ED 534 Qualitative Research Methods


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Case study






Grounded Theory




The term ethnography literally means 'writing about groups of people." (Creswell, 2005). Ethnographers typically study cultural themes drawn from cultural anthropology. What are some cultural themes found in ethnographic studies in education? Valenzuela (1999) studied a cultural theme she referred to as "subtractive schooling" in a high school in Houston, Texas. Schooling was the central theme in her ethnographic study. The theme of subtractive schooling does not narrow the study; instead it becomes a broad lens that she usesin her investigation. The manifestations of 'subtractive schooling' are illustrated throughout the ethnographic study. The author provides multiple evidence from interviews and participant observations to illustrate the central theme "subtractive schooling."

A culture-sharing group

Ethnographers learn from studying a culture sharing group at a single site. A culture sharing group in ethnography are individuals who share beliefs, behaviors and language. Groups such as these possess certain characteristics:

  • interacts on a regular basis
  • has interacted for some time
  • is representative of some larger group
  • has adopted some shared patterns of behaving, thinking, or talking

Often ethnographers study groups unfamiliar to them in order to be able to look at them as "fresh and different ways, as if they were exceptional or unique." Individuals sometimes mistake a cultural group with an ethnic group. Ethnic groups are self-identified individuals in a sociopolitical grouping that have a recognized public identity, such as Hispanics. Using these ethnic labels can cause problems in an ethnography because the labels may not be the terms used by the individuals themselves.

Shared patterns of behavior, belief, and language

Ethnographic researchers look for shared patterns of behavior, beliefs and language that the culture-sharing group adopt over time. This characteristic has several elements to it. The ethnographer discerns shared pattern. A shared pattern in a common social interaction that stabilizes as tacit rules and expectations of the group.

  • behavior - action taken by individual in a cultural setting (how did the students act in class that they themselves described as "boring")
  • belief - how an individual thinks about or perceives things in a cultural setting (some students in Valenzuela's study did as little as possible to stay out of trouble)
  • language - how does the person talk to other individuals in a cultural setting ( Valenzuela investigated how students referred to those who did not speak Spanish well and how students who spoke Spanish frequently communicated)