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Modelling ethnography: Thinking forward and looking back. Keynote presentation at the Rethinking Ethnography & Education Symposium, on the occasion of Professor Karen Borgnakke´s 65th birthday. Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen. May 19, 2017.

Konferensbidrag (offentliggjort, men ej förlagsutgivet)
Författare Dennis Beach
Publicerad i Rethinking Ethnography & Education Symposium, On the occasion of Professor Karen Borgnakke´s 65th birthday. Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen.
Publiceringsår 2017
Publicerad vid Institutionen för pedagogik och specialpedagogik
Språk en
Ämnesord Ethnography, Critical research, Change
Ämneskategorier Utbildningsvetenskap, Pedagogik


Thinking forward whilst also looking back and considering the history of education ethnography is the theme for the presentation today. It is based on a previous keynote on rethinking ethnographic methodology that I gave in Klaipeda, last year, but it also relates to recent writing by Carl Bagley, Sophia Marques da Silva and I on this theme in the closing chapter of the forthcoming Handbook of Ethnography of Education that we have edited for Wiley publications. In this chapter we related back to the various handbook contribution and, with the help of a chapter by Mats Trondman, Paul Willis and Anna Lund on the value of ethnographic research in and to education as a science, we traced modern social scientific ethnography back to a 1907 debate in Paris involving leading social scientists such as René Worms and Emile Durkheim. Two points of view on ethnography were obvious. One was of a systematic documentation and scientific analysis of a culture or cultural phenomena (Durkheim) and one was of an objectifying method for describing a more primitive folk (Worms). They have been extensively debated since 1907 and were discussed in Nordic empirical classroom research in the 1970s and 1980s, as recounted by Karen Borgnakke in her various writings educational process analysis there. Like most other ethnographers since 1907, although not specifically using the name of ethnography for their work, nor referring to the Paris debate, the Nordic empirical classroom research took up and then elaborated on a position much closer to that of Durkheim, than that of Worms. They introduced and were strongly influenced by the French philosophy and sociology of education... Since then many distinctions have been highlighted that influence how ethnographic investigations are formed. These concern obvious things such as the commitment to and belief in the research method and its value(s) in, for, and across a research community, the substantive interest(s), and the availability and use of various informational technologies and digital platforms. But they also include things from the original debates and the Nordic tradition, like political ideology and commitment to the critique of the social relations of capitalistic economic and cultural production, ‘at home’ (in academia) and ‘abroad’ (at other sites of investigation), and their deleterious effects. They represent the research that is sometimes critiqued as political and partisan, but that is also lauded by researchers who recognise that educational institutions are places that are strongly rooted in gendered, racial and class-based structures and traditions that are steeped in power-relations which are also often actively (re)produced in or through education practices and curricula.. This position is one that acknowledges that the researcher’s worldview and politics will always play a role in ethnography and it acknowledges that approaching the object of analysis there from a neutral stance is philosophically problematic if not broadly impossible. However, discussing the choices we make, where we make them, and what their effects are, can still be an ideal to strive for; as it was for Emile Durkheim in Paris in 1907, and as it is for Karen Borgnakke and her colleagues and students today. So the question then becomes something like the following, as described by Bright and Smyth: what sort of difference do we want to make through our and in whose interests? For although there are different frameworks for our research, the point isn’t whether we are interpretive and/or analytical and/or critical or not. When thinking forward and looking back, as discussed already by Durkheim in 1907, we have to be interpretative and analytical, theory is important, and we should always act in the broad democratic interest of society.

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