Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Critical ethnography

core definition

Critical ethnography is an approach to ethnography that attempts to link the detailed analysis of ethnography to wider social structures and systems of power relationships.

explanatory context

Critical ethnography is similar to conventional ethnography in that it attemps to illicit subjects' meanings and grasp the subject's point ofview. What is important for critical ethnography, however, is that the probing of the subjects' meanings is not the end of the story. The subjects operate in a socio-historically specific milieu and are not independent of structural factors. Their meanings may appear to be group-centred but are mediated by structural concerns. Critical ethnography has to stay alert to these structural elements.


There are three ways of undertaking critical ethnographic research.


The first is to consider the subject group in a wider context. This is the weakest form of critical ethnography and may not strictly be critical if, for example, the contextualisation merely takes the form of analysing functional relationships between the subject group and the wider social milieu.


The second is to focus on the wider structural relations and examine the ways in which the social processes that are evident in the subject group are mediated by structural relations.


The third, is to incorporate ethnography directly into a dialectical analysis. In this approach, the understanding developed from the ethnographic study is integrally related to the deconstruction of the social structures. Ethnographic techniques are thus used to elaborate an understanding that goes beyond surface appearance and thereby specifies the nature of the essential relationship of the structure under analysis.


In the first two approaches to critical ethnography there is a tendency to explore a group and then situate it. In the third, the tendency is to begin with the structural relationships and then undertake an ethnographic enquiry in order to facilitate structural analysis.


Marxists, feminists and black perspectives have all adopted critical ethnography of one kind or another in a order to get a closer understanding of the subjects perceptions with a view to elaborating a critical analysis designed to show how these perceptions relate to wider social structures (of oppression).


Techniques in critical ethnography

All the approaches to critical ethnography make use of the usual ethnographic data collection processes such as in-depth interviews, semi-structured interviews and unstructured interviews, particularly dialogic interviewing, as well as participant and non-participant observation. These tend to be developed in specific ways in critical ethnography.


The role of the critical ethnographer is to keep alert to the structural factors whilst probing meanings. To explore, where possible, the structural factors that underlay the contradictions between action and words; to see to what extent group processes are externally mediated; to investigate how the subjects see group norms and practices constrained by external social factors; to see how prevailing ideologies are addressed; to analyse the extent to which subversive or resistant practices transcend prevailing ideological forms; and so on.


Digging deeper to illicit frames of reference also has political implications. Conventionally the researcher-respondent relationship is hierarchically structured with the researcher directing the exchange and extracting information. The retention of control by the interviewer/researcher and the compliance of the respondent/subject is intended, conventionally, to ensure minimum contamination by the researcher, thus maintaining the validity of the research situation. This view is contrary to the aims of critical social research for several reasons.


First, it subverts the critical process, presupposing the primacy of the researcher's frame of reference (even if it is subsequently shifted through reflexive accounts).


Second, it presupposes a one-way flow of information that leaves the respondent in exactly the same position having shared knowledge and ignores the self-reflective process that the imparting of information involves.


Third, the direct corollary of the self-reflection is the inevitable engagement in dialogue where information is required or perspectives need to be discussed. The involvement of the researcher in this real dialogue is integral to the critical ethnographic process.


Fourth, the critical ethnographic interview (in whatever its form) is not neutral but directs attention at oppressive social structures and informs both researcher and respondent. Thus digging down to reveal the respondent's frame of reference is not meant to be an oppressive hierarchical process but a liberating dialogical one. In that sense it is linked directly to the totalistic analysis.


A major problem for ethnographers is the sorting, coding and organising of ethnographic material as ethnographic research invariably leads to the collection of an enormous amount of detailed accounts, quotes, examples, etc. The production of a finished ethnographic report requires the generation of a framework (or 'angle') and a selection from the empirical data for illustrative purposes. The choice of material is guided by the theoretical framework which has emerged in the course of the study. For critical social research the framework will be informed by the observed relationships of the study group to the oppressive structure.


The process of assimilating and reflecting on the data and the research process is the most difficult but also the most crucial part of the critical ethnographic process. There are no simple techniques for doing this as it is the shuttling between detailed material and wider social milieu which is at the heart of the dialectically generated critique. The researcher has to get to know the data and to see it from different perspectives. Critical ethnography requires the location of interesting social microcosms in wider structural forms. It also requires that the understanding of these structural forms is mediated by the closely observed detail of social practices and the meanings they encompass.


One way this might be achieved is through multiple reading of data using the standard pile building approach (see reporting ethnography). The process of segmenting the data into themes for horizontal reading is guided by recurrent ideas that occur in the data, but also by the sets of structural relations that appear to bear on the field of study.


The identification of pertinent structural relations is not generated by the detailed ethnographic work alone. It requires that, in parallel to it, the researcher undertake a broad exploration of the prevailing social, political and economic structure in which the detailed study is located. This may, and often does, involve an historical examination of structural changes to show how these have impinged upon the subjects of the ethnographic study.


Almost invariably the first segmentation will be but a rough approximation to the themes which ultimately guide the critical analysis. After the first segmentation the data is read horizontally, by theme, to assess the internal cohesiveness of the identified themes and the interrelationship between themes. The critical ethnographer thus seeks to reveal both contradictions and 'ideological mediations'. Contradictions occur in the disjunctions between people's words and actions and inconsistencies in expressed opinions or activities. Ideological mediations are reflected in the way stereotypes, myths, or dominant conceptualisations guide or legitimate respondent's actions and meanings.


The contradictions and ideological mediations thus revealed provide a way of re-examining the data and the dialectical relationships between social structure and detailed observation that are emerging from the analysis. Themes are re-construed, the data reorganised into new piles and re-read horizontally until the researcher has identified the underlying relationships that inform the observed social phenomena.


This process of data segmentation and horizontal reading can be done during the fieldwork, as well as after its completion, but almost always requires that ethnographers withdraw from the field temporarily in order to examine the data and locate it in a wider structure.


Critical ethnography by its very nature means that the researcher is very closely involved in the research which is both an advantage and a drawback. It is an advantage because the researcher has a 'feel' for the diverse data and can see how it relates to alternative theoretical frameworks. Being close can be a drawback if it inhibits a critical appraisal of the material (a failure to see 'the wood for the trees'). This is why it is necessary to adopt the multiple reading approach to the material.


NOTE: the term critical ethnography has been used to mean a reflexive approach (i.e. self-critical) to ethnographis study. This is not further discussed here as, in fact, all ethnogaphy should be reflexive. The term critical thnography is reserved for ethnographic study that takes a critical social research approach, viz. explores wider social structures and cultural contexts as well as subject's meanings, as described above.

analytical review

Madison (2004, p. 5) wrote:

Critical ethnography begins with an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain. By “ethical responsibility,” I mean a compelling sense of duty and commitment based on moral principles of human freedom and well –being, and hence a compassion for the suffering of living beings. The conditions for existence within a par- ticular context are not as they could be for specific subjects; as a result, the researcher feels a moral obligation to make a contribution toward changing those conditions toward greater freedom and equity. The critical ethnogra- pher also takes us beneath surface appearances, disrupts the status quo, and unsettles both neutrality and taken-for-granted assumptions by bringing to light underlying and obscure operations of power and control. .

associated issues

Reporting critical ethnographic research

When the critical ethnographic researcher has gained an understanding, the production of a report is the chance to share that understanding with others. The 'conventional' (quantitative scientistic) approach to reporting empirical work should be avoided. This conventional approach tends to a report structure that idealises the research process as a logical sequence of discrete phases. It suggests an introduction which provides an overview of the context, a literature review, the identification of the theoretical concern of the research, the specification of hypotheses, a central block of 'results', an analysis of the results, the implications for theory, and suggestions for further research.


Instead, the report of critical ethnographic research should be presented as coherent argument, a story with a plot. The details included in the final report should be interwoven into the fabric of the plot. Critical social research is primarily concerned with analysis and reporting of substantive issues rather than the logic of the research process.


The substantive issue is the central focus of the work and any critical social research report must indicate what central question is being addressed. A central ‘plot’ is identified and sustained throughout. The most revealing and clear examples from amongst the separate theme piles is used to illustrate the plot. In short, the research is presented as a 'story'. The upshot is that the core argument remains as a skeleton which is filled out by empirical details. The details are not gathered together into an inaccessible block which is subsequently interpreted for the reader, as in the conventional approach. There is no pretence, in the story approach, of inductive generalisability based on an 'objective' central block of data whose absence would be like tearing out the heart of the account and thus render the report useless. In the story approach, the data and the theory can be shown to have mutually influenced each other, the dialectical process emerges as the research angle is revealed in the plot.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 3.3.3

Critical Social Research Section 1.4


Madison, D.S., 2004, Critical Ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance , available at, accessed 4 February 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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