Doheny-Farina and Odell: “Ethnographic Research on Writing: Assumptions and Methodology”

Doheny-Farina, Steven, and Lee Odell. “Ethnographic Research on Writing: Assumptions and Methodology.” Writing in nonacademic settings. Ed. Lee Odell & D. Goswami. New York: Guilford Press, 1985. 503-535. Print.



Purpose is to provide "methodological and philosophical underpinnings" of ethnographic research.


Theoretical Assumptions


Thick Description: "not only lists phenomena but also indicates the meaning(s) phenomena have within a particular context" (505)


Facts: recognize observation as cultural construct.


Naturalistic Context: has to be in a social setting, not removed from normal social environment.


Research Roles: not about "manipulating variables and trying to predict or influence behavior" (507). Participants are more experts tthan the ethnographers. Must be participant-observer.


Multiplicity: Use triangulation-- investigative (more than one researcher) and/or methodological (variety of methods) (509).




Developing Research Questions: suggests very general research questions so as not to blind self to other possibilities. "Ethnographers are continually engaged in a process of discovery" (511).


Beginning Research


Choosing a Site: needs to allow some freedom of access. Can be visited at diff times of day for indef period of time. Early stages are difficult/intimidating. Establish research roles, minimize disruptions, develop "physical, temporal, and social maps of the setting" (512), develop relationships with key informants.


Establishing Research Roles: complete observer (no interaction; will still affect participants); participant-as-observer (avoid perception of alliance with groups/factions; some officialy become insiders); complete participant; observer-as-participant


Minimizing Disruptiveness: increase data collection activities over time.


Dealing with Observer Effect: follow above procedures, stay on site for an extended period of time.


Developing Maps of the Setting: orient self to social and temporal layouts of setting (516).


Developing Relationships with Key Informants: choice of informants based on four factors-- informants should engage in activities that appear to be related to investigator''s emerging research questions; should be able to provide range of perspectives; should be willing to be observed; should be capable of doing work while observed (517).


Carrying Out a Study


Remaining on Site for An Extended Period: depends on when during year, cycle, etc. observing; by observing over time can determine whether cyclical or not.


Varying Times for Observation: ''postlunch slump''


Varying Physical Perspectives: need to be present in diverse situations.


Observing and Speaking with a Variety of Participants: role of social interaction in composing process.


Collecting Data


reciprocal relationship between data and data-gathering procedures. (emergent)


Writing Field Notes: Field notes are observational (ON); theoretical (TN)--may be hypothesies, conjectures; methodological (TN)-- guidelines for future research activities


Conducting Interviews: goal not to confirm intuitions but find out what participant thinks. May use informal or formal. Stimulated recall (thoughts feelings reactions re: activities); discourse-based (notes alternatives used in past writing situations asks if would choose differently). Try to be nonjudgmental and nondirective.


Tape Recording Conversations: may effect participants, transcriptions expensive, but important.


Using Other Recording Technology: not necessarily objective; computer may be less intrusive.


Analyzing Data


goal is to develop model of the activity under study. Four stages: recording on-site analysis, developing categories, linking categories and developing a model, and integrating categories and chronology.


Recording On-Site Analysis: write TN during data collection.


Developing Categories: involved and imperfect process.


Linking Categories and Building a Model: model ="set of statements that describes and explains the rhetorical activities under study" (528).


Integrating Categories and Chronology: integrate the analytical with the narrative.


Uses and Limitations of Ethnographic Research


environment is constantly changing; ethnographers can''t predict (unlike medical)


Cites Heath''s Roadville/Trackton (1983)-- can identify recurrent behaviors of significance, used for other studies, explain other phenomena. Well done ethnography becomes part of the "intellectual life" of the scholarly community.