Ethnographic Projects for Study Abroad

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Photo by Joaquín on Unsplash

In my very first post on this blog, I discussed how despite popular belief, language and intercultural learning are not automatic outcomes of study abroad.  I also mentioned three key components of study abroad programs necessary to promote these outcomes: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  In this post, I want to focus on one of my favorite interventions for study abroad, that of ethnographic projects for study abroad.  

What is an ethnographic project for study abroad?

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher(s) spend a lengthy period of time (usually years) within a community, with the purpose of describing the culture of that community from an inside perspective, traditionally through the production of an ethnography.  The tools ethnographers use include participant observations, informal conversations, interviews, photographs, videos, and other visual data.  They then analyze this data to describe the particular culture or cultural practice as it is viewed by members of the community (as opposed to outsiders).  

Ethnographic projects for study abroad use the same tools and methods of analysis, but differ from traditional ethnographies in key ways.  First and foremost, students do not have the training of professional ethnographers, nor do they spend an adequate time in the field.  Secondly, the primary goal is developing students language and intercultural skills, not producing a research project.  The basic sequence is for students to complete training in ethnographic methods at home (the home ethnography) then collect their data while abroad, and then write up their project upon their return home (the abroad ethnography).  

The two main examples of ethnographic projects for study abroad in the research literature I am familiar with are the Language and Residence Abroad (LARA) Project described by Celia Roberts and her associates and the Special English Stream (SES) analyzed by Jane Jackson.  The LARA Project focuses on students from England studying abroad in Germany and Spain and the SES Project on students from Hong Kong studying in England.  More recently, there is the Ethnographic Encounters Project from the University of Southhampton.  I’ve also written about my experience designing an ethnographic project for study abroad (and the challenges therein) in my chapter in this book. I would highly recommend reading the literature on these projects as a basis for creating your own.  

Why are ethnographic projects an appealing intervention? 

I find ethnographic projects for study abroad particularly appealing because they incorporate all of the elements research shows is necessary to promote language and intercultural learning during study abroad: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  They can also encourage critical approaches to language and intercultural learning, which is something that I think is frequently ignored in language classes, and yet has so much potential for social change if we only made it a focus.  

1) Creating language and intercultural contact:  By forcing students to engage in observations, informal conversations, and interviews, students have to find opportunities for language and intercultural contact.  Even if the possibility of conversing or interviewing in students’ own language exists, the fact that this is part of their language class may make them more likely to incorporate the target language as well, or even better develop an understanding of the social connotations of  different linguistic behaviors.  Second, they have to sustain this contact in order to develop their project—it’s not enough to have one conversation or observation.  

2) Reflecting upon this contact: Due to the emphasis on interpreting data from an insider perspective, students also have to reflect upon multiple ways of interpreting their data, and how their own interpretations may differ from those of community members.  This includes not only their interpretation of what particular conversations or practice mean, but also understanding how their own views are encoded in their data collection (for example if they describe a cafe patron as “attractive”).  This ability to understand situations from multiple perspectives is key to the development of intercultural competence.  

3) Connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences: Students receive training at home, collect data while abroad, and create their final project after their return, which allows for a natural connection between these periods as well as continual focus on language and intercultural competence.  While this can be difficult to orchestrate bureaucratically, research demonstrates that it is essential to create these connections.  

4) Encouraging critical approaches: The potential of critical approaches in the language classroom is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but for now I’ll focus on a few ways I think ethnographic projects for study abroad can play a key role.  First, a focus on interpreting linguistic and cultural practices can be an introduction to sociolinguistics, particularly how we use language in our construction and interpretation of social identities, and how these identities connect to larger structures of power.  Although all of us do this daily, and learn these identities and power structures in new languages and communities, language students rarely have the opportunity to reflect upon how this works, especially in lower level classes that focus on “neutral” or “standard” varieties.  This takes me to my next point, which is really perhaps the most important one: learning how to critically analyze relationships between language and power in “new” communities can give us new insights to these relationships in familiar ones, because our “new” insights now open up cracks in our previous worldviews, and allow us to see problems in our cultural practices we were previously unaware of, or aware of but unable to describe.  

Designing ethnographic projects for study abroad

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that ethnographic projects for study abroad are a key research-based intervention, the question is how to design them? I’ve designed two of these projects so far, one an independent study for a student abroad for an academic year, and one part of a faculty-led study abroad that included an 8 week at home component and two weeks abroad.  I’ll be revising this latter one when I do this program again later this year.  Based on my experience, I’d say the main considerations are as follows:

1) Timing—how many course hours are available for the project and how long do things actually take? In my academic year project, fitting in extra independent study hours was a major challenge for both the student and myself.  In the faculty-led study abroad, the short time frame meant that I couldn’t simply use materials made for a semester long course as there weren’t as many hours, but then it took me much longer than I anticipated to adapt those materials for a shorter time frame.  Understanding the timing is of course something that gets better with time (and time-tracking!), but it’s definitely worth thinking about from the outset.  

2) Materials—what materials will you use to teach the course? In the academic year project, I used an undergraduate ethnography textbook by Murchison, and in the faculty-led study abroad I modified the LARA project materials.  While I do think it’s easier to start with materials already made for undergraduates, it’s also almost certain that these will need to be modified to fit your context.  For example, some of the LARA project materials had references specific to England (like pub culture) and I had to think about how this might be more relevant to my students.  Alternatively, there might be things you want to include that aren’t in the materials you are using (in my case, critical approaches, which are usually thought of as “advanced”, but I disagree and would like to use them from the beginning).  

3) Activities—what activities will students do and how will they encourage language contact and reflection upon that contact? In both projects I’ve done, I’ve followed a pretty traditional sequence of moving from observations, to informal conversations, to interviews.  While this has worked well, it’s also key to think about how your feedback will fit into the sequence such that you can encourage reflection in subsequent assignments—this is something that was a challenge for these projects as I fell behind upon grading or students fell behind upon completing the activities.  

4) Final project—what will the final project look like? In the two projects I’ve done, I’ve had students write a final paper and also turn in their data collection and analysis, since using these methods for language and intercultural development is more of a focus than the final paper itself.  In my next iteration of this project, I may consider expanding the options to a video and/or recorded presentations to give students more options for expressing themselves, since producing a written ethnography is not actually a key outcome of this type of project.  

5) Post-project reflection—I think this is important for all projects, but especially research-based interventions in language learning.  Both of the projects I’ve done have helped students develop their language and intercultural competence (e.g. making them speak to more people, or use more Arabic, or giving them tools to consider alternative interpretations of situations in subsequent study abroad).  However, neither of them when exactly as I envisioned them going after reading the research literature.  This is party contextual differences, but I think also stems from the fact that we are encouraged to gloss over the challenges of implementing these types of projects in the classroom when we write research articles (as I was when I wrote about these projects in my book chapter, I had to actually argue with the reviewer comments to keep my discussion of the challenges in!).  However, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and how much time things actually take, and what materials were more or less accessible to students, and what they need more training on is key to further development of these projects.  

Have you tried these ethnographic projects for study abroad to promote language and intercultural learning? How did it work out? Would you try them in your own program?