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Institutional ethnography: A tool for sociological inquiry

by Arun Kumar Ph. D. 2 months ago in student

Arun Kumar Ph.D.

Institutional ethnography: A tool for sociological inquiry
Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Institutional ethnography as a method of sociological inquiry has its origin in the feminist movement of the 1970s in North America. This concept was developed by a Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith. She describes a ‘line of fault’ that working women traverse between their professional and domestic life daily. These two work situations are radically different modes of consciousness that cannot co-exist. Until 1970s sociological literature was mainly written by men that excluded women’s experiences and concerns from the discourse. Smith (1974) was a pioneer in making sociology feminist. She redefined sociological inquiry in which women’s every day and every night worlds would be rediscovered as they are organized by social relations not wholly visible within them (Smith 1997). She called this ‘making the everyday world a sociological problematic’ (Smith 1979,1987).

Institutional ethnography does not take its questions from other sociological discourses like symbolic interaction, Marxism, ethnomethodology, or other schools of sociological thinking. This kind of inquiry begins with the issues and problems of people’s lives and develops inquiry from the standpoint of their experience in and of the actualities of their everyday living. Such an inquiry is not confined only to the description of local social organization or expressions of people’s own experiences, but most importantly it also includes everyday world as a problem for investigation. Dorothy Smith desired a practice of sociology that would produce knowledge for women that helps them produce understand their social world from their own locations (DeVault 1999, p. 47). The aim is to create sociology for rather than of people. This is achieved by pulling the organization of the Ruling Relations (Smith 1999) – bureaucracy, text- mediated discourse, the state, the professions, and so on – into the actual sites of the people’s living where we must find them as local and temporally situated activities (Smith 2002, p.18-19).

Institutional ethnography is a way to theorize, and it provides a methodology for sociological research. It makes the everyday world its problematic, working with a kind of sociology that “like Marx’s and Engels’ conception of the materialist method, begins not within the discourse but in actual daily social relations between individuals. The problematic explicates, as the basis of inquiry, an actual socially organized relation between the everyday world of experience and the social relations of the capitalism.” (Diamond 1992 p. 246). In Canada and elsewhere, feminist students from many disciplines were attracted to the ideas in Smith’s writings (Smith 1987, 1990, 1991) and to the research approach she taught. They saw usefulness of institutional ethnography in addressing oppressions of all kinds (Campbell and Manicom 1995; Diamond 1992; Cook-Gumprez & Hanna, 1997).

Institutional ethnography challenges the established scholarly way of validating knowledge and offers an alternative (Smith 1987). One way of describing research in institutional ethnography is to say that to understand our lives, or the lives of other people, we must find the actual determinations of those life conditions and ‘map them.’ Institutional ethnography does not offer any theoretical explanations, but certain theorized practices of looking at the actualities of daily life. These researchers believe that people and events are tied together in ways that makes sense of such abstractions of power, knowledge, capitalism, patriarchy, race, the economy, the state, policy, culture and so on (Campbell and Gregor 2002, p. 17). DeVault and McCoy (2002) provide an excellent overview of institutional ethnography, its concept and methodology and discuss how interviews are used in investigating ruling relations.

Institutional ethnography and ethnography

Institutional ethnography is a form of ethnographic inquiry which is tied to a fieldwork tradition in social science and is concerned with a material world which is committed to faithful attention to the activities of that world. Sociologists doing fieldwork for their research projects spend time in the field, observe closely, collect data, and analyze what is happening in a particular setting. Such studies have specialized in groups on the margins, they tend to look from outsiders’ perspective and ground their studies about insiders’. Traditionally this has become a part of sociological discourse. This ‘looking’ is not very objective since it does not address questions like ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what about race?’ This lack of concern primarily for women’s voices, concerns, problems, and their contributions in the traditional sociological inquiry led to the conceptualization of institutional ethnography as opposed to traditional ethnography. Ethnographic research mainly sought after ‘others’, packaged their realities as ‘data’ and brought those data back to a location where knowledge is mobilized in projects of administration and ruling. Knowledge produced by such ethnographic methods of inquiry is only useful from the point of view of the powerful because it provides a window into the margins (DeVault 1999, p. 48).

Dorothy Smith envisions another kind of investigation in which the direction of looking is reversed. The institutional ethnographer situates herself/himself at the marginal location and looks carefully like any other fieldworker inward, toward centers of power and administration, searching to explicate the contingencies of ruling that shape local contexts. Through this conscious reorientation Dorothy Smith aims to produce knowledge for, rather than about, those in some location. Her analysis is an insider’s critique rooted in but extending beyond a local setting (DeVault 1999, p. 48).

The main objective of institutional ethnographic inquiry is to discover the social relations that organize a particular setting, and it is accomplished by drawing on theoretical tools from several sociological traditions like ethnomethodology, Marxism, and poststructuralist attention to textual process. For example, institutional ethnographers looking for the microscopic details of the interaction in a particular setting borrow from ethnomethodological approaches (for example Grimaldi, 1982; Farmer, 1996) that are useful for seeing and understanding within a particular complex of relations, how social activity is produced from moment-to-moment moves through which people sustain and coordinate collective activity (DeVault 1999, p. 49). Institutional ethnographic investigations are meant to point toward social transformation. They are organized to serve as a useful resource for groups engaged in efforts at change. In ethnographic formulations ‘how it works’ is a very important question and is related to details of social organization. Explication is not a matter of exposing a grand structure of oppression, but making visible routine of practice within that structure, and peoples’ various attempts to navigate through regimes of control (DeVault 1999, p. 52).

Use of texts in coordinating institutions

Institutional ethnographers use texts to examine processes of ruling in the production of texts in specific workplaces, for example, schools, long-term health care organizations, governmental agencies and so on. They also study uses of texts such as official records and reports that organize people’s activities in various settings. The “gaps/ruptures/lines of fault” are an inherent feature of text-mediated governing relations. Understanding the textual architecture of routine organizational action is crucial to institutional ethnography. Textual reality is shown by the particular use of words, language and texts that build organizational versions of what people say do or know for organizational action (Campbell and Gregor 2002, p. 24).

As a political activist George Smith (1990) examined the social organization of ruling régimes using the institutional ethnographic research method. He studied the policing of gay men in Toronto and the management of the AIDS epidemic in Ontario. According to him (p. 642) an essential ontological property of a politico-administrative régime is that it is a textually mediated form of social organization. Investigation of such a régime requires face-to-face methodologies in addition to treating texts as actively coordinating social relations, especially extra-local forms of organization like those that organize policing or coordinate the operations of an AIDS bureaucracy. Recovery of ontological properties of documents requires reading them to understand how they organize people’s lives, thus examining how the language of documents operates as a conceptual coordinator of social action. Official documents are read to reveal the organization they coordinate and provide access to the social relations of a politico-administrative régime (G. Smith, 1990, p. 643).

Importance of ‘experience’ or ‘standpoint’ as the place to begin institutional ethnographic inquiry

According to Smith (2002, p.33) institutional ethnography begins by locating a standpoint in an institutional order that provides the guiding perspective from which it will be explored. It begins with some issues, concerns or problems that are real for people. These guide the direction of an inquiry.

A chance meeting of two African American nursing assistants with sociologist Timothy Diamond in a coffee shop in Chicago led to an extensive institutional ethnographic work on the life of nursing assistants in long term health care organizations in the USA, Canada, and Europe (Diamond 1992).

Marie Campbell’s (1998) investigation of a nursing home illustrates how ‘experience’ or ‘standpoint’ is used to begin institutional ethnographic inquiry. She demonstrates how nursing assistants are brought to substitute fiscal considerations for their everyday working knowledge, by following a single decision, that is, to substitute disposables for cloth diapers. She explores the effects of managerial regimes on the working lives of nursing assistants by examining in detail how particular systems of record-keeping and administration shape the experiences of those they manage. She explains why nursing assistants are busier and over stressed and residents less happy by tracing the consequences of these changes – diapers that need changing more frequently. Such analyses can help nurses address these kinds of concerns through management meetings or labor organizations (DeVault 1999, p. 52-53).

Campbell and Gregor (2002, p. 18-22) discuss ‘social organization’ in a health care system and as an example they describe Jan’s experience, who is a nurse in the Extra Mural Hospital Program in New Brunswick. Jan’s experience has made her a novice institutional ethnographer and she has learned how organizational power is exercised in special forms of knowledge. However, she needs help in recognizing how she becomes entangled in ruling relations during her routine conduct of assessments. The widespread use of texts in contemporary society to process people and manage aspects of their lives is a well-known fact. Jan’s experience is an example for other students of institutional ethnography and has shaped my own thought process regarding how our own lives are controlled within our society.

The central idea of doing institutional ethnographic research of any kind commits anyone to a certain social relation. This view of knowing, that it relates us to others in a specific way, is part of institutional ethnography’s theory of knowledge. The capacity to do institutional ethnographic work requires the knowledge of how to recognize and analyze the relations of power within which one lives and works. Institutional ethnography offers the capacity to look at the everyday world and figure out and ‘map’ how things happen the way they do. It explores how relations between people establish the world, and or as we know it and lives in it (Campbell and Gregor, 2002, p. 16).

Institutional ethnography as a part of ‘literacy studies’

Darville (2004/2005, p. 10) examines the concept of literacy at two levels. At one level it refers to abilities that individuals must read and write. It involves decoding and spelling, sophisticated text-based information processing and knowledge, and writing artful composition. But at another level, in expressions like ‘literate society’, the term refers not only to individual attributes but to social processes in which there is extensive use of texts. He further explains that the term ‘literacy’ is used with certain forms of social organization like religious, political, economic, and cultural that is extended over space and time and involves text-mediated communication as well as spoken interaction. The issue of literacy covers general abilities to read and write along with the shaping of types of texts and literate practices, tailored to particular political, economic, religious and cultural projects.

Darville (1995, 1998/2004, 2002) and Campbell and Gregor (2002) discuss in details how institutional ethnography can be thought of as a part of literacy studies. They consider institutional ethnography as a theorized way of seeing and knowing that re-orientates people in their everyday world. Thus, they see in local settings ‘how it works’ and make inquiry a process of discovery. Darville shows how knowledge and power come together in the everyday world to organize what happens to people. In literacy work, institutional ethnography attempts to make the world more understandable by ordinary people and it draws on local experiences in confronting and analyzing how people’s lives come to be dominated and shaped by forces from outside of them and their purposes. The framework that Darville proposes to literacy teachers includes several ideas like the importance of experience that literacy teachers use in their instruction, literacy methods and skills that turn literacy students into political actors, how things get written up, people can learn skills to engage successfully with the dominant forms of literacy, and even draw on their own experiential knowledge to resist domination.

Research in institutional ethnography requires new skills of discovery and mapping to be learned (Belfiore et al. 2004). In this way literacy and institutional ethnography share an important indigenous knowledge source that is, the language of experience. In Darville’s long-range view for literacy teaching, the tools of seeing how things work can be combined to good effect with the literacy learner’s own experiential knowledge of their own life (Campbell and Gregor 2002, p. 13).

This subject has broadened my horizons about literacy as a concept. Earlier I thought of literacy as an issue merely in terms of the inability of basic reading and writing skills of adult populations among the poor in the developing world. Now I have a better understanding of literacy as a broader concept and functioning of the literacy régime in the developed countries like Canada (Darville, 1999; 2002; Statistics Canada Report, 1996). Literacy is not an issue only in the poorer nations of the world, but it is a global issue that manifests itself in different forms in different countries, societies, cultures, races, and religions etc. as well.

The ideological development of the concept of institutional ethnography as a methodology for social research is an empowering thought. It opens vast horizons and endless possibilities for inquiry and research into all aspects of social, cultural and even political institutions where day-to-day activities of people need understanding.


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Campbell, M. L. & Gregor, F. (2002). Finding a place to begin. In Mapping Social Relations: A Primer in Doing Institutional Ethnography (pp. 11-25), Aurora, ON: Garamond.

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Arun Kumar Ph. D.

I am a semi-retired geologist, presently affiliated with Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. During my almost five decades long career I worked around the world. Now I live in Ottawa, the beautiful capital city of Canada.

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