Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

Ethnographic Technique and the Pedagogy of Engagement

Alice Lesnick


When we work to merge civic engagement with academic study, we need new understandings and models of pedagogy. In the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program, we use ethnographic technique, chiefly participant observation, interviewing, surveying and document analysis, to inform praxis-based curricula and to suggest pathways to educational reform. Drawing on and directly teaching students about theories of culture grounded in ethnographic research and modes of writing strengthens our ability to posit learning as a non-linear process in which more refined, collaborative and multi-dimensional inquiry, rather than mastery, is the ultimate goal. 

A narrative from my practice below reflects three guiding premises of ethnographically oriented teaching: that people are culture bearing, that knowledge is contingent and fluid, and that lived experience is worthy of academic study. 

My students, undergraduates in an Education/Praxis seminar entitled “Qualitative Research: Theories, Texts, and Practices,” had been team-teaching a seven-week mini-course on qualitative research skills and concepts for eighth-grade students participating in a college readiness program. As teacher researchers, my students created the syllabus for this mini-course and met each week to plan their lessons. At the same time, they conducted research into the question, “How are the middle school students understanding the meaning, practice and purpose of research?” In order to help them learn firsthand the complexities of research ethics in institutional settings, I guided my students as a research team in writing and submitting the materials needed to make a formal application to our College’s Institutional Review Board in order to gain institutional sanction for their project. With permission negotiated through dialogue with the school principal, the program director and the student group’s teacher, my students took field notes during their teaching visits, kept field journals, and surveyed the middle school students. They also analyzed the students’ writing. 

One day about midway through the mini-course, I asked my students to work with a partner to read one another’s field notes for the same day of instruction; the team-teaching situation made this possible. As they read one another’s representations of the same period of time, I asked them to keep track of their impressions in four columns on a piece of paper marked “focal areas,” “theories,” “assumptions” and “gaps and silences.” After each student had read someone else’s field notes and analyzed them using this format, I asked them to re-read their own field notes in light of their classmates’ notes and observations of their notes. 

Thus, the students were able to experience and discuss how their representations of the “same” events varied with the many differences in their perceptions and perspectives. While one student exclusively wrote down bits of dialogue, another included no dialogue. While one student used gender as a construct with which to organize observations of students, another dwelt on one critical incident concerning race. While one student noted classmates’ behavior and decisions as teachers, another did not name classmates for fear of offending them since the group had already decided to use e-mail to share their field notes with one another after each session. This class session acted as a turning point for our class in terms of students’ awareness of their own perspectives and biases, and the sources of these in their individual histories, including their educational histories.

This vignette suggests how a cultural orientation supports students in attending analytically and reflectively to significant differences between their ways of thinking and learning in and about another community. Ethnographic tools such as field notes and research questions focused on community members’ perspectives of their own experience (in this case, the experience of learning about research) serve as intellectual resources for a pedagogy of engagement in which students bring academic and cultural frames to bear on their observations, interactions with each other and with people beyond the classroom, and interpretations.

Teachers and others interested in using an ethnographic approach to fuel engaged pedagogy might begin by posing certain entry questions concerning current curricula. These questions include:

  • How does and how could an ethnographic view of knowledge as socially distributed across human groups inform my subject matter, curriculum and pedagogy?
  • How could the notion of learning from living people through oral inquiry, participant observation and document-based analysis orient and inform my teaching, curriculum design and students’ experiences of learning and schooling?
  • How might an ethnographic approach enlarge my and my students’ conception of the kinds and purposes of academic writing?

Teaching ethnographically asks us to reconsider the significance of culture to education. Like individuals and classrooms, cultures exist in complex relationships of interdependence, conflict and cooperation. Learning ethnographically calls on teachers and students to understand that they — like culture, learning and knowledge — are ever changing. A knowledge base concerning the significance of culture and associated practices of perception and communication for working from a culturally informed perspective offers students and their teachers resources for approaching new contexts, uncertainty and change in ways that promote respect for their own and others’ complexity.


Alice Lesnick teaches and conducts research in educational studies as senior lecturer in education and director of the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program at Bryn Mawr College. She also serves as faculty coordinator of staff-student educational programs at the College.