Linguistics

Ethnographic Interview

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Integrating Culture into the Language Curriculum

 

Introduction

     Choosing Janet Tanner*. I had previously met Janet in December 2015 while visiting my husband at her school. She was working with him on the same teaching team. I remember feeling an instant connection with her. She was an open and friendly person, and she reminded me of one of my closest friends. We talked a few times on that first meeting about our plans for the Christmas holiday, and I was interested to hear that she was taking a trip, which her family playfully objected to her doing instead of spending time with them. However, it was not because they observed the Western traditions of the Christmas holiday – her family are Muslim; it was because she would not be taking part in their yearly Christmas tradition of watching too much television and eating too much food while enjoying the time off they got from work and school.

      Though Janet and I come from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, I had a feeling that we would share similar views and experiences as teachers, particularly as teachers who are non-Caucasian and who work with teaching staff, and sometimes student groups, that are predominantly Caucasian and/or female. I wanted to know more about her experiences in this regard to see if we shared any common experiences. I was also interested in her experiences as a Muslim woman, particularly as it related to the current social and political climate that exists in a post-9/11 and ISIS society. I felt it was important for me to know how members within this community responded to the ways they were portrayed in the media. As it relates to the purposes of ethnographic research in media studies that Corbett (2003) discusses in his book, I wanted to know how Janet was “decod[ing] the messages broadcast to [her] via television,” to better understand her response to the messages portrayed about Muslims in her effort to either adopt or “resist the dominant viewing positions assumed by mainstream television programmes,” by news broadcasts and by any other media portraying or discussing the Muslim culture (Corbett, 2003, pp. 100-101).

     Introduction to Interview. I met Janet at her school after the students had all gone home for the day. She was working in the office she shares with the other Year 4 teacher, where they plan and prepare lessons for their students. The room was quite small, rectangular in shape, with clean white walls that had a few things hanging on them. The wall to the left of the entrance had a low lying white bookcase that stretched across the entirety of the wall. There were books that filled the two shelves and a few miscellaneous things on top of it. The wall opposite the entrance and the wall to the right had a desk bolted into it where two computers were set up for the teaching team to work on their lesson planning and general teaching tasks. There were a few papers and snacks strewn about the desk – things to help the teachers get through their planning time. It was approximately a quarter to four in the afternoon when I met Janet with a hug at the entrance to this room. The school was generally quiet with all of the children and most of the staff gone, and only the sounds of vacuums and people tidying up at the end of a school day could be heard.

     I sat down in a chair in front of one of the computers at the wall opposite the entrance, and Janet sat in a chair facing the computer against the wall to the right of the entrance (See Appendix 1). The atmosphere was very relaxed and congenial. Before we even started the interview, we caught up with one another, talking about how our days went and about any new things going on in her school or with me and my husband. We sat quite close to one another in the room, swiveling in our chairs occasionally which made our legs either face each other or the desk, movements that depended on our physical comfort more than our emotional one. For most of the interview, it felt like talking to a friend: we made sure to make a lot of eye contact in our exchanges, we smiled and made facial expressions to fit the mood of our thoughts, we laughed and gesticulated with our hands and arms to make our points. It was a very comfortable and engaging setting. By approximately a quarter to five, after having stopped recording the official interview session, we were still chatting away and sharing stories which made the conclusion to our meeting feel more like saying goodbye to a friend.

     Synopsis of Interview. The conversation can be broken down into three main topics of discussion: her family, her school life – in university and in teaching – and her cultural views and opinions about being a Muslim (see Appendix 2 and 3). Each main topic was explored at length, providing me with ample insight as to how her values, beliefs and identity as a Pakistani, Muslim and British woman were shaped by her both her external and internal environments.

     Her family on her father’s side are from Karachi, Pakistan. Her grandfather and grandmother grew up there and married before moving to Nottingham, England. They made the move from Pakistan to England because they wanted to provide a better life for their children (Lines 7-10 in Appendix 3). Her grandfather was a highly influential Pakistani man in the Nottingham community, having built a center for Pakistanis and other immigrant cultures to come together and get help with any difficulties or issues they faced in moving to a new country. He worked as a counsellor at the facility. Her grandmother worked in her own Asian fabrics shop, making clothes for women. Both of her parents grew up in Nottingham, England and were educated in England. All of her extended family are in Nottingham and consequently spend a lot of time together because of their close proximity to each other and because of how much they value family connection.

     Her school life seemed to follow the norm for many people educated in England. Her grade school experiences were very inclusive and positive, where cultural differences were acknowledged, understood and accepted amongst her peers and teachers in school and in her community in general. However, in university, Janet encountered new experiences related to her ethnic and religious background which she related mostly to the differences that those within and without her cultural communities experienced in their own lives (Lines 35-37 in Appendix 3). Additionally, though the majority of her experiences as a Muslim teacher in a school where there are a high number of Muslim students has been generally positive (Lines 40-45 in Appendix 3), she has had some interesting encounters with Muslim parents that illustrate areas of conflict she sometimes faces because of the differences in how she externally represents being Muslim to how others choose to represent themselves (Line 39 in Appendix 3).

     Her cultural views and opinions about being a Muslim had both elements of traditional values and elements of a divergence from them, making her identity within this culture a very interesting and complex one. On the one hand, she expressed the more traditional values of the Muslim religion in terms of her dress, to some extent, her dietary habits and her opinions on family life. (It is important to note that both her Pakistani and Muslim influences have contributed to these values overall.) On the other hand, it was interesting to note that the more “British” influences (or, more generally, Western influences which can diverge from some forms of traditional Muslim practices) have contributed to her being a confident, outspoken woman. She amusingly joked about her Pakistani friends calling her a feminist but did note that her upbringing in the UK and her parent’s focus on education and independence helped contribute to these more British, or Western, ideals of empowerment.

     Analysis of Interview and Points of Interest. The components of the interview that will be critiqued, as they relate to both myself and to Janet, deal mainly with the conversational patterns and style choices embedded within our interaction and how we reacted to them, the presentation of self within the interview and the conversational topics of family life, personal life and the Muslim community portrayed within the media.

     Janet and I are both native English speakers. However, with that in mind, we are both culturally diverse in the ways we may use English to express ourselves and in the ways we may interpret messages expressed in English because of our exposure to other languages in our childhood. Janet, though she does not speak Urdu or Arabic, can understand spoken Urdu and can read Arabic because of her exposure to those languages growing up. As for me, I cannot speak Tagalog, a Filipino language, but I can understand it. I can also understand, speak and read Spanish with mild fluency based on my childhood experiences. However, despite the fact that our interactions within English may have some cultural links to the “variable patterns of social interaction” within the languages we are familiar with (Corbett, 2003, p. 48), we did not have much issue with communicating effectively. Much like Ur’s (1996) comment on interactional talk, our “common sense,” our “cultural knowledge” and our experiences in engaging in different languages with different cultural formats from a young age prevailed in achieving a successful interaction during the interview (Ur, 1996, p. 131).

     In addition to this, Janet and I overlapped in the types of conversational genres we drew on during the interview. The most common genres we engaged in were chat, stories in conversation and second-storying. Though the example given in the Corbett (2003) text deals more with how chat occurs within a family unit, some of the purposes of chat in my interaction with Janet can be identified. The purpose of chat is to “renegotiate and affirm…participant roles” and to reaffirm “solidarity” in an effort to “work out…issues of group identity” (Corbett, 2003, p. 56). During our interview, it was clear to me that Janet and I were negotiating the participant roles of equals, reaffirming our shared opinions and values while supporting ones that we may not share as definitively. We found solidarity in our group identities, despite the fact that our identities diverged in some ways, by noting the foundational values that we shared. For example, Janet and I shared similar stories of established family roles at home visits: each person in the family – men, women and children – were clear on what their roles were and how they worked in conjunction with everyone else. (Lines 14-16 in Appendix 3).

     Stories in conversation was another conversational genre evident in our interview. Though we can see how narratives come into play in the ways that Janet speaks the part of characters within her stories (e.g. Line 15 in Appendix 3), many of her stories were recounts, where she shared the “chronological relations of events…so that the speaker and listener can share a similar reaction to the events related” (Corbett, 2003, p. 57). One particular recount that I found interesting related to her interaction with a lecturer at her university (Lines 35-37 in Appendix 3). The lecturer was an RE (Religious Studies) coordinator for the PGCE Teaching program at Leicester University. During the sessions this lecturer carried out with Janet’s class, she often referred to one of the tables that Janet often sat at as the M-E Table (Minority-Ethnic), that would be able to provide the rest of the student body with more information on Islam, despite the fact that not all of the students at this table practiced that religion. Though I had never experienced an event quite like this based on my own cultural identities, I did have a similar reaction to those events as Janet had: I was shocked, bewildered, and I wanted to do something about it.

     Perhaps the solidarity we shared in her recounts was what led to the final conversational genre evident in our interaction: second-storying, which is done to “reaffirm group identity” as well as to “[identify]…shared common experiences…attitudes and beliefs” (Corbett, 2003, p. 58). Again, though Janet and I come from different religious and cultural backgrounds, we definitely shared similar experiences, attitudes and beliefs with being minorities in predominantly mainstream, Caucasian society (e.g. Lines 48-50 in Appendix 3).

     Presentation of self in the interview was another feature of our conversation that seemed to reveal how our identities overlapped, particularly in how we used language to establish those identities. There have been several studies done to compare how working-class and middle-class people establish their identities in the language that they use (e.g. Bernstein, 1971; Montgomery & Reid-Thomas, 1994; Macaulay, 1991/1995/1996). Though conclusions made by Bernstein (1971) regarding these differences have been highly criticized, many have concluded that, though these speech styles do not completely define how each group uses language, they are representative of a speaker’s “orientation towards communication” (Montgomery & Reid-Thomas, 1994, p. 60). As Corbett (2003) adds to this concept of communicative orientation, “[a]ny speaker can move along a continuum between individual-oriented and community-oriented speech styles, depending on personal inclination, speech situation and the relationship between participants” (Corbett, 2003, p. 124). Following this analysis, I could see how both Janet’s and my style of self-presentation reflected similar foundational values in our complex upbringing: we are both members of a family with immigrant parents or grandparents; we are both advocates for the empowerment that education can provide to people, particularly to women who may not be members of cultures that promote female empowerment; and we are both advocates for integration and inclusion both within the schools where we teach and within our communities. Because of these similarities, we often found ourselves moving between individual-oriented and community-oriented speech as we illustrated “the fluidity of social identification that can occur as real people converse face to face” (Erickson, 1996, p. 292).

     The final aspect of our conversation that most interested me was our conversation on Muslims in the media (Lines 46-51 in Appendix 3). Corbett (2003) discusses the purposes of exploring ethnographic research from the perspective of media and provides many examples of ethnographic media research and what they accomplished (Corbett, 2003, pp. 100-102). Additionally, Gee (2015) provides us with an example of work done by Gagnon (1987) to illustrate how written media, in this case written historical texts, can use “language details [to] lead social activities, identities, and politics, far beyond “giving and getting information”” (Gee, 2015, p. 2). Both of these examples pair well with Janet’s reaction to how Muslims are portrayed in the media. For example, she noted at one point that despite her membership within the Muslim community and despite her positive and loving upbringing within a Muslim family, when she hears the word, jihad, because of the pejorative that it has become in media, the mental image that comes to her mind is one of men “…with their faces covered with weapons on their back” (Line 49 in Appendix 3). She expressed feeling sad and scared about how negatively Muslims are portrayed in today’s media and suggested that Muslims who are active and positive members of any community should reach a point where they are more approachable and open about their beliefs with other cultural communities. In this way, Janet believes that Muslims will be able to, “…show that…you’re Muslim and you’re not that different and it’s fine. To be Muslim” (Line 51 in Appendix 3). Her suggestions parallel effectively with Casanave’s (1992) view that “…in intercultural communication, both sides of the divide should move towards each other” (Casanave, 1992, as cited in Corbett, 2003, p. 71). Janet has effectively illustrated how Muslims can move towards this cultural middle ground, and the only thing left to consider is how other cultures can make that shift as well.

Reflections

     Preparing for and Conducting the Interview. In my initial planning for the interview questions, I felt hesitant and unsure about how Janet would react to how they were phrased. In particular, the example shared in Chapter 6 of Corbett’s (2003) text on how the interview sessions Widdiecombe and Wooffitt (1995) conducted with youth subcultures went awry was significant in the development and evaluation of the interview questions I wanted to ask Janet. Widdiecombe and Wooffitt’s (1995) questions were negatively interpreted by the interviewees because they felt that by answering them, they were essentially agreeing to be categorized in a way that was too simplistic, something these cultural group members were trying to avoid in establishing their personal identities (Corbett, 2003, pp. 129-132). I wanted to make sure that these conversational implicatures did not happen with Janet. With that in mind, I tried to formulate questions that would focus on Janet as a Muslim while also focusing on her as a person in general. I also didn’t want to limit her to only one way of identifying herself culturally with the questions I constructed based on my interpretations and/or experiences with the Muslim culture. I wanted her to define herself on her terms.

     Luckily, I was met with enthusiasm and excitement from Janet when she reviewed the questions I had for her prior to our meeting. She obviously had very strong opinions about her membership within the Muslim community, and during the interview I got the impression that she was passionate about sharing her culture with others. I think that the combination of my sensitivity in framing my questions and her positive reaction to them led to a very open and engaging experience where we learned a lot about each other and found a lot of common ground. I really did feel like I was getting to know her on her terms, not just through the generic vein of what it was like to “be a Muslim in today’s world.”

     Classroom Implications. I primarily teach young learner’s in general education settings, so sometimes it is difficult to consider how to approach culture in a language learning context when that is not the only context in which I teach. However, with that said, I think there would be great opportunities to explore and critically analyze media in a general education classroom of young learners. I think that Gee’s (2015) introductory paragraph and illustration of how written texts convey and reproduce specific cultural, political and/or social perspectives would be a wonderful concept to explore with my students. In particular, I can see how a unit of learning where students explore their cultural values, belief systems, etc. and compare it to how their cultural communities are portrayed in all forms of media can fit into the curriculum I teach.

     Additionally, I think that Corbett (2003) provides some great possibilities for different ethnographic activities that I could modify for the students that I teach. For example, the activity where students create a table to list what food items hold significance for a culture (Corbett, 2003, p. 109) and the activity where students explore negative etiquette across cultures (Corbett, 2003, pp. 110-111) could pair nicely with the aforementioned critical analysis of media portrayal of culture. Students would be provided with opportunities to question their interpretations of different cultures: Why do we think these types of food are significant to these cultures? Does our interpretation align with the values, belief systems, etc. of actual members of these cultural groups? Why would someone be offended if we tried to “imitate” their accents?

     Finally, I think that the views of culture that Moran (2001) defines in his book, Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice, are a good frame of reference for me to use when trying to understand what aspect of culture I am trying to approach in teaching (Moran, 2001, pp. 4-5). His Cultural Knowings Framework, particularly as it is redesigned with Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Model, would be a great model to follow when planning and teaching culture within a classroom (Moran, 2001, pp. 15-19).

     Overall, the foundational classroom implication for me is to create a learning environment that is inclusive of all cultures represented within it and within the greater community. Students should be provided with enough opportunities to explore differences, not just to note how one culture is different from others, but to reach a point where differences are the norm and where differences are understood and reacted to in appropriate ways, in terms of how we use language, how we work with others in a classroom, how we approach and deal with conflict, among other things. Janet’s comment on her positive experiences within an inclusive environment as a student in grade school and as a teacher in an inclusion-oriented school best concludes my final thoughts:

     I think that there’s only positives that can come out of [an inclusively-oriented] school like [the one I work in] and the school I went to as a child because…you have those conversations with people, and people aren’t alien to you…you’re not gonna feel weird sitting next to some girl on the bus who’s a different skin color to you or has different beliefs to you [because] you teach it, and you teach about inclusivity. (Line 35 in Appendix 3)

Feedback from Janet

     Additional Comments from Janet. I have not received any feedback or additional comments from Janet on this ethnographic report.

References:

Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes and control. London, UK: Routledge and Kegan.

Casanave, C. P. (1992). Cultural diversity and socialization: A case study of a hispanic woman in a doctoral program in sociology. In D. E. Murray (Ed.), Diversity as resource: Defining cultural literacy (pp. 148-182). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Corbett, J. (2003). An intercultural approach to english language teaching. Trowbridge, UK: Cromwell Press Ltd.

Erickson, F. (1996). Ethnographic microanalysis. In S. L. McKay and N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language teaching (pp. 283-306). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Gagnon, P. A. (1987). Democracy’s untold story: What world history books neglect. Washington, D. C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Gee, J.P. (2015). Introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (2nd Ed.). Florence, KY: Routledge.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Macaulay, R. K. S. (1991). Locating dialect in discourse. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Macaulay, R. K. S. (1995/6). Remarkably common eloquence: The aesthetics of an urban dialect. Amsterdam, Netherlands : John Benjamins.

Montgomery, M. & Reid-Thomas, H. (1994). Language and social life. Manchester, UK: British Council. Moran, P. B. (2001). Teaching culture: Perspectives in practice. Boston, MA: Heinle. Widdiecombe, S. & Wooffitt, R. (1995). The language of youth subcultures. New York, NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Appendix 1: Diagram of Interview Room

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Appendix 2: Interview Guide

All highlighted questions were the main ones asked during the interview. With that said, not all of them were asked explicitly as they may have been embedded in the answers given. See the interview transcript for details.

  • General questions about you and your family
    • What was your childhood like? (Hobbies, Friends, etc.)
    • Possible Follow Ups:
      • How do those things compare to what your friends, hobbies, etc. are like now?
  • What types of family functions were or are a regular part of your life?
    • Possible Follow Ups:
      • Why are those functions important to you and your family?
      • Are there any differences in the importance that you and/or other family
        members put on those family gatherings?
  • Where are you originally from?
  • What languages do you know in addition to English?
    • Possible Follow Ups:
      • How well do you speak them?
      • How do they correlate with your values, personality, etc.?
      • Do you use these languages for different purposes in different contexts? If so, how?
  • How being Muslim functions in your personal life
    • How would you describe your participation/membership in the Muslim community?
      • Possible Follow Ups:
        • Why would you describe yourself that way?
        • Are there any practices that you participate in more often in than others?
        • What about being Muslim is significant to you? Why do you feel that way?
    • Does your extended family have varying views to being Muslim than you and/or your immediate family?
      • Possible Follow Ups:
      • How are there interpretations similar/different?
      • How do you and your family negotiate those differences?
    • Can you give me any examples of positive/negative experiences you may have had (with Muslims and/or non-Muslims) that have had a significant impact on the values, beliefs you have now?
    • How did your parents teach you about being Muslim? Did your siblings, if any, react differently to your parents than you? How would they feel if you decided to become a member of a different religion or if you decided not to be religious at all?
  • How bring Muslim functions in your work life
    • How many teachers at the school are practicing Muslims? How are their identities as Muslims similar or different to you?
    • Do you find that your relationship to Muslim students and parents in your school is different to the relationship non-Muslim teachers have with them?
    • Can you share any experiences that relate to how being Muslim has helped/hindered your role as a teacher in your school?
  • Your reactions to how Muslims are portrayed in the media
    • What is your interpretation of/reaction to how Muslims are portrayed in the media
      (news, movies, TV, etc.)?

      • Possible Follow Ups:
      • Why do you think it is this way?
      • What is your reaction to it?
      • How do you wish it would change?
    • Have you or any of your family members had any positive/negative experiences directly related to being Muslim?
    • Are you familiar with the #notinmynameISIS movement? There are several movements going on with Muslims and people who practice Islam reacting against the ISIS movement. Do you have any stance on this? If so, what it is and why do you think/feel that way?
  • Other
    • Outside of being Muslim, how do you define your individual culture – the values, belief systems, etc. that you hold?
      • Possible Follow Ups:
        • What other factors about you define/drive how you define your culture?
        • How do you want people to view you in light of this?
        • Does it matter to you how others view you (strangers and close friends/family)?

Appendix 3: Interview Transcript

Date: Tuesday, March 1st, 2016
Time: 3:45-4:45PM (Approximately)

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