Critical Ethnographic Research

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This chapter will introduce the philosophical underpinnings, research paradigm, methodology, and theoretical framework that will be used to explore my overarching research question:
How is food literacy conceptualized and communicated?
This research was approached using a critical research paradigm, tenets of critical ethnography, and a case study approach to inform my understanding of FL in the NS public school system. It is important to acknowledge that only tenets of critical ethnography were used in this study due to the NS work-to-rule job action, as this limited my ability to complete participant observations in the school community.

Philosophical Underpinnings

It is important to articulate philosophical assumptions in research projects; these assumptions consist of a basic set of beliefs that guide inquiries and construct a researcher’s worldview (Creswell, 2013). Worldviews differ in the nature of reality (ontology), how we know reality (epistemology), the role values, beliefs, and culture play in research (axiology), the process of implementing the research (methodology) and the language of research (rhetoric) (Creswell, 2013).

This research study employed a Constructivist worldview. Creswell (2013) relates constructivism to the subjective meanings that are formed by and through individual experiences, culturally and historically (epistemology). Constructivists posit that individuals draw upon knowledge, understanding, and meaning from interactions within the world (Bisman & Highfield, 2012). Constructivists consider multiple realities and truths (ontology) while aiming to understand the meaning of phenomena through participants and their subjective view by deconstructing the realities (axiology) (Creswell, 2013). Therefore, constructivists depend on feedback from participants to generate inductive interpretations.

A qualitative research approach often embraces a constructivist worldview “wherein the researcher seeks to establish the meaning of a phenomenon from the views of the participants to identify shared meaning, culture, and behaviour” (Fusch & Ness, 2017, p. 924); this approach aligns with ethnography. Likewise, critical ethnography is underpinned by a critical and/or social-constructivist paradigm that assumes the meaning of human actions and interactions is bound by complexity, intersectionality, and contradiction.

Research Paradigm

This research was explored using a critical paradigm. The critical paradigm, informed by critical theory, promotes the idea that the world and reality are socially constructed and influenced by the socio-cultural and political context (LeCompte, & Schensul, 1999b). This paradigm attempts to describe the underlying structures and processes that influence FL through gathering information about lived experiences and their origins (Brookfield, 2005).

Brookfield (2005) suggests the need to challenge ideology by means of identifying and addressing the ways that certain ideas and beliefs may be ambiguous which often serves to endorse the interests of those with power; he further proposes that part of this challenge involves countering hegemony as the process by which “people learn to embrace as commonsense wisdom, certain beliefs, and political conditions that work against their interests and serve those of the powerful” (p. 43). Finlayson (2005) indicates the goal of critical theory is not just to determine what is wrong with contemporary society now, but to identify progressive aspects and tendencies within it to help transform society for the better though progressive and transformational change. In fact, it is through analyzing the broader context that conditions which hinder or enhance humans to thrive can be revealed.

Critical Theory

Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, set the agenda for critical thinking by examining reasoning and assumptions, and power relations. Though the term critical theory originated in the early 1900s to challenge dominant view across many disciplines, it has since evolved to “offer a multidisciplinary approach to society” as it “combines perspectives drawn from political economy, sociology, cultural theory, philosophy, anthropology, and history” (Bronner & Kellner, 1989, pp. 1–2). As such, critical inquiry explores cultural meanings and social relations while challenging the political, social, and economic influences.

Paulo Freire, one of the most influential scholars/practitioners related to the development and advancement of critical literacy, stimulated learning to encourage individuality, citizenship, social justice, and democratic participation in all aspects of life (Kellner, 2003). Applying Freire’s work on literacy allows one to, “understand that learning to read the social context in which our food is produced, distributed, prepared, consumed, and disposed of defines the terrain of food literacy”.

In addition, Jurgen Habermas has generally been regarded as the most important contemporary representative of critical theory and set forth criteria in his theory of communicative action to evaluate claims in critical literacy by taking into account the social and structural contexts of action (1984, 1987). Both Freire and Habermas theorize society, in which school systems belong, is linked to education, social domination, and cultural reproduction (Kellner, 2003) which ultimately creates power imbalances and inequities. This correlates to the earlier discussion (Chapter Two; Section 2.3.4) with regards to comprehensive school health and school culture affecting the uptake of programs, such as FL.

Critical Ethnography

Various definitions of ethnography exist throughout the literature. Creswell (2013) states that ethnography is a qualitative design meant to investigate, “describe, and interpret the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviours, beliefs, and language in a culture-sharing group” (p. 90).

According to Morse (1987), ethnography is considered focused when investigating specific values, beliefs and practices of a particular phenomenon. “The aim of the ethnographer is to learn from (rather than to study) members of a cultural group – to understand their worldview as they define it” (Mischra, 2005, p. 31). Bolman & Deal (2013) indicate culture is “both a product and a process. As a product, it embodies wisdom accumulated from experience. As a process, it is renewed and re-created as newcomers learn the old ways and eventually become teachers themselves” (p. 263). To that end, culture provides rules and routines that enable order, regularity, familiarity, and predictability (Whitehead, 2002).

Ethnography has been used in schools since the late 1960s (Anderson, 1989). While ethnography was introduced into the educational system, other theorists took on a critical lens and made their way into educational discourse (Foucault, 1972; Freire, 1997; Habermas, 1975; Horkenheimer, 1972). This critical inquiry provoked important questions related to the role of schools in relation to the social and cultural context (Anderson, 1989) assuming that empowered and disempowered individuals exist simultaneously in the school system.

Furthermore, there is a need for a rich critical research method in the field of health promotion to explore the determinants of health (Cook, 2005). Cook (2005) highlights the congruence between critical ethnography and health promotion by stating “both health promotion and critical ethnography aim to give more power, and thus control, to those affected by social policies and ideologies” (p. 135). Critical ethnography is “central to what interdisciplinary work is supposed to deliver: a gaze that goes beyond the limitations of discipline, and that enables one to look at complex, multilayered problems in novel ways” (Monteiro, 2018, p. 155). Both health and education are interdisciplinary as they intersect many disciplines.

Critical ethnography is informed by critical theory; therefore, it is an applied form of ethnography in search of knowledge, grounded in political analysis to inform social change (Creswell, 2013) by uncovering invisible power and privilege processes and practices that bring about social injustice and inequities. Likewise, critical ethnography “is understood as a form of knowledge production which supports transformative as well as interpretive concerns” (Simon & Dippo, 1986).

Considering a constructivist approach to multiple realities, this research will take the approach that “the truth of something can only be seen through the use of the totality of perspectives ones can bring to bear upon it” (Apple, 2004, p. 124) in order to expose the varying power relations and inequities. Therefore, a critical ethnography approach to explore FL in the school environment as well as the role of language/discourse (looking for meaning) in constructing how and what has created the FL practices and processes was employed. Due to its critical nature, its longstanding use in the field of education, and its interdisciplinary nature (applied to health promotion), tenets of a critical ethnography approach are justified for this study.

Critical Ethnographic Case Study

Recognizing that ethnographic investigations may take years, an “ideal” ethnographic approach is not always a pragmatic option when working within the bounds of the school realities; for that reason, an ethnographic perspective, resembling a mini-ethnographic approach, was taken. With mini-ethnography, the research is bounded in time and space by means of a case study design (Fusch & Ness, 2017). Therefore, a qualitative, critical ethnographic case study approach was employed in this research. This approach provided the opportunity to make detailed inquiries for strong data collection, despite not being in the field for extended periods of time.

According to Willis (2007), a case study is comparable to ethnography. However, what sets a case study apart from ethnography is its boundedness and specificity (Stake, 2005). Yin (2014) asserts case studies are useful when how or why questions are being asked, when the researcher studies a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context, and when the boundaries are not clearly obvious. Furthermore, Willis (2007) outlines three specific attributes for case study research:

  1. It allows you to gather rich, detailed data in an authentic setting.
  2. It is holistic and thus supports the idea that much of what we can know about human behaviour is best understood as lived experience in the social context.
  3. Unlike experimental research, it can be done without predetermined hypothesis and goals. (p. 240)

Case study selection must consider the research purpose, questions and theoretical context (Stake, 2005). Moreover, Stake (2005) uses three terms to describe case studies: intrinsic, instrumental, and the multiple or collective case study. This study can be characterized as an instrumental case study in that it is a case “examined mainly to provide insight into an issue or to redraw a generalization” (Stake, 2000, p. 437). It is a “case” of reference practices in the NS public school system that incorporated study of dimensions of FL, the socio-cultural context of teachers and parents, and the interaction of the environment as ‘reference point’ for school FL. The intent was to gain insight and full, rich understanding of the influences informing how FL is conceptualized and communicated within NS school communities.

Therefore, it is not strictly a case study of the NS public school system, nor any of its individual school communities; it is a case study of a particular social and informational practice related to how FL is conceptualized and communicated by its own particular Nova Scotian context. Due to the focus of the study and its congruent attributes to a case study method, a qualitative, critical ethnographic case study approach was justified as my methodology of choice. This design enabled me to generate, as well as study, theory as it relates to FL conceptualization and communication in the real world.

Theoretical Framework

Within the context of ethnography, Whitehead (2002) applies the Cultural Systems Paradigm (CSP). The CSP involves multiple phenomena (cultural, social, ecological, and psychological) found in all human societies and is based on four underlying ethnographic principles:

  • the principle of universal human cultural categories (individual and normative behavioural patterns, individual and shared ideational structures, significant social systems, and expressive culture)
  • the principle of human ecosystems (if cultural systems were going to be properly understood, they must be studied as components of their own human ecosystems)
  • the principle of paradigmatic flexibility (flexible, and not rigid, because of the differences in behavioural and ideational expressions – both across human groups and individuals, as well as within the individual)
  • the principle of interrelationships among socio-cultural contexts, processes, and meaning systems (to understand the socio-cultural processes of the relationship between individuals and their social systems and the relationship between individuals and their significant social systems) (Whitehead, 2002).

Erez & Gati (2004) assert culture is nested within an ecological framework and proposed a Multi-level Model of Culture characterized by the hierarchy of levels in the cultural system and the interrelationship among the various levels. The different structural and dynamic characteristics used to explain the interrelationship of culture within a nested structure include: individual culture, group culture, organizational culture, national culture, and global culture (Erez & Gati, 2004). This nested structure aligns well with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model which proposes human development is dependent upon complex and interactive processes that exist between an individual and their environment.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model is made up of the microsystem (immediate interactions and relationships with family and friends that influence an individual), mesosystem (connections between structures and relationships in the microsystem such as neighborhoods, communities, and schools), exosystem (factors and forces interacting within the system such as government or food industry), macrosystem (values, health, laws, public policies, culture and ideologies), and chronosystem (environmental, contextual, and socio-historical changes over time) (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2010; Shaffer & Kipp, 2010).

A school is considered a social system in which many factors at various levels of the eco-system work to influence an individual’s circumstances and behaviour, as well as the health of the environment around them (Reist, 2013). Paying attention to and analyzing each of these levels is essential for understanding the multi-layered dimensions of FL in school communities. By adapting Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model, and borrowing terminology and concepts used from the CSP and Multi-level Model of Culture, I have developed a research framework (Figure 2) to organize the research design and implementation and frame my conclusions.

For the purpose of this study, this theoretical framework helped frame the study and guide the data analysis in order answer the research questions presented. It also provided a framework for capturing my critical insight into the values, beliefs, practices and processes of the participants. Finally, this theoretical framework provided a structure to document the “shared meaning systems, preferred or normative behaviour and social structure, and shared expressive systems” (Whitehead, 2003, p. 6) that are established in the culture of the school community related to FL.

Chapter Summary

Critical ethnography is both a theory and a method. “It is critical theory in action” (Madison, 2005). This approach examines how hegemony (power) is situated in social and cultural processes within distinct social settings. Thus, it considers the deeper aspects of culture, which may be hidden; disrupts the status quo; and challenges both neutrality and taken-for-granted assumptions by drawing attention to actions of power and control. As such, critical ethnography contributes to emancipatory knowledge and discourses of social justice. The next section outlines the specific research methods that were used in relation to critical ethnography.


Cite this paper

Critical Ethnographic Research. (2020, Sep 10). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/critical-ethnographic-research/



What are the three important things in ethnographic research?
The three important things in ethnographic research are participant observation, in-depth interviews, and cultural interpretation. These methods help researchers gain a deep understanding of a culture and its practices.
What are the unique characteristics of critical ethnography?
Critical ethnography is a type of research that focuses on the power dynamics between groups of people. It is often used to study marginalized groups of people who have been oppressed by the dominant group.
What is an example of ethnographic research?
Anthropologists who study a culture from the inside, participating in everyday activities as a way of understanding the culture, are doing ethnographic research.
What is ethnographic method of research?
The social issue of anthropology is that it can be used to justify discrimination and oppression.
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