Ethnographic Bias

“After Objectivism” is chapter 2 in Renato Rosaldo’s (1994) book entitled, “Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis.”  Rosaldo (1994) provides a thought-provoking look at the challenges associated with ethnography (i.e., the systematic study of peoples and cultures).  In particular, Rosaldo (1994) criticizes “classic” ethnography that describes events as if they were programmed cultural routines and places the observer at a distance (at least figuratively) from those being observed.  For some, classic ethnography, which was in vogue from about 1920-1970, became the one and only legitimate form for telling the literal truth about other cultures.

In the chapter, numerous examples of descriptions of people and cultures through the “objective” lens of classic ethnography are provided.  The examples have a sterile detached quality that may be perceived as credible and objective because they were written by well-educated western scholars.  Rosalado (1994) posits, however, that the examples are only one perspective.  Others might be less collegial and consider the classic ethnographic view myopic.  The author provides an interesting way to assess the adequacy of social descriptions with the question, “How valid would we find ethnographic discourse about others if it were used to describe ourselves (Rosaldo, 1994)?”  To illustrate this approach the author describes a typical Canadian breakfast scene using classic ethnographic terms.  In the description, the father is the “reigning patriarch, as if just in from the hunt” and “the women talk among themselves and designate one among them as toast maker.”  Throughout the meal, “the women and children, including the designated toast maker, perform the obligatory ritual praise song, saying, ‘These sure are great eggs, Dad.’”  As absurd as this sounds, would the people about whom classic ethnographers wrote have had a similar reaction to the description of their culture and them?  Because the description is written in English and includes sophisticated vocabulary is it more accurate or credible than others?

The broad effects of classic modes of composition typically were not explored at the time because they were assumed to be objective.  Rosaldo (1994) does not believe these perspectives should be rejected outright.  Instead, he recommends they be displaced and become one among a number of viable forms of social descriptions.  Specifically, the classic accounts should be recovered but no longer viewed as the sole truth about other cultures. Instead, classic descriptions should become one perspective among others (Rosaldo, 1994).  How social descriptions are read and understood depends not only on their linguistics but also their content and context.  Who is speaking to whom and about what?  Why are these people speaking and what are the circumstances (Rosaldo, 1994)?

In addition to his criticism of classic ethnography, Rosaldo (1994) provides a number of perspectives and suggestions for reducing individual bias when describing different cultures and peoples.  Personal narratives can add balance to impersonal descriptions to better represent other forms of life.  Another practical idea is to give the same consideration to criticisms from the individuals and groups studied as to criticisms of peers.  This is easier said than done but a noble goal, nonetheless.  Finally, the author takes one step further and suggests that, “we ethnographers should be open to asking not only how our descriptions of others would read if applied to ourselves but how we can learn from other people’s descriptions of ourselves (Rosaldo, 1994).”

The idea of learning from others, particularly in relationships where learning is understood to be one-way, is a powerful and important concept.  Transformational learning can happen when the one-way learning reverses direction.  This occurs when teachers learn from students, when masters learn from apprentices, when ethnographers learn about their own culture and themselves from those they are studying, and so on.

As participant observers in action research, we have a unique opportunity to learn from our community and develop personally and professionally.

Rosaldo, R. (1994). Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (pp. 46–67, 168–195). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Learning to Respect Each Other in Learning Groups

In any classroom, it is important to establish a sense of community. In my own efforts to build classroom community each year with my kindergarten students, I first discuss the differences between our classroom expectations and routines and the routines and expectations at home. Once we establish that our experience together is unique and is different than what we experience outside of our classroom, the work of getting to know one another, appreciating one another, and recognizing how each individual contributes to our classroom community begins. When this is successful, even at the young age of five, children support each other with language that is taught explicitly and modeled, strengths of individuals are recognized, children feel confident in suggesting new ideas, and most importantly everyone is appreciated for who they are and what the bring to our community.

The importance of social interaction when learning and constructing knowledge has been well documented by researchers in the field of education (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999; Greeno, Collins, & Resnick 1996). Extended discussion of ideas and collaboration of groups can lead to higher levels of reasoning (Hogan, Nastasti, & Pressley, 2000).

In our readings this week, I noticed a link between the article on cultural capital by Tara J. Rosso (2005), the study on managing uncertainty by Michelle E. Jordan and Reuban McDaniel Jr. (2014), and classroom community building. In their research study, Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams: The role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activities, Jordan & McDaniel (2014), studied the roles of peer interaction in collaborative problem solving.

Jordan and McDaniel (2014) specifically focused on what happens in a collaborative group when one of the members experiences uncertainty. What they found was that when confronted with this disruption in progress of the group work, peer responses varied in nature. These responses were either socially supportive to the child possessing the uncertainty or the peer responses were unsupportive (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014). If the support was not supportive, it caused some issues in the cohesiveness of the group and the ability of the child with the uncertainty to continue on with the group flow. Their findings suggested that in addition to teacher support, peer support is important if children are going to successfully participate in collaborative learning projects (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).

After reading this, I immediately thought of my experiences over the years in building a supportive classroom community as well as the ideas presented by Tara J. Rosso (2005) in the article, Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. In this article, Rosso (2005) discussed the importance of recognizing the value of the capital that children possess from their own experiences in their culture, family, and communities. Learning, sharing and celebrating these types of capital can be beneficial when building individuality and a feeling of importance in a classroom community, but it can also help when children are learning how to work and support each other in collaborative groups. Explicit attention given to the qualities of each child’s capital modeled by the teacher can help the children recognize individual strengths in each other when in collaborative learning situations.

When I think about my explicit efforts to build community, these readings really helped me to realize that not only will a focus on the capital that each child brings to the classroom help build a classroom community and a sense of belongingness, but it may also help with higher level thinking skills and higher quality problem solving at the group level. I can see activities at the kindergarten level that will help support this type of recognition in the beginning of the year, such as family sharing and star student, but my hope would be that with daily modeling and encouraging, the children would develop the supportive thoughts and language that would not only help them recognize individuals and how they uniquely contribute to a group, but also offer a community where it is common to encourage and respect everyone in the community to avoid debilitating unsupportive peer interactions and responses.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A., and Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain-mind experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Greeno, J.G., Collins, A. M., & Resnick, L. B., (1996). Cognition and Learning. In D. Berliner & R. Calfee (Eds)., Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 15-46). New York, NY: Macmillan.

Hogan, K., Nastasti, B. K., & Pressley, M. (2000). Discourse patterns and collaborative scientific reasoning in peer and teacher guided discussions. Cognition and Instruction, 17, 379-432.

Jordan, M.E. & McDaniel, R.R., (2014). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activities. The Journal of Learning Sciences, 00, 1-47.

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, (8)1, 69-81.