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5: Other Analysis Strategies: Typologies, Sociograms, and Metaphors

5: Other Analysis Strategies: Typologies, Sociograms, and Metaphors

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Berg (2002), the researchers examined 452 photographs of

graffiti created by gangs in a city in southern California.

After carefully examining each photo for patterns of similarity or dissimilarity, they sorted the pictures into five

groups: (1) Publicity Graffiti (spreading the gang’s name),

(2) Roll Call Graffiti (listing the names of the members of

the gang), (3) Territorial Graffiti (the name of the gang in

specific locations identifying turf), (4) Threatening Graffiti

(specific threats toward other gangs or individuals), and

(5) Sympathetic Graffiti (condolences to gang members and

their families upon deaths).

Typically, researchers follow a basic three-step guideline for developing typologies. First, they assess the collected material and then seek out mutually exclusive

categories. Second, researchers make sure that all of the elements being classified have been accounted for (an exhaustive grouping of elements). Third, researchers examine the

categories and their contents and make theoretically meaningful appraisals. The use of mutually exclusive categories

assures that every element being considered appears only

in a single category. But, to be exhaustive, each element

needs to be placed into one or another of these categories.

Ideally, one can achieve both of these traits, though frequently the data does not divide so neatly. A theoretically

meaningful appraisal does not necessarily mean that you

link your observations to lofty theories such as Durkheim’s

theory of anomie. Rather, it simply means that there is an

attempt to attach some social meaning to the way things

fall into categories in your typology.

Although typologies may seem like oversimplification

of social life, this is actually their beauty. They permit the

researcher to present data in an organized and simple fashion, allowing the reader to better understand the explanations offered as interpretation and analysis of the typology

scheme. A major goal of typologies, then, is to provide

additional understanding of the material collected during

the course of the research.

6.5.2: Sociograms

Sociograms are part of a larger group of techniques known as

sociometry. These procedures allow the researcher to make

assessments about the degree of affinity or disdain that members of a group have toward one another. Thus, they allow

you to consider friendship patterns, social networks, work

relationships, and social distance in general. Sociometry

can be described as a means of assessing group relational

structures such as hierarchies, friendship networks, and

cliques. Sociograms, then, are graphic displays of how close

people are to one another based on responses to a sociometric test. A sociometric test typically includes three basic


1. Specific number of choices are used (varying with the

size of the group).

Ethnographic Field Strategies 127

2. Specific number of choices are allowed (varying

according to the functions and/or activities of the

groups tested).

3. Levels of preference are assigned to each choice.

positive peer nominations The early users of

sociometric tests typically employed a peer nomination

version of this test. In this procedure, the group members were asked to name three or more peers whom they

liked the most, or whom they best liked working with,

or who were their best friends (depending on the kind

of group). A  group member’s score was then computed

as the number of nominations he or she received from

other members of the group. This version of the sociometric test is called positive peer nominations. As users of

sociometric tests refined these procedures, adaptations

naturally arose.

neGative peer nominations One such adaptation

to peer nominations initially was introduced by Dunnington

(1957) and again by Moore and Updergraff (1964). This

adaptation involved a request for negative nominations.

In other words, in addition to asking for three especially

liked peers, a second request was made that members

identify the three peers least liked (or least desirable

to work with). This strategy was used to identify two

groups of peers—namely, a popular group (high frequency

of positive nominations) and a disliked or rejected group

(high frequency of negative nominations). Subsequent research in which juveniles are identified as members of

these groups indicates that rejected children often are

more aggressive and likely to engage in antisocial behavior (Dodge, Cole, & Brakke, 1982; Hartup, Glazer, &

Charlesworth, 1967). This suggests significant utility for

those interested in studying delinquents, youth movements,

school cliques, and even gang structures.

Another adaptation that

has come into common use is the peer rating procedure, a

sociometric test similar in many ways to the nomination

procedure. Group members respond to the usual sociometric questions (Who do you like to work with? Be with?

etc.) for every other member of the group. Each group

member is given a list containing the names of all group

members and asked to rate every other member using a

five-point Likert-like scale. The scale for these five points

is typically a graduated series of statements that moves

from expressions of favor to expressions of disfavor for

members of the group. An example of this sort of scale is

shown in Figure 6.1. As in traditional Likert scales, you

assess the mean rating score for each person. A mean rating in the low range indicates that the group member is

not well liked by others in the group. A mean rating in the

high range indicates that the group member is well liked.

As Jennings (1948) warned, however, identification of this

peer ratinG proceDures


128 Chapter 6

Figure 6.1 A Sample Sociometric Assessment


Directions: On a separate sheet, write the name of everyone in your group or organization. Read the

following paragraphs and place their corresponding numbers in front of every name for which they apply.

You may use the number 1 only once, and please place only a single number by each name. By your own

name, please place a zero.

My Very Best Friend

1. I would like to have this person as one of my very best friends. I would like to spend a great deal of

time with this person. I think I could tell some of my problems and concerns to this person, and I would

do everything I could to help this person with his or her problems and concerns. I will give a number 1

to my very best friend.

My Other Friend(s)

2. I would enjoy working and doing things with this person. I would invite this person to a party in my home,

and I would enjoy going places with this person and our other friends. I would like to talk and do a variety

of things with this person and to be with this person often. I want this person to be one of my friends.

I will give a number 2 to every person who is my friend.

I Do Not Know This Person

3. I do not know this person very well. Maybe I would like this person if I got to know him or her; maybe

I would not. I do not know whether I would like to spend time or work with this person. I will place a

number 3 in front of the name of every person I do not know very well.

I Do Not Care for This Person

4. I will greet this person when I see him or her around school or in a store, but I do not enjoy being around

this person. I might spend some time with this person–if I had nothing to do, or I had a social obligation

to attend where this person also was in attendance. I do not care for this person very much. I will place

a number 4 in front of the name of every person I do not care for very much.

I Dislike This Person

5. I speak to this person only when it is necessary. I do not like to work or spend time with this person.

I avoid serving on the same groups or committees with this person. I will place a number 5 in front of

the name of every person I do not like.

sociometric pattern is not the completion of the research

but only the beginning. The use of mathematics to locate

sociometric stars, then, should not be overemphasized.

It is a convenient tool but not the substantive result of


Once you have identified the social relations and

social structures that exist, you still must examine the

incumbents of positions in this structure. Assisted by the

sociometric information, you are better equipped to locate

appropriate guides, informants, and gatekeepers of the

group. Thus, you might begin an investigation with a

sociometric survey and then pursue the research through

other ethnographic field techniques, interviews, or even

unobtrusive measures. Sociometric choice tests, then, provide yet another line of action you can use in a triangulated research design.

Alternatively, one might use sociograms after analyzing the fieldwork observations. As an observer, you

may have notes about how specific people interact with

one another. Once you have examined the patterns of

influence, respect, leadership, boundary maintenance, and

other forms of social functions within a group, you can

compare your observations with group members’ assessments of each other’s roles.

mappinG anD the creation of socioGrams

Another way you can create sociograms is to do them in

the field. In this case, you use direct observations of individuals and objects as they are arranged in the setting.

Essentially, this involves the creation of social/environmental maps and, from these, sociograms.

This strategy of sociometric mapping depends on a

fairly stable setting, and as such, it is not always applicable.

Often,  this type of sociometric mapping is used in socialpsychological applications of organizational research. For

example, how executives place themselves around a meeting table may be mapped and may delineate power and

informal influence structures. By knowing this information, a researcher (or executive) can interrupt or weaken

the amount of influence emanating from certain segments

of the members. For instance, by placing himself or herself

or a nonmember of some informal influence clique among


several actual members, he or she can affect the ability of

those members to wield influence and authority during a

board meeting.

Similarly, knowledge about sociometric body language and even furniture placement can influence interactions. For example, when you enter someone’s office,

how is it arranged? Is there a chair near the desk, inviting you to sit near the desk’s occupant? Or is the chair

far from the desk, perhaps across the room, requiring a

guest to physically move it to be near the desk’s occupant? Usually, when you move furniture in another

person’s office, you must first ask permission. Thus,

tacitly, you hold a subordinate role in the relationship.

Alternately, you might choose to stand while the other

party sits. This, of course, immediately shifts the power

structure to the seated occupant of the office because he

or she is able to leave you standing or suggest you pull

up a chair.

The arrangement of people and objects in a setting may

have an impact on interactions and relationships. This, in

turn, can be a useful tool in research. This type of applied

sociometric strategy frequently begins with a mapping of

the setting. This sort of mapping is also useful in other

types of institutional investigations. For example, it could

prove useful in a study of how inmates use environmental

space in a prison or a study of the effect of environmental

design on inmates. Alternatively, it might prove fruitful in

an examination of how children use and perhaps territorially divide playground space. It might even be useful in

a study of a game arcade located in some mall or in similar studies of leisure-time activities in amusement parks.

Again, sociometric strategies are extremely flexible. They

are limited only by your imagination.

To describe how you might develop the sort of sociometric maps just discussed, let us assume an investigator

wants to study some group of youths in a particular neighborhood. One way to begin this task is to create a drawing or map of the setting. All the stable physical elements

observed in the setting (e.g., access ways, trees and shrubs,

buildings, stores, street lamps) should be included in this

map. The original version of the map should be saved and

copied so that every time the researcher enters the field, he

or she can work on a fresh map.

While in the field, the researcher can add symbols

to represent individuals, dyads (groups of two), triads

(groups of three), gender, leadership roles, and so forth.

Over time, and by assessing the successive annotated

maps and actual field notes, the researcher will be able to

identify the stars and any satellite cliques that constitute

the groups under study. Stars will become apparent over

time when you use observation to create a sociogram.

Typically, you find only one or two stars in a given group.

Even when you locate several stars, typically one will

demonstrate himself or herself to hold some degree of

Ethnographic Field Strategies 129

influence over the others. William Foote Whyte (1993a,

pp. 293–294) has described the sociometric process that he

used to identify informal authority relations in his classic

work Street Corner Society:

In the case of the Nortons, I determined that Doc was

the leader through the following types of observations.

Before he arrived at his corner, I would see small groups

of 2 or 3 conversing. When Doc arrived, the small groups

would dissolve and a larger group would form around

him. When another member spoke to the group but then

noticed that Doc was not listening, he would stop and

then try again to get Doc’s attention. Doc often, but not

always, was the one to suggest a change in group activity. When another member made a proposal for action not

endorsed by Doc, no activity change followed. Only if Doc

made or approved the proposal did I observe a change in

group activity.

Satellite cliques are sometimes mistaken as representing a

star and his or her followers. In fact, satellite cliques usually

contain several members influenced by what appears to be

a single individual. However, this individual frequently is

himself or herself influenced by a more centralized star.

Sociometric maps also can assist the investigator in

understanding how a group uses its environmental space

and maintains territorial control over areas, the locus of

control in various power and influence arrangements, and

the social space (proximity) between different members

and nonmembers of the group(s).

6.5.3: Metaphors

Another analytic strategy is to use metaphors (Bailey,

1996, 2006; Becker, 1998). Metaphors are descriptions that

reveal aspects of the subject through comparison with

other subjects, such as Max Weber’s famous term (in

Parsons’ English translation) “the iron cage” for bureaucracy. Identifying a metaphor that fits some aspect of your

setting or your study population can help you see things in

a different way. Begin by asking, “What does this situation

or circumstance seem to be?” “What else is it like?” “What

does it remind me of?” Trying to come up with an appropriate metaphor is a good exercise for reflecting on the

material and data you have already collected and begun to

interpret and analyze. It also will require you to consider

this data from different conceptual angles than you might

otherwise have used.

For example, some critics suggest that police arrest

suspects, only to have the courts let them go (on bail,

for example) by using the phrase revolving door justice.

Metaphors provide an avenue to see important elements of

social support, interaction, networking, relationships, and

a variety of other socially significant factors, and allow the

researcher to represent action when theorizing about various explanations or relationships.

130 Chapter 6


Of course, metaphors are more literary than scientific.

One should not, for example, use the term revolving door

justice unless there has been some actual change in court

practices that has resulted in an unusual number of arrestees being released. A good metaphor may be worth more

than many pages of description, but a careless one is just


6.6: Disengaging: Getting



outline two operations that form part of the process

of disengaging from a field research setting

Although it is certainly possible to maintain complete professional distance when distributing questionnaires to anonymous subjects, it is not as easy during ethnography. Because

relationships are virtually the stock and trade of a good ethnographer, care must be taken when leaving the field.

Exiting any field setting involves at least two separate

operations: first, the physical removal of the researchers

from the research setting and, second, emotional disengagement from the relationships developed during the

field experience. In some situations, getting out is described

as a kind of mechanical operation, devoid of any (personal) emotional attachments on the part of the ethnographer. Concern is sometimes shown, and efforts made, to

avoid distressing a research community. However, negative repercussions can occur in the forms of possible effects

on the group(s) as a whole or with the possible reception future field investigators might expect (Morris, 2006;

Shaffir, Stebbins, & Turowetz, 1980).

Even when the emotions of field relationships are mentioned, they are frequently described exclusively as concern

over the perspective of the inhabitant of the natural setting.

For example, Shaffir et al. (1980, p. 259) state the following:

Personal commitments to those we study often accompany

our research activity. Subjects often expect us to continue to

live up to such commitments permanently. On completing

the research, however, our commitment subsides and is

often quickly overshadowed by other considerations shaping our day-to-day lives. When our subjects become aware

of our diminished interest in their lives and situations, they

may come to feel cheated—manipulated and duped.

The point is not to underplay the possible emotional

harm a callous investigator might cause a research group,

but it should be noted that relationships are two-way

streets. Subjects make personal emotional commitments,

and so, too, do many researchers—even without actually

bonding (Nagy Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006). Often, when

researchers leave the field, they have developed feelings

for their subjects. These feelings may not always be positive but are nonetheless psychologically affecting.

Ethnographers can certainly absent themselves from

the field and simply dismiss the subjects from their minds,

but it is likely that the ethnographers will continue to hold

at least some proprietary interest in the welfare of the

subjects. For example, during the course of conducting

the research discussed in Carpenter and colleagues (1988),

the ethnographers commonly spoke about “their” kids

with almost parental concern or, on occasion, with almost

parental pride in certain accomplishments.

A strong commitment and attachment developed

between many of the youthful subjects and the ethnographers. When it came time to leave the field, the ethnographers informally continued to keep an eye on many of

the subjects for over a year. This essentially amounted

to asking about specific kids when they accidentally ran

into mutual acquaintances or getting involved in the lives

of  these special kids when their paths crossed by chance

(e.g., in a supermarket or shopping mall). Other field

investigators have indicated similar prolonged interest in

research subjects, even many years after physically leaving

the setting. Letkemann (1980, p. 300), for instance, indicates that even 10 years after exiting the field, and more

than 800 miles away from the site, he continued to stay

informed about the welfare of his subjects.

Because of the uniqueness of every field situation,

there are different nuances to exiting. Ethnographers, however, must always be mindful that the time will come to

leave—at least physically. Toward this end, researchers

must prepare both the community members and  themselves for the exit. Perhaps a quick exit will work in some

cases (Rains, 1971), whereas a more gradual drifting off

may be required in other circumstances (Glaser & Strauss,

1967). Unfortunately, these research-related decisions are

not easily made.

The challenges associated with disengaging depend,

of course, on how engaged you were to begin with.

Earlier, I mentioned William Foote Whyte’s early ethnographic classic, Street Corner Society. For his part, Whyte

later reflected that he had violated several basic tenants

of good fieldwork during his time in the field, becoming more actively involved in the lives of his subjects

than he should have been. Though openly identified as a

researcher, Whyte also became a participant and occasionally an active one.

I suppose no one goes to live in a slum district for three

and a half years unless he is concerned about the problems

facing the people there. In that case it is difficult to remain

solely a passive observer. One time I gave in to the urge to

do something. I tried to tell myself that I was simply testing

out some of the things I had learned about the structure of

corner gangs, but I knew really that this was not the main

purpose. (Whyte, 1993b, p. 337)

Whyte conducted his research long before the new ethnography and participatory action research. He lived in


Boston’s North End in the 1930s, befriended a “club” of

guys, and followed them around for several years before

publishing his book in the 1940s. Many years later, after

the book had become a staple of social research and

run through multiple editions, the sons of the person

Whyte had called Doc claimed that Whyte had exploited

Doc, manipulated his story, and not shared the profits.

Ethnographers in the new mode criticized Whyte for

not having had his subjects review his findings before

he published—an excellent practice to follow if you

can today, but unknown in the time of Whyte’s work.

Nonetheless, he had become an active member of a gang,

after which he left the field, left the neighborhood, and

published his book. Although he remained on good terms

with some of his subjects, bowled with them once in a

while, and shared some of his writing with them, it seems

that in the long run Whyte’s subjects did not all fully

understand where their lives fit in the story of his professional work.

6.7: Reflectivity and



analyze the relevance of reflexivity as used

in ethnography

Access and ethical concerns underscore that ethnography

requires a reflective concern on the part of the researcher,

or what some scholars refer to as reflexivity (Boyle, 1994;

Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). This reflexive characteristic implies that the researcher understands that he or

she is part of the social world(s) that he or she investigates. Ethnography involves activities that fall somewhere

between rigorous, dare I say, positivist approaches and

more naturalistic reflections of the actual social worlds of

the people being studied. Good ethnography requires that

the researcher avoid simply accepting everything at face

value but, instead, consider the material as raw data that

may require corroboration or verification. We need good

data, but we also need to avoid the temptation to imagine that we can observe “facts” without some process of

shared interpretation. Ethnography is not about observing,

but about understanding.

Ethnography, then, becomes a process of gathering

systematic observations, partly through participation

and partly through various types of conversational interviews (Werner & Schoepfle, 1987). Yet, it may additionally require the use of photography, mapping, archival

searches, and even assorted documents. Ethnographic

analysis involves finding, interpreting, and explaining

the patterns that emerge from all of these data sources.

As previously noted, the researcher must see as an insider

and think as an outsider.

Ethnographic Field Strategies 131

Reflexivity further implies a shift in the way we understand data and their collection. To accomplish this, the

researcher must make use of an internal dialogue that

repeatedly examines what the researcher knows and how the

researcher came to know this. To be reflexive is to have an ongoing conversation with yourself. The reflexive ethnographer

does not merely report findings as facts but actively constructs

interpretations of experiences in the field and then questions how these interpretations actually arose (Hertz, 1997;

Saukko, 2003; Van Maanen, 1988). The ideal result from this

process is reflexive knowledge: information that provides

insights into the workings of the world and insights on how

that knowledge came to be. Along similar lines to reflectivity

is an approach known as critical ethnography.

6.8: Critical Ethnography


recall that the major elements in criticalethnography is addressing concerns on power

and control structures

When one hears the term critical in reference to the social

sciences, many people immediately think of the Marxist

critical perspective, and, indeed, some feminist literature

employs such an orientation. But for most critical ethnographers, the term refers to a more general kind of advocacy

orientation of the investigator’s. This orientation is often

attributed to a response to the contemporary trends in

society with particular regard to power, prestige, privilege,

and authority (Carspecken, 1996; Creswell, 2007; Madison,

2005). These structural attributes of society are viewed as

marginalizing individuals who may be from various less

influential classes, genders, educational levels, or even

races. Thus, critical ethnography is an orientation where

the researcher has a concern about social inequalities and

directs his or her efforts toward positive change. Notions

like “positive” change make some researchers nervous,

implying as it does that the researcher brings a value system to bear on the research. But we do that anyway. Why

study social problems, for example, if we have no concern

to alleviate them? Theory, from this perspective, should do

more than merely describe social life; it should advance or

advocate for positive social change (Madison, 2005). For

instance, critical ethnographers have studied classrooms in

terms of an instructor’s emphasis on encouraging males in

the class to excel in sports or engineering while not similarly emphasizing this orientation for females in the class.

The research question itself may be a matter of counting

cases or observing patterns. Nonetheless, the motive for

doing so includes the assumption that teachers who are

made aware of such patterns are less likely to reproduce

them. Thus, the major elements in a critical ethnography

include an advocacy, or value-laden approach, that seeks

132 Chapter 6


to empower participants (and sometimes constituents represented by these participants) by challenging the status

quo and addressing various concerns about power and

control structures.

Thomas (1993) has suggested that critical ethnography

and conventional ethnography are not incompatible and

that, in fact, both share several important characteristics.

For example, both rely on various types of qualitative data

(interviews, focus groups, observations, etc.) and interpretations of these data using the same set of tools and

procedures. Throughout the analysis of data, both critical

and conventional ethnographic strategies adhere to the

symbolic interactionist paradigm and potentially to the

development of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967;

Strauss, 1987). And both ought to be driven by the researchers’ interests in the significance of the research question.

Notwithstanding their similarities, there are also several

important characteristics that distinguish critical from conventional ethnography.

At the most general level of distinction, conventional

ethnography refers to the tradition of cultural descriptions

and the analysis of various meanings or shared meanings

through the interpretation of meaning. Much of this tradition derives from scholars of the “first world” visiting

“remote” locations in order to explain how “the other”

lives in the language of the home audience. Critical ethnography, on the other hand, refers to a much more reflective

approach through which the researcher chooses between

various alternatives and makes value-laden judgments of

meanings and methods in a conscious effort to challenge

research, policy, and other forms of human activity. In

essence, conventional approaches to ethnography may

be said to examine and describe what is, whereas critical

ethnographic approaches ask the question what could be

(Thomas, 1993).

Consider Javier Auyero and Maria Fernandez Berti’s

years of extensive fieldwork in a shantytown on the fringes

of Buenos Aires. In his discussion of the structural and cultural dimensions of violence in the neighborhood, Auyero

(2015, p. 170) aims to “unearth and illuminate the political

dimensions of the widespread, seemingly nonpolitical,

interpersonal violence in contemporary Buenos Aires.” On

the face of it, this seems like a worthy topic for an ethnographer, as violence has immediate consequences for people

in this community, and the subject really concerns all of us

at some level. But Auyero and Fernandez Berti’s motivation to adopt this methodological approach involves more

than just an investigation of a social issue on the ground

where it can be most easily seen. “In Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, public discourse about urban violence tends to be dominated by those occupying privileged

positions in the social structure. . . . inhabitants of the urban

margins are hardly ever heard from in debates about public safety,” Auyero observes (2015, p. 178). This deep study

brings voices and perspectives that are normally excluded

into the study of the violence surrounding their own lives.

Thus, critical ethnography is not criticism, such as one

might offer to a colleague who always interrupts others. Nor

should one confuse critical ethnography with the specific

critique of capitalist or materialist society (e.g.,  a Marxian

perspective). Critical ethnography is conventional ethnography, but with a clear purpose, and which intentionally seeks

positive change and empowerment for participants.

6.8.1: The Attitude of the


The researcher’s frame of mind when entering a natural setting is crucial to the eventual results of a study. If

you strike the wrong attitude, you might well destroy

the possibility of ever learning about the observed participants and their perceptions. According to David Matza

(1969), one must enter appreciating the situations rather

than intending to correct them. This sort of neutral posture

allows researchers to understand what is going on around

them rather than become either advocates or critics of the

events they witness. In addition, appreciation does not

require the interviewers to agree with or even to accept the

perceptions of their subjects but to merely offer empathy.

Although many students might think it is unnecessary

to suggest that ethnographers should conduct research

with an appreciative attitude, in actuality, it is one of the

important recommendations that we can offer.

In Chapter 2, I had suggested that it would be difficult

and impractical for a black researcher to study a white

power movement, at least in terms of conducting observations and interviews. But does that mean that any white

researcher can easily do so? To openly enter a field research

site, such as an organization, a community, or a social movement, means that the researcher must define himself or

herself to the subjects, up to a point. To conduct interviews,

or even lengthy conversations, one needs to develop some

kind of rapport with the subjects. Clearly, in a politically

charged environment or a controversial cause, the subjects

are likely to look for clues as to the researcher’s attitude

toward them. Ideally, researchers should be able to openly

and honestly present themselves as neither an advocate for

the group nor an opponent. At the very least we need to be

honestly curious about the subjects’ views and willing to

consider them seriously. This is what empathy offers. We

can want to hear what people are saying without needing

to endorse it. And it is generally far better from both ethical

and practical perspectives to state that you don’t see things

the same way than to pretend to be “one of them.” Clearly,

if you were to plan a study to determine what’s wrong with

some group or other, people would be suspicious of your

ability to properly conduct your research.


At a casual glance, this idea of value neutrality in

the field might appear to contradict the assumptions of

critical ethnography. It does not, but it calls attention to

an important distinction between attitude and values.

If, for example, I undertook field research in classrooms

due to a critical concern about the education system,

that should not imply that I am a critic of teachers. In

fact, I might hope that my research could assist teachers

in their work. I can be neutral about any given classroom, positive about the role of education, and critical

of the institutions through which it is administered. My

research question is guided by my values, while my

research action is guided by my research design. The

next question, then, is which of these guides my writing

when the study is complete.

6.8.2: The Researcher’s Voice

Many researchers—both quantitative and qualitative alike—

recommend that social science research maintain a valueneutral position. From this perspective, social scientists are

expected to study the world around them as external investigators. This means neither imposing their own views nor

taking any stands on social or political issues. This style of

research tends to lend itself to a fairly positivist approach.

A number of social researchers have argued against this

façade of value neutrality. Among the more vocal have been

feminist researchers (Hertz, 1997; Nagy Hesse-Biber, Leavy,

& Yaiser, 2004; Reinharz, 1992; Ribbens & Edwards, 1998).

Feminist-inspired sociologists have worked out a research

orientation that is comfortable for both the researcher and

the subjects. It tends to involve strategies that listen more

and talk less, that humanize the research process, and

that insist that the ethnographic researcher become both

involved with his or her subjects and reflexive about his or

her own thoughts. Some recent researchers have also sought

to encourage the writing of self-reflective or autoethnographies, similar in concept to more traditional autobiographies

(Ellis & Bochner, 1996; Tedlock, 2003).

Objectively, social scientists should recognize that

research is seldom, if ever, really value neutral. After all,

the selection of a research topic typically derives from

some researcher-oriented position. As previously implied

in this chapter, topic selection occurs because of an interest

in the subject matter, because it is a politically advantageous area to receive grant monies, because of some inner

humanistic drive toward some social problem, or because

one has personal experiences or what Lofland (1996, p. 44)

calls “deep familiarity” with the subject area. The fact is

that research is seldom undertaken for a neutral reason.

Furthermore, all humans residing in and among social

groups are the product of those social groups. This means

that various values, moral attitudes, and beliefs orient

people in a particular manner.

Ethnographic Field Strategies 133

For instance, a person’s selection of certain terms

indicates the kind of influences that a person’s social

groups have on him or her. In research on illegal drug use,

for example, researchers typically refer to the subjects as

drug “abusers.” While one might argue that illegal drug

use is abuse, that sort of technical explanation would also

need to encompass other forms of abuse, such as abuse of

prescription medicines, misuse of over-the-counter drugs,

and possibly abuse of alcohol. In fact, most of these studies concentrate on “street” drugs, and the term abuse is

adopted normatively; researchers say abuse because it is

normal to think of drug use this way. In adopting this

technically imprecise term, researchers reproduce a value

system that defines their subjects in a particular way

prior to even entering the field. Reading this work, it is

more difficult to empathize with, or otherwise understand,

the research subjects. Yet, when we write about families,

teachers, police, veterans, or just about anyone else, we

do not burden them with demeaning labels. Other valueladen descriptives one might encounter include “unwed

mother,” “extremist,” and “illegal immigrant.”

More recently, and again following from feminist

researchers’ lead, my writing has begun to incorporate

the use of first person singular. In other words, I use the

word I. (More accurately, we use I, since this book has

two authors each of whom wrote this way, separately.)

Particularly when writing ethnographic reports, it began

to be apparent (to me) that using the first person singular was more direct. Rather than saying, “The researcher

began to recognize blah, blah, blah . . . .,” it seemed more

forthright to simply say, “I began to recognize . . . .” In this

manner, a researcher can take both ownership and responsibility for what is being stated. Furthermore, one’s writing

style becomes far less cumbersome and often eliminates

passive and convoluted sentences.

Maintaining the façade of neutrality prevents a

researcher from ever examining his or her own cultural

assumptions (Rubin & Rubin, 1995) or personal experiences. Subjective disclosures by researchers allow the

reader to better understand why a research area has been

selected, how it was studied, and by whom. If a nurse

studies cancer patients and explains that his or her selection of this topic resulted after a family member developed

the disease, this does not diminish the quality of the

research. It does, however, offer a keener insight about

who is doing the research and why. It may even provide

the reader with greater understanding about why certain

types of questions were investigated, while others were

not. We certainly would not accuse the researcher of

“taking sides” in such a study. Yet, when I undertook a

study of community organizing in response to HIV/AIDS,

I  was routinely asked what my interest in the topic was,

as though the validity or reliability of the work would

depend on my biographical relation to it. In contrast, I am


134 Chapter 6

sometimes asked how I came to move from that area to my

present work on nationalism, but questions of that form

do not require me to provide a justification for my choices.

Nationalism is not a suspicious topic.

Similarly, when a researcher reveals that he or she

was tempted to, or did, intervene in the lives of his or

her subjects, the reader gets a different image of both the

researcher and the research. It is likely that anyone who

has ever undertaken drug research among children, at

the very least, has been tempted to try to convince some

child that using heroin or crack cocaine is not a good thing

to do. From a strictly positivist value-neutral position,

of course, one cannot do this. This activity is the work of

social workers and not social scientists. From a softer, more

humane perspective, however, it seems a reasonable activity along with the fieldwork. Having the researcher reveal

that he or she did try to intervene or even the inner battle

the researcher may have had resisting intervening is an

important piece of information. This information allows

the reader to better understand the true face of both the

researcher and the study results.

Finally, presenting subjective disclosures, or giving

voice to the researcher, provides insights into the world

of research for the reader. Rather than merely heaping results, findings, and even analysis upon the reader,

the researcher can share a small portion of the research

experience. Frequently, qualitative studies report in considerable detail the autobiographical motivations that led

investigators to conduct their research as they did. These

disclosures not only help to orient the reader to the

researcher’s perspective but also clearly articulate the

interests—what some might call biases—of the researcher.

It reminds readers that there is no “pure” research, and

that we take up the questions we do because of human

interests and concerns.

Certainly, there is something romantic and exciting

about the image of an ethnographer spending time with

potentially dangerous people in interesting, albeit grimy,

bars, gambling houses, various hidden erotic worlds

(see, e.g., Ferrell & Hamm, 1998; Lee, 2001; Tewksbury,

1995). Ethnography can be, as Lofland and Lofland (1984)

describe it, an “adventure.” Yet, it is also work; rigorous,

time consuming, and often boring, tedious work.

Many researchers study certain settings simply

because of their convenience or special ease of accessibility.

Later, they endeavor to justify their choice on the basis of

some grand ideal or spurious theoretical grounds (Punch,

1986). It is similar to a kind of verbal exchange that Harry

Wolcott uses at the beginning of his second chapter in his

book on ethnography (Wolcott, 2008, p. 15):

First Ethnographer:

Where are you going to do

your fieldwork?

Second Ethnographer:

I don’t know yet.

First Ethnographer:

What are you going to study?

Second Ethnographer:

That depends on where I go.

The logic here, I would hazard, is that some researchers

may have specific purpose in their research settings and the

explorations of certain groups, while others seem to kind of

float more like flotsam and jetsam, landing wherever they

may and then trying to figure out what they have.

What many of these researchers apparently fail to recognize is that everyday realities are heavily influenced by

human feelings, and the presentation of these feelings is

legitimate! One may choose a research setting or group to

research, then, for a number of both objective and/or subjective reasons; but regardless of the subjective emotional

feelings or objective intellectual or analytic motivations, all

are legitimate.

The omission of the ethnographers’ feelings for and

about their research inevitably creates what Johnson (1975,

p. 145) described as “the fieldworker as an iron-willed,

steel-nerved, cunning Machiavellian manipulator of the

symbolic tools of everyday discourse.” Including some

indication of why researchers have undertaken a particular

project along with the methodological procedure provides

a means for making the research come alive, to become

interesting to the reading audience. Research is interesting,

as Lofland et al. (2006, p. 136) indicate, when the separation

of cognitive and emotional aspects of research is an attempt

to avoid distortion in the research; nonetheless, cognitions

are an integral aspect to meaning. Further, researchers tend

to separate these two elements for two reasons: First, it

tends to simplify the expository task, and, second, it is consistent with recent or rediscovered elements of reflectivity

by social scientists and recognition that emotion is a central

aspect to human life.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to objectify their

research efforts, many investigators ignore, omit, or conceal

their feelings as such emotions are not typically considered

capable of independent verification by others. Yet, it is

important to remember that overrationalized, highly objectified, nearly sterile methodological accounts of fieldwork

efforts are not complete descriptions of the research enterprise. Mentions of researchers’ personal feelings are not

wholly absent from the research literature, but they are still

relatively uncommon.

6.9: Why It Works


outline the uniqueness of ethnography with

respect to other forms of research

Ethnography is great! Almost every other form of

research involves researchers bringing subjects into artificial settings, offices, labs, and so on, or asking subjects


to supply information about their lives in formats that

we have defined for our own use. Fieldwork brings the

researcher into the “natural habitat” of the study subjects.

It allows us to immerse ourselves in the environment in

which our research questions play out. And, while every

data-collection method provides information that we did

not previously have, ethnography is truly centered on us,

the researchers, learning from our experience in the field.

We can come away with a new perspective on our lives

and work, which is taught to us by the people we have


6.10: Why It Fails

6.10 Give potential causes behind the failure

of ethnographic field strategies

There are so many ways in which fieldwork can let us

down. First, we may spend time at a field site hoping to

observe actions and encounters of a particular kind, and

not find them. We might head out looking for a crowded

and contentious sports event hoping to see rival fans interact, only to find a quiet and unenthusiastic group watching an uneventful game with no great commitment. It’s

not as though we can schedule the fans to meet us there

and show us what they’ve got.

If our subject population may sometimes fail to fall

in line with our desires, other variables can be worse. You

might schedule a summer of attending outdoor rock festivals (for some legitimate reason) only to have the rainiest

summer in years cancel most of your events. You could

plan on immersing yourself in a candidate’s campaign for

local office only to see the candidate drop out after the first

negative poll. Bad luck happens.

At least in these cases, you know that your data is

lacking. But, what if you become associated with an unreliable guide. You may spend months collecting copious

amounts of data without ever realizing that people are

avoiding you or your guide, or hiding crucial topics from

Ethnographic Field Strategies 135

you because of the fear that you will share too much with

your guide. Such limitations are not necessarily visible

to the researcher. Furthermore, you might simply fail to

achieve a useful rapport with your subjects no matter who

has endorsed you. In such cases, you will never really

become an insider or gain the perspective of the other.

Finally, there is the march of time. Fieldwork research

can be a long, slow process of immersion. You might one

day have a great research question and a terrific field site

in which to study it, with easy access for you. You might

spend six months of a planned 10-month data-collection

phase working, visiting, and hanging out in your chosen

community. Then, suddenly, something happens in the

world that throws your question into a new and unintended light. You might be studying questions about

financial planning when suddenly the market crashes.

You could be examining the rise of a new political movement when unexpectedly someone tries to shoot one of

the movement’s lead figures. Or, you might be doing

something as simple as yet another drinking on campus

study when three popular students are hurt or killed in

a drunk driving accident. From that point onward, your

questions will have an entirely new meaning. Therefore,

the data collected after the incident cannot be combined

with the data collected before it. And that means, your

research project is over.

Of course, if you’re quick, and lucky, you can turn

your fieldwork study into a new project focused on the

impact of the incident in question. But that’s not exactly

the kind of plan B we can plan for in advance.

Trying iT OuT

Suggestion 2

Access the Facebook profiles of 30 people you know. Develop

a typology for these profiles. The typology can be based on any

criteria you find interesting or relevant, but look at the guidelines

for developing typologies first. Then identify the challenges you

faced in developing the typology. Ensure that no real identities are

shown when you report your findings.


Chapter 7

Participatory Action Research

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter, you should be able to:

7.1 Describe the three basic phases of the action


Contrast the role of the researcher in action

research settings vis-à-vis more traditional



Describe three distinct types of action

research modes.


Explain how photovoice is used in


research process.

7.2 Identify how the researcher partners with

the research population to get the research


7.3 Explain why the research stakeholders

need to be involved in the data-collection


7.4 Describe the process of analyzing and

interpreting the information gathered in


7.5 Identify methods of sharing information

with research stakeholders.

7.10 Illustrate the action research framework.

7.11 Identify reasons behind the effectiveness

of the action research methodology.

7.12 Identify risk factors in participatory

research that may cause it to fail.

7.6 Differentiate between scenarios where action

research is applicable and where it is not.

Up to this point in the book, we have covered a lot of

ground about how you plan and carry out research projects. What we have not addressed is the larger goal

behind research: effecting change. As much fun as conducting research can be, it would be nice to imagine that

it makes a difference.

Let’s imagine that you have been called to assist a

neighborhood walk-in clinic that is interested in conducting an evaluation of its service-delivery system. Or, let us

assume that an office of juvenile probation is interested

in assessing its effectiveness at reintegrating its clients

into a secure and healthy life. The actual problems are not

known, so careful initial assessment on your part will be

necessary. You are aware that understanding the clients’

situations, needs, and responsibilities will emerge slowly


during the course of the project. Time, however, is limited,

so identifying some time-efficient research methods is

essential. As well, you have agreed with the sponsoring

agency that it is critical to include client-based perspectives in your study. It’s not enough to know whether the

agency is operating effectively. We have to know how well

it works for the people it serves or manages.

About now, you are probably thinking back to your

studies on research methods and perhaps to earlier

chapters in this book. What type of a research design will

permit you to examine a variety of yet undetermined

situational and conditionally based issues? At this point,

you really don’t have much more than a general idea

about the research. As Chapter 2 indicates, design is the

necessary place to begin, but how do you proceed? A trip


to the library to consult pertinent literature is helpful for

general and background information, but the literature

will not provide much insight about specific conditions

and situations facing the clients at the clinic you have

been asked to evaluate. There is, however, a methodological approach designed for such situations: participatory

action research.

The practice of action research has been a fairly common

mode of investigation in educational research, especially

among researchers interested in classroom teaching practices and teacher education (see, e.g., Bray, Lee, Smith, &

Yorks, 2000; Brown & Dowling, 1998; Burnaford, Fischer,

& Hobson, 2001; Calhoun, 1994; Hendericks, 2008; Kemmis

& McTaggart, 1988; Stringer, 2004, 2007a). Many sources

credit Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) with coining the term action

research in about 1934 (Mills, 2000). According to Lewin,

action research is a process that “gives credence to the

development of powers of reflective thought, discussion,

decision and action by ordinary people participating in

collective research on ‘private troubles’ that they have

in common” (Adelman, 1993, p. 8). In its present use,

action research is one of the few research approaches that

embrace principles of participation, reflections, empowerment, and emancipation of people and groups interested in improving their social situation or condition. The

essence of the practice is to involve the members of your

research setting in all stages of the research from formulating the questions to making sense of the results. We call

these people the stakeholders because they are the ones who

most have something at stake in whatever social system

we are evaluating.

Action research or participatory action research can

be defined as a kind of collective self-reflective enquiry

undertaken by participants in social relationship with

one another in order to improve some condition or situation with which they are involved. These participants

include both the researcher and those stakeholders normally referred to in nonaction research as the research

“subjects.” Thus, it is a highly collaborative, reflective,

experiential, and participatory mode of research in which

all individuals involved in the study, researcher and subjects alike, are deliberate and contributing actors in the

research enterprise (Gabel, 1995; Stringer & Dwyer, 2005;

Wadsworth, 1998).

Action research also shares certain goals and characteristics with public sociology, which has garnered many

adherents. And participatory action research has become

a more common methodological framework employed in

nursing research studies (e.g., Holter & Schwartz-Barcott,

1993; Jenkins et al., 2005; Polit & Beck, 2007; Stringer &

Genat, 2003) or other settings in which the subjects have a

clear and immediate stake in the findings.

Participatory Action Research 137

Action research has a wide range of applications in

classrooms, schools, hospitals, justice agencies, and community contexts. The following commonalities draw these

disciplines together in the conducting of action research:

• A highly rigorous, yet reflective or interpretive, approach to empirical research

• The active engagement of individuals traditionally

known as subjects as participants and contributors in

the research enterprise

• The integration of some practical outcomes related to

the actual lives of participants in this research project

• A spiraling of steps, each of which is composed of

some type of planning, action, and evaluation

Drawing on various traditions from which action

research originates, a number of assumptions or values

can be outlined. These include the following:

• The democratization of knowledge production and use

• Ethical fairness in the benefits of the knowledge generation process

• An ecological stance toward society and nature

• Appreciation of the capacity of humans to reflect,

learn, and change

• A commitment to positive social change

Akihiro Ogawa (2009), in his study of civil society

in Japan, for example, conducted interviews, participatory observation, and archival research within and among

Japanese nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in order to understand the goals, means, and limitations of these NPOs in

relation to national governmental policies. His underlying

interest, however, was in the idea of civil society in a contemporary democracy. Given this focus, Ogawa felt that

it was necessary to collaborate with his research subjects,

helping them to identify and solve the problems that he

was studying. “By underlying my research with public

interest anthropology, I become committed to the democratization of knowledge in research and practice,” he wrote.

“… My ultimate objectives as an anthropologist in doing

this type of research are to help empower ordinary people

and to forward the democratization of society by practicing

action-oriented social research” (Ogawa, 2009, p. 19).

Action research targets two primary tasks. First, it is

intended to uncover or produce information and knowledge that will be directly useful to a group of people

(through research, education, and sociopolitical action).

Second, it is meant to enlighten and empower the average

person in the group, motivating each individual to take up

and use the information gathered in the research (Johnson,

2008; Reason, 1994).

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