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Critical ethnography

Presenter: Debra Hayes

Respondent: Ken Johnston

Time: 4:30-6:30pm, 26 November 2009 (refreshments at 4:30pm for 5:00pm start)

Venue: Room 351, Education Building (A35), The University of Sydney

Negotiated ethnography: the possibilities for practice, by Debra Hayes

Despite advances in theoretical conceptualisations of inequities in education, and more thorough mappings of the form and distribution of inequities, practice remains problematic, particularly in contexts in which there are high levels of poverty and difference. While undertaking research in schools in these communities in recent years, I have worked with university, system and school-based colleagues to develop negotiated ethnographic research processes that involve the participants in all stages of the research – the identification of useful data, the development and collection of appropriate data, as well as its analysis.

The resulting artefacts are designed to serve a research and local purpose, such as providing feedback on collective practice and its effects. These artefacts communicate the data collected (observations of classrooms and meetings, professional dialogue about students work, teaching resources and programs) into an accessible written form that provides the basis for ongoing research and analysis. In this presentation, the ethnographic approach adopted in this research is described and situated among other ethnographic studies conducted in these contexts, and it is distinguished from aligned processes such as action research. The iterative and ongoing nature of the field work is illustrated and discussed in terms of its particular suitability to challenging contexts. The main contribution of this approach is an analysis of the possibility of this negotiated ethnographic endeavour, which takes the form of sustained critical conversation, to influence that which it sets out to describe – practice.


Working through the difficulties in negotiated ethnography, by Ken Johnston
Negotiated ethnographic research in schools serving economically disadvantaged and culturally diverse communities has a dual purpose. Firstly, it uncovers the frameworks of meaning and the social and educational practices that create and sustain patterns of inequality in student participation and learning. At the same time, and this is the second purpose, the researchers work collaboratively with the research subjects (students, teachers, and principals) to change the institutional practices that hinder or diminish the quality of learning made available to the students. In this presentation I bring to light some of the complexities that arise when the researcher blends the roles of research and professional development. I will explore the tensions that arise in the course of research, and the institutional resistances that arise within these very difficult school settings to insulate and reduce the process of school change. I will suggest several methodological and theoretical reformulations to the negotiated ethnographic approach that might help overcome some of these difficulties.


About the presenters

Debra Hayes is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, as the University of Sydney. Debra’s research is located in contexts in which there are high levels of poverty and difference. She draws upon systems of thinking that focus on the effects of disadvantage to examine how these are constituted by schooling discourses and teaching practices. Debra’s research is located within the field of equity in education. Chief among her concerns has been the identification and description of pedagogical and leadership practices associated with equitable outcomes from education. Her research is distinguished by detailed longitudinal studies of schools in disadvantaged communities that aim to shed light on how to initiate and sustain change that leads to improvement. She is a co-author of ‘Teachers and Schooling Making a Difference: Productive Pedagogies, Assessment & Performance’ (Allen & Unwin) and ‘Leading Learning: Making Hope Practical in Schools’ (Open University Press).

Dr Ken Johnston is a sociologist and educator who has focused his research and teaching upon social justice and education. He recently worked with Professor Tony Vinson as a member of the three-person Inquiry Team on the independent Public Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in NSW. As a member of the Changing Schools, Changing Times research project, he examined how four NSW high schools in very difficult circumstances tried to improve the quality of student learning. Ken is an Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. He was previously Head of the Sociology At Macquarie University. He has published extensively in the sociology of education and his recent research has been in the field of poverty and education.

Session archive

  • Session recording MP3 (NA).
  • Presentation slides PDF (TBA MB)

References & recommended readings

  • TBA