Following the link that Laura provides, I come to the statement,

Researchers using institutional ethnography envision, implicitly, a more just world in which knowledge is produced and distributed more democratically, so that it can be used to challenge rather than uphold relations of domination.

I find myself wondering, in terms borrowed from a long-ago class in political anthropology whether the challenge is question is to foment resistance, reform, or revolution.

Conceived in terms of resistance, the aim would be to democratize knowledge in a way that enables those dealing with bureaucratic institutions to successfully evade or outmaneuver them to achieve their own goals. 

Conceived in terms of reform, the aim would be to equip the institutions to do a better better job, provide better service, enhance customer satisfaction, that sort of thing. I notice that several examples, e.g.,

Ellen Pence, at Praxis International ( has worked extensively with advocates to reform domestic violence case processing

seem to fall into this category. 

Neither resistance nor reform aims to overthrow the institutions in question, i.e., to foment a genuine revolution, whose aim will be to replace the top-down administrative knowledge being challenged with bottom-up understandings assumed to be more equitable and thus more just. 

I wonder how aiming at resistance, reform, or revolution would look in practice. How would these different aims effect ethnographic practice? I note, in particular, the three obstacles:

  1. the difficulty of setting aside institutional conceptualizations (e.g. legal or policy definitions of “domestic violence”; diagnostic descriptions such as “ADHD students”; typifications such as “parent involvement”; etc.) so that inquiry can begin from a perspective rooted in people’s activities. 
  2. securing funding for research. The grants process is entwined with the ruling relations that we critique, and the emergent nature of IE "research design" does not fit easily with the routine procedures of funding agencies or IRBs. 
  3. the resilience and continually emergent and transformative character of institutional ideologies and the “conceptual currencies” of ruling discourses. Just as people continually resist oppression and marginalization in their daily lives, the powers and machinery of ruling are continually revised and extended through people’s activities in policy, professional, and managerial positions. Positive change is enormously difficult to sustain, because “reform discourses” are quickly taken up and reshaped by multiple actors with varying interests.

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Replies to This Discussion

A belated response to John, who wrote at the begining of the month...

What the method IE unravels is the hidden functioning and features of daily doings that are taken-for-granted. Using this method of inquiry opens up everyday settings - be they hospitals, clinics, households, school rooms, emergency rooms, courtrooms - that we all experience and have experience with, so that people can make sense of what is going on. It aims to equip citizens with a blueprint or x-ray of why things happen as they do in their lives. I became acquainted with the method, very useful for what I set out to achieve in my research, by sitting with and closely reading a couple of IE projects.

As to the obstacles you enumerate, points one and three are the substance of what IE, when done well, unpicks and unpacks. As for the second point, I have not experienced trouble in having my work understood or funded. Getting projects funded and squeeking through the IRB is a dance worthy of an IE study, for sure!


Having read quite a number of IE articles, and anticipating using IE in my research in care settings, I have come to an inverse argument to John.  As Laura says, the hidden functionings and doings (activities) of ruling relations are laid bare in IE projects, and have been used particularly to expose the operation of neo-liberal counter-revolutions in Canadian health care.  However, to a cynical socialist like me, this neo-liberal influence was not news, but the result of a systematic application of ideology.  IE detected how it - unwittingly to them - changed healthcare workers' practices, and re-shaped how healthcare provision was thought about.  I have been tempted to say, "so what?"  But then, maybe Dorothy Smith would say I am using highly abstract and possibly gendered sociological concepts to arrive at my analysis, to which she could equally say "so what?". Is it possible that IE/point of entry/ethnomethodologically congruent/ground up approaches and sociological/abstract/authoritative approaches are technologies of analysis in a dialectical process/tension?  IE developed as an anti-thesis to sociological, abstract, institutional collaboration: is there a sythesis waiting out there?

In any ethnography, what can be established and followed up will be influenced by over-arching theory, even Grounded Theory!  Or should there always be a dialogue, mediated by others in a co-operative, between what has been observed and the observer's textual cultural artefacts?



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