Ethnography in Esl

Ethnography in ESL Review

Ethnography has recently become very popular in English as a Second Language (ESL). The basic idea behind ethnography is that experimental research cannot give us the same perspective as observations of true learning environments, such as classrooms, social environments, homes, etc. Ethnography looks at the moment to moment interactions within these environments. This enables the ethnographer to get a sense for the socioculture of the learning environment.
Watson-Gegeo defines ethnography as ???the study of people??™s behavior in naturally occurring, ongoing settings, with a focus on the cultural interpretation of behavior.??? [Watson-Gegeo 1988, p. 576] The ethnographer observes a learning environment, noting all the interactions that are taking place. He then describes the outcome of those interactions and the participants??™ understanding of their actions. Some people mistake ethnography with qualitative and natural research. While similar, ethnographic research distinguishes itself by focusing on holism and by treating culture as vital to the analysis.
Ethnography puts a large focus on the behavior of people in groups and cultural patterns that come up in that behavior. It also explains every action or behavior in its relation to the whole system, which it is a part of. The ethnographic researcher creates a theoretical framework, which he then uses to direct his attention to specific situations within the research. ???If observation is not guided by an explicit theoretical framework, it will be guided only by the observer??™s??¦values, attitudes, and assumptions about ???what sorts of things make up the world [or universe of study], how they are related, and how they act.??? [p. 578]
Emic-Etic analysis is a characteristic of ethnography. It calls for the ethnographer to see each situation through the eyes of its participants and not through the eyes of the observer. Emic analysis refers to the cultural perspectives, interpretations of the participants and how they use them to derive knowledge, as well as guide their own behavior. Emit terms, concepts and categories focus on the participants??™ behavior observed by the ethnographer. Thus, emic analysis paves the way for ???etic extensions,??? [p. 580] which make comparisons possible. Ethnographic comparisons depend on detailed emic work.
An ethnographer??™s goal is to come up with a complete theory of the settings and culture of a learning environment. In order to reach this goal, an ethnographer must observe the learning environment, interview its participants, use audio and videotaping for closer analysis of the interactions, as well as collect documents and materials used in the environment. A complete ethnographic report should present examples that are a ???result of systematic selection of representative examples. [p. 585]
Ethnography has become popular in ESL because there a few existing extensive studies of the ESL learning environment. Since culture plays such a big role in ESL, it is only natural that ethnographic study is called for. Students pick up language in various diverse environments. The student-teacher relationship is a perfect example. In a Japanese school, the teacher is always respected by the students and plays a small role in the parenting of the student. However, in the United States, the teacher is frequently disrespected by student and is expected to serve as a surrogate parent during the day. The American teacher is also always blamed for the lack of progress students make. The two environments teach the same material but have a very different culture.
The author ends the article with a summary of ethnographic research, pointing out the importance of ???systematic, detailed and rigorous??? [p. 588] research that is needed for a complete and successful ethnographic study.

Watson-Gegeo, A. K. (2008). Ethnography in ESL: Defining the essentials. TESOL Quarterly, 22, 575-589.