Lillis, Theresa. “Ethonography as Method, Methodology, and ‘Deep Theorizing’: Closing the Gap Between Text and Context in Academic Writing Research”  Written Communication 25.3 (2008): 353-388. Print.


This article critically explores the value of ethnography for enhancing context sensitive approaches to the study of academic writing. Drawing on data from two longitudinal studies, student writing in the United Kingdom and professional academic writing in Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, and Portugal, the author illustrates the different contributions ethnography can make to researching academic writing, depending on the level at which it is construed, as method, methodology, or “deep theorizing.” In discussing the third level of ethnography, the author draws on recent debates around linguistic ethnography to explore how ethnography as deep theorizing can contribute to refining social practice accounts of academic writing through the specific notions of indexicality and orientation. By working through three levels of ethnography, her aim is to signal the ontological gap between text and context in academic writing research and to open up debate about how this gap can be narrowed.


  • L. highlights the social and contextual nature of writing early on in the piece.  These elements provide a nice balance to the “textualist analytic lens” and are often pursued through methodologies that utilize ethnography. Ethnography provides a method for getting at writing in context (354).
  • L. points out that some consider ethnography only a method akin to other methods such as interviews, observations, and case studies.  This is curious considering ethnography is often theorized as methodology or a collection of multiple methods.  This categorization – of ethnography as method – is fairly common in writing research and says a lot about the way ethnography is perceived by the discipline: it is often hemmed in as a method and referred to through the methods of interview or “talk around texts” (355).  This also ignores ethnography’s particular epistemology and ontology.
  • L. argues that ethnography is valuable for research in writing studies at three separate levels:  at the level of method it is useful because it directs the researchers gaze beyond the written text toward writers’ perspectives about texts; at the level of methodology ethnography is valuable because it provides multiple data sources and a sustained investigation into the contexts of production.  These provisions allow for the situated contextualization of writing in research; third, ethnography is valuable as “deep theorizing” when the binary between text and context are collapsed to reveal the interrelated phenomena of composing something and being composed (355).
  • L. does all this work in an attempt to address a key research problem: “how to narrow the ontological gap between text and context” (356).  As a remedy she offers two notions at work in ethnography: indexicality and orientation.
  • L. identifies the following definition of ethnography (via Hammersley 1994, 2006):

  • L. notes that “talk around texts” operates on a text-writer continuum.  In some talk around texts the concentration is tilted toward the text while the writer is subordinate and only provides small details; likewise, the inverse is also possible (359).  L. notes that writer-focused talk around texts usually 1) “encourages comment and reflections that go beyond writing within current dominant conventions and practices”; and 2) recognizes that participants’ analytic lens and perspectives are central to establishing what may be significant and important in any specific context” (359).  The writer-focused research is referred to as emic or where “insider” perspectives are forgrounded in the research.
  • Emic perspectives are particularly valuable for understanding the ways that writers are creating texts in context; therefore, they are valuable for providing a core understanding about the empirical nature of contextualized writing (360-1).
  • Limitations of the emic perspective:  one-off interviews only provide partial, perspectival understandings of any scene of writing; reifying claims based on singular perspectives frozen in time can be a dangerous practice; the contextual understandings talk around texts provide are perhaps overly simplistic; talk around texts are often uncritically received as transparent representations of writerly perspective (361).
  • In considering ethnography as methodology L. focuses in on two different activities: first, she highlights the importance and value of “lengthy or sustained engagement in participants’ academic writing worlds”; and second, considers the “collection and analysis of a range of types of data in order to build holistic understandings” (362).  In other words, L. is arguing that a sustained and extended immersion in researched sites results in multiple data streams that can be analyzed to create contexualized understandings of writing in place. . . this is the core component of understanding ethnography as methodology (362).
  • Long conversations:  these usually take two forms – the “literacy history interview” and the “cyclical dialogue around texts over a period of time.”  The literacy history interview situates literacy practices and writing in the longer sociohistorical view of the writer by requesting autobiographical details about their own experiences with the research question focus(i).  The cyclical talks allow for a long-view picture of writing in context that allows for exploration of various, and sometimes minute, facets of the writerly.
  • L. has three recommendations for how to consider “talk around texts”: 1) transparent – this approach understands the factual details of talk (age, education, etc.); 2) Discourse/indexical – this way indexes specific discourses (discourses of self, discourses of writing, discourses of professional occupation, etc.); and 3) performative/relational – this way understands talk about texts as a performance carried out by both researcher and researched in order to uncover/reveal/discover how identity, power, etc. are playing out at any particular moment in time (366).
  • When conducting ethnography as methodology it is important to have “thick participation” and “thick description” in order to be able to draw reasonable and ethical conclusions.  The most effective way to do this is to engage the research subjects over long periods of time and to ensure that data is being gathered from multiple data sources.  In the case of my own research, I might consider the histories of revisions in documents to trace some of this out. . . ?  Whatever the case, by maintaining sustained engagement, researchers can continually refine and reformulate their research questions to more accurately direct the trajectory of the research.
  • Ethnography as methodology is particularly important because it can help move “the researcher towards emic perspectives and toward analytic lenses that help foreground what is significant to writers from their specific sociohistorical perspectives” (373).
  • In the final section on deep theorizing L. claims she will: review the typical treatment of the text-context divide in studies utilizing ethnography or practice in order to argue that ethnography creates research accounts that work well with textualist research perspectives (instead of merely providing context); finally, L. wants to highlight how the gap can be narrowed through two concepts drawn from linguistic ethnography: indexicality and orientation (373).
  • Practice: a way to link language use of individuals as socially grounded beings at the level of situation as well as at the level of culture (from Malinowski 1923).  This assumes that all linguistic actions – both spoken and written – are the result of materialist socializations; further, this understanding of language use also recognizes that language use becomes habitus or the way of being in the world.  As such, these individual socialized language practices constitute the social institutions that govern, or at least moderate, human life (374).  Yet, as L. notes, the move back to the text is often lacking in academic literacy scholarship.  To remedy this she proposes:

o    Linguistic ethnography: approaches that draw on ethnography and linguistics in order to bridge the textual-contextual gap.  In other words, textualist linguistics are employed to understand and analyze language use; however, these etic methods are tied to “contextually sensitive” emic categories that link to ethonographic ethics.  L. sees two ways to make this happen in ethnographic research: indexicality and orientation.  These are valuable categories because they aren’t referential – they don’t point to a specific construct of language in every sense; rather, they are relational, or provide a way for researchers to move between the etic and emic nature of language.  Definitions:

o    Indexicality – using specific bits of language (speech, writing) to index or point to particular aspects of social context.

o    Orientations – the ways that writers and speaker orient themselves to what is said and written (what is said and written are embedded sociohistorically) (376).

  • L. claims that a great place to put indexicality and orientation to work is through a close analysis of the rhetorical concern of style (377).
  • L. notes that the goal of her work in this article is to move beyond “writing in context” toward the notion of contextualization, “researching what is relevant from any specific aspect of context to specific acts and practices of academic writing” (381).

2 Responses to “Lillis – Ethnography as Method, Methodology, and ‘Deep Theorizing’”

  1. Olga

    could you send me some example of research when “talk around text” is used? please.

  2. Nina Leacock

    I came across your blog while preparing a writing unit that will take the history of ethnography as a source of positive models, but also of warnings about the limitations of academic knowledge construction. My interest in ethnography stems from a remarkable collection of essays, Keeping Slug Woman Alive by Greg Sarris. Writing Culture by Clifford and Marcus is another terrific consideration of ethnography. Though Sarris has been challenging me as a teacher and writer for more than a decade, this is the first time that I plan to ask students explicitly to consider ethnographic work. Thank you for alerting me to Lillis’ work.

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