Institutional Ethnography is the label given to a distinctive mode of inquiry designed to allow researchers (and others) to explore the social organization of knowledge, and its consequences, in contemporary societies. Our Division provides a place for those using this approach to extend and elaborate it, and to explore its usefulness in addressing a range of social problems in and across institutional arenas.  We regularly hold workshops in conjunction with the meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, where we welcome both novice and more “seasoned” participants’ contributions.

The institutional ethnography approach was developed by Dorothy E. Smith and her early students in the context of the North American women’s movements of the 1970s and 80s as a “sociology for women” (Smith, 1987) and has been extended as a “sociology for people” (Smith 2005). It is designed to shift the focus of sociological research away from questions generated by administrative concerns and toward the puzzles of people’s everyday lives. Institutional ethnographic studies are designed to map the operation of “ruling relations” (Smith 1999) in ways that might be useful to people who are subject to those regimes of power.

Researchers using institutional ethnography envision, implicitly, a more just world in which knowledge is produced and distributed more democratically, so that it can be used to challenge rather than uphold relations of domination. Our critique of objectified knowledge and its use in the management of institutional life suggests that, frequently, and in systematic ways, the categories and conceptual frameworks of administration are inattentive to the actual circumstances of the diverse lives people live in contemporary societies. Frequently, and systematically, the slippages between everyday lives and objectified knowledge of those lives operate to produce and perpetuate circumstances that constitute social problems. Institutional ethnographic studies contribute to a social justice agenda by making knowledge from the standpoints of people’s everyday lives, seeking to demystify relations of ruling, and pointing to possible interventions in ruling relations.

Demonstration projects:

A number of institutional ethnographers have organized collaborative research with community or activist groups, in projects designed to involve service users in policy making. In the U.S., Ellen Pence, Praxis International (, worked extensively with advocates to reform domestic violence case processing. She developed a version of institutional ethnography that serves as the basis for a community audit process, designed to centralize concerns for women’s safety and to produce recommendations for community responses and case processing that will be more responsive to women’s and children’s needs.

In Canada, Marie Campbell (2000) led a participatory research project which involved a group of disability activists in examination of the organization of home support services. Drawing on Pence’s notion of the “audit,” Campbell’s Project Inter-Seed team focused on the scheduling of home services and was able to link problems in the continuity of service provision to changes in provincial funding policies. In an innovative approach to dissemination of their research results, the team developed a board game which they used as the basis for workshops with various groups involved in policy making and the provision and use of home services.

Institutional ethnography has provided the basis for similar efforts across a wide range of substantive concerns, including areas such as access to AIDS treatment (Mykhalovskiy and McCoy), policy and environmental planning (Turner 2001; and see, and the racialized organization of garment-industry work (Ng 2000).

Most recently Alison Griffith and Dorothy Smith have compiled a book Governing and the Front Line (forthcoming). This project arose from their awareness that a growing number of IE projects were describing changes in front-line work that were remarkably similar and that, most often, included the use of digital texts with fields and drop-down menus that stabilize how work is done. All the chapters in this book describe “institutional circuits” and the closely related  “accountability circuits” that bind front line work and workers into higher level textual media of governing that Griffith and Smith call ‘boss texts’. Organized within such things as performance indicators, benchmarks, standards and ‘results’, that are built into the software, they produce an ever tightening co-ordination of front line work that is mediated by the objective categories and concepts of the institution.  

Difficulties and obstacles:

Like many other social scientists, institutional ethnographers wish to expose the ways that ideological accounts of social problems perpetuate injustice and inequalities. Our conception of the “ruling relations” of contemporary capitalism (Smith 1999, ch. 5) points to the complex ways in which scholarship and professional practice are situated within these relations, and calls for a strong reflexivity in our scholarship. The inadvertent reproduction of ideological accounts--despite critical intentions--is a continuing challenge for social researchers.

More specifically, one of the key insights of our approach is that institutional languages and understandings are woven through the categories of conventional research and policy making. Thus, a fundamental challenge in this mode of inquiry is the difficulty of setting aside institutional conceptualizations (e.g. legal or policy definitions of “domestic violence”; diagnostic descriptions such as “ADHD students”; typifications such as “parent involvement”; etc.) so that inquiry can begin from a perspective rooted in people’s activities.

Another obstacle for institutional ethnographers is securing funding for research. The grants process is entwined with the ruling relations that we critique, and the emergent nature of IE "research design" does not fit easily with the routine procedures of funding agencies or IRBs.

In addition, institutional ethnographers confront the resilience and continually emergent and transformative character of institutional ideologies and the “conceptual currencies” of ruling discourses. Just as people continually resist oppression and marginalization in their daily lives, the powers and machinery of ruling are continually revised and extended through people’s activities in policy, professional, and managerial positions. Positive change is enormously difficult to sustain, because “reform discourses” are quickly taken up and reshaped by multiple actors with varying interests. Thus, while our analyses can typically only map a moment in time, institutional ethnographers try to build into those analyses a sense of the movement and change that inevitably brings forth new relations of power--sometimes more quickly than researchers can easily chart.

Division mission statement last edited in 2011 by Marjorie L. DeVault, Syracuse University, Institutional Ethnography Division Chair, 2007-2009, with input from Paul C. Luken. Minor additions in 2013 by Lauren E. Eastwood, SUNY-Plattburgh, Institutional Ethnography Division Chair, 2013-2015, and in 2012 by Janet Rankin, University of Calgary, Institutional Ethnography Division Chair, 2011-2013.

Recommended reading:

Dorothy E. Smith. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

_________. 1990. Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

_________. 1999. Writing the Social: Critique, Theory, and Investigations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

_________. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

_________, (ed.). 2006. Institutional Ethnography as Practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Marie Campbell and Frances Gregor. 2002. Mapping Social Relations: A Primer in Doing Institutional Ethnography. Aurora, ON: Garamond.

Marjorie L. DeVault and Liza McCoy. 2002. “Institutional Ethnography: Using Interviews to Investigate Ruling Relations.” Pp. 751-76 in Handbook of Interview Research, ed.      Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

George W. Smith. 1990. “Political activist as ethnographer.” Social Problems 37: 401 421.

Exemplary works:
Marie Campbell. 2000. “Participatory Research on Health Care for People with Disabilities: Exploring the Social Organization of Service Provision.” Research in Social Science and Disabilities 1: 131-54.

Timothy Diamond. 1992. Making Gray Gold: Narratives of Nursing Home Care. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kamini Maraj Grahame. 1998. “Feminist Organizing and the Politics of Inclusion.” Human Studies 21: 377–93.

Alison I. Griffith and Dorothy E. Smith. 2005. Mothering for Schooling. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Eric Mykhalovskiy and Liza McCoy. 2002. “Troubling Ruling Discourses of Health: Using Institutional Ethnography in Community-Based Research.” Critical Public Health, 12(1): 17-37.

Paul C. Luken and Suzanne Vaughan. 2006. “Standardizing Childrearing Through Housing.” Social Problems 53(3): 299-331.

Roxana Ng. 2000. “Restructuring Gender, Race, and Class Relations: The Case of Garment Workers and Labour Adjustment.” In Sheila Neysmith (Ed.), Restructuring Caring Labour: Discourse, State Practice, and Everyday Life, pp. 226-245. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Janet M. Rankin and Marie L. Campbell. 2006. Managing to Nurse: Inside Canada's Health Care Reform. Toronto, ONT: University of Toronto Press.

Susan M. Turner. 2001. “Texts and the Institutions of Municipal Government: The Power of Texts in the Public Process of Land Development.” Studies in Cultures, Organizations, and Societies 7: 297–325.