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Towards equity-focused EdTech
A socio-technical approach

A day in the life of an ethnographer: Navigating our research field(s)

Published: 5 March 2024

Louise Couceiro

The idea of being ‘in the field’ is an intriguing one. Where does the field begin and where does it end? When is the ethnographer in the field and when are they not? Raymond Madden’s (2017) conceptualisation of the ethnographic field offers a helpful starting point:

‘An ethnographic field is not equivalent to a simple geographic or social space, nor is it a mental construct of the ethnographer, but it does require both these elements’ (p. 39). In other words, ethnographers need to construct ‘interrogative boundaries’ for their research, which are comprised of intellectual interests – ‘questions which impel the ethnographer’ – and geographic considerations that might tie separate places together into a distinct field of enquiry (p. 52).

In the context of our research, ‘the field’ is primarily the school environment. To explore how digital technologies are used in education and how this relates to ideas about equity, we are undertaking in-depth ethnographies in seven secondary schools across England. The school environment is a bounded architectural entity – it is a physical place that people arrive at, spend time in, and depart from every day.

Yet, when conceptualised as a research field, it is a complex, multi-layered space that cannot be straightforwardly circumscribed. It might be thought of as a ‘heterogeneous network’, which ‘incorporates mapping out the social relations of research participants and their connections to material and digital objects and physical sites’ (Burrell 2009: 191). Staff and students’ experiences with digital technologies are clearly entangled with other facets of their lives; their orientations towards and engagement with technologies are influenced by a myriad of socio-cultural and political factors. To add to this complexity, the digital is a space in which parameters are porous and boundaries are difficult to delineate.

Our ethnographic fields are blurry places.

In this blog post, we hope to offer a sense of what our ethnographic work entails on a day-to-day basis and how we navigate our research field(s). While we have constructed our ‘interrogative boundaries’, the reality of ethnographic research is that the researcher is rarely not in the field. Our fieldwork does not begin and end at the school gates. It continues when we are travelling home on the bus, when we are mulling over bits of data during lunchtime walks, and when we are writing field notes in the evenings with a cup of tea and a biscuit (or several).

Over the course of two years, three of us are spending around fourteen weeks at a time in various secondary schools around the country. We all have our own school fields, which contribute to the larger research field we are exploring – and building – together. Our relationships to these fields inevitably look and feel very different. As one might expect from a series of school ethnographies, our primary research tools include classroom observations, interviews with staff and students, and student focus groups and workshops. However, our days are filled with much more than organising and facilitating these research activities.

For me, ‘a day in the life of an ethnographer’ begins when I head out on my early morning run, when the interview I had the day before begins swirling around my head, or a classroom observation from a week ago suddenly resurfaces and something that had seemed insignificant takes on a whole new level of meaning. It continues on the train as I catch up on emails or read field notes from colleagues; momentarily leaving my own field to traverse into theirs. Once I arrive at school, I review my schedule for the day and make sure my observation templates and interview schedules are ready. Before assembly or staff briefing, I try to squeeze in some time on one or two other tasks. There are always on-going tasks to engage with, such as synthesising fieldwork notes, reading relevant literature, keeping on top of transcripts, labelling and filing data securely, liaising with staff and students to organise future interviews, observations and workshops, and writing notes. Always writing notes.

Listening also forms a significant part of my day – listening to what is said (and not said) by staff, students, and the wider school community, and listening to my own thoughts and reflections on what I am experiencing and observing. I chat with my fellow ethnographers to help make sense of data that feels instinctively interesting and important, but difficult to disentangle. We discuss emerging points of interest, similarity, and difference across our fields.

By immersing ourselves in our school environments we are able to explore the complex realities of how technology is embedded within schools’ cultures and practices with deep understanding and nuance. Our day-to-day practice demonstrates that our field(s) extend beyond the geographically and conceptually bounded fields we have constructed, ‘they are the entanglements through which ethnographic knowing emerges’ (Pink and Morgan 2013: 354). The conceptual shape and scope of the field is constantly shifting as we explore new themes and issues within and from beyond our data sets, for example, new government policy priorities, new school strategies, different perspectives emerging from interviews, and new theoretical frames that emerge from our academic discussions. Finding time and space outside of the school walls to reflect on what is happening within the school walls is a crucial part of undertaking rich, recursive, and reflexive ethnographic work. Even if it does mean we are eating too many biscuits.

Image by Syed Qaarif Andrabi on Pexels.