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Challenges in Institutional Ethnography: preserving the presence of the subject while keeping institutions in view.

Authors Inger Kjellberg
Published in Curiosity and serendipity - a conference on qualitative methods in the social sciences. ESA research Network 20 Midterm Conference, 20 - 21 september, Lund University, Sweden.
Volume 2012
Publication year 2012
Published at Department of Social Work
Language en
Subject categories Social Work


Institutional ethnography (IE) is a method of inquiry proposed by the Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. The main aim of IE is to discover and make visible how people in their everyday actualities are connected into the extended social relations of ruling. In IE the social organization of the everyday world is described from a standpoint outside of institutionalized discourses and the incorporation of texts and documents into ethnographic practice is essential. The purpose of this paper is to discuss two claims in IE; that it is people-centered rather than theory-driven and that the presence of the subject is preserved throughout the study. This will be done by contrasting IE with two similar yet different ethnographic methods: grounded theory and the extended case method. All three methods share the critique of traditional sociology. In addition, the extended case method and IE have some common ground in marxist theory while grounded theory and IE both begin the exploration with the first-order concepts, but from there the abstraction into second-order concepts differs. Furthermore, the techniques for analysis of data in IE are vague and not explicitly spelled out. This lack of analytic rigour in IE opens up for a risk of misrepresentation. This paper argues that IE is more theory-driven than it admits and the potential of IE would be enhanced if the theoretical claims were explicated. Some suggestions of how to develop analytic strategies in IE will also be discussed using empirical examples from an ongoing institutional ethnographic study on complaints procedures and mandatory reports of serious mistreatments in Swedish elderly care.

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