Assignment 1: (mini)Ethnography

You do not have time to carry out a fully-fledged (or even partly-fledged!) ethnography. However, you can use this assignment to get some experience with the chief methods employed in the ethnographic tradition. These methods always require a period of intense observation, or participant-observation, and so I would like your mini-ethnography to incorporate observation as its starting point (if you choose interviews) and/or central focus (if you choose participant-observation). In order to more fully appreciate your observations, you will need to keep a journal of notes taken in the field followed by post-observation field notes.


Option 1: (participant)observation

How to approach this assignment
1. Context. Find a setting that you are interested in learning more about. This setting does not have to involve the use of second or foreign languages. Or, you can choose a setting in which you have already begun carrying out research, or which you are involved in socially already. It may be a setting to which you already have access to, or which you experience on a regular basis (e.g., the SLS reading room, Paradise Palms outdoor seating, Hamilton library's computer area, Waikiki beach).
2. Ethics. Consider your impact on the environment. Is the setting a public place which does not require you to inform people that they are being observed? How might you inform people that they are part of a research project? Consider how to maintain anonymity.
3. Assumptions. Try not to prove pre-existing theories you have about the context and activities happening (and then see how hard this is!). Remember that an ethnographer's research questions should arise in the process of observation, as do answers to research questions.
4. Time. While I don't want to make static time requirements for this assigment, the concept of 'intense observation' should connote more than one or two hours of observation. The time you spend on this project really depends on what you are examining. If you are studying how people position their bodies in elevators, then you'll only have a few minutes of elevator riding time per day, for example. Alternatively, you could study behaviors in a cafe or classroom for an hour at a time. It really depends. Try to dedicate your looking to at least one week's worth of activities in a systematic fashion (e.g., observe one class 5x in one week; observe a cafe for a half an hour at the same time each day)

Guidelines for 'looking':
1. Observers try to uncover and record the unspoken common sense assumptions of the group that they are studying. Look for immediate and local meanings which appear to matter to the people you are observing.
2. Draw. Field notes should be more than writing; drawing maps and sketching activities is often very useful when trying to remember the details of what you have seen. Include notes about body language, environment, and noise. What is going on around this context that may be shaping it?
3. Reflect on your own actions. As Dorinne Kondo writes ethnographers alter themselves in order to fit into their contexts as unobtrusive observers and as participant observers. How much do you have to adapt yourself in order to learn about the context and culture that you are studying?
4. Try to find emic categories and terms that the participants themselves use. How do these emic concepts organize the activities that you are observing?
5. Systematically look for discrepant cases or anomalies. If most people seem to be doing an activity the same way, notice who does it differently. What seems to be going on here?
6. Try various kinds of observation. Be a silent observer one time, and talk to people the next (if relevant).
7. If you are interested in critical/feminist approaches to research, consider how power is located in the practices you are observing.

Writing it up
As you are observing, you should take notes (handwritten) and keep these to hand in with the assignment. Feel free to write in your L1 or L2, L3 etc. After each period of observation, you should spend at least 15 minutes examining your notes, and then writing at least a paragraph of meta-level observations. In other words, what have you noticed about what you noticed? Go through these steps systematically each time you engage in observation. For the due date, include the following in a folder:

1. notes from the field
2. field notes (meta-level observations) - post-field notes
3. 2-3 page (double-spaced) narrative on the experience. This should include your discussion of point #3 under "guidelines for 'looking'", and it should include any 'findings' that you believe you have found. What did your observation yield? How did these relate to any assumptions you had about the context? What might be the next step in a research project that would carry on with the particular context that you observed? What other methods might you turn to next in order to probe the context further?


Option 2: Interview(s)
If you choose interviews, you will need to also include some aspect of observation in the assignment. What has led you to interview a certain population? What noticings or observations have established a need for interviews? What have you noticed about a specific context that makes you want to interview people about their beliefs, actions, and experiences?

How to approach this assignment
1. Context. Find a setting that you are interested in learning more about. Your miniethnography will need to involve interviews with people who experience the same context. A context is not "English language teachers" -this is a population. Observe this context at least one time before moving on with interviews. Follow the steps in Option 2 for the observation element (field notes).
2. Interviewees. If you can ascertain that there are different populations that experience the same context (e.g., a classroom), then it will be important to interview representatives from each population (e.g., teacher, student). Try to interview at least 2 people.
3. Time and transcription. Limit your interviews to 3 hours maximum. You do not need to transcribe your interviews for this assignment. You are welcome to use short excerpts in your write-up. Instead, you will record them and then listen to them, taking notes as you go. These notes will be the 'meta-level' field notes, similar to the observation option above.
4. Technique. Take the interview-as-technique approach (Richards, p. 50). The interview-as-local-accomplishment approach can be utilized for our examination of narratives in the second part of the course. This means that you will mostly be considering 'what' questions, rather than 'how' questions. Use the interviews to get a deeper understanding of a particular community or individual's experience or activities, rather than analyze the interview interaction itself.

Guidelines for interviewing
1. Record your interviews AND take notes as you go. Use a reliable recorder and PRACTICE using it. Bring extra batteries. Find a quiet space for the interview.
2. Tell your own story or provide a detailed description of your own stake in the research area as a starting point. This will help you to create a comfortable relationship with your interviewee, and it is part of the 'active interview' concept as well. It is also part of informing the interviewee about the purpose of the research, and hence, relates to the concept of 'informed consent.'
3. There is a nice list of do's and don't's on p. 54 of Richards's book.
4. Use open-ended questions whenever possible.
5. Use 'structuring' language that keeps the interviewee informed where the interview is headed next. (Richards, p. 57).
6. Don't restrict yourself to your prepared questions. One of the best strategies to use is to probe an idea produced by your interviewee in the preceding turn.

Writing it up
For the due date, include the following in a folder:
1. Field notes from initial observation.
2. List of interview questions.
3. 2-3 page (double-spaced) narrative on the experience. This should include any 'findings' that you believe you have found. What did your interview yield? How did these relate to any observations you had made about the context? What might be the next step in a research project that would carry on with the particular context that you studied? What other methods or other procedures might you turn to next in order to probe the context further?