The Personal, Professional and Political in Comparative Ethnographic Educational Research

Henry Miller, Lisa Russell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Education ethnographers have long recognised the significance of the researcher's self upon the research process (Burgess, 1984; Walford, 1991; Troman, 2000; Russell, 2005) This chapter attempts to define and examine the relationship between the 'Personal', 'Professional' and 'Political' dimensions of ethnographies and the researcher's self set within the institutional and societal context. We argue that these three aspects form an important part of ethnography, implicitly or explicitly. However these are variously presented depending upon how the ethnography is experienced by the researcher and the researched. The Personal, Professional and Political are often closely related and can at times be difficult to distinguish. The importance that the researcher attributes to each of these aspects and the level of significance they have on the ethnography varies. Ethnography is of a personal and intimate nature. The researcher is immersed in the field for some time and enters into close and prolonged interaction with people in their everyday lives (Hammersley, 1992), thus making the connection between the researcher and the researched a personal and individual one. The relationship built between the researched and researcher is marked by its closeness. The researcher's Personal, Professional and Political standpoints and the broader institutional and societal climate are of particular importance in ethnography. They influence what topic, where and who is researched; how the subject matter is researched and how, where and what findings are presented. There is a classic account of William Footer Whyte's research process involving the personal, political and professional in the appendix to 'Street Corner Society' (Whyte, 1955). In Britain, Mac an Ghaill's account of his research in his Ph.D. (Stapleton, 1984) and in his paper Young, Gifted and Black. Methodological reflections of a teacher/researcher (Mac an Ghaill, 1991) is insightful in tracing the connections and tensions between the Personal, Political and Professional. The Personal: The Personal includes a number of features. The characteristics of the researcher influence the research and interaction with the professional and academic context. The political stances of the researcher and the institutional (school and university) context as well as the broader political environment of the particular countries and times are all part of this interaction. The Personal refers to the researcher's individual and sometimes private interests, beliefs, professional and personal experiences and characteristics. The level of experience the researcher has working within the ethnographic tradition in addition to ones personal experiences can shape what the researcher decides to research, how it is researched and the type of data gathered (Russell, 2005). This is related to the professional status in addition to the personal aspect of the researcher. The more experienced ethnographer may feel more comfortable conducting a more intimate ethnography. Ethnographers investigating schools may feel more confident if they have had previous experience working as a researcher or as a teacher. General life experiences and interests shape the research and interaction between the researched and researcher. If the researcher is knowledgeable and enjoys the same music, sport or other leisure activities as the participants, a common ground area of topic can be discussed and used to facilitate the interaction (Meyenn, 1979; Troman, 2000; Russell, 2005). The researcher's biography and personal disposition are important aspects that shape the way participants and the researcher behave and interact (Stapleton, 1984; Mac an Ghaill, 1991; Monteiro, 2003; Russell, 2005). The personality and individual facets of the researcher are a vital element shaping the research procedure (Stapleton, 1984; Mac an Ghaill, 1991). Relevant personal characteristics include age, gender, size and national, regional identity, ethnic and racial identity, religion, experience, disability and sexual orientation. Some of these characteristics are immediately obvious, others may only become apparent at certain points in the research to some of the participants and still others may remain largely concealed but still have an influence on how the research is conducted and reported. The researcher's gender, ethnicity, nationality, use of language, size, physical appearance and age can influence how respondents interact with the researcher, what the researcher is able to do within an ethnography and thus the description and analysis. The Professional: The Professional dimension refers to the interaction and relation between the researchers's professional self and the culture and academic communities to which he or she belongs or aspires to. The professional status of the researcher is important. This can be related to the level of personal ethnographic experience. A novice ethnographer in relation to ones personal experiences can influence what is researched, who is researched and the success and dilemmas faced during the ethnography (Russell, 2005). The experienced ethnographer or credible professor may be more selective in what they decide to investigate and how and where they present and publish material. In addition, the broader professional context at the institutional level may also be significant. The organisation from which the researcher derives and works within may have particular codes of conduct that the professional may need to adhere to. The institution may dictate what is deemed fashionable or worthy of investigation and where results are to be published. The professional standing of the researcher and the institution to which the researcher belongs influences what is believed to constitute a professional ethnography. What codes of conduct need to be adhered to, for example, long standing questions about confidentiality and anonymity. What is considered worthy of examination and where and how findings are shared. For example, is it considered professional to share findings with the respondents and organisation researched to validate findings? Some of the tension between the relative emphasis on the personal and professional is crystallised in the decision to use either the first or third person in reporting. The Political: The Political dimension has at least two aspects: first, the researcher's personal political stance, beliefs and ideology and second, the broader political environment and climate in which the research is conducted. The two are related and the interaction between them influences the research. The political position of the researcher may influence what the ethnographer deems worthy of investigation and from whose perspective. The political climate, the time and place in which the research is carried out may mould the research. Walford and Miller's (1991) investigation into City Technology Colleges (CTCs) was influenced by the political controversy attached to CTCs at the time of research. CTCs were viewed as a sensitive subject, since some believed that their introduction questioned the effectiveness of the Local Education Authority (LEA) comprehensive school system, and how successful they were in improving education in urban, disadvantaged areas. The political climate, within which the researcher works, not only includes nations and points in time, but also between particular cities within one country. The political culture and conflicts within institutions may also have an impact on the research.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMethodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Publication series

NameStudies in Educational Ethnography
ISSN (Print)1529210X


Dive into the research topics of 'The Personal, Professional and Political in Comparative Ethnographic Educational Research'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this