Institutional Ethnography>> Information about IE


Institutional Ethnography

"Institutional ethnography" (IE) is an approach to empirical inquiry associated with the prominent Canadian social theorist Dorothy E. Smith.  Combining theory and method, IE emphasizes connections among the sites and situations of everyday life, professional practice, and policy making.  Such connections are accomplished primarily through what Smith has labeled "textually-mediated social organization"-- a form of social coordination that has been under-theorized even as it has become more and more pervasively significant.  Smith developed the approach initially in a feminist context, calling it a method that could produce a "sociology for women" (rather than "about" them); however, she sees it as an approach with much wider application, and those following Smith in the development of IE methods have taken up a variety of substantive topics, including the organization of health care, education, and social work practice, the regulation of sexuality, police and judicial processing of violence against women, employment and job training, economic and social restructuring, international development regimes, planning and environmental policy, the organization of home and community life, and various kinds of activism.  The method is ethnographic, but more concerned with political-economic contexts than most qualitative approaches; it is sensitive to textual and discursive dimensions of social life, but grounded more firmly in fieldwork study of texts-in-use than most forms of discourse analysis (Eastwood & Devault 2001).



"Institutional ethnography recognizes the authority of the experiencer to inform the ethnographer's ignorance" (D. Smith 2005)

"The analysis begins in experience and returns to it, having explicated how the experience came to happen as it did" (Campbell 1998)

"The social processes which impinge on our lives do not appear miraculously, but are constituted in the activities of people" (G. Smith 1988)

"The claim made for institutional ethnography is that it offers a knowledge resource for people who want to work towards a more equitable society" (Campbell & Gregor 2002)

"What will be brought under ethnographic scrutiny unfolds as the research is pursued" (D. Smith 2005)

"It takes up women's standpoint not as a given and finalized form of knowledge, but as a ground in experience from which discoveries are to be made" (D. Smith 2005)

"Ruling does not only involve politicians and government officials; it occurs in many sites simultaneously, involving vast numbers of people who do not consider themselves part of 'the government'" (Ng, 1995)

"Discourse and ideology can be investigated as actual social relations ongoingly organized in and by the activities of actual people" (D. Smith)

"The Institutional Ethnographer takes up a point of view in a marginal location; she "looks" carefully and relatively unobtrusively, like any field worker, but she looks from the margins inward-toward centers of power and administration-searching to explicate the contingencies of ruling that shape local contexts" (Devault 1999)

"Everywhere in our daily and nightly lives there is social organization in which we participate without much conscious thought" (Campbell & Gregor 2002)


For an overview of institutional ethnography check out the following shorter sources:

Smith, Dorothy E. (2002). "Institutional Ethnography." Pp. 150-161 in Tim May (ed.), Qualitative research in action: An international guide to issues in practice.  London: Sage.

DeVault, Marjorie L. (1999). "Institutional ethnography: A strategy for feminist inquiry."  Pp. 46-54, in Liberating method: Feminism and social research. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Smith, Dorothy E. (1987). "A Sociology for Women" chapter two in The Everyday World as Problematic. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Grahame, Peter R. 1998. Ethnography, Institutions, and the Problematic of the Everyday World.  Pp. 347-460. Human Studies, Vol. 21.  (Introduction to a special issue on Institutional Ethnography, with examples by:

  • Alison I. Griffith, Insider/Outsider: Epistemological Privilege of Mothering Work
  • Kamini Maraj Graham: Feminist Organizing and the Politics of Inclusion
  • Liza McCoy: Producing what the Dean "Knows": Cost Accounting and the Restructuring of Post-Secondary Education


For excellent books dealing with institutional ethnography:

Smith, Dorothy E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Toronto: AltaMira Press.

Campbell, Marie and Frances Gregor. (2002). Mapping the social: A primer in doing institutional ethnography. Aurora, On: Garamond Press.



Information about IE

Who is Using Institutional Ethnography

Teaching Resources

Partial Bibliography

IE Network Activities

SU IE Working Group

Other IE Sites

Embodied Workers Project - M. DeVault

Upcoming Events

Home Page