Knowing What’s Local: Ethnographic Inquiry, Education, and Democracy

reviewed by Karon LeCompte - June 12, 2017

coverTitle: Knowing What’s Local: Ethnographic Inquiry, Education, and Democracy
Author(s): David Landis & Sapargul Mirseitova
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623968453, Pages: 214, Year: 2014
Search for book at

Making civics education meaningful and relevant to civil society is a global endeavor of international importance to both educational policy makers and education stakeholders. In addition to reforming social studies/civics standards and creating better assessments, researchers have suggested a number of possible solutions related to civics education curricula and pedagogy, particularly those that are experience-based. Participation in student government, civic related extracurricular activities, and local government has shown to have positive impacts on students’ propensity for civic action. Additionally, classroom pedagogy such as simulations, discussion of current and controversial issues, exposure to civic role models, and service learning are essential to a high-quality civics curriculum. Knowing What’s Local: Ethnographic Inquiry, Education, and Democracy, written by David Landis and Sapargul Mirseitova explores alternatives to civics education by showing how ethnographic research into communities creates opportunities for students and teachers to produce academic knowledge and skills. They illuminate ways that ethnographic methodologies promote respect and foster dignified social relationships, including an ethic of care for diverse people, as well as their experiences and perspectives. Their work is set in the Republic of Kazakhstan and tells the stories of teachers, students, and parents who opened new educational directions through a series of ethnographic studies about their local communities. Their work is presented in three parts.

The first part explains the conceptual basis and discussion of ethnographic pedagogical perspectives in coordination with democratic living as caring for others in local communities. Its chapters include discussion of educators in ancient times and their use of inquiry to formulate philosophies. Also included in this section is a definition of ethnographic inquiry and how it is utilized in this study. Methodologically, using an ethnographic perspective gives an insightful understanding of the processes and contexts that teachers and students use to interpret and enact democratic practice. This methodological approach offers an understanding of policy contexts and provides the situated experiences of community members. Further, it provides students with skills in the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking (RWCT) thinking program.

The second part, which includes Chapters Three, Four, and Five, shares stories of students’ research in the local communities concerning three connections with teaching about democratic life. The first connection is to understand the local community members are co-researchers and to appreciate local knowledge. The second link probes the benefits of social integration, active involvement, and local community formation. The third connection emphasizes the study of local communities as a significant educational experience that includes reading/writing/critical thinking for development into active civic participants. The authors provide readers with example organizational charts and suggested activities that link teaching and learning practices.

The third part shares students’ observations and studies as a curricular representation for making the everyday lives of regular people visible. Connecting curriculum to ordinary citizens and places creates visible ways of knowing and recognizing social relationships; thus, they offer students the opportunity to develop active, participative civics as part of their understanding of a working democracy.

David Landis and Sapargul Mirseitova have three primary objectives in sharing stories of how teachers and students use ethnographic inquiries in their communities. First, during the timeframe of 2002-2009, Landis and Mirseitova gathered data to reveal how insight into the notion of democracy as a practice of learning about people in communities helps students develop gratitude for the history of those people. Also, learning the perspective of those in the community, and the willingness to respect their opinions concerning community issues, enhances the experience. Secondly, teaching and learning through ethnographic inquiry helps students develop imagination in solving inequalities among people living in a particular community.  Third, learning through this kind of inquiry reveals how reflective reading/writing/critical thinking contributes to democratic living and meaningful education.

In the final part of the book, David Landis and Sapargul Mirseitova, posit that this type of inquiry is what every person should strive toward in order to learn about community life. Knowledge that public policy and systems affect all members of a community should serve as a motivator for greater democratic engagement. This kind of inquiry helps students understand various perspectives on the history of a community and how community members view problems and potential solutions for members. Further, the authors offer educators inquiry activities that help students see this investigation as a method of understanding and reflecting on people’s ways of life. The authors present extremely respectful and detailed activities to help teachers and students deepen their understanding of communities and the people that comprise them.

In summary, David Landis and Sapargul Mirseitova, present a book that interweaves ethnographic inquiry and action civics for the purpose of developing democratic knowledge and practices. Example projects presented in Knowing What’s Local: Ethnographic Inquiry, Education, and Democracy allowed students to use their voices in choosing which community issues to investigate and how to develop action-oriented solutions. As a result, students had the opportunity to translate their interests into public action through informed research, deliberation, and advocacy. Students developed meaningful and personal connections to people who had the power to make a difference in changing and improving their communities. In this book, the authors give students opportunities to learn essential research skills related to their projects. Students can and should take action and propose solutions to their community’s issues. Integrating ethnographic inquiry with action civics projects create venues for student empowerment. They interrupt the traditional role of students as passive learners in the classroom. In essence, through their community issues investigations, students came one step closer to becoming the kind of action-oriented, informed citizens that we hope for in our 21st-century communities.

Engaging teachers and their students in ethnographic inquiry for community-focused projects goes beyond the traditional goals of social justice. These projects infuse a sense of care and respect for human beings existing in a very different context from the students. Engaging students in building and changing the way they learn provides them with skills and capacities for improving communities and building democratic ways of living that are sustainable for them both personally and socially.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 12, 2017 ID Number: 22035, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:15:39 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review