Ethnography? (What) Does it Have to Do with Language Education?

Written by: Nikolina Tsvetkova, Violeta Karastateva [toc class=”toc-right”] The present paper is a result of authors being part of the writing team of a postgraduate distance learning course in Intercultural Studies for Language Teachers – a deed carried out with the assistance of the British Council and the Teacher Training Institute, Sofia. Being among the tutors and assessors for the first run of the course as well as practicing teachers of English has made it possible for us to prove our ideas of the significance of Ethnography for language education in practice.
Recent tendencies in language education show that language learning is becoming largely determined in cultural terms. Therefore learners are assigned a variety of new roles – for example – ‘cultural mediators’, ‘border crossers’, ‘negotiators of meaning’, ’intercultural speakers’. All these names imply that language learning has changed its orientation and priorities. Drawing on the interrelation between language learning and cultural studies we shall discuss one of the latest names added to the above list – ‘language learners as Ethnographers’.
Over the last decade Ethnography has been adopted as a research method in language education and a systematic approach to the period abroad, common for a large number of language and non-language students throughout Europe. Special programmes have been developed (eg. Thames Valley University, West London, see Roberts et al, 2001) aiming at the integration of language and cultural experiences in which the methods of anthropology help students become ethnographers of different aspects when abroad or in their native context.

1. Establishing and broadening existing assumptions of Ethnography for language education

In recent decades the fundamental method of anthropology – ethnography, being a method for studying some aspects of social and cultural life in the field, has become a popular approach to social research.
It is important for us to differentiate between ethnography in the discipline of anthropology and ethnography as a method in language education as our task is not to become or prepare professional anthropologists. What we can give our students is what Pocock (1975: 1-29) calls ‘an anthropological sensibility’. Since we are teachers our concern is to develop in students the awareness of ethnographic method in order to enable them carry out either a small-scale ethnographic research or an ethnographic study abroad as part of their language education.

1.1) What is Ethnography from the point of view of language education?

For most Bulgarian teachers ethnography is associated with descriptions of the past (rituals, beliefs, customs and traditions, etc.). It could be explained with the fact that:

In the past, the terms ethnology and ethnography have been applied respectively to the study and description of the so called “primitive societies”. Indeed dictionary definitions still reflect early ethnocentric biases… Today ethnology and ethnographies (written descriptions) are no longer concerned exclusively with the far-away and exotic but also examine the near, the more familiar and the modern.
(Damen, 1987: 57)

It is important for us that there is not a single way of doing ethnography and that nowadays the traditional interest in the “far-away” and “exotic” is being replaced by the interest in social life and everyday cultural settings. Or as Jordan and Roberts (2000: 1) formulate – ‘…both traditional anthropology which involved making the strange familiar, and modern urban ethnography which involves making the familiar strange’ are the two perspectives that allow us to gain a better understanding of the nature of cultural patterns and practices’

2.Main characteristics of Ethnography

2.1) Principles of ethnography

The ethnographic approach to culture learning involves simulating the processes of exploring, describing and understanding an unknown culture by means of actual ethnographic inquiry, contrastive analysis of real cultural groups, and contact with real cultural bearers. It is a grounded theory approach in practice.
Drawing on Damen (1987) the general principles of ethnography could be defined in the following way:

  • It is the culturally specific patterns of behaviour and attitudes that give people the feeling of being part of a group and the guidelines for action under certain circumstances.
  • The above mentioned cultural givens may blind a culture bearer to the existence of  alternative cultural beliefs, attitudes, guidelines for action or to estimate such as ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ too his/her own ones.
  • Ethnographic research should aim at studying cultures without allowing judgement. On the contrary – the whole variety of complex relationships of cultural categories and assumptions should be examined.
  • At the same time the ethnographer should be aware of his culturally specific beliefs, attitudes, patterns of behaviour and how they might influence his interpretation of what is under study.

2.2) Ethnographic Methodology

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher tries to enter the culture of a particular group and to report on its activities and values from the inside. It is often supplemented with other methods of analysis including participant observation and quantitative studies. The ethnographic research consists of a practical and a theoretical part. The practical part is connected with gathering and identifying data, the theoretical part consists of reflecting and interpreting the data in order to throw light on the issues investigated.
What are the key stages of ethnographic research?
The procedures during the two parts of ethnographic research typically involve six key stages:

  1. Participant Observation
  2. Making field notes
  3. Reflection and writing up field notes
  4. Interviewing
  5. Interpretation of interviews
  6. Writing up the Ethnography

Each of the above key stages of ethnographic research consists of a number of substages and procedures, which reveal the complexity of ethnographer’s work.
Among the most widely used ethnographic data collection procedures are introspection, observation, participant-observation and interviewing (for a detailed discussion see Saville Troike, 1989, 117-135)

3. Why is ethnography relevant for language education?

3.1) What are the main advantages and drawbacks of ethnography as a research method?

After so much talk about ethnography as a research method applicable to the study of culture it is only natural for a language teacher to ask what the connection between ethnography and language education is. To answer it, we would like to outline some of the advantages of doing it. These are: a possibility to:

  • conduct the research in a natural setting
  • conduct the research anywhere
  • research one’s own culture
  • for the researcher to use him/herself as a source
  • reflect on both home and other’s cultures

The ethnographic approach gives one the opportunity to explore in a more detailed and profound way one’s own cultural patterns of behaviour which inevitably leads to a better understanding of others’ cultures.

3.2)Why should language educators use ethnography?

Apart from its traditional applications ethnography has a potential to facilitate and make cultural teaching and learning more effective. Some leading educationalists in the field of cultural studies argue that it should be incorporated in the language classroom because it helps language teachers to deepen their understanding of cultural phenomena, of themselves and of others and thus help their students acquire better skills for intercultural communication.
As early as the 1980s Louise Damen suggests that there is a way to enhance cross-cultural awareness and intercultural communication which she calls ‘pragmatic ethnography’. In her view doing ethnography is relevant to language and culture education because ‘it stimulates the process of exploring, describing and understanding an unknown culture by means of actual ethnographic enquiry, contrastive analysis of real cultural groups’(Damen, 1985: 54 – 56).
More recently, in the late 1990s, cultural educationalists like Michal Byram (in Byram ed, 1997: p.13) claim that linguistic competence is not enough to develop intercultural competence, that it is far more beneficial if learners are exposed to ‘experiential learning where learners can experience situations which make demands upon their emotions and feelings and then reflect upon that experience and its meaninig for them’ (Byram in Byram ed, 1997: p.13)
Guided by such an idea, some education specialists combine their language programmes with an ethnographic approach to the study of the target language and culture. (For a detailed discussion see Roberts in Byram (ed., 1997) or Roberts et al (2001)
Such programmes emphasize the chance to research home culture through ethnography. The amateur ethnographer investigates practices which may have appeared routine to him, and after analysing them he decodes their cultural significance which may have been dismissed or underestimated as ‘ordinary’ or ‘banal’ until that moment. Such an approach deepens one’s awareness of one’s own cultural identity, which, on the other hand widens one’s skills to successfully accept, interpret and communicate with others.
Finally, let us consider what the participants in the first run of the Intercultural Studies for Language Teachers postgraduate course find most useful about doing ethnogrtaphy. After doing ethnographic observation of a symphonic concert and the following writing up of their findings following the procedures outlined above they were invited to evaluate the experience. Below are some fragments of their written responses.
Ethnography gives one a chance to:

  • explore and reflect on our own or a foreign culture
  • learn things at every time, in every place
  • develop observancy
  • formulate more accurate conclusions
  • develop understanding and tolerance
  • have a first-hand experience

To sum up, teachers see the worth of doing ethnography in the directness of the experience, in the personal involvement in the data collection process. They also appreciate the opportunity to learn more about ourselves in a better-structured way. Last, but not least, in teachers’ opinion, ethnography can help them teach cultural issues in the classroom.

3.3) How to enrich a stay abroad using the ethnographic approach?

Along with the processes of economic and political globalization in Europe, international communications are becoming much more easy and commonplace. There are more opportunities for foreign language students to practice their linguistic and cultural competence in a genuine environment. More and more students are visiting foreign countries on exchange visit programmes or simply as tourists. These create another opportunity for using the ethnographic approach to studying culture.
To make the most of a stay abroad students have to be able to question what they read, see, hear, and to try to analyse it. Ethnography can provide an approach to understanding other people better and, consequently, to communicating in a more successful way, softening at the same time culture shock and helping them be more than ‘tourists’ when they are abroad.
The positive results of such research may concern students’

  • learning how to question foreign realities;
  • learning from experience, not books;
  • learning both about facts and reasons for them being such
  • communicating more with people;
  • developing a critical understanding of self and others;

In conclusion, assuming an ethnographic point of view to what happens around us, to who we are as well as to other people’s cultural practices and routines, can help us and our students become better culture learners and interpreters. It can also turn a stay abroad into an invaluable lived-through insight into (an)other culture(s).
Despite the possible difficulties, once practically tried out, ethnography is never to be abandoned as it offers a chance to learn through observing and experiencing which leads to broadening one’s cultural understanding.


Byram, M. (ed.) (1997) Face to Face; Learning “Language- and- Culture” through visits and exchanges, London, CILT
Byram, M. and Fleming, M. (eds.) (1998) Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective; Approaches through drama and ethnography, Cambrige, CUP 
Byram, M. (1997) ‘Introduction; Towards .a pedagogical framework for visits and exchanges’ in Byram, M. (ed.)
Damen, L. (1987) Culture Learning: The Fifth Dimention in the Language Classroom, Reading, MA, Addison Wesley Publishing Company
Jordan, Sh. and Roberts, C. (2000) Introduction to Ethnography for Language Learners, LARA:Learning and Residence Abroad, Oxford and London, Oxford Brookes University and Thames Valley University/ King’s College London
Pocock, D. (1975) Understanding Social Anthropology, London, Hodder and Stoughton
Roberts, C. (1996) ‘Ethnographic approaches to cultural learning’ in Wadham-Smith, N. (ed.)
Roberts, C. (1997) ‘The Year Abroad as an Ethnographic Experience’ in Byram, M. (ed.) Roberts, C., Byram, M., Barro, A., Jordan, Sh. and Street, B. (2001) Language Learners as Ethnographers, Multilingual Matters Ltd,
Savile – Troike, M. (1989) The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction, 2nd edition, Blackwell
Wadham-Smith, N. (ed.) (1995) British Studies Now; Antology Issues 1-5, The British Counci

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