Fighting familiarity in digital school ethnographies

The success of ethnographic fieldwork generally hinges on the development of close connections amongst fieldworkers, research subjects, and the phenomena under study. To stand any chance of acquiring what Malinowski called the ‘native’s point of view’, ethnographers must therefore live with, and live like, the individuals and groups being studied (in Van Maanen, 1988, pp. 49-50). Yet when field researchers have aspects of a culture in common with those being observed, they might actually find it challenging to see the more taken for granted dimensions of the environment in which they are immersed (Prasad 2005). This point is especially pertinent for ethnographers doing research in educational contexts – environments readily familiar to academics who would have spent their formative years navigating such settings as students. While familiarity with the society/culture under study has obvious advantages (not least, having an existing empathetic stance toward those being researched, sharing similar socio-cultural understandings, and so forth), ethnographers are nevertheless faced with a methodological challenge – what Blanch Greer (1964) termed the ‘familiarity problem’.


In First Days in the Field (1964), Greer discusses the importance of initial encounters between the fieldworker, the research setting, and the actors within the setting. She highlights the ‘familiarity problem’ as a potential impediment to rigorous and innovative research practices and outputs. Greer’s colleague, Howard Becker (1971), also wrote on the problem of familiarity pervading educational ethnographic research. He claimed that many researchers were avoiding the difficult work required to develop robust working hypotheses free from preconceptions and personal prejudice. Rather, he observed, many researchers appeared content to remain focused on familiar dimensions of the educational setting in which they were doing their research. He writes:


We may have understated a little the difficulty of observing contemporary classrooms. It is not just the survey method of educational testing or any of those things that keeps people from seeing what is going on. I think, instead, that it is first and foremost a matter of it all being so familiar that it becomes impossible to single out events that occur in the classroom as things that have occurred, even when they happen right in front of you. I have not had the experience of observing in elementary and high school classrooms myself, but I have in college classrooms and it takes a tremendous effort of will and imagination to stop seeing only the things that are conventionally ‘there’ to be seen. I have talked to a couple of teams of research people who have sat around in classrooms trying to observe and it is like pulling teeth to get them to see or write anything beyond what ‘everyone’ knows. (in Delamont, 2014, p. 11)


There is certainly a problem in school-based research when observing situations so familiar to one’s own experiences of school ‘that it is almost impossible to extract oneself from one’s own cultural assumptions and be objective’ (Parman in Delamont, 2014, p. 13). To fight the problem of familiarity, Greer (1964) makes a plea for ethnographers to approach the familiar as anthropologically strange in order to develop more robust hypotheses and new insights into familiar settings – ‘making the familiar strange rather than the strange familiar’ (Van Maanen, 1995, p. 20).


Exploring strategies educational ethnographers might use to fight familiarity, Delamont (2014) highlights the notion of ‘Lebanon Gate’ research – a mode of study that pushes researchers out of their ‘comfort zone’ and into uncharted territories (at a certain level of intellectual risk) to search for new research insights (p. 14). She offers a number of tactics to fight the familiar, arguing that these ‘self-conscious’ strategies are useful for providing ‘the raw materials from which to construct robust working hypotheses or foreshadowed problems’ (p. 15):


  1. Revisiting ‘insightful’ educational ethnographies of the past. This has the potential to show how close readings of any classic ethnography from 30 to 40 years ago inevitably result in several working hypotheses about change and continuity. When pursued, if these hypotheses produce findings of continuity, then the reason for these instances can be explored further.
  2. Engaging in the study of learning and teaching in formal education from other cultures. Anthropologies of education must also be connected to anthropological work outside of the life of formal school settings for acquiring a broad understanding of schooling and education.
  3. Taking the standpoint of the ‘other’ to view the educational process. Such perspectives include those of diverse social classes, different races or ethnicities, different genders, or different sexual orientations. Delamont suggests that critical and indigenous methods may offer fresh approaches to research, provided the warnings Foley et al. (2001, pp. 48-49) outline are taken into account when doing research from these diverse standpoints.
  4. Taking the point of view of actors in the school community beyond the role of teachers and students and focusing on ‘unusual’ contexts in the school system. Examples include schools for learning disabled pupils, or taking into account the perspectives of less obvious actors in schools such as secretaries, laboratory technicians, campus police, custodians, cooks, and so forth.
  5. Studying teaching and learning from the periphery of teaching and learning settings and/or in cross-contextual settings altogether. To illustrate her point, Delamont uses the example of research on self-efficacy in pre-service teachers benefitting from referring to unfamiliar environments, such as researching self-efficacy in neo pagan contexts and how this characteristic is manifested in individuals. Rather than repeated studies on self-efficacy in pre-service teacher education programs, Delamont claims, researching the phenomenon in another context could produce strategies for changing the self-efficacy beliefs of trainee teachers. She writes: ‘understanding change in self-efficacy in an unfamiliar sphere generates foreshadowed problems, or working hypotheses that can challenge familiarity’ (p. 24).
  6. Applying intermediate theoretical concepts used in other areas of the discipline or in other disciplines altogether to re-energise educational ethnography and challenge familiarity (e.g., the concept of the flâneur).


While making the familiar strange is necessary for establishing fresh research perspectives and obtaining innovative insights, ethnographers must also be mindful of the reverse problem of making the strange familiar. This is especially relevant when encountering new technologies and digital practices. In terms of our present research, while we are in the digital school environment we will undoubtedly encounter unfamiliar technologies and must learn to live with such technologies and practices as the individuals we are observing are doing. Bauman (2014) explains this practice as ‘taming, domesticating, making manageable’ what is the unfamiliar (p. 98). With this in mind, good ethnographic research does not simply fight the familiar. Instead it requires achieving a finely-tuned balance of being ‘intellectually poised between familiarity and strangeness’ (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, p. 112).



Bauman, Z. (2014). What Use is Sociology? [Interviews with: Jacobsen, M. and Tester, K.]. Cambridge: Polity.

Delamont, S. (2014). Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas. London: Sage.

Foley, D. A., Levinson, B.A., & Hurtig, J. (2001). Anthropology goes inside: The new educational ethnography of ethnicity and gender. In W. G. Secada (Ed.) Review of Research in Education, 25, 37-98. Washington, DC: AERA.

Greer, B. (1964). First Days in the Field. In P. Hammond (Ed.), Sociologists at Work (pp. 322-344). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hammersley, M, & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in Practice (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Prasad, P. (2005). Crafting Qualitative Research: Working in the Postpositivist Traditions. Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Maanen, J. (1995). An end to innocence: The ethnography of ethnography. In J. Van Maanen (ed.), Representation in Ethnography, pp. 1-35. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.