In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Using Ethnography in Educational Research

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Anthologies
  • Journals

Education Using Ethnography in Educational Research
David Mills
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0208


The ethnographic study of education combines participatory research methodologies, theoretical engagement, and a richly descriptive genre of writing to depict the lived, everyday complexities of learning in all its forms. The etymological roots of ethnography—“writing the people”—underscore the field’s commitment to writing and to analytical holism. An ethnographic sensibility is key to understanding the power-laden subjectivities created in both formal education and informal learning practices. Education is ubiquitous, and there are many approaches to its ethnographic study. Participant observation is integral to many—but not all—ethnographers. Researchers use a range of qualitative methods (including sensory, visual, and creative approaches) to immerse themselves in, and make sense of, educational cultures. Ethnographic approaches have diffused from their early roots in anthropology and sociology across the social sciences. This bibliography suggests some general overviews of this diverse field, and highlights a range of relevant work. The most insightful ethnographies are book-length monographs, providing authors the opportunity to link together the empirical with broader questions of power and difference. Working across a range of learning fields, ethnographers are united by their careful attention to the everyday, the unexpected and the implicit. They highlight education’s role in generating and reproducing inequalities, at the same time as offering emancipatory possibilities. Any review is inevitably partial. Rather than using theoretical categories, the bibliography is roughly sorted by educational type, with sections on parenting, classrooms, schooling, and students. Further sections highlight innovative ethnographic work on informal learning and educational policies.

General Overviews and Anthologies

Given the diverse range of ways in which ethnographic research is deployed to understand learning, the best overviews are edited collections, bringing together a range of voices and perspectives. Delamont 2011 is a four-volume selection of published journal articles, and complements the earlier handbook, Atkinson, et al. 2007. Delamont 2014 reviews recent methodological developments. Yon 2003 offers an overview of the history of the field. Levinson, et al. 1996 and Levinson, et al. 2000 are useful readers in the anthropology of education. Anthropological approaches dominate much ethnographic work on education, and the US focus of contributions to Levinson and Pollock 2011 is balanced by the internationalism of Anderson-Levitt 2011. Educational ethnographers increasingly study policy fields, and McCarty and Castagno 2018 brings together a range of recent work

  • Anderson-Levitt, K. M., ed. 2011. Anthropologies of education: A global guide to ethnographic studies of learning and schooling. Oxford: Berghahn.

    Chapter-by-chapter review of different national histories of ethnographic research of education, highlighting traditions beyond the anglophone world.

  • Atkinson, P., A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, and L. Lofland, eds. 2007. Handbook of ethnography. London: SAGE.

    An authoritative five-hundred-page handbook. Thirty-three chapters on different US and UK ethnographic traditions, some with a focus on education; plus advice on the practicalities of ethnographic research and analysis. Each chapter comes with an extensive bibliography.

  • Delamont, S., ed. 2011. Ethnographic methods in education. 4 vols. London: SAGE.

    A four-volume collection of journal articles. Spanning fifty years, the first volume republishes work by Margaret Mead, George Spindler, Douglas Foley, and Harry Wolcott. The second includes ethnographies of a wide range of learning environments, from kindergartens to skateboarding parks; the third addresses power relations within education; and the fourth explores the perspectives of teachers and students.

  • Delamont, S. 2014. Key themes in the ethnography of education: Achievements and agendas. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781526401700

    An account of developments in the field, celebrating the strengths of ethnographic research. It includes chapters on movement, memorials, time, bodies, performativity, multisensory research, and narratives, to name a few, and encourages further methodological innovation and creativity.

  • Levinson, B. A., K. M. Borman, M. Eisenhart, M. Foster, A. Fox, and M. Sutton, eds. 2000. Schooling the symbolic animal: Social and cultural dimensions of education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Classic reflections by Émile Durkheim, Margaret Mead, Raymond Williams, and Clifford Geertz. Contemporary contributions from scholars such as Deborah Reed-Danahy, Dorothy Holland, Margaret Eisenhart, Jan Nespor, and Sherry Ortner.

  • Levinson, B. A., D. Foley, and D. Holland, eds. 1996. The cultural production of the educated person: Critical ethnographies of schooling and local practice. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    Influential collection of ethnographic cases showing how the concept of the “educated” person takes different meanings in a range of learning cultures.

  • Levinson, Bradley A. U., and M. Pollock, eds. A companion to the anthropology of education. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    Thirty leading US and Latin American anthropologists of education review the rich Pan-American ethnographic literature on schooling, language, the state, and reform. It introduces a range of different approaches taken by ethnographers and anthropologists working on education.

  • McCarty, T. L., and A. Castagno, eds. 2018. The anthropology of education policy. London: Routledge.

    Work illustrating the range of approaches to the study of policy.

  • Yon, D. 2003. Highlights and overview of the history of educational ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 32:411–429.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093449

    This article offers a concise but comprehensive review of the emergence of the field in the United States and Britain, from the early work of Mead on socialization to the first critical ethnographies of schooling.

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