Exploring Institutional Ethnography: An Event Report

Institutional Ethnography: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Approach to Social Research

8-9th September 2022 | Workshop

Institutional Ethnography (IE) as an investigative tool and a particular ethos is a feminist approach to analysing texts and mapping organisational processes. Since its first expressions, the approach has been gaining prominence for its reevaluation of the placement of the researcher in relation to his or her subject. Both at the Centre and elsewhere, researchers are continually gravitating to IE to produce meaningful research while holding the experience of those researched in the highest regard. On September 8-9 2022, Centre Fellow Dr Adriana Suárez Delucchi, along with co-organizer Dr Órla Meadhbh Murray (Durham University) presented a hands-on workshop on Institutional Ethnography. Participants were offered the opportunity to familiarise themselves with IE in a highly practical and innovative way. The goals of the workhop were to present the history, methodology, and possible applications of IE, as well as to inspire further explorations and collaborations in participants' academic work.

Following a warm welcome to all participants as well as short introductions, the workshop began with a thorough explication of the genesis and development of Institutional Ethnography, first tracing the life and work of its late founder, Dorothy E. Smith. Dr Órla Meadhbh Murray, co-convenor of the UK & Ireland Institutional Ethnography network as well as the European Institutional Ethnography network, provided four individual video presentations designed to guide participants through the grounding ethos of IE, its extensions and applications. Murray referenced what Smith saw as a need for sociological investigation to re-evaluate itself in terms of positionality and the relationship between the researcher and the studied. 

'Smith argued that sociology was still operating by enlightenment ideas of an objective social science, about researchers providing neutral and true accounts of the world as if they were standing above it looking in [...] Sociological knowledge and sociological theories were excluding huge sections of society in terms of the experiences they were based on.' 

In contrast to this earlier tendency in sociology, Smith proposed a new foundation for research and knowledge production, namely women's standpoint. This entails, according to Murray, beginning 'in women’s everyday lives and showing the areas of life and the world and experience that the sociological research had been excluding and ignoring up until then'. Developing from this standpoint is the necessity to factor in the position of the researcher in a much more nuanced dynamic of investigation than was previously established.

'This means acknowledging who we are as people positioned in the world and trying to see things from where we are based. In taking women’s standpoint, [Smith] was trying to open up whole areas of the social world to research that had not yet been researched'. 

It is important to note that IE, though derived from and informed by feminist scholarship, is not relegated to the investigation of women's experiences. Smith's standpoint is based on the concept of strong objectivity, an addressing of those who have traditionally been omitted from the production of knowledge. She asks us 'to go beyond just women and think about beginning research in people’s experience, not just abstract theory'. The foundation of IE is set upon the idea of developing and understanding a new and nuanced research relationship – Smith even later reformulated women's standpoint into 'people's standpoint', highlighting the inclusion of those studied in the academic pursuit. The work of inquiry into institutional processes, then, begins necessarily with people. How are people affected by this or that policy? What is the impact of a particular policy on a particular population? The approach avoids earlier biases which actually tended to remove people from the equation in favour of bare facts and figures, a process which produces a conspicuous absence of data from the most consequential constituents.

'The first step in an institutional ethnography process would be to try to begin in people’s experiences, but instead of generalizing from those experiences, you stand beside them and say “how does this institution treat you, how are your lives organized by it?” and then begin to identify ways in which the institution is already making generalizations, is already making general assumptions about what people are like, what work they can do, and how their lives function. Then you begin to explore how these ideas and these assumptions are written into the documents and the bureaucratic processes of the institution, even though we often think about those processes as being neutral'.

Following the introductory and explanatory videos, participants were invited to discuss their own concerns with the theory, as the moderators fielded questions and comments. To conclude the first day of the workshop, those present were split into small groups based on research interests and asked to compare experiences and consider possible applications of IE in their own work. The second session of the workshop was decidedly hands-on. Partipants were presented with a video lecture explaining a typical application of IE and then asked to take part in a case study exploring the nuances of the methodology. The workshop conlcuded with further discussion, with particular reference to individual projects and how IE might best be used to elucidate fruitful interactions as well as to produce research which would follow the IE ethos.

Adriana Suárez Delucchi and Órla Meadhbh Murray have been working diligently to bring IE to a wider audience of researchers through workshops, discussions, and information sessions, with the workshop hosted by the Centre being the first to take place outside of the UK. The organizers invite interested parties to take part in the launch of the new UK and Ireland Institutional Ethnography Network on October 21st. Those who missed the workshop might also be interested in an upcoming course hosted by the National Centre for Research Methods, University of Southampton. Information and registration details can be found here.

Organizers and Presenters

Dr Órla Meadhbh Murray, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Durham. Former Postdoctoral Research Associate, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship, Imperial College London. Co-convenor of the UK & Ireland Institutional Ethnography network and the European Institutional Ethnography network. Dr Murray runs regular Institutional Ethnography courses for the UK National Centre for Research Methods. She has also delivered Institutional Ethnography training and talks at the University of Edinburgh, University of Bristol, University of Melbourne, University of Leicester and University of Antwerp. Dr Murray set up the UK Institutional Ethnography Network in 2014 at the University of Edinburgh where she did her PhD in Sociology, a feminist Institutional Ethnography of how academics negotiate UK university audit processes. She is currently writing a monograph based on the PhD alongside other articles focused on abolitionist approaches to the university and imposter syndrome amongst marginalised STEM students.

Dr Adriana Suárez Delucci, KHK Postdoctoral Fellow, and member of the research group 'Global Cooperation and Diverse Conceptions of World Order' is a geographer with expertise on Institutional Ethnography. Together with Dr Murray, Adriana has run five different training courses for the UK NCRM and the South West Doctoral Training Partnership. She co-founded and convenes the monthly ‘Institutional Ethnography Mentorship Seminars’ where advice is provided and discussions fostered to advance knowledge for PhD Students on how to utilize the approach. Adriana is co-organising the working group’s sessions for the ISA Conference in Melbourne 2023. She was recently invited to participate in the 'Simply Institutional Ethnography’ book launch, Dorothy Smith’s latest publication.