I have just returned from an international gathering of HE researchers who convened in Prague to present and discuss their latest ethnographic works (Ethnographies of Higher Education conference, May 22-25, 2013 – jointly organised by Centre for Higher Education Studies, Prague, Institute of Sociology of Academy of Sciences of CR and University of Pardubice). Jimmy was in his element in Prague – apparently 40% of the Czech population are dog owners: more than in France, and less posh.
Over the few days, a couple of themes kept popping up that I thought would be interesting to share.
Firstly, a few topics that are currently being studied using ethnographic approaches:
– How do universities manage interdisciplinarity in research activity? What does it mean to be an interdisciplinary researcher, and what qualities should we be supporting in our colleagues if we are truly aspiring to be interdisciplinary? (John Taylor: Liverpool University)
– How do we promote a culture of entrepreneurship in university courses? What works and what doesn’t when trying to encourage creativity and innovation in everyday practice, not just for economic gain? (Sarah Robinson: Aarhus University)
– How do we understand everyday student life in a post-conflict society? (Katrine Scott: Lund University)
– What does cheating mean now in HE – who is cheating who in academia? What role does the teacher play in encouraging cheating? (Petr Pabian: University of Pardubice)
The opportunities and challenges of conducting ethnographic research using virtual worlds
A number of studies used Facebook as a ‘site’ to conduct an ethnographic study. The information added and stored on this social media tool could provide a wealth of data for researchers interested in understanding student experiences, for example, in LGBT communities, or in first year student groups. Interestingly, UK researchers experienced more success with gaining ethical consent from ethical boards than colleagues in the US. But how is an ethnographic study actually conducted if participant observation is mediated through a computer? Discussions centred around insider/outsider issues: most researchers use Facebook in their private lives so how did they consider issues of sharing their profiles and intimate lives with participants? What levels of access should both parties be granted? Do you combine virtual communication with face-to-face interviews? Eve Stirling at Sheffield University gave a very compelling account about how such research could work.
What can be classified as an ethnographic study in HE?
To be honest, I was surprised at the number of talks that claimed to be of an ethnographic nature but were, in fact, designed as qualitative studies using interviews and focus groups. Because HE researchers often lecture, advise, and consult students in HE settings alongside their research endeavours, I felt that they justified this association with students as an immersion into the field they were studying, and then this was enough contact to claim a prolonged period of time as a critical observer. However, I felt this was not doing ethnographic methodology justice and was surprised at how people in the audience did not seem to contest this claim. Maybe at the next conference I’ll have enough confidence to stand on my soapbox and share this opinion and not just write about it in my blog!