Learning to research

In the tradition of applied linguistics in TESOL, my original PhD proposal described a linguistic study in which I would analyse post-observation feedback talk by drawing on established linguistic frameworks. I had read and been impressed by a chapter by Holmes, Stubbe and Vine (1999), in which power at work was explored. The research design involved equipping research participants in a government workplace in New Zealand with recording devices. The participants were encouraged to record interactions and were also given the power to delete recordings they did not wish the researchers to hear. The researchers note that they also collected 'ethnographic data of various kinds' (1999: 356), but these data are not described.

In their section on 'Analysing the Data', the researchers provided a discourse analytic framework at three levels - speech functions, discourse strategy, and linguistic forms - which they used to show how talk in the workplace enacts power relations and the role politeness plays in this.

Given that I was also interested in themes of power and politeness and also researching talk in an institution, I decided to replicate the research methodology in my study, by giving trainers recording devices on which to record the feedback conferences, and then using a similar linguistic framework for the data analysis. As a researcher, I felt my role was to 'collect' and then 'analyse' spoken interaction to produce findings which were empirically grounded, an approach not uncommon in applied linguistics research.

My initial research design involved providing recording devices to two trainers to record a total of 64 feedback sessions with 16 trainees. However, discussions with my supervisor caused me to rethink the research design. As she explained, having worked for many years at the research site, I had completed what many believe to be 'the most difficult phase in the entire process of ethnographic research' - gaining access (Gobo, 2008: 118). Furthermore, I had, in reality, been a 'participant observer' for a number of years (see Agar, 2008: 9, for an insightful discussion of this term) and my insider perspective would affect my data collection, analysis and findings. I found these arguments persuasive and decided to redesign my study so that I could observe the feedback interactions and produce fieldnotes from these observations. In the interests of developing an emic perspective (Richards, 2003) - an appreciation of how local people, rather than researchers, make sense of the world - I also built interviews into the research design. Interviews have been described as a central data collection tool in social science research (Briggs, 1986) and are 'a growing presence in applied linguistics research' (Mann, 2010: 6). My intention was to ask participants for their opinions of the programme in general and of feedback in particular. Although my skills as an interviewer and my understanding of the interview as collaboratively constructed developed as the study progressed (see Garton and Copland, 2010 for a further discussion), the data from the interviews proved invaluable in answering my research questions and in supporting my evolving ethnographic sensibility, as will be shown.

Table 6.1 shows the data collected for the 2006 study:

Table 6.1 Data collected in 2006

Trainers and trainees





First feedback observation

Second feedback observation

Third feedback observation

Fourth feedback observation




24 January (A)

23 March (A)

26 January (F)(A)

2 February (F)(A)

9 February (F)(A)




Group 1 trainees Group 2 trainees

  • 28 February (A)
  • 16 January (A)
  • 18 July (A)
  • 18 May (A)
  • 16 August (A)
  • 16 July (A)
  • 2 May (F)(A)
  • 6 July (F)(A) 18 July (F)(A)
  • 9 March (F)(A)
  • 11 July (F)(A)
  • 24 July (F)(A)
  • 17 March (F)(A)
  • 12 July (F)(A)
  • 23 March (F)(A)
  • 13 July (F)(A)
  • 23 March (A)
  • 25 July (A)

Note: Key: (F) = Fieldnotes (A) = Audio Recorded.

From day one, the value of observing interactions and writing fieldnotes was evident in a number of ways. I realised that as well as speaking, participants also remained silent for long periods of time. Participants acted and moved, made eye contact and avoided it. Their bodily movements contributed to the discussion, interactions and to the atmospheres that pervaded the conferences. I noticed that the way participants spoke to each other when the trainer was out of the room was different from the way they spoke when the trainer was in the room. And I realised how the summer's heat affected the interaction and how different the atmosphere could be on different days. These observations, which became highly consequential for my analysis, would have been missed had I relied solely on post-hoc analysis of the recordings.

Like many before me, I also realised that my presence in the room and the presence of the recording equipment had an effect on where the participants sat and how they interacted. And the importance of perspective became apparent. I formed opinions of the participants: I preferred some to others; agreed more with some than others; and came to the opinion that tensions between trainers and some of the trainees were deliberately exacerbated in some cases. In other words, I began to develop both 'reflexivity', that is, an awareness of 'the way in which the observer has an impact on what is observed, and the way in which the observation events themselves are captured in a real historical context, from which they derive meaning and salience' (Blommaert and Jie, 2010: 66); and also 'an objective view of my subjectivity' (ibid.), that is, a need to be circumspect about some of my interpretations because of the emotional reaction I had to the talk. Had I continued to produce a linguistic analysis using the proposed discourse analytic framework only, I may also have had an emotional reaction when listening to the recordings; however, I doubt that I would have developed reflexivity or an objective view of my subjectivity. These constructs proved invaluable when it came to analysing the data.

Nevertheless, by the end of the data collection process, although I was convinced of the value of ethnography and its affordances, I felt as if I had been practising ethnography rather than doing ethnography. This was because I was still becoming familiar with the way of working (observing, developing awareness, thinking, challenging my interpretations, writing fieldnotes, talking to participants, making meaning from their talk and so on). Furthermore, because of my familiarity with linguistic data, I continued to consider the recordings and transcriptions of these the primary data set and I struggled with the fieldnotes and interviews - were these data or did they provide contextual information to support interpretation of the linguistic data?

I have described elsewhere how I resolved this dilemma (see Copland, 2015). In the following section I draw on a range of data (fieldnotes, recordings, transcriptions, interviews) to illustrate how I came to understand ethnography more fully, both as a process (through developing an ethnographically grounded analytical framework) and an epistemology; that is, a way of knowing and thinking about the world, and, specifically, about research (see Blommaert and Jie, 2010: 5, for a helpful discussion of ethnography as a 'full' intellectual programme). These two changes to my research practice were fundamental in helping me to understand the synergy created in linguistic ethnography through conjoining linguistic and ethnographic approaches to data collection and analysis.

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