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Ethnographic Approaches to Cultural Learning

by Celia Roberts, Thames Valley University

This article first appeared in British Studies, the journal of the British Council British Studies project, in January 1994.


The connection between Cultural Studies and intercultural communication is not yet fully developed in either the theory or practice of British (Cultural) Studies. The focus on texts in the cultural studies programmes and the focus on communication use in intercultural communication can leave the student and teacher of English with a compartmentalised view of cultural practices. ‘Culture’ becomes an object of critical reflection and intercultural communicative competence is dealt with in the language classroom at the level of linguistic routines and social appropriacy.

But as Brian Street has argued (Street 1993) ‘culture is a verb’ and any attempt to integrate cultural studies and language learning needs to draw the language learner into the lived experiences of a particular social group. What does it feel like to be a primary school teacher in a suburban school? How does the Portobello Road street market work as an event? What keeps a group of friends together long after they have all left school? These three questions in turn raise issues about theories of learning, the use of social space and the relationship between identity and reciprocity.

These are three examples from students’ ‘home ethnographics’, part of the course developed at Thames Valley University (formerly Ealing College) London.

This course is for British and other European students on a BA in Applied Languages. It has been developed as part of a research and development project funded by the Economic and Social Council. (1)

The theoretical basis of the course draws on the Hymesian notion of what you have to be able to do in order to be a competent member of a group and on the semiotic tradition of culture as a system of meanings (Geertz 1973). It brings together more general anthropological concepts and interactional socio-linguistics (Gumperz 1982) to explore ways in which cultural practices enter into everyday language behaviour.

On a practical level, the course is aimed at exploiting the period of residence overseas which is a compulsory element of virtually all modern languages degree courses in Britain. Here, we have borrowed from anthropology the key methodology of ethnography: the study of a groups social and cultural practices from an insiders perspective. Just as the anthropologist seeks to learn about a native group from the point of view of their cultural world, so the language and Cultural Studies student can become an ethnographer of a particular group or set of cultural practices in the country which they are visiting.

The students at TVU are expected to live the ethnographic life in France, Germany or Spain but there are groups in the rest of Europe and elsewhere studying English and British Studies for whom a similar course would be equally valuable. British Studies programmes have borrowed from American and Australian studies, for example, but there is an equally strong case for borrowing from Modern Languages programmes such as the one at TVU.

Ethnography is an obvious solution to the problem of how to integrate conceptual work about Britain with experiential work in intercultural communication. The approach we have taken has a number of key features which is aimed at this integration:

    i) Through a series of fieldwork assignments, students develop an understanding of how their own practices and the meanings that underpin them are culturally constructed. These assignments are also used to introduce ethnographic methods such as participant observation and ethnographic interviewing.

    ii) The conceptual framework built up around such notions as gender relations, boundary maintenance and ritual are given a specifically linguistic focus by drawing on students’ own data and on video film of natural social interaction.

    iii) All students do a ‘home’ ethnography as part of the course which both acts as a pilot for the ethnographic project abroad and provides the beginning of a comparative approach in which, reflexively, their interpretations of a French, Spanish or German group is related to their own understandings of themselves as cultural beings.

    iv) Issues of stereotyping and ethnocentrism are explicitly discussed and links made between Britain as a racially-stratified society and students’ perceptions of other European groups.

    v) Students write an ethnographic project while they are ‘in the field’ abroad, which is written up in the foreign language on their return and forms part of their final degree assessment.

    vi) The course is taught by language specialists who have taken on ethnographic approaches as part of their staff development.

The focus on the preparation for and full exploitation of the period abroad is that, as Cohn Evans says: ‘The modern languages degree is a sandwich course and the meat is the year abroad’. (Evans p.42). Once abroad, students are surrounded by the everyday life which is determined by and helps to determine the institutions and cultural products of the society which they are studying. By becoming participant observers of a group, they both engage in their everyday practices and learn to construct meanings from them.

For many people, there is still the notion of an essential culture out there waiting, prone, to be discovered. Students tend to think of cultural learning as set knowledge about the culture. But the students who carried out ethnographic projects abroad have had a very different view:

    i) They have leant about cultural practices but they have recognised that this is local knowledge which can only be generalised at a conceptual level.

    ii) They have been encouraged constantly to question the source of their knowledge and in doing so are forced to interrogate their own assumptions about observed cultural difference.

    iii) They have leant the art of relativising, to see their own and others’ worlds as socially constructed and not natural.

An ethnographic approach helps students see everyday life as cultural practice and also contributes to an understanding of cultural difference and a questioning of their own views and behaviour. In addition, it provides the motivation and makes the opportunities for students to communicate interculturally. Students felt that they had to get out into ‘the field’: “It was going out and doing things. I very rarely sat in my room.  You have to go out and look for it and do it.” It gave them confidence: “I would never have had the guts to go up to (people to speak) to them if I had not done ethnography.” And they felt that the cultural learning was something they had done for themselves: “(at college) you get loads of facts, most of it isn’t your own, but this is all your own, this is all my own, none of this is anyone else’s.”

The observation and interviewing that they carried out, often having to cope with strong local and dialectical varieties and the fast pace and allusive character of informal conversations, meant that they had rapidly to develop their language skills and communicative flexibility. Similarly, the analysis of their data engaged them in a detailed study of everyday language use and the semantic relations which underpin it. As Martin Montgomery suggests (Montgomery 1993), language draws together the different elements of British Studies and British Cultural Studies. But students need to use language as they learn about cultural practices and not just learn about it.

As increasing numbers of students throughout Europe and indeed the rest of the world have an opportunity to spend a period abroad, making the most of this opportunity is ever more important. Even for students who will never have this chance, an ethnographic approach to cultural studies, using naturally occurring video and relevant documents, creates a cultural dialogue - a new way of seeing which combines interpreting others’ cultural life with a reflective approach to one’s own.

One of the challenges for the near future is to support those many thousands of students who have no realistic prospect of visiting Britain or other English-speaking countries as part of their course. There are several possibilities. One is the possibility of undertaking ethnographic work among an English-speaking community in their own country. Another is to provide a range of documentary video material, suitably edited for learning purposes, which can be used for observation and analysis. A third possibility is to provide a more text-based course, using critical discourse analysis, alongside anthropological texts which challenge the essentialist view of culture so often presented. Whatever approaches are developed, an introduction to ethnographic ways of thinking can stimulate a dynamic view of one’s own and others’ cultural practices.

    The materials for the course, Ethnography for Language Learners’ will be available from TVU in July 1994. Further information can be obtained from: Celia Roberts, School of English Language Teaching, Thames Valley University, Walpole House, Bond Street, London W5 5AA.

    1. ‘Cultural Studies in Advanced Language Learning’ funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (R 232716) was directed by Mike Byram, Durham University and Celia Roberts, TVU. The consultant was Brian Street, Sussex University and the language lecturers on the team were Ana Barro, Hispanic Studies and Hans Grimm, German Studies.


References and bibliography

BARRO, A., BYRAM, M., GRIMM, H., MORGAN, C., ROBERTS, C. ‘Cultural Studies for Advanced Language Learning’, in Graddol et al (eds.) Language and Culture, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1993.

BARRO, A., GRIMM, H. ‘Integrating Language Learning and Cultural Studies: an ethnographic approach to the year abroad’, in Coleman and Rouxeville (eds.) Integrating New Approaches: The Teaching of French in Higher Education,

CILT, 1993. BYRAM, M. ‘Language and Cultural Learning for European

Citizenship’, in Beveridge and Reddiford (eds.) Language, Culture and Education, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1993.

EVANS, C. Language People, Open University Press, 1988. GEERTZ, C. The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973.

GUMPERZ, J.J. Discourse Strategies, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

MONTGOMERY, M. ‘Institutions and Discourse’, British Studies Now, The British Council, July 1993.

ROBERTS, C. ‘Language: living the ethnographic life’, in Byram (ad.) Cultural Learning for Language Learners in Higher Education, forthcoming.

STREET, B. ‘Culture is a verb’, in Graddol et al (eds.) Language and Culture, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1993.


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