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Critical Ethnography in Educational Research: A Theoretical and Practical Guide

reviewed by Peter McClaren - 1997

coverTitle: Critical Ethnography in Educational Research: A Theoretical and Practical Guide
Author(s): Phil Francis Carspecken
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415904935, Pages: , Year: 1995
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Critical Ethnography in Educational Research may seem a relatively slender volume for a scholarly book dealing with the vast terrain of ethnographic research, in particular the philosophy and practice of critical ethnography. The size of this book is definitely misleading. This is one of the most impressive teaching books on qualitative research that I have ever read. It is a brilliant introductory volume by one of the most astute and creative ethnographic theorists in North America. If Phil Carspecken's work has not yet received the attention it deserves, this book should do a lot to change that.

There are many impressive aspects to this book but space permits me to comment on only a few. Carspecken begins his book with a discussion of critical epistemology, an understanding of the relationship between power and thought, and power and truth claims. In a short exposition of what is "critical" to critical epistemology, he debunks facile forms of social constructivism and offers a deft criticism of mainstream epistemologies by way of continental phenomenology, poststructuralism, and postmodernist social theory, mainly the work of Edmund Husserl and Jacques Derrida. Carspecken makes short work of facile forms of constructivist thought that purport that what we see is strongly influenced by what we already value and that criticalist research simply indulges itself in the "correct" political values. For instance, some constructivists argue that all that criticalists need to do is to "bias" their work in the direction of social justice. This form of constructivist thought is not viable according to Carspecken because it is plainly ocularcentric, that is, it depends on visual perception to form the basis of its theory. Rather than rely on perceptual metaphors found in mainstream ethnographic accounts, critical ethnography, in contrast, should emphasize communicative experiences and structures as well as cultural typifications.

Carspecken argues that critical ethnography needs to differentiate among ontological categories (i.e., subjective, objective, normative-evaluative) rather than adopt the position of "multiple realities" defended by many constructivists. Carspecken adopts a principled position that research value orientations should not determine research findings, as much as this is possible. Rather, critical ethnographers should employ a critical epistemology; that is, they should uphold epistemological principles that apply to all researchers. In fecundating this claim Carspecken rehabilitates critical ethnography from many of the misperceptions of its critics who believe that it is merely politically biased research with little empirical validity.

To construct a social critical epistemology, critical ethnographers need to understand holistic modes of human experience and their relationship to communicative structures. Preliminary stages of this process articulated by Carspecken include examining researcher bias and discovering researcher value orientations. Following stages include compiling the primary record through the collection of monological data; preliminary reconstructive analysis; dialogical data generation; discovering social systems relations; and using systems relations to explain findings. Anthony Giddens's work forms the basis of Carspecken's approach to systems analysis. Accompanying discussions of each of the complex stages developed by Carspecken are brilliantly articulated approaches to horizontal and vertical validity reconstructions and pragmatic horizons of analysis. In order to help link theory to practice, Carspecken uses data from his study of an inner-city Houston elementary school program that is charged with helping students learn conflict-management skills.

What is most remarkable about this book is the way that Carspecken has included major advances in contemporary social theory in his approach to critical ethnography in a way that presents the reader with a coherent theoretical and practical guide to this complex approach to understanding-and in many cases, transforming-social life. For example, Carspecken extends Paul Willis's theory of cultural reproduction through a critical reworking of Richard Johnson's cultural circuit analysis. Here, society is seen as systems relations and as sites for the distribution of conditions for social action.

Another impressive feature is Carspecken's exposition and analysis of communicative acts, especially his discussion of meaning as embodiment and of understanding as intersubjective, not objective or subjective. Carspecken works from a view of intersubjectivity that combines Hegel, Mead, Habermas, and Taylor. He recommends that critical ethnographers record body language carefully because the meaning of an action is not in the language; it is rather in the action and bodily states. In Carspecken's view, subjectivity is derivative from intersubjectivity (as is objectivity). And intersubjectivity involves the dialogical constitution of the "feeling body." Finally, Carspecken stresses the importance of macrolevel social theories, environmental conditions, socially structured ways of meeting needs and desires, effects of cultural commodities on students, economic exploitation, and political and cultural conditions of action.

Much of Carspecken's inspiration for his approach to validity claims is taken from Habermas's theory of communicative action. Carspecken reads Habermas as grasping the prelinguistic foundations of language and intersubjectivity, making language secondary to the concept of intersubjectivity. Yet Carspecken departs from a strict Habermasian view of action by bringing in an expressive/praxis model roughly consistent with Charles Taylor's work. While Habermas and Taylor frequently argue against each other's positions, Carspecken puts them together in a convincing manner. Taylor's emphasis on holistic modes of understanding and the act constitution that Carspecken employs make it possible to link the theory of communicative rationality to work on embodied meaning and the metaphoric basis of meaningful action. It also provides a means for synthesizing Giddens's ideas on part/whole relations, virtual structure, and act constitution with communicative rationality. This is another way in which Carspecken's work differs from Habermas and yet remains consistent with his theory and the internal link between meaning and validity.

While Carspecken is correct in breaking away from mainstream epistemology's ocularcentrism, in my view Georges Bataille's analysis of communication is more fecund than that of Habermas in developing a critical epistemology. Bataille maintains that there is a flow of nonsemantic forces that precedes linguistic communication. For Bataille, communication inagurates a primary violence.1 While this form of violence is, paradoxically, the opening to the ethical, Habermas does not sufficiently recognize this violence and therefore occludes the structures of violence in the very act of communication and supports the illusion that nonviolent communication is possible. The advantage of Bataille is that his approach to communication can work toward the reduction of the worst forms of social violence.

Critical Ethnography in Educational Research is an innovative, articulate, and timely text. There is no other text that does as good a job in bringing theory into conversation with practice. This important volume is an indispensable work for anyone interested in qualitative research.


1 See Benjamin Noys, "Communicative Unreason: Bataille and Habermas," Theory, Culture, & Society 14 (1977): 59-75.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 2, 1997, p. 418-420
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10261, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 10:08:53 AM

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