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H809: Activities 13.1, 13.2, 13.3: Reading 15: Hammersley 2006

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Activity 13.1: Reading 15: Ethnographic understandings of context (2 hours)

Read pp. 3-8 of Hammersley's paper, up to the heading 'Context as virtual'. Identify the ways in which Hammersley talks about context and, in particular, what he identifies as ethnographic understandings of context.

In Week 8 context was identified as an issue in research methods generally. How do you think Hammersley addresses the issues concerning context raised in Week 8?


Ethnography from an anthropologist's point of view:

  • Living in a community continuously for a long period
  • Participating
  • Interviewing
  • Mapping
  • Studying genealogy
  • Collecting artefacts

Ethnography in other social sciences:

  • Use a particular context
  • Months not years (tech. means that large vol. of data can be collected)
  • Some attempt to use a macro view e.g. use of frameworks to assist in studying social situations and temporal cycles
  • A snapshot - can be a risk that it is treated as normal situation

Micro-ethnography vs. holistic ethnography where research is located in context of wider society

Participants context their activities themselves

Removal of participants and placing them in different context can be considered a violation

Do we always articulate the context?

Holistic - what does 'wider context' mean?

If wider on global scale, how do we obtain the information?

If we use other sources, how does this constitute grounded theory?

Context is arbitrary as it is how it is perceived by one person at any one time.

My Ideas

I am new to this area as I have not looked at research using ethnography before. I have found it very interesting and can see the use of long term anthropological studies but I am still struggling with the idea of using micro-ethnography as it seems a contradiction in terms. I am also still unsure on how applicable the term can be to studies of virtual environments. In order to try to understand this I got some books out of Keele University library:

Miller, D. & Slater, D. (2000) The Internet: an Ethnographic Approach. Oxford, BERG.

Miller and Slater define ethnography as 'a long term involvement amongst people, through a variety of methods, such that any one aspect of their lives can be properly contextualised in others' (p.21).

·         Although the study described in this book only spent 5 weeks in Trinidad, it relies on 11 years of previous work on diverse topics such as business, kinship and identity- p.21/22

  • Internet data, interviews, surveys, email, chat records - p.22
  • Several sites -p.22

They mention how they extend their ethnographic studies across various sites (London, New York and Port of Spain) and how that is criticised in Marcus (1995) which is available from the OU library:

Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), pp.95-117.

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London, Sage.

Hine defines ethnography as 'a researcher spending an extended period of time immersed in a field setting, taking account of the relationships, activities and understandings of those in the setting and participating in those processes'. She further suggests that the ethnographic perspective can be adapted to look at how the status of the internet is negotiated in a local context by examining it as a culture in its own right and as a cultural artefact. Too much to explain here but there is some very interesting information in Chap. 2. Hine goes on to look at how ethnographic studies concerning the internet vary from normal ethnographic studies but still retain the same ethos.


The Tolmie (2001) paper we looked at in week 8 was behaviourist in approach with much of the language focused on the effect of the various parts of the 'context' on the learner.  Hammersley (2006) discusses context in a much more constructivist manner as something that is arbitrary as it is not only varied both temporally and physically but also differs in the way it is perceived by one person at a given instant in time.

Activity 13.2: Reading 15: Virtual context (2 hours)

Read pp. 8-10, up to the heading 'Ethnography as political'.

  • What points does Hammersley make about the 'virtual' as opposed to being physically present?

Does the researcher need to be physically present? (p.8)

What does 'physically present' mean in an online setting? (p.8)

Do we need to know the participants' social background? (p.8)

Observational data can only come from natural situations and ignores perceptions - sometimes it ignores perspective (traditional) or it may infer them from the observation (p.10)

Discursive strategies - makes the assumption that people will use same techniques in other contexts (p.10)

'Experimental' ethnography does not pretend realism as it considers accounts to be similar to modern literature. Hammersley suggests that moving it to imaginative literature abandons critical inquiry but I am not sure this is true as literacy scholars have always examined literature critically. For example, examining the motivations behind the way Shakespeare described the Jews in The Merchant of Venice.

  • In what ways could ordinary face-to-face settings be thought of as virtual?

My thoughts on this are that people always use an identity that suits the situation and that they will only disclose their background if they feel comfortable in doing so, or if it is obvious. The situation is the same online apart from 'the obvious' may not be so obvious! Hammersley suggests that we must always accept what people say critically and not at face value.  (p.9)

When interviewing a participant, either virtually or face-to-face, we cannot immerse ourselves in their world. The participant uses socio-discursively constructed comments (p.9) i.e. they are dependent on context which involves their perception of the interviewer. I was Skype interviewed for one piece of research when the interviewer was someone who had been my tutor. I trusted him to be secure and so I was honest but I also felt I needed to present in a self-critical and academic manner.



Activity 13.3: Discussing the paper (1 hour)

Once you have made your own postings read the other contributions and focus on the section, 'On the uses and limitations of interviews'.

  • What do you think are the limits of interview data?
  • What role is there for observation?

My thoughts so far:

Do we need to specify the interview context to some extent? In my Skype interview, the interviewer discussed the best time to contact me. He suggested a time when I could concentrate, undisturbed for an hour. He also checked that the time was still OK when he contacted me.

We must emphasise that the interview is a 'snapshot in time' and specific to that context. The context includes the interviewer and the same participant may not give the same response to a student-interviewer as they would to a lecturer-interviewer.  The participant may be tired, stressed or ill and thus influenced to answer harshly or to give short answers in order to curtail the interview. It may be possible to pick up some clues as to these contextual facts and thus address them by judicial questioning if a webcam is also used so that observational data is included as a form of triangulation. However, participants may object to the use of a webcam and this should be taken into account.

The influence of the researcher. It is argued that the presence of the researcher is restricted in online situations but power positions are still present. Social position can also be communicated by the use of Standard English in typing and speech and also by accent in Skype or by telephone.

The act of questioning. I believe that the act of asking people to take part in an interview is likely to make them consider their opinions more deeply; discuss the situation with friends who could influence them; or become concerned about the motives of the researchers. For example, I am researching dyslexia support sessions at university for another course and some students have asked me whether the research will lead to the sessions being discontinued.

Reflexivity. Researchers need to acknowledge and declare their stance with respect to their political and value position and the way that position may affect the design of their research, its execution and interpretation i.e. develop a reflexive attitude to their research.


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