CMS 384K: Contemporary
Ethnography of Communication


  1. Course information
  2. Meeting time and location
  3. Instructor
  4. Description
  5. Readings
  6. Graded Assignments
  7. Attendance policy
  8. Ethical standards

Contemporary Ethnography of Communication

Unique number: 06255.
Course number: CMS 384K.
Description: A course in using discourse analysis in the ethnography of communication.
Prerequisite:graduate standing.

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Meeting time and location

Days: Tuesdays.
Time:3:30-6:30 pm..
Place: CMA 7.114C.

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Name: Madeline M. Maxwell, Ph.D.
Office: CMA 7.120. Jesse H. Jones Communication Center
Office hours: Tuesdays 1:00-3:30,  Wednesdays 1:30-3:00, and by appointment. E-mail seems to work best for messages and arranging appointments. Or leave a message on the bulletin board on my office door, and I will get back to you. I expect to have several individual discussions with each of you about your work for this course. I'll offer some times after the beginning of the semester.
Phone & voice mail: 471 1954.

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An examination of the major contributions made by ethnographic research, broadly conceived, to the knowledge of communication practice and theory. The course will include reviews of the major traditions in ethnographies, with an focus on current issues. The emphasis will be on detailed ethnographies of face to face interaction as particularly efficient tools to discover what major social and cultural forces can impact institutions and practices and how individuals can reconstruct their own local practices.
Thus we will visit ethnographies of communication, the blending of conversation analysis and ethnography, film ethnography, fictional ethnography, autoethnography, and critical ethnography. The notion “culture” is being claimed by many different positions both within and outside the academy. What role does ethnography play in the “culture wars” and the critical theory movement? While there are many "types" of ethnographies, recent innovation involves the inclusion of discourse interaction. How does one draw ethnographic ideas from interactional data? In this class we will study a number of ethnographic studies to develop criteria for critiquing ethnographic work, with a focus on discourse analysis. Various authors have used different methods of discourse analysis in ethnographies of communication. Our emphasis will be on these discourse methods, i.e., on using close transcription of talk in interaction, to support ethnographic claims.
"Ethnographic description is by no means the straightforward, unproblematic task it is thought to be in the social sciences, but a complex effect, achieved through writing and dependent upon the strategic choice and construction of available detail. The presentation of interpretation and analysis is inseparably bound up with the systematic and vivid representation of a world that seems total and real to the reader" (Marcus & Cushman, 1982:29, in Jacobson, 1991:4).
Perhaps the hardest notion to grasp is that the purpose of an ethnography is not to describe in the sense of deriving generalizations for behavior - for that purpose you need other methods. The purpose is to provide a coherent representation of human action, that is, to draw a conclusion through interpretation based on certain descriptive facts. Thus it depends on the selection and presentation of facts. The first selection happens in the fieldwork - what you see while you are there, based on your own quirky self and the theories that interest you - or what the people let you see or what seems important to them. A second selection comes when some record from the fieldwork provides evidence for some interpretation. Often at this stage of the process, the researcher goes in search of enlightening theory, since what is actually learned may well lead away from the original purpose. "Ethnographic arguments consist of claims (conclusions, assertions, propositions, explanations, interpretations) about people's behavior (or about a culture or a society) and data (grounds, facts) that constitute evidence for or against them [and what Toulmin (1979) calls] warrants, the steps that link the conclusions and the data through the form of "If these data, then these claims" (Jacobson 1991:7-8).

The main issues addressed in the course will include:
-    The adequacy of descriptions of interaction;
-    The adequacy of different representation formats;
-    The accounting of human agency within institutions and practices;
-    The representation and consequences of variation;
-    Cultural constructions and the resistance to these constructions;
-    The linkage of institutional practices to major social divisions;
-    The linkage of institutional practices to local fields (particularly families).

Note that the course is, partially, a demonstration of what can be done with ethnography to address general issues of practice in various settings. There will be extended discussions of the validity of analytic generalizations based on ethnographic observation.

Concurrently with our examination of the record, students will conduct and produce an ethnography. The ethnography students will write entails the close study of a local culture through fieldwork, which requires many hours at the site--observing, talking with culture members, taking notes, interviewing, and perhaps participating in the culture's activities. The objective of this work is to produce a written account of how the people of this culture generate and interpret social behavior, and how they use language to make and share meaning. We will study fieldwork methods that will help you produce this written account. Ethnography has a long tradition in both cultural anthropology and sociology and is growing in importance in communication. We will focus heavily on aspects of communication.

Practical note: Because of the short duration of a semester, I urge you to conduct your ethnography in a public space, unless you are already situated some place with permission to conduct research.

For at least the past two decades, ethnographers have been asking themselves vital questions about graphic representations of people: Who represents whom, to what audience and to what end? What form will narration take to achieve this representation? What positions does the author take in so doing? Its primary material lying in other people's lives, ethnography offers a valuable genre for writers wishing to hone their expertise in description, dialogue, and empirically grounded representations of social realities.

This course is both fieldwork-intensive and writing-intensive, requiring long hours at the site and at the computer. As you will see from the schedule, the assignments start early and grow, building upon one another, and if you fall behind you won't be able to catch up. Many of our class sessions will be in workshop format, and if you come to class without having done your work, you'll undermine the learning for others as well.

You are responsible for attending class and for taking notes on class discussions and activities. We'll set up a phone and e-mail list early in the semester so that if you miss class you can contact other class members for notes and added assignments. I encourage you to meet with me during my office hours (or to make an appointment outside of them) so that we can discuss your work as it evolves.

Always make a copy of your homework submissions, to guard against error in processing them. The lengths of assignments are indicated on the schedule, and in some cases you'll be making multiple copies, so you'll need to budget accordingly. Note that as of 2/8, you'll be compiling an extensive fieldwork journal, which will contain jottings and notes, retrospective coding and commentary, and transcripts of interviews. When you are asked to make multiple copies, you are free to distribute these through email, but you should always make sure that you give me a hard copy.

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University of Virginia Instructional Toolkit:

Read papers by: Basso, Blom, Goffman, Heath, Phillips, Sherzer, Urban for Nov. 14th.
Read papers by Goodwin, LePage, Myers, and Sacks for Nov. 28th.
Also read  Microethnography and Technology on-line and the McDermott chapter on hard copy.

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Class Participation – You will be evaluated on two aspects of participation: email submission of 2-3 integrative discussion questions based on readings by noon of the class meeting day they are assigned (20 points) and active and intelligent discussion of the questions and related topics during the seminar (35 points). Strong grades here will require attendance at all sessions and evidence that all reading assignments have been read and thought about before the class meeting. 55 points

Critical Practice – You will be evaluated on your ability to help your colleagues develop their research and writing (10 points). You will be assigned two or three colleagues to (1) advise each other about the progress of your work, provide written criticism of each other’s drafts and assignments at least twice. You will assign these grades to each other. Each of you will receive a grade from at least two colleagues. 10 points

Essay – You will write an essay on a topic of your choice related to ethnography of communication or another discourse-related ethnography (35 points). You should clear your topic with me in advance. Length will vary according to the topic, but 10 –pages is a good starting idea. 35 points

Homework Assignments and Project – Your fieldwork and writing will be evaluated in three ways: homework (50 points), research paper (45 points), and research presentation (5 points). You will have 5 assignments to do as homework (10 points each). All of these should be related to a topic you are researching for the semester. a) Conduct and write up detailed field notes from 3-4 interviews, b) write up detailed field notes from 3-4 field observations, c) write up one detailed analysis of language (at the word or phrase level), d) write up one analysis of communicative interaction, e) write up one other communication analysis derived from the reading. Then, write up an article and name the journal for submission. You will be expected to present your work to the seminar (5 points). You will have a strictly-timed slot of 15 minutes, with another 15 minutes for questions and discussion. To earn an A, the paper should be at least of a high enough quality to be accepted for presentation by the Language and Social Interaction Division of NCA. 100 points

Grades – 180-200 A, 160-179 B, 150-169 C, 145-149 D, below 144 F.

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Attendance policy

Regular attendance is required at all class meetings.

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Ethical Standards

Students at the University of Texas at Austin are expected to demonstrate the highest ethical standards about their intellectual work and their scholarly participation. Scholastic dishonesty will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent. You are expected to have read and understood the current issue of General Information Catalog, published by the Registrar's Office, for information about procedures and about what constitutes scholastic dishonesty.

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Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

The University of Texas at Austin provides upon request appropriate academic accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. For more information, contact the Office of the Dean of Students at 471-6259, 471-4641 TTY.

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Fall 2000 
[Home| General| Teaching| World
31 August 2000
Department of Communication Studies,
College of Communication,
University of Texas at Austin
Send comments or inquiries to Madeline Maxwell
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