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On Ethnography: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research

reviewed by Michael Marker - September 12, 2008

coverTitle: On Ethnography: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research
Author(s): Shirley Brice Heath and Brian V. Street with Molly Mills
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807748668, Pages: 168, Year: 2008
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Ordinarily it might be somewhat of a yawn that a new book arrives on ethnography. There are now mountains of texts on field methods and qualitative methods and ethnographic methods. But, this short book is a standout in being both a survey of major themes in ethnography and, at the same time, a bit of a how to do it manual. The book reminds me of some of the reasons that, when I was a graduate student, I became excited about writing culture as a methodology. The authors are well-established scholars in the field of sociolinguistics and ethnographic methods. The book is written in a conversational style by experienced researchers who have spent decades both in the field and working with graduate students. The text is practical as well as theoretical. They use the ethnographic work of a Brown University student, Molly Mills, doing a study of a young street performer who juggles, as a template for discussing the basics of site access, participant observation, and a whole clutch of research considerations for writing about cultures.

The discussion of how semiotics and social inequality are inextricably linked evolves into a compelling explanation of why ethnographers need to understand both the history of the local community and the history of the literature on culture, language and learning. The authors emphasize this zigzag nature of doing ethnography, fieldwork to literature and back, as what sets ethnography apart from other social science methods. The authors want students to go back and forth from the literature to the field and write descriptions that are engaging stories. They also want the stories to make a positive difference in the lives of the learning communities that get written about. In particular, Shirley Brice Heath, as an important contributor to Educational Anthropology's evolution and increased visibility in the 1980s, is inviting students and colleagues to return to earlier texts and trace the foundations of social theories, questions, and perennial problems in language and cultural experience. In the midst of broad sweeping changes occurring in schooling and other educational contexts as a result of globalization, internet technologies, and postmodern culture/language shifts, this book could be seen as old fashioned common sense about how to approach writing about culture. At the same time, this text denotes the contemporary complexity caused by stress coming from outside and inside cultural groups. As an ethnographer who works with Indigenous communities, I found it noteworthy to see the account of how Australian aboriginal elders view the continuation of ancient storytelling practices in the media technology usage of the children. Writing about such settings of layered cultural complexity requires an informed and respectful relationship with communities. Indigenous communities, in particular, can be harmed by what an outsider publishes about them.

The book is divided into six chapters that trace the cycle of research and writing for an ethnographic project. Chapter one introduces the connections between culture and language, advancing a conversation on symbolic structures and meanings. This is the place where the researcher initially gets enthusiastic about concepts and explanations for social reality that will guide the journey into the field. Chapter two takes the ethnographer away from the university classroom and into the field. What does access mean? How does the researcher conduct her/himself as cultural Other in the new environment? Chapter three is an examination of some day-to-day concerns and how to think creatively about space, time, and the context of mapping the patterns of human interaction. The authors also discuss returning to the literature, and reflecting about what is really happening here? Chapter four guides our thinking about field notes and the ways we write the day-to-day goings on of a research project. Chapter five is concerned with Geertz's thick description and how field notes, memories, and the goals of the analytical task of the final writing are organized. In chapter six, the authors conclude with some discussion of both the history of ethnography and the ways that anthropologists are directly connected to the power relationships that underlie research.

This last theme, of power relationships and the political realities of doing ethnography, is too often left as a footnote or distant commentary. The book's discussion of Malinowski and the British scene helps us view a zone of trouble for the ethnographer's conscience and for clarifying the broad goals of any ethnography. The authors put it well: Then and now, anthropologists' interests link closely with contemporary economic and national self-interests and cannot be thought of as simply a detached academic pursuit (p. 113). Indigenous communities continue to be much more popular sites for anthropological field work than corporate training centers, exclusive golf and country clubs, university fraternities, or government bureaucracies. Ethnographers make choices about who to study-- and who not to study-- based on more than academic curiosity and intellectual interests. They often choose where to go and who to listen to, based on a set of more expedient goals, such as what is likely to produce a publishable product and advance an academic career. Aboriginal villages are still regarded as more interesting, exotic, and safer places to get access to than organizations networked with cultural and economic power.

Indigenous communities have recently developed some gatekeeping measures to protect themselves against the old style grab, run, and publish ethnographers, but now these same communities must find ways to respond to new types of anthropologists and other friends (Deloria, 1969). The authors of this book note that, today anthropologists and ethnographers in particular work increasingly with those they study... (p. 125). Today, too many ethnographers wish to act as advocates for Indigenous communities without recognizing the historic effects of colonization that have produced contradictions and factionalism within these communities. Many anthropologists perpetuate this factionalism by their alignments with particular individuals and families. Ethnographers who utilize their own preferred authentic traditional community voices are still, like their colonial era antecedents, inventing Indigenous others in their writing. More educated and critical minded members of communities are often dismissed as not being genuine.

This book could serve as an excellent resource for discussing some of the complexities mentioned above. It will also be useful as a text for methodology seminars in education and social sciences. For graduate students, it is a complete introductory text; for experienced ethnographers it is a well-organized reference tool-- especially for those who focus on language and literacy issues. This short book does, in many respects, have something for everyone and I predict that it will have a potent effect toward getting ethnographers back to thinking more reflectively, critically, and comparatively about culture and language.



Deloria, V. (1969). Custer died for your sins: An Indian manifesto. Toronto: Macmillan.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 12, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15371, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 1:15:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Marker
    University of British Columbia
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL MARKER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and the Director of Ts"kel First Nations Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has published articles on the politics of ethnography, educational ethohistory, and Indigenous knowledge issues in the classroom.
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