As a College-Based Higher Education (CBHE) course leader I continually, and often frustratingly, question what is happening and how decisions are made that affect my work, usually as I open an email or when sat in a meeting with yet another change or new thing to do urgently! I was keen to research this. As I started to reflect on my work, my ideas around ethnography were emerging. It was around this time that one of my supervisors suggested looking into Institutional Ethnography. Both a theoretical and methodological framework, institutional ethnography investigates how things happen (Smith, 2005). From my reading of Smith’s work, I found that questioning how decisions were being made that affected my work are what Smith calls the everyday problematic. The everyday problematic is the actualities of people’s lives. They become the focus of, and are the guiding forces, in the investigation (ibid, p. 40).

The aim of institutional ethnography is to investigate how the world is socially organised from a given standpoint. Developed from Marxist and Feminist roots, Smith argues that power, or ruling as she refers to it, is exercised in a top-down or hierarchical manner. Adopting a standpoint within the everyday problematic allows the researcher to understand how things are socially organised; with institutional ethnography focusing on ‘what happens’ and ‘how it happens’. Institutional ethnography allows the researcher to explore the socially organised nature of institutions, highlighting how ruling is enacted in relation to that chosen standpoint. To do this Smith emphasises positions defining the local as the position of the standpoint. The extra-local is the first move away from the standpoint, into the institutional processes. The trans-local which, again, is a further step away from the local position but allows greater view of the social organisation. Therefore, allowing the ruling to be seen and the researcher to identify how ruling and social organisation within an institution informs the everyday problematic (Smith, 1987, p.10 & pp.90-91).

To exemplify this in terms of my research, I take up my position amongst the course leaders for CBHE; this is my standpoint. Working from an institutional ethnographic theoretical

perspective, I aim to broadly follow the methodological framework set out by Smith to investigate the influences on the work of the course leaders for CBHE. As such I will be focusing on data collection methods such as interviews, textual analysis and reflections. My data collection will start with the course leaders for CBHE. My aim is to investigate what influences the course leaders for CBHE’s work how this happens. I use the term work, not role or job, to align with Smith’s concept of work. For Smith, work refers to any activities people are engaged in (Smith, 2005, p.125).

Yet, using an institutional ethnographic methodology does not end with the course leader informants. Smith proposes that there are two levels of data in any institutional ethnographic study: then entry point which is the standpoint adopted by the researcher and the second level data. The second level data is where the researcher moves beyond the standpoint into the social organisation and ruling relations of the institution (Campbell and Gregor, 2008, pp.59-60). When moving from the local to the extra local the research needs to consider who they need to speak to and what lines of inquiry need to be followed. To know where to go the researcher uses the information given by the entry level informants. For example, who have the course leaders talked about? I will then need to talk to those people. What texts have they referred to in their interview? When following up with texts, Smith applies what she calls the ‘text-reader-conversation’, exploring who wrote the text, its purpose and how it is used or activated. I will need to question, who does the text refer to?

Ultimately, I will be using the information gained from the course leaders, from the texts, from other informants and from observations to mapping the socially organised world of the course leaders, a process in which I will show where the course leaders for CBHE are situated within the social organisation and ruling relations of the college group and education policy. Mapping will show how, who and what texts organise their everyday work.

Yet, Smith does not allow me to answer all the questions swimming around in my head. As an insider-researcher, I have existing knowledge of the work of the course leader for CBHE. I find

that I am unable to account for subtle forms of power that are exercised away from the hierarchical nature of ruling put forward by Smith. Therefore, I find myself needing to consider alternative ways of conceptualising power, one which offers greater flexibility in how I come to know and understand power, yet also one which could be used alongside institutional ethnography. I have found Foucault’s concept of ‘technologies of the self’ interesting, in conjunction with his notion of power being more subtle. Foucault argues that power is not just something held by those in a higher position but something that is within everyone and web-like in nature (Foucault, 1980, p.98). I am drawn to his ideas that those whom, from an institutional ethnographic perspective, would be seem to have limited power can, through Foucault’s concepts of technologies of the self, exercise power in the form of control and resistance (Fendler, 2010, pp.47-48). Therefore, I find this theory of power suits the needs of my research, it may not be suitable for other seeking to use institutional ethnography. However, it can allow me to investigate the ways in which course leaders for CBHE choose to share information and when they withhold information, why they attend some course leader events and not others and why they choose to engage in some aspects of their role and not others.

I am still new to research and I am daunted and excited about this in equal measure. My hope is that I will be able to do justice to the work of the course leaders for college based higher education. I feel that Dorothy Smith and Michel Foucault have given me the tools in which to do this.


Campbell, M. and Gregor, F. (2008) A Primer in Doing Institutional Ethnography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc.

Fendler, L. (2010) Michel Foucault. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. USA: Vintage Books Edition

Smith, D. E. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press

Smith, D. E. (1999) Writing the Social Critique, Theory and Investigations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc

Smith, D. E. (2005) Institutional Ethnography A Sociology for People. Oxford: AltaMira Press

Smith, D. E. (2006) Institutional Ethnography as Practice. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Spread the love!