnell, 2001) and narrative analysis (Cortazzi, 2001), photography, audio or video recordings (Nastasi, 1999), written documents (Brewer, 2000), data documenting historical trends, and questionnaires and surveys (Salzman, 2001).
  • If called for, as they often are in critical ethnography (as well as in many cases of descriptive/interpretive ethnography), use additional sources of data and reflection. These include

    • evidence of how the power differences between you and the informants/subjects were negotiated. Though it is idealistic to think that power differences can be totally eliminated, address how they were managed, modified, or shifted and how they influenced the data gathered.
    • your attitudes and biases toward the community and its culture. Record how your perspectives changed during the course of the research and how these changes shaped the data gathered.
    • the impact of your activities and behavior on the community. State whether you involved yourself in the ethical, social, or political challenges faced by the community. Include in the data the way such practical engagements may have generated deeper insights or affected the research (and the ways you negotiated these tensions).
    • the conflicts and inconsistencies in the statements made by the informants (or community insiders). Rather than favoring one set of data over the other or neatly tying all the loose strands to arrive at generalizations, wrestle with the diversity of insider perspectives in order to represent culture with complexity.
    • a broadened understanding of the context of the culture. Although context is being constantly (re)created through talk even as the informants interact with the researcher, reflect in the data the way larger forces outside the community shape culture. Study how social institutions and political agencies affect the local culture, and, similarly, seek historical data on the status of the culture before and after the research.
  • Because ethnographic analytical procedures vary by researchers' schools of thought, you may incorporate quantitative as well as qualitative procedures and instruments if appropriate (see, e.g., Bernard, 2002).

Analysis and Interpretation

  • Emphasize emic–or participant–attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and practices, as the objective of ethnography is to come to a deeper understanding of how people in particular contexts experience their social and cultural worlds.
  • Practice reflexivity, a process of self-examination and self-disclosure about aspects of your own background, identities or subjectivities, and assumptions that influence data collection and interpretation.
  • Approach data analysis and findings through an inductive and recursive process. Expect patterns, categories, or themes to evolve as data collection proceeds rather than imposing them a priori.
  • In the report, show evidence of triangulation, a systematic process of looking across multiple data sources for findings and confirming or disconfirming evidence.
  • Note that because of its firsthand, experiential nature, ethnographic knowledge is necessarily tied to particular contexts and periods of time. However, most contemporary ethnographers view it as important to acknowledge the instability and ever-evolving nature of the cultures under study, and to explore their nestedness in and interdependence with broader sociocultural contexts.
  • Note that while ethnographic reports may present abstractions and generalizations about attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the cultures under study, many ethnographers acknowledge and represent heterogeneity and diversity within the cultures or cultural scenes under study (see below).
  • Give evidence that you have interpreted the tensions implicit in the research with complexity and openness, particularly (but not exclusively) in critical research
    • between insider (emic) and outsider (etic) perspectives. Your relative outsider status and generalized etic perspectives can offer interpretive angles that are not available to the insiders.
    • between macro- and microperspectives on the culture. Though the strength of ethnography is its localized, detailed, grounded perspective, global forces from ideological, economic, and geopolitical structures influence local culture. Sensitivity to the macrolevel shaping of the local culture will provide critical insights into the prospects for community empowerment.
    • between the structural and the temporal. Although descriptive ethnography traditionally may have valued capturing the historical present–that is, culture as a self-contained and well-constructed static system–critical ethnography considers culture as open to historical influences and itself shaping history, though it is relatively autonomous from other social institutions.
    • between interpreting and explaining. Critical ethnography recognizes that culture-as-ideology can lead to certain misinterpretations of social life. Similarly, a culture that is merely lived out is not always open to critical reflection for insiders. With sufficient respect and sensitivity to the community, you may attempt to explain some of the questions/contradictions left open in the informant's interpretation of things.
    • between the parts and the whole of the culture. To explain away the tensions in a culture is to impose a consistency and uniformity on the community that serves to stereotype, essentialize, and generalize its culture reductively. Thus, a critical interpretation represents the culture in all its complexity, instability, and diversity.
    • between the different subject positions of the researcher. Adopt a reflexive approach; interpret your own biases, backgrounds, and identities (e.g., of scholarship, ethnicity, class, gender, region) both in the field and outside; and acknowledge the ways they shape the research and cultural representation.
  • Indicate the social implications of the cultural description. Interpretation in critical ethnography values not only the validity of the study (e.g., enhanced by triangulation of data or the sophistication of methods used), but also the social usefulness of the research and the ways it addresses issues of social justice, human development, and ethical integrity.

The Critical Ethnography Report

Established genres of the research article may not always be suitable for reporting ethnographic studies that practice a critical ethnography. The dominant Introduction-Method-Results-Discussion structure is often more amenable to reporting descriptive and scientific studies informed by Enlightenment values, typically presenting a detached, controlled, authorially imposed version of the findings. Other emergent genres of research reporting adopt greater reflexivity (in representing the personal shaping of the findings, in light of the changing biases, subject positions, and involvement of the researcher), narratives (for a more indirect, context-bound, personal form of theorization), multivocality (for textualizing the plural perspectives and voices–of different informants, researchers, participants–on the same culture), authorial collaboration (in involving the participants/informants in the representation of the findings), and open-endedness (in dramatizing the tensions in interpretation and data from the field, and encouraging the readers to form alternate paradigms of interpretation). Develop a mode of textual representation that suits your research experience, objectives, beliefs about the nature of ethnographic knowledge, and preferences.

References and Further Reading on Ethnography

Anderson, G. L. (1989). Critical ethnography in education: Origins, current status, and new directions. Review of Educational Research, 59, 249-270.

Athanases, S. Z., & Heath, S. B. (1995). Ethnography in the study of the teaching and learning of English. Research in the Teaching of English, 29, 263-287.

Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (2001). Editorial introduction. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.),Handbook of ethnography (pp. 1-7). London: Sage.

Belsey, C. (1983). Critical practice. London: Methuen.

Berkenkotter, C. (1993). A "rhetoric for naturalistic inquiry" and the question of genre. Research in the Teaching of English, 27, 293-304.

Bernard, H. R. (2002). Research methods in anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Brewer, J. D. (2000). Ethnography. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Canagarajah, A. S. (1993). Critical ethnography of a Sri Lankan classroom: Ambiguities in opposition to reproduction through ESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 601-626.

Canagarajah, A. S. (1996). From critical research practice to critical research reporting. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 320-330.

Cortazzi, M. (2001). Narrative analysis in ethnography. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 384-394). London: Sage.

Darnell, R. (2001). Invisible genealogies: A history of Americanist anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kubota, R. (1999). Japanese culture constructed by discourses: Implications for applied linguistics research and ELT. TESOL Quarterly, 33, 9-35.

Marcus, G., & Fischer, M. M. J. (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nastasi, B. K. (1999). Audiovisual methods in ethnography. In J. J. Schensul, M. D. LeCompte, B. K. Nastasi, & S. P. Borgatti (Eds.), Enhanced ethnographic methods: Audiovisual techniques, focused group interviews, and elicitation techniques (pp. 1-50). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Peirce, B. N. (1995). The theory of methodology in qualitative research. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 569-576.

Pennycook, A. (1994). Critical pedagogical approaches to research. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 690-693.

Salzman, P. C. (2001). Understanding culture: An introduction to anthropological theory. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Scheurich, J. J., & Young, M. D. (1997). Coloring epistemologies: Are our research epistemologies racially biased? Educational Researcher, 26(4), 4-17.

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