Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

Ethnography as a Method of Being Intercultural

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Ethnography for language learners, even though it hasn’t yet made its way into many syllabi at university language departments, has nevertheless attracted increasing interest in the last few years as an exciting way to combine the intellectual and experiential aspects of engaging with the other culture. The aim of ethnography is twofold: on the one hand, it encourages the learner to recognize the culture in his/her everyday life and ideas by ‘making the familiar strange’. On the other hand, the learner is encouraged to try and understand the ‘strange’ from within its own perspective. The learner will then start to recognize that what previously seemed natural, was actually culturally constructed. Of course, it is impossible ever to see things from the perspective of the other. We will always see the world through the filter of our own experiences. An important aspect of ethnography is to realize that what you see and observe, is coloured through your own experiences, your own cultural and social background, and ideas and assumptions, your own ethnocentricity. But, even with that knowledge, we can never truly know what phenomena, ideas, objects, customs, behaviour, everyday life events actually ‘mean’ for the ‘other’. We cannot observe neutrally. Every observation will always have what Hermans (2007: 147) calls a ‘blind spot’, because every observation can be interpreted only from the context of those that do the observation.

    The main technique of ethnography is creating ‘thick descriptions’: by giving extremely detailed accounts of what can be observed, students discover things which might otherwise have escaped their attention or would have been taken for granted. But thick descriptions involve reflection on one’s own observation and response to what is observed at the same time. Doing ethnography then is to question the sources of evidence presented and thereby challenge assumptions and stereotypes (Barro, 1998: 76-97).

    Probably the first ethnographic project of its kind for language learners was the Ealing Project, in which students first made the familiar strange through writing ‘home ethnographies’ before applying this to a closely observed ethnographic project during their year abroad (Roberts,, 2001). This project, though undertaken by language learners in the context of their modern languages degree and as preparation for their residency abroad, is not an actual language class, but more a cultural studies class.

    Because its focus is on ‘lived experience’ and ‘culture as practice’ ethnography is very suitable for study abroad. Indeed, I adopted and adapted the Ealing Project in a similar way and incorporated it in a cultural studies course, which prepares students for doing their ethnographic year abroad project. But, ethnographic projects have also been used in the language classroom itself. Morgan and Cain (2000), for example, undertook a collaborative project between two schools; a French class at a school in England and an English class at a school in France. The aim of the project was to let pupils think about their own culture as well as that of the other group, seen from the ‘other’s’ perspective. To this aim pupils were asked to represent aspects of their ‘own culture’ around the theme of ‘Law and Order’. Students from each class worked in small groups to create cultural material for the partner class. In doing so they had to be aware of what was specifically English or French about the topic, but more importantly, they had to think about the communicative needs of the partner class, both in content and language use. By looking at the material the partner class produced, pupils could discuss and compare the similarities and differences. Whilst it may be said that this approach still did not encourage a non-essentialist attitude to the other culture, and was still located within a national paradigm, pupils were encouraged to think about the perspective of the other; to imagine how others might feel and how they might engage with the information given to them.

    Phipps and Gonzalez take integrating ethnography in the classroom probably furthest. One of the projects that Phipps worked on with her students was a project about ‘rubbish’ (Phipps and Gonzalez, 2004: 126). Students collected data and interviewed Germans living in Glasgow about environmentalism. This integrated project work outside, in the ‘real world’, with language work inside the classroom. This is an exciting initiative which includes project work as part of classroom work and makes a direct, experiential link between everyday experienced culture. Moreover, by interviewing Germans living in Scotland, a narrow national focus is avoided. I feel that projects such as these point the way forward to more ethnographic real-world experiences, and should be explored further in language teaching. However, in my own pedagogy, I adopted not a project approach, but I aimed to include ethnography as part of the general pedagogic activities in the classroom. This became a text-based approach using principles of ethnography. I will set this out below.

    This page titled Ethnography as a Method of Being Intercultural is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

    • Was this article helpful?