Heath, Shirley Brice & Street, Brian
V. with Molly Mills. (2008). Ethnography:
Approaches to Language and Literacy Research (Language and
Literacy Series). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Pp. xiv +153 $24 ISBN 978-0-8077-4866-4
Reviewed by Diane Collier
University of British Columbia
August 14, 2008
“As you collect data, know the company you keep as
ethnographer and get to know yourself as constant
learner—ever curious and open to what’s
happening” (Heath & Street, p. 30).
In Ethnography: Approaches to Language and Literacy
Education, Shirley Brice Heath and Brian Street invite
readers to enter the curiosity-driven world of ethnography
through their research stories and the novice ethnographic
research of Heath's undergraduate student, Molly Mills. Heath
and Street wish to present an accessible text, using a
conversational tone, in order to give access to ethnography to
beginning researchers, researchers who are not familiar with
ethnography, and more experienced researchers. They use the
stumbling, yet determined, stories of Mills to illustrate some of
the thought processes, decisions, and confusions of those who
undertake ethnographic research. This review will discuss the
context, structure, tone and intended audience, and key concepts
and metaphors of this volume and will then return to the context
of this approach within contemporary ethnography.
Heath and Street are iconic figures in the history of
ethnography and literacy research and both refer to their
canonical texts, Ways with Words by Heath and Literacy
in Theory and Practice by Street, throughout this volume.
Heath’s Ways with Words, published in 1980, is a
study of the people of Trackton and Roadville and their literacy
practices in and out of school in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Heath lived in and worked with the communities she
researched—communities similar to those where she lived as
child. As a result of her experiences, Heath talks about how
schools privilege or disadvantage particular groups of students
based on the oral and written language traditions of their
communities. In Ethnography, she argues that while her
work in Ways with Words seemed to be about language, it
was actually more about “integrity and quality of life and
the need to understand how long-standing personal human
relationships slip away under political and social
pressure” (p. 31). Heath’s work values literacy
traditions and cultures that exist inside and outside formal or
While living in rural Iran in the 1970’s, Brian Street
studied the academic and non-academic literacy practices of
Iranian men and boys. In Literacy In Theory and Practice
he focuses on the literacy practices used in the traditional
Quoranic school, the new state schools, and those related
to the local agricultural industry Street differentiates literacy
practices that are academic, urban, Western, and
decontextualised, which he calls autonomous, and those
that represent particular, culturally sensitive functions and
usages for people in particular local contexts, which he calls
ideological. Street, like Heath, comes from an
anthropological tradition and wishes to change the ways that
academic literacy practices are valued above the vast array of
literacy practices that are developed in the contexts of
people’s everyday lives. Their values and beliefs about the
importance of everyday literacy are reflected in the accessible
style of writing they use in this volume.
In this volume, Street and Heath describe three possible kinds
of language and literacy research for which ethnography might be
used: individuals becoming language and literacy experts, groups
forming identities related to language and literacy, and language
and literacy as embedded in formal educational institutions.
Chapter 1 begins with an overview of ethnographic and theoretical
approaches to research on language and culture. The authors
suggest that readers who want to get to methods straight away
might skip this chapter and come back to it later. At this point,
Heath and Street posit a wide view of language and literacy. They
use a multimodal approach to literacy that includes oral,
gestural, and visual, as well as written modes of language that
make meaning across multiple learning contexts. They view culture
as fluid and learning as situated. Chapters 2-5 follow a possible
timeline for an ethnographic approach including field entry (Ch.
2), setting decision rules (Ch. 3), research questions and field
notes (Ch. 4), and analysis and leaving the field (Ch.5).
In the final chapter, Heath and Street put a great deal of
emphasis on the importance of anthropological training for
ethnography, and discuss reflexivity and considerations when
making an ethnographic text public. As an appendix, they list
particular publications of research studies focused on language
and literacy learning in non-schooling contexts that have
followed approaches similar to those outlined by Street and
Heath. Ethnography is part of the Language and Literacy
Series, edited by JoBeth Allen and Donna Alverman and published
by Teachers College Press. Previous volumes include Celia Genishi
and Anne Haas Dyson’s volume, On the Case, about
performing case studies in language and literacy research. There
are future volumes in progress on a range of approaches to
language and literacy research, including classroom discourse
analysis and quantitative methods.
Tone and Audience
Heath and Street develop their accessible format in the
overall structure of this work, which is an introduction to the
practice of ethnography with a focus on multimodal understandings
of literacy and language. Although they discuss most of the usual
elements discussed in overviews of ethnographic research, they
lend an air of informality to its structure by moving back and
forth between suggestions for how to do research, their thinking
about their research, examples from other language and literacy
researchers and the dilemmas of Mills. They write more casually,
as if speaking directly to the audience, when they make helpful
suggestions about how to develop conceptual memos to stay on
track, to log transcripts and proceed with analysis without the
excuse of unfinished transcription, and to think and act
recursively between research questions, literature review, and
analysis. When they cite the research of others, discussing
theoretical frameworks and trends in language and literacy
research, and suggesting tenets for research planning and
analysis, their tone is more academic and authoritative.
Regardless of their informal style, they do not hesitate to
define appropriate contexts for language and literacy research,
define axioms of language and literacy field studies, and set a
constant comparative approach as the standard for
Heath and Street work towards accessibility to a wide audience
for this text through their a) informal writing style, b) use of
a novice researcher's experiences with ethnographic research, and
c) metaphor of ethnography as juggling.
a) The writing style of this volume suggests suitability as a
text for an introductory course in ethnography. Heath and Street
refer to themselves, informally, as Shirley and Brian, or
‘we’, throughout the text and their written language
is a compromise between academic and non-academic. The editors of
this volume, in a similar tone to that used by Street and Heath,
confide: “We worry that we haven’t spent enough time,
don’t have the proper training, or aren’t insightful
enough to write about culture” (p. ix). This volume is
meant to convince us that we can. When Street and Heath explain
how their approach to ethnography is similar to that of the
juggler that Mills studies, they write, “We think
it’s cool, we read books, we find ways to practice. And we
have to admit to the power of trial and error, focus on
remembering how others learn to be ethnographers, and try out
patterns we hope we can emulate” (p.2). Through their
informal, personal language, and their message of humility and
patience, Street and Heath attempt to address the reader who is
beginning to think about how to do this work. Ethnography
will not provide extensively detailed information or advice one
might need to carry out ethnographic research, unlike such volume
sets as Schensul & LeCompte’s (1999)
Ethnographer’s Toolkit, but it is an introduction to
ethnographic methodology and opens up the possibilities for the
investigation of language and literacy.
b) Street and Heath attempt to bridge the gap between their
perspectives as accomplished ethnographers and their audience by
describing the experiences of Mills. Through Mills’ eyes,
we vicariously sense the initial feelings of being overwhelmed by
too much data and the presence of contradictions and concerns
over what is happening and what that means. Early in this volume,
Heath and Street explain Mills’ beginning experiences:
Molly “makes an inventory of all his modes of
learning… Molly notes not only the types of oral and
written language Roger uses but also other modalities on which he
draws” (p. 24). Her research is described as a matter of
careful and open-minded observations and questions.
Mills notices that Roger’s descriptions of juggling as
easy and the ways in which he pursues practice show evidence of
contradiction. Heath and Street explain that “none of this
made sense even as Mills began to compare Roger’s actions
and talk of learning with what others did and said in their
self-chosen learning of complex pursuits” (p. 27). As she
collected data, “Molly wished that she had planned at the
outset a “truly” organized way of bringing coherence
to the chaos of all she was learning” (p. 67). Heath and
Street use this illustration to show how ideas evolve and are
refined over time. It is not possible to predict how the work
will go at the beginning but continuous reflection leads to some
clarity and focus. They explain that “as Molly reflected on
her own learning, she saw clearly how she was going to bring
focus to her research” (p.68). Towards the end of the
volume, Heath and Street write that “as she [Molly] learned
from Roger, Mills balanced what she saw, heard, and read as she
analyzed fieldnotes and worked her data into a theoretical
perspective” (p.111). Heath and Street present Mills’
stories as part of a journey that has no particular or
predictable ending. In this journey, one must delay the need for
clarity while constantly writing, analyzing, and refocusing.
Mills’ stories, and the way that they are represented by
Heath and Street, suggest an accessible route that other
ethnographers can take.
c) Heath and Street use juggling, the topic of Mills’
research, as a metaphor for the practice of ethnography. Like
others who write about ethnography and qualitative methods (i.e.,
Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995; Lecompte & Preissle, 1993;
Miles & Huberman, 1994), they talk about the researcher
becoming immersed in a ‘strange’ or unfamiliar
culture, the importance of field notes and interviews, and the
need for ongoing analysis to represent how learning happens in
language and literacy contexts. They describe how they
“…see learning ethnography as being a lot like
learning to juggle. Both call for practice, close observation,
and the challenge of having to manage more and more balls in the
air… Both depend on observing, comparing, reflecting,
assessing, and coming to ‘feel’ certain stages of
achievement in knowledge and skill that do not translate easily
into words” (p. 2). Both ethnography and juggling are
apparently easy and deceptively complex at the same time.
Ethnography is challenging but Mills learned to carry it out and,
by inference, the reader can learn as well. Regardless, Heath and
Street warn, “Few events under the big circus tent look
smoother and easier than the juggling act of the unicyclist
working back and forth on a slack-line” (p. 129).
Ways of Doing Ethnography
At the same time that they acknowledge the partiality of
knowledge gained from ethnographic study, and the contradictions
that are inevitable, Street and Heath work from a conventional
position of anthropological study that attempts to understand and
represent the ways of understanding experienced by those who
participate in a particular culture and to uncover the patterns
that are tied to that culture. They want to encourage researchers
to take up ethnographic practices but also emphasize the
importance of the study of anthropology and linguistics in
learning to do ethnography and are wary of the potential for
ethnographic success of literacy and language researchers who
have studied in Faculties of Education only.
Heath and Street’s critique of the practice of
ethnography is evident only in their critique of the ways in
which individual ethnographers are prepared and trained and the
extent to which they follow ethnographic principles. They are not
particularly interested in questioning the nature of the
interpretive truth claims, as might researchers operating from a
postmodern perspective (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005), although they
acknowledge that their representations are partial. Nor are they
interested in representing multiple, blurred, or contradictory
viewpoints as part of their representation of language and
literacy learning—viewpoints desirable from the point of
view of theorists and researchers Pillow (2003) and Lather
(2006), for example. Although they provide many guidelines for
making ethical decisions about how to work with participants and
briefly discuss the importance of researcher reflexivity, they
also believe that part of the ethnographer’s role is to see
and represent culture in ways that participants cannot.
This volume provides a good jumping-off point for
beginning ethnographers and those who are interested in knowing
what ethnographic research might look like. Through this text,
readers may experience what it might be like to be a student in a
classroom, mentored by Heath and Street, a beginning ethnographic
experience available to only a few.
Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). The discipline
and practice of qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin &
Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative
research (pp. 1-29). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995).
Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago, IL: University
of Chicago Press.
Heath, S. B. (1984). Ways with words: Language, life and
work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Heath, S. B., Street, B. V. & Mills, M. (2008).
Ethnography: Approaches to language and literacy
research. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to
think with: Teaching research in education as a wild profusion.
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education,
LeCompte, M. D. & Preissle, J. (1993). Ethnography and
qualitative design in educational research (2nd
ed.). London, UK: Academic Press.
Miles, M. B. & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data
analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Beverly Hills, CA:
Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking
the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative
research. International Journal of Qualitative
Studies in Education, 16(2), 175-196.
Schensul, J. J. & LeCompte, M. D. (Eds.). (1999).
Ethnographer’s Toolkit. (Vols. 1-7). Walnut
Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
Street, B. V. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice.
London, UK: Routledge.
About the Reviewer
Diane Collier is a doctoral student at the University of
British Columbia, in the department of Educational and Counseling
Psychology and Special Education. Her research interests are
writing, assessment, identity construction, and ethnography.
Copyright is retained by the first or sole author,
who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.
Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman
ER home |
Reseņas Educativas |
Resenhas Educativas ~
overview | reviews | editors | submit | guidelines | announcements | search