This why it happens and how participants feel about

This essay is based on the article ‘The Discursive Co-construction of Knowledge, Identity, and Difference: An Ethnography of Communication in the High School Mainstream,’ by Patricia A  Duff published in the Applied Linguistics Journal on the first of September 2002, Volume 23, Issue 3, with a page range of  289 to 322.

The article’s main research focus follows a brief summary of the applications of ethnography as a methodological approach which is to explore, through mixed methods research, the negotiation of sociocultural identities portrayed in classroom discourse, with specific emphasis on the seventeen non-native students in class SS10. The concept of integration, seen as a common goal in the classroom, is promoted through the use of cultural topics in the humanitarian subject as a way of showing cultural similarities and differences between the ‘ethnolinguistically diverse student body.’ (Duff 2002:316) The learning technique is used to promote an environment of respect and contributions of the students who spoke English as a second language as a way of accessing their identity, which is portrayed through their sequential speech and turn-taking.

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The research design of the article can be credited for undertaking a mixed methods approach, in the data collection of the single classroom-based study, which Dörnyei (2007:187) states ‘is necessary to not only explore what happens in class, but why it happens and how participants feel about this matter.’ Ethnography was used for the large part of the research, alongside interviews, which can be recognised for it’s highly qualitative and categorically emic approach, allowing the researcher to ‘tell the study from the inside,’ (Brewer 2000:17) opposed to quantitative research which on the other hand views the study through the eyes of the researcher. For this reason, ethnography is seen to strongly ’emphasise the significance of the meanings people give to objects, including themselves, in the course of their activities,’ (Hammersley 2018:4) which is seen to suit the research focus, as a deepened understanding of an individual’s subjective meaning, would allow personal thoughts and feelings to both shape and contextualise the findings. This is needed as the concept of a sociocultural identity is susceptible to both internal and external factors such as gender, age and most importantly socially approved language behaviours.

Further to this, the interviews would be able to provide extra opportunities to probe additional responses through extensive questioning, to further clarify and any evidence collated, or allocate time for both the students and teachers to disclose any feelings they may wish to share in a more confidential environment.

Participant observation is a predominant feature of the ethnographic research method, which is seen as most applicable to exploratory studies as it is acknowledged for undertaking a naturalistic approach and accessing rich and in-depth data. This type of research begins with generalised, open-ended research questions, which is not directly mentioned in the study, but the idea behind this allows for a whole range of expected and unexpected findings. Although criticisms may draw upon the fact that the results may be more time-consuming to code and identify common trends in comparison to statistically manipulated quantitative research, a higher degree of variability, though less generalisable, is still likely to show.

In terms of the practicalities of participant observation, this study relied on both audio and visual based forms, to ‘gain access to the social actors that matter,’ (Mills and Morton 2013:64) opposed to the researcher being physically present in the classroom. The students, in one aspect, may have forgotten that they were being observed in certain parts of the study, therefore producing more realistic language behaviours in relation to their turn taking. At the same time, the study may have lacked an atmosphere of friendly rapport due to the evident distance between the researcher and the students, which could have minimised the levels of trust and acceptance the students felt towards the researcher, seeing their role purely as an outsider rather than an inside member of their own community.

A further criticism that relates to the use of audio based forms is the problems of missing little, never the less significant language details along with paralinguistic features, for instance facial expressions, especially as it is said that some of the non local students spoke quietly QUOTE,This could have been overcome through face to face contact in the classroom, which would have also made the task of recognising the voices of individuals much easier.

Ethnography is known for longitudinal nature that has ‘temporality built in, with a specific focus on change’ (O’Reilly 2012:519) when tracking individuals over a period of time, whereby this study carried out observations ‘from January to June.’ (Duff 2002:297) Although this could, to an extent, be deemed as obtrusive on the daily lives of the participants, time is needed to ‘notice the smaller details and the little things that happen,’ (O’Reilly 2004:92) and for the researcher to collect a sufficient amount of field notes relating to the research questions.

Identity, as a social construct, is known to change over time as well as from place to place, which means that the length of the study was appropriate in that it gave the researcher an opportunity to record progressive details on the student’s socio-cultural identities in multiple aspects of school culture, including ‘orientation evenings for parents, assemblies, and a school dance.’ (Duff 2002:297) This allowed the researcher to gain a wider, more detailed insight into the student’s socio-cultural identities, besides the ones solely portrayed within the classroom, without relying on a single observation.

However, the observations may still remain partial in that non-local students who may have encountered different language socialisation processes to the majority, may respond this by concealing parts of their identity in school that they would otherwise reveal in external social settings such as the family. Due to ethical issues surrounding confidentiality and privacy, influences like the family are inaccessible to the researcher and therefore unable to be accounted for, despite the fact that this particular example could have remained the main influence of the student’s self-image and esteem portrayed within the classroom.

Whilst it is an advantage, as a researcher, to utilise excerpts of talk,  when writing up the field notes of a study, the quoted description, given by the teacher, in excerpt one surrounding the topic corporal punishment, could potentially use material that may be seen as a violation of ethical guidelines. Although the topic did directly link to the research focus, using the subject of humanities to share examples of cultural experiences, giving the students opportunities to share differences between their opinions, the statement ‘I know that some of you have experienced that’ (Duff 2002:302) raise concerns of confidentiality. The statement refers, though not explicitly to those sat in the classroom and for this reason individuals who may have experienced this sensitive topic, may have felt segregated from the rest who had not come across this matter, due to feelings of embarrassment. Alternatively, the individuals discussing the topic may have felt obliged to adopt the commonly held negatively slanted opinions surrounding the issue, as demonstrated within Lori’s hedged answer, which reads that she felt ‘kind of felt ashamed,'(Duff 2002:302) implying a sense of uncertainty. This may have not accurately reflected her true beliefs and instead, revealed an answer that could have been altered to conform to a socially appropriate response, due to the pressures of demand characteristics. In order to probe what could have been a more natural, easier-flowing discussion-based atmosphere, prompting higher levels of involvement from the non native speakers in terms of turn-taking, the description given by the teacher could have chosen a more broad example relating to individuals who had experienced the matter, opposed to those in front of her.

The discussion-based learning technique may not have been the most suitable technique for this research design as participant variables, including being shy, socially anxious and unconfident, can have a major impact on the levels of an individual’s classroom involvement, all of which cannot be manipulated by the researcher. Student’s with participant variables of the other extreme, such as an overconfident attitude and talkative habits, evident within Janet’s turns, may have been seen as overbearing by others and left to manage the discussion alone, as students would have had to risk interruption and a label of being rude or disruptive in order to engage in the discussion.

A lack of familiarity with class peers and the topic of discussion itself may have further skewed the outcomes, as it is said that the student’s only knew ‘the classmates sitting nearest to them,’ (Duff 2002:298) meaning students are most likely to have possessed little knowledge surrounding each other’s cultural background. This may have left, for some, a daunting experience of verbal communication within the group. The involvement of the non native speakers may have been further restricted by the fact that the task required discussing a topic they may not be familiar with or be able to relate to, which may have caused further difficulties in establishing cultural connections unlike the ‘local students who could identify themselves with discussion topics and have their voices heard.’ (Duff 2002:303) Due to this contribution levels from the non-local students may have suffered, mainly due to fear of answering incorrectly.

This factors combined may have enhanced feelings of isolation and social exclusion, opposed to feeling integrated and valued giving more reason for the non native students, to not want to show their identity, or on the other hand portray an identity which is more reserved. In order to overcome this issue, students could select their own cultural topics they identify with, within small groups allocated by themselves to create a more comfortable environment, where a more fitting representation of each student’s sociocultural identity could thrive.

A valid point of criticism linked to the article focus on identity is ‘the extent to which students actually want to display their identities and personal knowledge,’ (Duff 2002:313) which may have been reduced by several issues relating to the classroom environment, one of which regards the potentially biased selection process of the teachers chosen on the basis of the subjective criteria, that they were ‘open-minded, socially progressive, enthusiastic and committed teachers’ as well as having social demographic similarities in terms of being ‘white Anglo Canadians.’ (Duff 2002:296) A lack of identification with the teachers, emphasised through differences in ethnic background may have been a problem concerning the non native English students which could have affected the social profiles they displayed. The differences, in this case, could have exaggerated feelings of marginalisation and created additional difficulties when attempting to establish cultural integration within the class.

Another issue linked to the classroom environment was that the fact that the teacher, named Pam, often used the contributions of previously taught students from ‘her English course two years earlier’, (Duff 2002:301) to prompt and encourage the participation levels of the non-native English students. As the students would be familiar with Pam’s learning styles, discussion-based teaching may have been a regular occurrence for them, whilst for others this may rarely be used. It may have become obvious to the other students of the apparent reliance that Pam had on the input on the two students, which may have felt other students feeling intimidated, inferior and discouraged to learn due to the lack of focus directed towards them. In result, student’s may have underestimated their true abilities, choosing not to participate to their full potential.

It can be seen that the study does hold strengths in its research design, particularly in it’s use of an ethnographic approach and the fact that a concerning issue when studying identities was raised; as to whether or not the individual chooses to show their true identity, or pursue the identity attributed to them. However, it is questionable as to how well the study managed to integrate the non native speakers in class SS10,  and allowed their true identities to show, with regards to the topic of discussion, choice of teachers and personality differences between classmates, all of which may have collectively stipulated the fullest participation of the non native students and their genuine sociocultural identity.