The readings this week focused on the Ethnography of Communication or EC. EC seeks to examine the particular cultural conditions of communication and also its general principles. EC takes as its material not just spoken or written language but also images, gestures, smell, digital, digital content and basically any cultural material that anthropologists use. In his overview of the field Carbaugh (2014) credits Gumperz & Hymes (1972) as establishing the foundation for EC. Gumperz and Hymes were both linguists and anthropologists and helped found the study of linguistic anthropologists.

The focus on EC is to look for patterns and practices in speech communities, and considers several key concepts:

  • communication act: a specific communicative action (uttering something)
  • communication event: a sequence of acts (a series of utterances)
  • communication situation: a place which may involve multiple acts/events
  • speech community: a social grouping of communicators
  • a way of speaking: a patterned behavior

Just as an aside, it is interesting to note that EC is heavily invested in the notions of community and communication, and that both words share the same root. Hymes came up with the useful mnemonic SPEAKING, which is a device or framework that characterize the types of phenomena EC researchers examine: Settings, Participants, Ends, Acts, Key/pitch, Instruments for communication, Norms, and Genre.

As with other ethnographic work, EC is iterative and cyclical. Study of the literature and theory precedes actual field work, which is followed by analysis and reporting. But each of these stages can feed back into the other. For example when analyzing field notes leads the researcher to return to field to interview a new contact or observe another situation. Also, it is important in ethnographic work that meanings are discovered throughout the process, rather than decided beforehand.

Philipsen (1987) argued that analysis shouldn’t be centered so much on the individual, but should instead focus on the collective or communal aspects of meaning, alignment and form from three perspectives:

  • Culture as Code: order and organization
  • Culture as Conversation: dynamism/creativity
  • Culture as Community: the setting

Culture as Code was formalized by Philipsen, Coutu, Covarrubias, & Gudykunst (2005) as Speech Code Theory, which starts out by cataloging a set of speech resources (spoken words and written texts) which are examined in order to investigate “a system of socially constructed symbols and meanings, premises, and rules, pertaining to communicative conduct”. I actually think this approach could be useful for me to examine the interviews I have with web archivists in coordination with their collection development policies. Perhaps I could zoom in on a particular one to see how the language operates?

Carbaugh, Nuciforo, Molina-Markham, & Over (2011) highlights the importance of reflexivity as a method in EC. Specifically discursive reflexivity, or the ability to render/reason through discourse, while reflecting on how we use discourse to study discourse, is the mechanism. Reflexivity is a core concept in ethnographic work, where the researcher themselves are a research tool being used. It takes on several aspects in EC work:

  • Theoretical Reflexivity: using reflexive moment to understanding communication
  • Descriptive Reflexivity: how is a reflexive moment being represented? what is selected and what is not? How are decisions accounted for? Need to be aware of our own goals and attitudes, and how they are interwoven into descriptive work.
  • Interpretive Reflexivity: what is the meaning/significance of the communication practices.
  • Comparative Reflexivity: provides different views on a communicative moment and multiple meanings. This idea of the multiple reminds me of Mol (2002) and Law (2004) a bit. Verbal vs Print knowledge can be useful to compare, especially when focusing on areas of misunderstanding or disagreement.
  • Critical Reflexivity: examining a communication practice from the perspective of an standardized ethic.

I actually think reflexivity is really important in my own work studying the construction of web archives, because I myself am a practitioner. My familiarity with web archiving community as a community of practice definitely influenced the way I spoke to archivists–I was a participant in the process. Being able to think critically about my role in the interviews, and my selection of policies to examine are an important part of the research.

Duff & Harris (2002) provided a great example of an empirical study that employed EC. I was particularly struck by her detailed description of the classroom, that included registries of the students and their backgrounds, a map of the classroom and the positions of the student groups, daily agendas, and fairly lengthy transcripts of conversation.

These materials were drawn together with a lucid description of the community setting, and the goals of the school to encourage cross-cultural understanding. I really felt like I came to understand the specific settings she chose. This allowed her to make describe the successes and failures of validating and rebroadcasting comments from students during lessons about culture. Attention to word counting, turn taking, pauses and sequencing provided a view into the dynamics of the classroom. Ethnographic interviews with the students also confirmed some of her findings.

In general I finished the readings this week thinking that EC approaches could hold a lot of promise for my own research. I think this is partly because my interviews with web archivists was conducted using an ethnographic method. I wasn’t out to prove or disprove a particular hypothesis. I just wanted to try to understand how appraisal of web content took place in the field. I think it might be useful to select an interview or two from the 30 interviews I conducted to take a closer look from a discourse perspective. Perhaps there are things I missed during my coding of all the interviews.

Another angle that could be interesting would be to look at an interview and a collection development policy, to see how they compare. It might be possible to look at the collections of web content themselves, which was suggested by Prof. Fagan last week. My only worry with that is that there might be too much material at different levels. This was mentioned as one of the challenges of EC, because of the volume of material that is difficult to integrate because it is from different perspectives: etic (from outside) and emic (from within).

Certainly using a diversity of material, and embracing the messiness of method, is more appealing (and realistic) to me more than focusing exclusively on the text of a particular transcript. I suspect that EC is going to be a useful method for me in discourse analysis. I guess I worry that the hyperfocus on a particular text transcript by itself will run the risk of me projecting my own ideas, rather than seeing what is actually going on. But perhaps I will be surprised when we come to the other discourse methods later in the semester.


Carbaugh, D. (2014). Cultures in conversation. Routledge.

Carbaugh, D., Nuciforo, E. V., Molina-Markham, E., & Over, B. van. (2011). Discursive reflexivity in the ethnography of communication: Cultural discourse analysis. Cultural Studies - Critical Methodologies, 11(2), 153–164.

Duff, W. M., & Harris, V. (2002). Stories and names: Archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings. Archival Science, 2(3-4), 263–285.

Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. H. (1972). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Holt, Rinehart; Winston New York.

Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.

Philipsen, G. (1987). Communication theory: Eastern and western perspectives. In D. L. Kincaid (Ed.), (pp. 245–254). Academic Press.

Philipsen, G., Coutu, L. M., Covarrubias, P., & Gudykunst, W. (2005). Theorizing about intercultural communication. In Theorizing about intercultural communication (pp. 55–68). Sage Thousand Oaks, CA.