Re-offering critical ethnography in education as an alternative to ‘fast’ research

Year: 2018

Author: Fitzpatrick, Katie, May, Stephen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

While there are critical ethnographic studies of education contexts, these are few in comparison with other methodological approaches. Pressure on researchers – driven largely by the neoliberalising of higher education -  for ‘fast’ scholarship, blitzkrieg approaches, and ‘mercenary’ research styles, means that in-depth, emotionally nuanced and uncertain approaches to research are marginalised. At the same time, power relations inhering in education at the intersections of ethnicity, language, place, social class, ability, gender sexuality, and body are becoming ever more complex, and new theoretical and methodological approaches are being offered. However, often these complex workings can only be understood by attention to the quotidian features of specific contexts.
In this paper, we argue for the ongoing need to explore educational contexts via methodologies that privilege relationships, time, engagement, emotional nuance and the contingencies of the day to day, while also attending directly to issues of social justice, inequity and researcher reflexivity. One such methodology – which, though significant in its effects, remains still largely marginalised in education – is critical ethnography (Fitzpatrick & May, 2015, 2018; Madison, 2012; Thomas, 1993). While this approach has been employed by educational researchers, it has also been side-lined in relation to recent theoretical innovations and dismissed on the basis that its neo-marxist roots are no longer relevant. Here we re-offer critical ethnography as an alternative/antidote to the fast research that is increasingly dominating the field of education. We argue for a new form of critical ethnography – or, at least one with broader theoretical reach. This paper thus offers an updated rationale for the ongoing need for critical ethnographic work in education (Fitzpatrick & May, 2018). We draw on an international range of examples, excerpts, and discussion from contemporary critical ethnographic work, work that continues to address questions of in/equality and in/exclusion and does so through close, prolonged and engaged ethnographic involvement, while also proffering deep and considered alternatives grounded in equity and social theory. These are all elements, we argue, that remain largely absent from the realm of fast research that is increasingly dominating the field of education internationally.       We argue that critical ethnography is needed more now in education than ever before if we are to address and remediate ongoing and apparently intractable educational inequalities and exclusions.