Ethnography, Institutions, and the Problematic of the Everyday World

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This essay describes institutional ethnography as a method of inquiry pioneered by Dorothy E. Smith, and introduces a collection of papers which make distinctive contributions to the development of this novel form of investigation. Institutional ethnography is presented as a research strategy which emerges from Smith's wide-ranging explorations of the problematic of the everyday world. Smith's conception of the everyday world as problematic involves a critical departure from the concepts and procedures of more conventional sociologies. She argues for an alternative sociology which begins with the standpoint of the actor in everyday life, rather than from within a professional sociological discourse aligned with the society's ruling institutions. The familiar sociologies of everyday life do not suffice for this purpose, since they deal with local settings and social worlds, but stop short of examining how these are knitted into broader forms of social organization. In contrast, institutional ethnography examines how the scenes of everyday life are shaped by forms of social organization which cannot be fully grasped from within those scenes. The principal tasks of institutional ethnography include describing the coordination of activities in the everyday world, discovering how ideological accounts define those activities in relation to institutional imperatives, and examining the broader social relations in which local sites of activity are embedded. The four papers which follow demonstrate that specific contributions to institutional ethnography can be made in relation to a wide array of topics, methods, and interests.

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