Purcell-Gates Commentary #1

Ned Weidner

ENGL 5870

Dr. DeVries



I had never heard the word ethnography before until about six months ago when I was introduced to two Raymond Williams books Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society and Writing Culture.  I was very intrigued by his work, especially in Keywords, and felt that I needed to get involved with ethnographic research; however, I did not know that was the basis for this class, and so I was pleasantly surprised.  But like you Faye, I am a little nervous to actually jump in and do it.  However, I think ethnography is one of those things that you really have to do to learn; reading about it doesn’t cut it.   One of the reasons I am so interested in doing this type of research is that not only as Purcell-Gates so eloquently writes, “ethnographies provide the landscapes and details of worlds” (92) but as one of Carolyn Frank’s students expressed, “through ethnography I will be able to continue to learn about myself” (2).  I find that extremely compelling, the idea that through studying other people, other cultures researchers understand who they are better.  I don’t have it front of me but I think it was Foucault or possibly Kellner (my mind is getting confused with all the reading I am doing) that said that we identify ourselves through our relationships to others, and so through ethnography we can better identify ourselves by being able to understand others. 

It is also important to note that as Purcell-Gates writes, “We come to understand the world through participants perspectives” (96).  I think as educators that is a very important notion.  I think it is important that we put ourselves in students’ shoes so we can better understand their individual learning process.  It is also just important as humans if we are going to successfully co-exist in the world to look through many lenses.

I have read Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words, and I have to say that to do ethnography correct, to do it right takes a lot of time.  Also, as Dr. DeVries was saying in class last week, our research needs to be outlined before we go into the classroom, and for myself just trying to articulate what exactly it is I want to study in the classroom is very difficult.  I have a few ideas but trying to frame my research in a productive way is not an easy task. 

I would like to make two quick arguments with Purcell-Gates’ article.  First, she writes that there are seven characteristics of ethnography.  One of those is that “it presents accurate reflection of participants perspectives and behaviors” (93). Really?  This seems to contradict everything else she says later and the very little knowledge I have about ethnography.  I would say that it presents and accurate reflection of what the observer believes to be the participants’ perspectives and behaviors.  My second point is not so much an argument as it is an observation.  She uses a few paragraphs to illustrate that the research needs to be coded.  Coding, while it is not a difficult process to understand is very tedious and time consuming and I felt as if she glossed over that fact.  I know how to code.  I became pretty good at it last semester and it too is one of those things you have to do to understand, but let me tell you this, coding is not as easy as she makes it out to be.  When coding you have to become very intimate with a text.  If what you are coding is your own writing/notes it may not be so difficult or time consuming, but if you are coding student essays or interviews, it is necessary to have some level of expertise because you have to be able to extract information that may not be immediately apparent, and you have to be able to make sense of what other people are saying.  I guess what I am trying to say is to not take it lightly and be aware that it is time consuming. 

That being said, I am excited to get all this started, and I think that Purcell-Gates article was very helpful in filling in a lot of the holes I had about ethnographic research.  I also now appreciate the exercise we did in class and the one we are going to do.  They give us examples of how everybody sees different things.  What I get from that is that there is no “right” way to do ethnography, no “right” thing your supposed to see or learn.  You see what you see because you are you and you write it in your own way and that’s ok.  

3 comments for “Purcell-Gates Commentary #1

  1. mgarcia5
    February 27, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I like the method James uses: Star Ship Enterprise, Captain’s log. I seems like an excellent way to take field notes when doing our observations for this class.

  2. James
    March 1, 2009 at 8:47 am

    I like that you noticed the distinction between an accurate reflection of participants perspectives, and our impression of participants perspectives–in a true ethnography, where you live, eat, sleep, talk with the subjects everyday for months or years, those two things can perhaps be very close to the same, but in fifteen hours of observing a couple of different classrooms I think that it is an important distinction to make. We each have a perspective that is unique to our experience of the world, then we filter that through the lens of our educations, the theories we are exposed to and our natural inclinations, and what we come up with is inevitably unique to us as individual scholars/teachers/researchers.

    It is important to keep that in mind, and to identify our individual perspectives and biases, particularly when doing qualitative research into human activity.

  3. Kim
    March 2, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Ned, you, and James in his comment, note that we each have a unique perspective that shapes what we see and how we interpret those observations.

    And important corollary is also that every ethnography is necessarily incomplete. No one observer can give the whole picture, even after spending years on a project.

    –Actually a condition of all scholarly work.

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