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Ethnography? (What) Does it Have to Do with Language Education?

Ethnography is one of the methodological links between culture and language and underpins much of our work on the summer school. Here we present an article by Nikolina Tsvetkova and Violeta Karastateva (a summer school participant) giving background context to this subject. An extended version developing many of the points can be found in our intercultural reader.

The present paper is a result of authors being part of the writing team of a postgraduate distance learning course in Intercultural Studies for Language Teachers - undertaken with the assistance of the British Council and the Teacher Training Institute, Sofia. Being among the tutors and assessors for the first run of the course, as well as practicing teachers of English, has made it possible for us to demonstrate our ideas of the significance of ethnography for language education in practice.

Recent tendencies in language education show that language learning is becoming largely determined in cultural terms. Therefore learners are assigned a variety of new roles - for example - ‘cultural mediators’, ‘border crossers’, ‘negotiators of meaning’, ’intercultural speakers’. All these names imply that language learning has changed its orientation and priorities. Drawing on the interrelation between language learning and cultural studies we shall discuss one of the latest names added to the above list - ‘language learners as ethnographers’.

Over the last decade ethnography has been adopted as a research method in language education and as a systematic approach to a period spent abroad during undergraduate study common to a large number of language and non-language students throughout Europe. Special programmes have been developed (e.g. Thames Valley University, West London, see Roberts et al, 2001) aiming at the integration of language and cultural experiences in which the methods of anthropology help students become ethnographers of different aspects when abroad or in their native context.


Establishing and broadening existing assumptions from ethnography for language education

In recent decades a fundamental method of anthropology - ethnography - a method for studying aspects of social and cultural life in the field, has become a popular approach to social research.

It is important for us to differentiate between ethnography in the discipline of anthropology and ethnography as a method in language education, as our task is not to become professional anthropologists. What we can give our students is what Pocock (1975: 1-29) calls ‘an anthropological sensibility’. Since we are teachers our concern is to develop in students the awareness of ethnographic method in order to enable them carry out either small-scale ethnographic research or an ethnographic study abroad as part of their language education.


What is ethnography from the point of view of language education?  

For most teachers ethnography is associated with descriptions of the past (rituals, beliefs, customs and traditions etc). It could be explained with the fact that:

In the past, the terms ethnology and ethnography have been applied respectively to the study and description of the so-called “primitive societies”. Indeed dictionary definitions still reflect early ethnocentric biases... Today ethnology and ethnographies (written descriptions) are no longer concerned exclusively with the faraway and exotic but also examine the near, the more familiar and the modern.           (Damen, 1987: 57)

It is important for us that there is not a single way of doing ethnography and that nowadays the traditional interest in the ‘faraway’ and ‘exotic’ is being replaced by an interest in social life and everyday cultural settings. Or as Jordan and Roberts (2000: 1) formulate - ‘...both traditional anthropology which involved making the strange familiar, and modern urban ethnography which involves making the familiar strange’ are the two perspectives that allow us to gain a better understanding of the nature of cultural patterns and practices’


Main characteristics of Ethnography

Principles of ethnography

The ethnographic approach to culture learning involves processes of exploring, describing and understanding an unknown culture by means of actual ethnographic inquiry, contrastive analysis of real cultural groups, and contact with those from that culture. It is a theoretical approach grounded in practice.

Drawing on Damen (1987) the general principles of ethnography could be defined in the following way:

·         It is culturally specific patterns of behaviour and attitudes that give people the feeling of being part of a group and, under certain circumstances, the guidelines for action

·         These behaviours and attitudes may blind someone from such a culture to the existence of alternative cultural beliefs, attitudes and guidelines for action, or to judge them as ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ to his/her own

·         Ethnographic research should aim at studying cultures without prejudice. On the contrary - the whole complexity of cultural categories and assumptions and the variety of relationships between them should be examined

·         At the same time the ethnographer should be aware of his culturally specific beliefs, attitudes, patterns of behaviour and how they might influence his interpretation of what is under study


Ethnographic Methodology

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher tries to enter the culture of a particular group and to report on its activities and values from the inside. It is often supplemented with other methods of analysis including participant observation and quantitative studies. The ethnographic research consists of a practical and a theoretical part. The practical part is connected with gathering and identifying data, the theoretical part consists of reflecting and interpreting the data in order to throw light on the issues investigated.


What are the key stages of ethnographic research?

Procedures typically involve six stages

1.       Participant Observation

2.       Making field notes

3.       Reflection and writing up field notes

4.       Interviewing

5.       Interpretation of interviews

6.       Writing up the Ethnography

Each of these key stages consists of a number of substages and procedures which reveal the complexity of an ethnographer’s work. Among the most widely used ethnographic data collection procedures are introspection, observation, participant-observation and interviewing (for a detailed discussion see Saville Troike, 1989, 117-135)


Why is ethnography relevant for language education?

What are the main advantages and drawbacks of ethnography as a research method?

After so much talk about ethnography it is only natural for a language teacher to ask what the connection between ethnography and language education is. To answer it, we would like to outline some of the advantages of doing it. These are a possibility to:

·         conduct research in a ‘natural’ setting

·         conduct the research anywhere

·         research one’s own culture

·         for the researcher to use him/herself as a source

·         reflect on both home and other’s cultures

The ethnographic approach gives one the opportunity to explore in a more detailed and profound way one’s own cultural patterns of behaviour which inevitably leads to a better understanding of others’ cultures.


Why should language educators use ethnography?

Apart from its traditional applications ethnography has a potential to facilitate and make cultural teaching and learning more effective. Some leading educationalists in the field of cultural studies argue that it should be incorporated in the language classroom because it helps language teachers to deepen their understanding of cultural phenomena, of themselves and of others and thus help their students acquire better skills for intercultural communication.

As early as the 1980s Louise Damen suggests that there is a way to enhance cross-cultural awareness and intercultural communication which she calls ‘pragmatic ethnography’. In her view doing ethnography is relevant to language and culture education because ‘it stimulates the process of exploring, describing and understanding an unknown culture by means of actual ethnographic enquiry, contrastive analysis of real cultural groups’(Damen, 1985: 54-56).

More recently, in the late 1990s, cultural educationalists like Michal Byram (Byram ed, 1997: 13) claim that linguistic competence is not enough to develop intercultural competence, that it is far more beneficial if learners are exposed to ‘experiential learning where learners can experience situations which make demands upon their emotions and feelings and then reflect upon that experience and its meaning for them’ (Byram in Byram ed, 1997: 13). Guided by such an idea, some education specialists combine their language programmes with an ethnographic approach to the study of the target language and culture. (For a detailed discussion see Roberts (Byram ed, 1997) or Roberts etal  (2001)

Such programmes emphasize the chance to research home culture through ethnography. The ethnographer investigates practices which may have appeared routine to him/her, and after analysing them decodes their cultural significance which may have been dismissed or underestimated as ‘ordinary’ or ‘banal’ until that moment. Such an approach deepens one’s awareness of one’s own cultural identity, which, on the other hand widens one’s skills to successfully accept, interpret and communicate with others.

Finally, let us consider what the participants in the first run of the Intercultural Studies for Language Teachers postgraduate coursein Bulgaria find most useful about doing ethnography. After doing ethnographic observation of a symphonic concert, and the writing up of their findings following the procedures outlined above, they were invited to evaluate the experience. Below are some fragments of their written responses.

Ethnography gives one a chance to:

·         explore and reflect on our own or a foreign culture

·         learn things at every time, in every place

·         develop observancy

·         formulate more accurate conclusions

·         develop understanding and tolerance

·         have first-hand experience

To sum up, teachers see the value of doing ethnography in the directness of the experience and in the personal involvement in the data collection process. They also appreciate the opportunity to learn more about themselves in a better-structured way Last, but not least, ethnography can help them teach cultural issues in the classroom.


Conclusion- how to enrich a stay abroad using the ethnographic approach

Along with the processes of economic and political globalization in Europe, international communications are becoming much more easy and commonplace. There are more opportunities for foreign language students to practice their linguistic and cultural competence in an authentic cultural environment. More and more students are visiting foreign countries on exchange programmes or simply as tourists. These create another opportunity for using the ethnographic approach.

To make the most of a stay abroad students have to be able to question what they read, see, hear, and try to analyse it. Ethnography can provide an approach to understanding other people better and, consequently, to communicating in a more successful way, softening at the same time culture shock and helping them to be more than ‘tourists’.

The positive results of such research may concern students’

·         learning how to question foreign realities

·         learning from experience, not books  

·         learning both about facts and reasons why they are considered to be facts

·         communicating more with people 

·         developing a critical understanding of self and others  

In conclusion, assuming an ethnographic point of view of what is happening around us and to who we are, as well as to other’s cultural practices and routines, can help us and our students become better culture learners and interpreters. It can also turn a stay abroad into an invaluable lived-through insight into (an)other culture(s).

Despite the possible difficulties, once practically tried out, ethnography is never to be abandoned as it offers a chance to learn through observing and experiencing which leads to broadening one’s cultural understanding.



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exchanges’ in Byram, M. (ed.)

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