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How to … organize an ethnographic study tour

This article written by Małgorzata Zdybiewska from TTC in Radom describes a pilot project organized by a group of Polish teacher trainers whose aim was to develop some classroom materials based on an ethnographic study tour around Wales. The article includes a short introduction to ethnography and its tools together with some practical hints and further reading.

What is ethnography?

In the Cambridge Encyclopaedia edited by David Crystal (The Cambridge Encyclopedia: 421) ethnography is defined as “a detailed description of the culture of a particular society, based on fieldwork by ethnographers or anthropologists, using the method of participant observation”. The key phrase in this definition is “the method of participant observation” because only through direct careful observation, which may sometimes take long periods of time can the ethnographer draw some valid scientific conclusions concerning a particular culture. This is hands-on experience that requires the ethnographer’s involvement in the life of a community. Yet, at the same time it forces him/her to become the participant observer who distances himself/herself from the observed culture.

Naturally, ethnography is close both to socio-linguistics, which deals with the study of relationships between language and society, and ethnography of communication, which explores the correlation between language and ethnic types and behaviour. Ethnographic research methods are used by modern socio-cultural anthropology. Contemporary cultural anthropologists are becoming more interested in urban cultures of the countries in the West than in tribal customs of societies living on exotic islands as it was in the past.

(Click here if you want to learn more about ethnography)
(Click here if you want to learn more about cultural anthropology)

Who is the father of modern ethnography?

The father of modern ethnography is Bronisław Malinowski  - a Polish anthropologist born in Krakow in 1884. Bronisław Malinowski was a pioneer of the ‘participant observation’ method. He developed this field method while working on the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski’s holistic approach attempted to explain cultural interactions in its complexity that included elements of magic, religion and psychology. In 1922 he wrote a book entitled Argonauts of the Western Pacific in which he described his fieldwork and experiences.

What role may ethnographic methods of research play in ELT?

Ethnography and its tools i.e. participant observation, making field notes, interviewing etc. may indeed play an important new role in ELT. In the past ELT practitioners used the results of scientific research from such sciences as phonetics, linguistics or psychology. It is difficult to imagine ELT methodology without the theoretical support of these sciences. Nowadays, in times of globalisation and frequent direct or indirect encounters with different cultures, intercultural awareness is increasingly recognised as an indispensable component of the foreign language classroom. It is now commonly accepted that the experience of learning a foreign language enriches not only the learner’s perception of that country but the perception of his/her own language and culture as well. So there should be space and time in foreign language teaching to discuss the learners’ cultural identity. In short, in an ELT classroom there should be time to talk in English about Polish matters that are of interest to Polish learners. Learners need language tools to talk about their own cultural identity to their counterparts coming from different countries.

Therefore, we need instruments to communicate in different cultural contexts. Every day we are bombarded with news coming from every corner of our planet and somehow we have to absorb not only its gist, but also the broad cultural context. At the same time we try not to lose our point of reference or indeed our sense of good and evil. In short, in the context of a foreign language classroom apart from communicative competence, which includes linguistic and sociolinguistic discourse competences, we also need intercultural competence. According to Michael Byram this includes the following aspects:

·         Attitudes: curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own

·         Knowledge: of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country, and of general processes of societal and individual interaction.

·         Skills of interpreting and relating: ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents or events from one’s own.

·         Skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real time communication and interaction.

There is a final dimension, which requires a high degree of self-awareness and reflection:

·         Critical cultural awareness: ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, particular perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries.

(Byram 2000: 98)

If you want to learn more about the role of ethnography in ELT read the article Ethnographic Approaches to Cultural Learning written by Celia Roberts from Thames Valley University. There is also a review of Celia Roberts’ book Language Learners as Ethnographers.   

What is the task of the language teacher?

Although some teachers may say that there is barely enough time in the school syllabus to build the students’ linguistic competence not to mention the socio-linguistic or discourse ones, it has to be stressed that teachers as pedagogues should not forget their primary obligation to their students i.e. educating them and helping them understand the world in all its aspects. Thus intercultural competence becomes a significant part of the teachers’ professional development without which the competent teacher cannot build a sensible relationship with their students. It is that humanistic aspect of our profession that makes it worthwhile, in spite of the everyday difficulties we encounter at schools.

In his article on practical ethnography John Corbett from Glasgow University writes:

Observed behaviour is now recognized as a manifestation of a deeper set of codes and rules, and the task of ethnography is seen as the discovery and explication of the rules for contextually appropriate behaviour in a community or group; in other words, culture is what the individual needs to know to be a functional member of the community.

                                   (Corbett John, Practical Ethnography, Glasgow – Curtiba, August 2003)

Ethnographic tasks designed by foreign language teachers need not be either very complex or time consuming. To foster learners’ inter-cultural awareness the teacher may chose a specific subject and design a small-scale task. For example the teacher and his students may chose the subject of ‘’Food” for exploration. As Richard Bolt writes in his introduction to the British Studies Web Pages Issue “Food”:

Food is perhaps the most culturally sensitive of all the topics connected to culture in ELT. Its daily requirement and continual fresh supply mean that eating habits can change very quickly and it is much more responsive to changing attitudes and values than many other cultural themes such as housing. The diet of our choice (since the transformations of 1989) is now available and within the budgets of most of us. Food therefore is a very good indicator of cultural forces and cultural change.

(See the link)

A small-scale task to illustrate this point may involve comparing different types of bread eaten in different countries. The collected information may be presented in the form of a poster or a website material. See an example in the “Food” issue.

Another set of ethnographic tasks may be developed for learners who are planning to take a school trip. For example:

Eating and Drinking in Kraków - is an orienteering activity used to introduce the variety of cultures in Kraków, via its cafes, pubs and restaurants. It was first used with an international group of summer school participants but is a good example of an investigative fieldwork activity, which could easily be put together for any other location. If you are in Kraków try it out for yourself …

Further materials and activities on Kraków restaurants - including extended fieldwork visits - can be found in Food and the Senses

What are the ethnographic tools?

The key ethnographic tools include participant observation, making field notes, interviewing and of course writing an ethnographic account. All stages of ethnographic research require reflection and modification of the adopted tools of research based on findings. An ethnographer usually spends some time among people with whom he/she is trying to make contacts and whom he/she is trying to understand. This aspect is relevant to the situation of a foreign language learner who, while learning a foreign language, encounters a different culture in all its aspects either directly or indirectly. That is why many ELT writers suggest that foreign language learners should become ethnographers on a small scale or at least they should be taught some ethnographic skills, which may help them, understand other cultures.

(Click here if you want to learn about the role of ethnography in education)

What is an ethnographic study tour in the ELT context?

An ethnographic study tour is a visit to a foreign country with a clearly defined task for its participants, namely that for a short or a longer period of time they will become participant observers of a given aspect of life in a foreign country and that afterwards they will record their experience. The ethnographic study tour of Wales that I am now going to describe took place in summer 2004. It was a pilot project developed independently by 7 teacher trainers coming from two different TTC: Radom and Jelenia Góra. The objectives of the project were described as follows:

  • Give the trainers a hands-on experience in collecting, processing and analyzing ethnographic data
  • Facilitate the production and dissemination of the training materials based on the ethnographic approach to teaching culture, for use in teacher training and on INSETT (In-Service Teacher Training) courses
  • Foster teacher training and teacher development through the format of common ethnographic work which is a methodological novelty in Poland
  • Increase awareness and knowledge of intercultural approaches in the countries taking part in the Project
  • Result in a better mutual understanding of the cultures concerned as well as in establishing the ongoing network of multilateral contacts,
  • Lead to the setting up of a website to disseminate the materials devised, created and collected by the participants.

The project participants, when asked in an introductory questionnaire what their interests were, said among other things:

Personally I’m interested in what plants and herbs Welsh people grow indoors and what for (for fun, for fragrance, for medicinal purposes?)


Locating, tracing, finding, discovering, watching, grasping, tasting and other appropriate ~ing(s):

landscape, names for Wales and the Welsh, Welsh proverbs, sayings and idioms, Welsh-English nursery rhymes, Welsh food: recipes, locally recognisable ingredients/attributes, Welsh glassworks and glass artists, Methodism or the Methodist Church; Chapel-Going: its present-day manifestations


I am going to research Welsh humour. I am also interested in undertaking study trips as an effective way of participatory enquiry.


Naturally enough, the participants were able to follow only some of their interests. If you would like to see the classroom materials that have been written on the basis of their ethnographic study tour around Wales go to the “Europe” issue of the British Studies Web Pages. There you will find some interviews around the theme of Welsh Identity, an A to Z on Wales that includes symbols, famous people and places, Welsh literary figures, Welsh films etc. There is also a set of materials on Welsh Humour.

If you would like to see an itinerary of this particular tour please go to Itinerary and the photo gallery

Click here to read about The Concept of Identity in Cultural Studies.

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