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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 academic settings.

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 ethnography practice.


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, 19(1), 35-57.

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: Sage Publications.

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.

Diane Collier

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.

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Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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