Write an ethnographic description of a communicative event with which you are familiar

MA in Language & Cultural Diversity – Researching Linguistic Diversity


Write an ethnographic description of a communicative event with which you are familiar

4,000 words. 

Notes of guidance:

  • Select a fairly simple and clearly structured event, with well-defined boundaries. 

You’ll start off with good first-hand, participant knowledge of the event, and through the process of writing and analysis, you’ll achieve some critical detachment from it, gradually uncovering the way in which it is organised. 

  • there are a number of analytic frameworks that can help you think about the event systematically – eg the notion of ‘activity type’, Rampton’s notes on ‘Describing the social and cultural context of language use’, Hymes’ SPEAKING, sketched out in SavilleTroike 1989, or Johnstone 2000:96-99.   Look carefully at these sensitising frameworks (though don’t assume that they all agree 100% on what each descriptive term is supposed to cover!)
  • use one or more of the descriptive frameworks to describe the essential components of the communicative event you’re looking at.  Try to differentiate its essential components from merely incidental ones. 
  • consider the extent to which components are interconnected.

Think about variation within the type of the event you select:

  • you might like to show some of the variations that occur within the general frame of the communicative event that you choose.
  • you could consider some of the ways in which people most often “break the rules” and act inappropriately (and what kinds of sanction apply).

Consider position of the event in the wider sociocultural context:

  • you could relate the event to the particular ‘speech community’/social group/network and domain in which it occurs.
  • you might suggest ways in which your analysis points to more general features of the particular subculture you’re examining.

Aims and approaches to ethnographic description:

  • use the analytic concepts to probe and illuminate the event you’re examining.  The purpose here is not simply to show how these concepts can be applied to a particular event – it is to show how these concepts help us to appreciate aspects of the event and its cultural context that we might otherwise overlook.
  • in ethnography, if you are forced to choose between respect for the data and respect for an analytic framework you choose respect for the data.  In starting out on this exercise here, you are very much insiders with the same kind of unconscious expertise as an ethnographer’s informants.  Don’t allow any particular analytic framework to stifle or restrict the intuitions and understanding that you have about the event you’re looking at.  Use a framework to explicate and organise your understanding, but do not hesitate to supplement or go beyond it if, as an insider, you think there are important points which the particular framework does not bring out.
  • you could consider what broader value and use of this kind of description might have. 

Analysis and writing-up:

  • You’ll have chosen an event to study because you think it’s potentially interesting.  Make a note of what initially draws you to it, but then put the note to one side, and devote yourself just trying to figure out how the event is organised.  In the process, you’ll uncover interesting aspects that you hadn’t previously anticipated, and these give rise to further questions. 
  • Keep notes as your proceed with your analysis, building up a trail of observations, claims, questions and further observations.  This will result in a mini-archive that you draw on when it comes to writing up.
  • The analysis will involve a lot of writing, but it’s different from writing up.  In the analysis, your central concern is with producing an accurate description.  In the writing up, you can also address the wider significance of what you’ve discovered, and from the start, you should try to persuade your reader that it’s worth bothering to read on.  Though you of course have to be accurate and honest in your final portrayal of the event, you should also try to make it interesting in your written presentation by, among other things, trying to address the question “So what?”. 
  • Give careful thought to the best way of presenting your final assignment, and try to make sure that it’s more than just a descriptive list of the components in the event you’ve chosen.  The question or ‘hook’ that you hang your final account on may only emerge half-way through the analysis itself.

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