chapter  18
8 Pages

Ethnography of communication


The term ethnography of communication was first used by Hymes in a seminal article in linguistics. Hymes argued that linguistic research should be based on the use of language in social contexts, rather than on the linguistic code. He suggested that ethnography must provide the “frame of reference” for studying the use of language in society (Hymes 1964: 3). Half a century later, Hymes’ call remains more relevant than ever in many fields, including translation and interpreting (T&I). The term ethnographies of communication as used in this article refers broadly to the use of ethnographic methods in T&I. According to Spradley, ethnography is “the work of describing a culture”

(1979: 3). Spradley further defines ethnography as “the study of a social situation,” a “stream of behavior (activities) carried out by people (actors) in a particular location (place)” (1980: 86). A social situation is thus a particular convergence of activities, actors, and place, and ethnography is the work of describing this convergence. Ethnography is concerned with detailed descriptions of people and their

activities. Ethnography may focus on a human process, such as communication or the use of technology (Wolcott 1973: xi; Neyland 2008: 30). Atkinson and Delamont have suggested that the study of material artifacts and technology deserves systematic attention in ethnographic contexts (2008: 292). As crosslinguistic and cross-cultural communication activities, T&I lends itself particularly well to ethnographic studies. Ethnography aims at grasping “the native’s point of view” (Malinowski 1922: 25). It seeks to obtain the emic or insider’s perspective (Fetterman 2010: 2). Willis and Trondman have characterized ethnography not as a single method but as a “family of methods” emphasizing direct sustained contact with actors and descriptions of the encounters (2000: 5). Ethnography, which typically relies on participant observation, is quite flexible and allows the use of multiple data acquisition modes, including interviews, historical and content analysis, questionnaires, and inspection of material artifacts. Participant observation involves spending time with people in the field, typically 12 months or more (Bernard 2006: 349), and making direct

observations. Participant observation yields insights that cannot be easily obtained solely through interviews and maximizes a researcher’s chances of making valid statements (Bernard 2006: 356). Moreover, ethnographic research can be conducted at a macro or micro

level. Macroethnography is holistic and may investigate a broad social issue, bringing many aspects of the issue into focus. Macroethnography, commonly referred to as “ethnography,” is usually based on a year or more of fieldwork. It is also typically the length of a monograph. Wolcott argues that anything less substantial can be “ethnographic not ethnography” (1995: 56). On the other hand, microethnography is a close-up study of a small social

unit. It typically has a narrower focus and a shorter time frame than a macroethnography. Microethnography has also been referred to as constitutive ethnography (Mehan 1979), ethnographic microanalysis (Erickson 1992), microethnography (Mehan 1998; Streeck and Mehus 2005), and microlevel ethnography (Fetterman 2010: 29). Microethnography is an approach and perspective that employs “fine-

grained sequential analysis … to examine interaction as constitutive of particular settings and activities” (Mehus 2006: 51). Microethnography and conversation analysis are both grounded in sequential analysis, but microethnography focuses on “aspects of bodily communication, such as gaze, gesture, postural configurations, and interactions with artifacts” (Mehus 2006: 73-74). Microethnography has primarily relied on the videotaping of interaction. A researcher’s choice of method may be driven by the research problem

and the time available. Ethnography typically focuses on a small number of cases and allows for an in-depth analysis of phenomena. Ethnography involves “a dialogic combination of different viewpoints, those of the observer and those of the observed” (Koskinen 2008: 6). Ethnography is about stepping out in the field, establishing rapport with informants, and conducting direct field-based observations. Ethnography does not aim at testing a pre-existing hypothesis; it begins with a broad research problem, but researchers must strive to remain open-minded and non-judgmental (Fetterman 2010: 1). They must not allow preconceived notions to influence their findings. Ethnographic research is inductive (O’Reilly 2012: 4); theory emerges from data (see Becker et al. 1961: 18). Researchers must have a broad research question before entering the field. Ethnographic research may adjust its initial focus as the study progresses: the focus may become broader or narrower. In spite of its versatility and other benefits, ethnography has its challenges

and limitations. Ethnographic research is subjective (Bernard 2006: 22), and the researcher plays a key role in data interpretation. The researcher must acknowledge personal biases that might affect research findings. Ethnography is also analytical; it focuses on depth rather than scope. Thus, ethnographic research findings may not be easily generalizable (LeCompte and Goetz 1982: 32). Finally, ethnographers must ensure confidentiality (O’Reilly 2012: 70) in their reporting in order to protect their collaborators.