Carspecken, Phil FrancisCritical Ethnography in Educational Research: A theoretical and practical guide1996New York and London: Routledge

The development of critical theory over the last two decades has not been matched to the same extent with the development of methodologies consistent with such a theoretical perspective. It is this deficit which Phil Carspecken, Associate Professor in Cultural Studies and Education at the University of Houston, seeks to redress. His book makes a very important contribution to developing the links between theory and practice in critical research, and although some readers may find his five step model of research too structured, there is much to be gained here for qualitative researchers and post graduate students from a range of disciplines including education. Drawing on his own teaching and a small number of his own research projects, Carspecken develops his model of critical ethnography by skillfully weaving together theory, practical suggestions and concrete examples.||| The first two chapters introduce the underlying themes and perspectives of the book. Chapter 1 examines the notion of critical qualitative research, including the value orientations of critical researchers and ideas related to critical epistemology. It then moves on to summarize phenomenological, post-structuralist, and post-modern critiques of research methodologies which rely heavily on sense perception as a basis for developing truth and validity. Carspecken argues for a different approach based on “holistic, predifferentiated human experience and its relationship to the structures of communication” (p. 22), and introduces the three ontological categories (subjective, objective, and normative-evaluative) which are used as a basis for much of the theorizing and practical strategies in the remainder of the book. The second chapter develops some of the themes introduced in chapter 1, but also incorporates practical examples from Carspecken’s research and suggestions for planning research projects. The chapter ends with a brief description of the five stages of critical qualitative research around which the remainder of the book is strucutured.||| Chapter 3 describes in some detail the steps to be taken in undertaking stage 1 in Carspeckens’ scheme, namely building a primary record of initial observations of research sites. Chapters 4 and 5 articulate in substantial depth the theoretical basis for the development of the primary record, including the notion of validity claims based on the three ontological categories. The second stage of Carspecken’s research schema, preliminary reconstructive analysis, is dealt with in chapters 6 to 9. Chapter 6 develops ideas about meaning reconstruction, hermeneutic inference, pragmatic and semantic meaning structures, the reconstruction of validity, and a number of other related concepts. The emphasis here is on the practical steps to be undertaken in analysing the primary record. Chapter 7 continues this discussion, but delves more deeply into issues of power in the process of analysis. The following chapter examines the validity requirements for preliminary reconstructive analysis, while chapter 9 outlines coding procedures which are congruent with the theoretical perspectives and analytical strategies developed in the preceding chapters. The remainder of the book deals somewhat more briefly with the final three stages of Carspeckens’ model, namely “Dialogical data generation” (chapters 10 and 11) and “Describing systems relations” and “Systems relations as explanations of findings” (chapters 12 and 13), although as Carspecken notes, many of the theoretical and analytical issues which apply to the first two stages also apply in the latter three stages.||| The book has many strengths and a number of relatively minor weaknesses. The title of the book is somewhat deceptive. Although Carspecken draws his examples from educational research, the book could more appropriatedly be thought of as a guide to critical qualitative research across a range of disciplines. Almost all of Carspecken’s ideas apply as much to education as to sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, to name three discipline areas. Furthermore, although planning a project and developing research questions are dealt with in chapter 2, the book principally deals with data collection and data analysis, and makes almost no mention of some activities which in most research projects necessarily precede development of questions and methods, such as a review of the relevant theoretical and research literature. Rather, the five stage model suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that researchers, after formulating questions, should essentially leap into data collection, and leave theorizing until the latter stages of the project. This is a strategy that most supervisors of research students would counsel against.||| While Carspecken aimed to produce a book which was much more accessible than most critical and postmodern texts, there are some sections and chapters which are substantially more accessible than others. Students who are relatively new to critical theory and critical research may be intimidated by chapter 1, with its broad sweep of social theory, and chapter 6, with its array of wordily-labelled concepts. On the other hand, the chapters which include a more balanced mix of theory, practical suggestions and concrete examples are relatively easily managed. In addition, throughout the text Carspecken indicates clearly to the reader the directions in which the narrative is about to proceed.||| On a conceptual level the book is basically sound. Carspecken deals very successfully with a number of issues which have often proved thorny in ethnographic research such a validity, democratic and moral approaches to research, and the construction of meaning between researcher and participants. At other times his treatment is rather simplistic. Defining values as “views of what is good, bad, right and wrong” (p. 76) belies an understanding of the substantial debate about the concept of values which has characterized sections of the social psychological literature for some time. Similarly, his recommendation of the use of a broadened version of Weber’s theory of authority and power (pp. 129-130) as a basis for interpreting classroom interactions does not take account notions of power such as Foucault’s ideas concerning the ubiquitous nature of coercive disciplinary power in educational institutions, and the possiblity, revealed in recent post-structuralist research, that students use forms of resisitance not only to empower themselves but also to disempower their teachers.||| Phil Carspecken has produced a very useful resource for both researchers and postgraduate students. The method which he describes is essentially a holistic one, and is designed to be followed through from stage 1 to stage 5, although the author points out that many projects can be successfully completed using only the first three stages, and that the stages may be followed in a cyclical fashion, rather than in a simple linear manner. Readers who are uncomfortable with such a structured approach will nevertheless find a wealth of ideas which they can incorporate or adapt to their own research strategies, and which will both challenge their established practices and stimulate them to develop research projects which comply more closely to the ideal of research for positive social change.|||

Peter NinnesUniversity of Western Sydney, Macarthur


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