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H809 – Ethnography – Hammersley (2006) (A13.1)

May 9, 2011

Ethnography, a word that originally described the writing down (-graphy) of facts about groups of people (ethno-).

Ethnography is the genre of writing that presents varying degrees of qualitative and quantitative descriptions of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Participant observation, qualitative interviewing are methods used in ethnography. Ethnography is viewed as a holistic research method.

Thinking about ethnography let me think on a researcher like Bronislaw Malinowski, who published in 1922 his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a study of people who lived in the Trobriand islands of Papua New Guinea.

Social anthropologists realised that the best way to understand the patterns of life in other societies was to spend time in them, that the best informants about a particular way of life were those who lived it, and that an anthropologist should, as far as possible, produce an account written from the inside rather than the outside: an ethnography. That is how Hammersley (2006) describe traditional ethnography.

Field work that involves fairly lengthy contact, through participant observation and first-hand accounts in relevant settings, and/or through relatively open-ended interviews designed to understand people’s perspectives, perhaps supplemented by the study of various sorts of document.

However, ethnography, the study of human groups, is according to Hammersley contested and raises a range of issues.

Hammersley, reviews some aspect of the current state of ethnography, focusing thereby on areas of tension and conflict. He reports how ethnography changed and developed over the years and briefly discusses as well virtual ethnography.

Ethnographic understandings of context – Reading Hammersley (2006) – Reading 15

Identify the ways in which Hammersley talks about context and, in particular, what he identifies as ethnographic understandings of context.

Hammersley argues that there is an ongoing discussion between researchers how context should be taken into account and to determine the context that is appropriate for understanding it. The problem of context is whether a micro or macro perspective on context is applied and whether context is discovered or constructed.

Hammersley states that different disciplines might have a different view on context (see Tolmie – psychodynamic or psychologist view, contrary to Crook and Dymott – social-cultural perspective) providing the following example.

Anthropologists have generally insisted on locating what goes on inside schools within the context of the local community in which the children, and perhaps even the teachers, live, psychologists and sociologists have tended to focus almost entirely on what happens within school buildings. Some ethnographers view ethnography as holistic and that subjects need to be studied in the context of wider society, Burawoy et al. (2000) even claims that we can only properly comprehend against the background of a world-wide process of globalisation. Contrary, others promoted a detailed micro analysis of what was actually said and done on  particular occasions (micro ethnography).

However, because observation times are now a lot shorter than previously and last only months, if at all, rather than years. Therefore, due to the shortness the local and wider history of the institution or group of people studies as well the biographies of the participants is often neglected.

Hammersley sees two problems arise when focusing on the  more holistic perspective. First, how to determine what the appropriate wider context is in which to situate the study and if the context is discovered or constructed. And if it is constructed, is it constructed by the participants or by the analyst. Conversation analysts, as well as discourse analyst and some ethnographers employ the view that context is generated by the people being studied.

The second issue is how to gain the necessary knowledge about that particular context. Hammersley raises the questions if ethnography need to be integrated into or combined with other kinds of social science research and if how to select from among the various theories available.

Hammersley also points to a rather different perspective that views the choice of context by ethnographers as arbitrary and that ethnography is simply one means among others for telling stories about the social world.

Well, it seems that there is no real agreement on what context means in ethnography, which makes it quite complicate to compare it with the week 8 readings.

In Week 8 context was identified as an issue in research methods generally (Reading 8 – Tolmie, 2001 and Reading 9 – Crook and Dymott, 2005). How do you think Hammersley addresses the issues concerning context raised in Week 8?

Tolmie (2001) argued from a psychodynamic perspective that the history and past experience of people influence their action and that individual context is surrounding them and is thus in accordance with traditional holistic ethnographic that emphasise on taking the wider context and the biography of the participants into consideration. Crook and Dymott (2005) view context from the socio-cultural perspective not as something that surrounds, but views artefacts (e.g. books, technology, classroom) as a fundamental part of the mental function itself, not just a separate context but they are mutually constitutive . I am not sure whether Hammersley views context in that way, but he considers that context is socially constructed and ‘that participants in social activities effectively ‘context’ those activities in the course of carrying them out, by indicating to one another what is and is not relevant. This is similar to the socio-cultural perspective who claims that learning is socially determined and mediated by cultural artefacts. Learning is situated within our current context. Insofar there are certain parallels visible to week 8.


Crook, C. and Dymott, R. (2005) ‘ICT and the literacy practices of student writing’ in Monteith, M. (ed.) Teaching Secondary School Literacies with ICT, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Hammersley, M. (2006) ‘Ethnography: problems and prospects’, Ethnography and Education, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 3–14; also available online at
(Last accessed 1 May 2011).

Tolmie, A. (2001) ‘Examining learning in relation to the contexts of use of ICT’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 235–41; also available online at
(Accessed 26 March 2010).


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