Live Blogging my Institutional Ethnography Class (#1)

Institutional Ethnography is a sociology for people, not for sociologists. Requires leaving behind learned sociology methods and theories. Works well for people who have an interest in things that have an urgent need to be addressed.

As a method of inquiry, produces easy to read, easy to talk about work. Ellen Pensa has produced work that has informed the way police work is done. Can inform small changes in the way that organizational processes work. Immediate implications for that rendered institutionally.


This is incredibly theoretical. For sociologists with training in theory (Marx, Mead, Bahktin), and explore at that level. Makes interesting possibilities, in that it works well practically and theoretically.

Why it matters: this is how our lives are organized. The power of IE: gives ability to see how the world comes to be the way it is.


Attentive to language and conceptual practices. Conscious of the work of representation in language (or numbers of pictures), producing accounts as central to the way our society is organized. What we do as researchers is get bits of the world which are represented in text in some way (surveys, interviews), process of representing in language or numbers, something that stands in for the lived experience.

IE as a project is attentive…

Looking at relations of ruling – metadiscourses that are text based and happening in language. Because IE takes at its analysis textual practices, reflexively those who do it are attentive of the work they do.

Conceptual language is used carefully. There isn’t a positivist assumption that concepts align with some entity in the world, nor is there a sense that it is all in language, so whats the point of trying (PoMo). In IE there is a grounging that is used in the way it orients the work of the researcher and the process of

In a world that is organized in language, using them and the practices available to us. Uses explicit ontology, and concepts that orient inquiry in a particular way. Terms are already circulating in Sociology, but used in a different way (“a different taste”). For example, Ethnography. Away from the assumption that you can use terms to measure certain things. We live in a discouse – related world, but there are material (real world) things here. Carefull attention of language.

It is possible to describe the world in a particular way. On the other hand, doesn’t assume that it is possible to produce “TRUTH” for all time, from a detached knower. There are different ways of knowing, all versions, for the purposes at hand, some are better than others. Example: a detailed map will get you where you want to go (map is a representation, and a text).

Generating accounts with practical usefulness. Interest in a more than a vocabulary, but a language of description that can connect with actualities as people actually live. One criticism of sociology, sociological claims where “people” are actually invisible. Latour: creation of “actors” that become the “agents” with “forces” around them. What is actually happening actually drops out. Within producing an accurate account, it should be accurate for those who are living there.

IE should be corrigable, can be corrected from the people who’s reality it is supposed to be describing.

Importance of coming to see language as social, as how things get done. Looking at language, discover how the wold is organized. Concepts organize what becomes visible as researchable, as well as the terms in which we talk about what we found. Sociologists slice out a world and use terms to describe it.


How to know the world to start from the lived world. To start with people, and what they do, and not a theory about what they do.

What’s out there? Where is it happening? What’s the actuality?

Actuality: whatever it is that is happening is happening in the actual world; whatever you say, write, describe, depict, can never fully represent the lived actuality.

Examine how it is that what ever it is that is going on is organized in the way it is. This said with assumptions that are explorable (working assumption).

Assumption #1: We live in a world in which the contours, shape, causes of what happens are not wholly knowable to us from our located knowledge. Changes happen, we don’t know why (why are they fixing that road? Building that stadium?). Condition of the way our world is organized.

Start with the lived and explore the relations that shape those conditions. In traditional ethnography: the goal there is to explore and understand this local setting: describe the culture, meanings, “social world” – what goes on and for whom. Producing ethnography for people who are “not there.”

With IE, looking at people and what they need to know, isn’t what they already do know. People should see the parts they don’t see. Politically activist base.

Often, we are provided generalized, speculative accounts (its because of “RACISM” or “HOMOPHOBIA”). What makes this a sociology for people is tracing out and identifying for people that which is invisible from where they are. Not to convert into abstract theories. Generate description in these terms that extends everyday knowledge.

This is a totally different project. What people do, how their doings are organized, but linking between settings. What happens here is articulated to what is happening over there. What is the actual mechinisms that is getting into what they are doing. Don’t have to move up to “structure” “forces” – show it at the level.

With that information on how processes connect, then someone could use this to make change. To the extent that any analysis of good mapping of how it is done.

When you ask “what’s involved in this changes in funding? What is involved for you?” Usually interested or pleased that a researcher is interested.

Relations:chains of action:moving network of coordination and language:

Can start out

1) from those at the “recieving end” (the marginalized) – this may be the researcher, the goal is to show how it is put in place – see the part that are the closest.

2) Ethnographer (IE) goes to the other sites – the offices, texts etc. and acts on the marginalized people’s behalf

however you can actually start at any point. That is the projct.


Ethnomethodolgy – situated, practical sense making. Has been a resource for IE, which has a strong inflection (though depending on who is doing it). Not often linked to a political activist role. The emphasis of “sense making” it is not exploring the linkages across settings. Conversation Analysis is another tradition that can be used in IE (study on how something that occurs in talk).

Ontology of the social – important theorizing the social that links it to what they do. The social occurs in the ongoing activities.

IE shows how people are coordinated beyond the face to face. We are not forced to the micro level, people are doing “over there” – connected by language (coordination of people). Coordination of consciousness. Texts and language are absolutely central for mediating the coordination of people in different sites that are not aware of each other.

If the social that is coordinating, we should be able to see it (Goffman: bodies in space and in relation to each other).


2 thoughts on “Live Blogging my Institutional Ethnography Class (#1)

  1. I believe the part about IE being easy to talk about. Reading this post didn’t make my eyes bleed like the Narrative live blogs did…..

  2. Hey Paul–

    Fabulous site! I love IE so much, but after reading Latour, I really do struggle with some of Smith’s concepts. Specifically, I do think that she starts from the presupposition that ‘ruling relations’ dictate social relationships. After accepting Latour’s assertion that we ought to/need to start from a purely ethnographic standpoint in social research and make our ‘conclusions’ from there–rather than in advance–I wonder if IE researchers will simply go out and try to find what it is they were looking for in the first place: ruling relations.

    That being said, I do love the critical sociology that Latour so strongly opposes (i.e.: Bourdieu), but he does have a convincing point in stating that these critical frameworks, with their predetermined constructs, do not leave open the possibility of ‘failure’ that (in his view) should be the cornerstone of acadmeic research.

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