Mini Ethnography Assignment

Posted on November 3rd, 2011 in General by Neil David Buchanan  Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,


Preparing for this assignment brought back memories of being an undergraduate at Edinburgh in the early 1980s.  I was studying history then and we lived in terror of allowing any hint of subjectivity to creep into our essays and assignments.  It therefore came as a shock when reading for this task to find that not only was subjectivity “allowed” but, in some cases, it was seen as a positive thing.  Smith, as quoted in Gatson and Zweerink, point out that there is “no such thing as a non-participant observer.”  I wanted to explore how far I could allow myself to acknowledge that I was part of the experience.


I chose a group of which I have been a member for several years.  The group is affiliated to TESOL Arabia and, as such, has a particularly teacher-focused activity.  The special interest group in question, Learner Independence, is the larger of two groups with close links (the other having a third of the membership and focusing on Distance Learning).  I am not an active member of the group in the sense that I do not post on the Discussion Board but I do follow up on many of the links that arrive in the group feed.  Again, as Gatson and Zweerink point out, “multi-sited research is designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations.”  I was curious to see how these functioned and how far they took me from the main topic of the group i.e. learner independence.

Personalisation or Subjectivity?

My other aim was to see how I could experience this beyond a clinical exercise (which is how I initially viewed it).  I was struggling with how I was going to present my mini ethnography and was flicking through my notebook when I realised that the pages I am always drawn to are the ones with my mind maps.  Using “Inspiration“, I decided to see if I could create an ethnography in the way that I take notes and also work.  The result is shown below.  This is my subjectivity showing itself; I chose the colors, the headings, the layout and the text in the bubbles.  Of course, there were boundaries placed upon me by the software, but as Kress and others have pointed out, digital text is far more conducive to personal expression than linear conventional presentation.  This was my personal challenge to myself.  I added a deeper personal note with the images of one of my mind maps and part of the notes that I referred to as I worked.  I liked the idea of having my handwriting inscribed within the ethnography presentation.  At first I was frustrated by the shadow my arms and iPhone cast on the paper while I was trying to photograph it (my attempt at including scans didn’t work).  However, I then got caught up in the metaphor of “the ethnographer’s shadow”; literal, in this case.  How much of what I’ve presented represents what the group in question is all about?

More Metaphors

Finally, I wanted to include some nod to Gergen as quoted in Wesch’s Digital Ethnography: “the postmodern being is a restless nomad.”  I do not actually believe that this is true as any acquaintance with nomadic culture quickly shatters the idea that the nomad simply wanders.  However, I think what is important is the perception that digital culture facilitates restless exploration, hence my over-enthusiastic employment of arrows which I see as being the antithesis of nomadic thought and yet seem symptomatic of “click here”.

The image is quite large so please click on it to see it shown in a new window.

Mini ethnography: Learner Independence SIG

16 Responses to 'Mini Ethnography Assignment'

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  1.   Austin Tate said,

    on November 3rd, 2011 at 7:37 pm     Reply

    Neil, thanks for posting the ethnography to let us comment.

    I liked the way you phrased the study as an exploration of how far you travelled as you looked for the connections following Gatson and Zweerink mention of following “chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations.” I very much like connections and link making in my own studies so I was fascinated to follow some of the links.

    I felt frustrated that I could not click on the nodes and small thumbnails of your neat mind map and notes with ethnographer’s “shadow” cast over them. I have felt dissatisfied by the dispassionate and apparently disconnected form the community approach of some write studies… so I was please to see you changed your initial approach and felt able to let go and be immersed as a member of the community in your study.

  2.   Neil David Buchanan said,

    on November 3rd, 2011 at 10:14 pm     Reply

    I appreciate your feedback, Austin. I found that I became more interested in the journey rather than the destination with this activity. Especially after reading the other, far more detailed studies in this block’s reading list. I knew this mini ethnography would not reach such a depth of immersion so I felt more at ease to focus on why I was intrigued by my own reactions to aspects such as subjectivity vs objectivity.

    It also felt good to try out a new style of presentation online – it actually felt risky as I feel it skimps a lot of detail but the largely unseen, unfelt process of getting to this point provided the most satisfaction. It also took hours to get to grips with importing images and how to arrange the information, so some fatigue set in, too!

  3.   Daniel Griffin said,

    on November 3rd, 2011 at 10:37 pm     Reply

    This is a great way to present your findings Neil. It gives a really clear picture of how the group interacts with one another. I did need your supporting text to figure out what is actually being shared but I can’t see a way around that. I just looked them up in Google and it does look like a really interesting group – looking forward to digging into it a bit more on their website. Cheers!

  4.   Neil David Buchanan said,

    on November 4th, 2011 at 10:27 am     Reply

    Hi Daniel, thanks for the feedback. I use mind maps all the time but I’ve noticed that they are difficult for others to follow once finished. So I wanted to see if I could use one but with some explanatory text, too. I’m sure there’s a mind mapping group out there I could join!

  5.   Jen Ross said,

    on November 4th, 2011 at 2:27 pm     Reply

    “I think what is important is the perception that digital culture facilitates restless exploration, hence my over-enthusiastic employment of arrows which I see as being the antithesis of nomadic thought and yet seem symptomatic of “click here”” – just love this sentence! Have tumblr’ed it for posterity. And I really like what you’ve attempted here with the mindmap format. I know what you mean about the work all being behind the scenes, but I think it does show through. Especially interested in the ‘activity’ area that talks about restraint and non-critical exchange – would it be cheating for you to say a bit more about that? :-)

  6.   Carol Collins said,

    on November 5th, 2011 at 10:04 am     Reply

    Hi Neil

    Really liked your use of inspiration..i do a lot of mindmapping with medical students who use it to represent the innterconnectedness of their studies, and I think it’s a really great way to represent a community as it shows the complexity of links between the branches of activity, connection etc. that users experience. I love the way your shadow on your notes became the shadow of the ethnographer – a brilliant metaphor!

  7.   Grace Elliott said,

    on November 5th, 2011 at 10:20 am     Reply

    Hi Neil,

    This is great – so refreshing.

    I’ve made use of mind maps in the past but not so much in recent years. I can only guess at the number of hours needed to put this together. Importing and fatigue…. fully understand.

  8.   Jeremy Keith Knox said,

    on November 6th, 2011 at 8:33 pm     Reply

    Great use of mindmapping software here, and I share others enthusiasm for it. I think your metaphor of being more interested in the journey than the destination really works, and suits the ethnographic approach perfectly, especially for this size of study. The mind map gives a good overview of the extent of the community, and I am thinking how it might be useful for a kind of quantitative study, however, like others I found myself wanting to follow many of the nodes and find out more!

  9.   Neil David Buchanan said,

    on November 7th, 2011 at 9:38 am     Reply

    @Jen – thanks for the feedback. As you know, my fascination lies with how context et al influence interaction and collaboration. As with the “Buffy” study, I found that the real life world of this group is very much alive and kicking and this may be why many members seem to use this as a post box rather than a chat room. The other dimension is the local context and the fact that all email addresses are shown on this site. Public life here tends to be more restrained in comment and public expression of opinion and public rebukes or criticism is rarely given. In online newspapers, you can find a lot of criticism of different groups but this is presented under the guise of pseudonyms. In the group I looked at, exchanges were very polite because I think, to use a local phrase, you don’t know “who’s standing behind” the person you’re talking to. Occasionally older members tell newer members that a subject has been covered or one of the old timers recently suggested that a topic be put on hold for a while to allow “folks” the chance to digest information and try it out for themselves. Overall, I think the online representations very much mirror conventional local practice and form.
    @ Jeremy and others – yes, following the nodes would have been my next step but it was time to “publish and be damned” or keep tweaking! I’ll try next time!

    •   Jen Ross said,

      on November 9th, 2011 at 10:13 am     Reply

      This hooks this work in neatly to the wider web debates going on at the moment about anonymity – google’s decision to insist on ‘real names’ in google + has brought this to a head in the past couple of months. What’s your take on that position?

      •   Neil David Buchanan said,

        on November 20th, 2011 at 4:10 pm     Reply

        Bit of a delay in my response but I think Kevin’s ethnography neatly highlights the issues that surround both anonymity and attributed comments. Most of the world lives under govt systems that do not allow for democratic expressions of opinion or for any notion of “freedom of speech” or “right of reply”. This is actually supported by many Western universities as they are they ones who have not only devised the technology for internet censorship but often administer it, for sizeable fees, too. I think it’s too facile an argument to say, well, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide as what constitutes “wrong”? Even as I write this, I’m aware that I must censor myself in terms of the examples I can use to illustrate my point! Retribution happens not only at govt level but also at employer level, which is probably the scariest for most people as with employment comes right of abode, salary and future employability. Until there is a completely level playing field, it is disingenuous to speak of “no need for anonymity”.

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