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Reading :: Institutional Ethnography

Posted by: on Jan 25, 2017 | No Comments
Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People
By Dorothy E. Smith


Dorothy Smith has been cited in a strain of work in professional communication studies dealing with ethnographic research. (I think the first reference I saw to her work was in one of Dorothy Winsor's articles.) Smith, a sociologist, published this 2005 book to explain and summarize institutional ethnography:
The aim of the sociology we call 'institutional ethnography' is to reorganize the social relations of knowledge of the social so that people can take that knowledge up as an extension of our ordinary knowledge of the local actualities of our lives. It is a method of inquiry into the social that proposes to enlarge the scope of what becomes visible from the site, mapping the relations that connect one local site to others. Like a map, it aims to be through and through indexical to the local sites of people's experiences, making visible how we are connected into the extended social relations of ruling and economy and their intersections. And though some of the work of inquiry must be technical, as mapmaking is, its product should be ordinarily accessible and usable, just as a well-made map is, to those on the terrain it maps. (p.29)
That is, IE takes a partnership orientation with its participants, like participatory action research (PAR).  Smith contrasts IE with what she characterizes as the typical mode of research in sociology, in which "everyday and local events" are interpreted "in terms of a framework originating in sociological and political economic discourse," a framework that displaces actual people: "Categories such as 'sociocultural differences,' 'social class,' and 'racial status' become the subjects" and "the potentially unruly (from the point of view of sociological discourse) actualities of people's everyday lives are selectively appropriated" (p.31; cf. Latour's similar argument).

In contrast, an IE "would begin in the actualities of the lives of some of those involved in the institutional process and focus on how these actualities were embedded in social relations, both those of the ruling and those of the economy" (p.31). So "research would begin by building accounts of their situation" and experiences; those accounts then define the ethnography's direction and further steps by identifying the "problematic." And Smith continues:
The institutional regime they confront would be explored from their perspective; their perspective and experience would organize the direction of the ethnographers' investigation. (p.31)
I pulled this quote because, reading the sentence within the paragraph, "they" and "their" seem to refer to "researchers" and "institutional ethnographers" in the previous sentences—but in the clause after the semicolon, "their" seems to be referring to the participants instead. I'm pretty sure Smith meant the latter interpretation.

In any case, "Institutional ethnography begins by locating a standpoint in an institutional order that provides the guiding perspective from which that order will be explored. It begins with some issues, concerns, or problems that are real for people and that are situated in their relationships to an institutional order" (p.32). From there, IE maps out social relations "so that the larger organization that enters into and shapes it becomes visible" (p.35).

Smith notes that IE may sound like Burawoy's extended case method. But the extended case method uses its investigation of people's lifeworlds to discover how the system objectively works—that is, it assumes a system that governs these individual lifeworlds. IE, on the other hand, has "no prior interpretive commitment"; "it means to find out just how people's doings in the everyday are articulated to and coordinated by extended social relations that are not visible from within any particular local setting and just how people are participating in those relations" (p.36). Ultimately, Smith sees IE as an alternate sociology, not just a methodology (p.50; see also pp.54-55). (Again, compare with Latour.)

Later in the book, Smith draws on Mead, Voloshinov, Vygotsky, and Luria to explore the relationship between consciousness and subjectivity (p.75). Interestingly, she characterizes the "text-reader conversation" as active, but "peculiar and unlike conversation in that the text remains the same no matter how many times it is read" (p.105)—I can see what she's trying to say, but I don't think this characterization is adequate within the Mead-Voloshinov-Vygotsky tradition. However, it underpins a later argument in the chapter on texts and institutions, where Smith claims that "it is the replicability of texts that substructs the ruling relations; replicability is a condition of their existence. ... Replicable and replicated texts are essential to the standardizing of work activities of all kinds across time and translocally. It is the constancy of the text that provides for standardization. ... Texts suture modes of social action organized extralocally to the local actualities of our necessarily embodied lives. Text-reader conversations are embedded in and organize local settings of work" (p.166).

In tying discourse to data, Smith later argues that when interviewing a participant, "I'm not interested in whether his account is an accurate telling of events; I am interested, rather, in his experience and how he tells it and in the traces of social relations and organization present in it" (p.138).

Later, Smith mentions grounded theory, charging that it tends to universalize the researcher's intuitions (p.160).

Overall, I found this book to be interesting, but not a revelation. It might be that Smith's earlier publications have impacted qualitative research methodology to the extent that I'm already familiar with her propositions before reading them—but much of this argument seems similar to work with which I'm already familiar, from Whyte to PAR to participatory design to Latour. And as I mentioned above, the characterization of texts seems lacking, especially the notion that texts (a) remain the same in a sociologically meaningful way and (b) in themselves standardize activities across time and space. I'm open to a weak form of that argument, but Smith seems to be pushing for a strong form that severs texts from ongoing meaningful activity.

Nevertheless, it's a solid book packed with details about IE's theory, methodology, and practice. If you're interested in qualitative research in general and IE in particular, I recommend it.