Institutional Ethnography (IE) is a distinctive mode of inquiry, which seeks to understand how what actual people do and experience is organized in relation to others. Epistemologically, IE is distinguished from other sociological approaches by its commitment to beginning inquiry with what people know and have experienced. A people's actions are never taken up without recognizing where and how they coordinate with others. That is what adds up to 'the social' for institutional ethnography. Ontologically, then, IE resists treating the social as “out there” to be researched; rather, the social is understood to be put together in the coordinated activities of actual people at particular historically-situated moments where activities include what is done in language as well as thinking and imagining.
IE was developed by Dorothy E. Smith and her students in the context of the North American women’s movements of the 1970s and 80s as a “sociology for women” (Smith, 1987); more recently, Smith (2005) has described IE as a “sociology for people” (Smith 2005). Institutional ethnographies are designed to explicate the puzzles of people’s everyday lives. People are not the objects of an IE analysis, and institutional ethnographers actively resist the processes of objectification that typify social science research. In an IE study, the objects of analysis are the objectified relations of governance or social coordination that connect us to one another and – in various and contradictory ways – give shape to our lives.
Research always begins with what people know and have experienced. That is, it begins in the actual practices and activities of people at particular moments in time and in particular local settings. Researchers pay attention to how people’s thoughts and actions are coordinated with the thoughts and actions of others. Analytically, the aim is to discover how material relations – the actual things people do, think and say in coordination with others – are organized or put together in the ways that they are. To actualize IE’s analytic aims one does not limit her researching to recording what people say and do. Rather, what people say and do anchors an investigation of methods of coordination that link and transcend individual people participating in a research study. IE researchers seek to discover how particular ways of knowing or doing are mediated by people’s everyday engagement with an array of texts and textually-mediated processes (e.g., music videos, online newsfeeds, print media, radio, measures, indices, scales, theories, systems of classification, administrative reports, public discourse, policy, legislation, application forms other ordinary workplace texts). Ultimately, the goal is to produce knowledge that is useful to people, helping them to address the concerns and issues they’ve identified in conversation with researchers.
Our Division provides a place for those using IE to extend and elaborate it, and to explore its usefulness as a method of inquiry. 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.
Division mission statement reviewed in November 2021 by Colin Hastings, Concordia University, Institutional Ethnography Chair, 2021-2023. No edits were made. Division mission statement last edited in December 2016 by Dorothy E. Smith, University of Victoria, Institutional Ethnography Division Founding Member and Naomi Nichols, McGill University, Institutional Ethnography Division Chair, 2015-2017.
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