Chapter 9: Ethnography

Activity 1: Read Preschool in Three Cultures

In the 1980s, Tobin, Wu and Davidson worked on a research project which culminated in the book Preschool in Three Cultures, published in 1989. Tobin et al. (2009) later revisited this fascinating study, which examines preschools in Japan, the USA and China.

The aim of the study was to look at a ‘typical’ day in a preschool in each of the three countries and, through use of extensive video-taping of the day, to show the video to practitioners in each of those countries to ask for commentary on what they were seeing. The term they employ for this is ‘video-cued multivocal ethnography’. Thus, the practices that had been videoed were examined by practitioners within the country of a particular preschool setting, as well as beyond.

Tobin et al. (2009) are clear that one setting in each country cannot be said to represent in entirety all settings in that country (the revisited study also filmed a second preschool in each country but this still cannot be said to be representative). The purpose of the video footage was to act as a stimulus for the focus group discussions with practitioners.

In carrying out the research, Tobin et al. (1989, 2009) found that practices that were viewed as ‘normal’ in one country were viewed as atypical – even ‘strange’ – in others. In Chapter 6, we encouraged you to think about the word ‘naturalistic’ in relation to early childhood settings and this study is a good example of showing how we often take for granted practices that others would find strange.

Now think about the following:

  • What kinds of things might be considered ‘strange’ from one country to another in relation to early childhood practice?

In order to help you do this, view the following video entitled ‘Role play: setting up and planning’ which is available on Teachers’ TV: It lasts for about 14 minutes but it is worth watching in full. You will see the development of a garage space in the outdoor space of a nursery in Worcester, England. You will see the practitioners reflecting together and with early years’ advisors, as well as children playing.

  • Does the play scenario you see in the video seem familiar to you?
  • Does the idea that play (such as seen in this video) is strongly linked to learning seem familiar to you? It is a very pervasive idea in England at the current time.
  • If the practice in the video seems ‘strange’ – perhaps your own experience of school was very different or perhaps you work in a very different context by way of comparison – reflect on what seems different.
  • What is the value of the research strategy of asking practitioners from each of the three countries to look at the video footage as opposed to merely the research team?
  • What are the ethical issues in research associated with viewing something as ‘strange’? Think about the issues raised in Chapter 6 of the book and the ‘danger’ of assuming some practices are ‘normal’ and some ‘strange’ and the potential hierarchy this perpetuates.

For those of you who are interested in watching the video material and finding out more about the study, the video material is available to buy through Joseph Tobin’s website:

Joseph Tobin’s website also has useful links to some of his publications based on the Preschools in Three Cultures study – see (accessed 08-03-2022), for instance, for a co-authored paper on ‘Lessons from China and Japan for preschool practice in the United States’. As you read this paper, continue to reflect on the reasoning given for particular preschool practices, for example in the Japanese preschool the number of toys available to the children was limited, which caused conflict. This conflict – the researchers suggested – could have been lessened if there were more toys available to the children. However, the manager (or principal) of the setting argued that if there were lots of toys available, the children would have less reason to communicate with each other and work together to negotiate conflict.

In England, where we (the authors, Deb and Penny) both live and work, there is a tendency to try to minimize such conflict in very young children and practitioners are encouraged to ensure there are plentiful resources available. Importantly, by encouraging practitioners in the study to talk about their everyday practices, the reader learns a great deal about preschools in a range of cultures but is also encouraged to re-examine the habitual in relation to preschool practices with which they are familiar.

The research – both original and revisited – is well worth looking at in detail. The full references are below:

Tobin, J., Wu, D. and Davidson, D. (1989) Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China and the United States. London: University of Chicago Press.

Tobin, J., Hseueh, Y. and Karasawa, M. (2009) Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited: Japan, China and the United States. London: University of Chicago Press.

Activity 2: Early childhood case study

Read the case study below and then answer the questions which follow.

Maryam is in the final year of an Early Childhood Studies degree course and wishes to conduct an ethnographic study in a baby room looking at care routines such as mealtimes, nap times, and nappy changing times. She has a hunch that the setting in which she hopes to undertake her research rushes such times and that little positive interaction between caregivers and babies takes place. She hopes her research will expose this poor quality care because conducting an ethnographic piece of research over time will mean that there is little likelihood that practitioners act differently than usually when she is around.

  • What assumptions is Maryam starting with?
  • What ethical issues are raised here?
  • What would you say to Maryam if you were her tutor?

Click here to read some points to aid reflection.

Clearly, Maryam has made some worrying assumptions before undertaking the research and we very much doubt whether any tutor (and ethics review panel) would agree to such a project taking place. She has assumed the setting has poor practice from the outset: what does she mean by ‘positive interactions’ for instance? Would everyone agree what this looks like? What is her hunch (that such interactions during routines are poor) based on – is she a parent with a child at this nursery or does she know a family who uses the setting and is concerned? If there are very serious concerns about any setting providing childcare they should be reported to the relevant authorities and certainly should not be left for months (or even longer) while a researcher gains data for her project. There is a duty of care now to the babies and their families who use the setting.

If the setting has already been identified as needing support to improve its practice (perhaps following a negative inspection) then it would be better, perhaps, not to undertake research there as the setting will have enough surveillance to cope with without a researcher adding to this. We doubt a setting would be amenable for research to take place in such an instance and we would strongly advise novice researchers to steer clear of such situations.

In addition, Maryam seems to want to use the research as a vehicle for exposing poor practice in a way akin to an investigative journalist rather than examining the practice that exists already in an open-minded way. We’d be very concerned indeed that a student make use of ethnographic methods – notably the immersion in the field over time – to set out to expose poor practice. In order to gain access to the setting, we suspect she would have to deceive the setting as to the real purpose of her research which is highly unethical.

Looking at care routines in a baby room using an ethnographic approach has the potential to be a really worthwhile research project. Inevitably, when you observe practice over time and in great detail there will be aspects of practice that perhaps jar with your own views at times, not least as there are different cultural ideas as to how to care for babies. Moreover, in ethnographic research, participants have kindly permitted you to observe them up close and in detail over time and I doubt any of us are ‘perfect’ (if such a thing exists!) all of the time. Of course this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. Should Maryam find anything concerning while she is there then of course she would want to report this to the setting manager or perhaps a relevant authority which oversees the quality of childcare in a region but this may not always be as clear cut as it seems. If in any doubt what to do in a particular situation, students should always refer to their tutor and institution.

Activity 3

Sage research methods content

James, A. (2007) ‘Ethnography in the study of children and childhood’, in P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland and L. Lofland (eds), Handbook of Ethnography. London: SAGE.

Marsh, J. (2012) ‘Children as knowledge brokers of playground games and rhymes in the new media age’, Childhood, 19(4): 508–22.

Albon, D. (2015) ‘Nutritionally “empty” but full of meanings: the socio-cultural significance of birthday cakes in four early childhood settings’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 32(1): 49–60. (first online in 2014).

In this paper, Deborah Albon examines the significance of birthday cakes for practitioners and young children in four early childhood settings in England. She employs an ethnographic approach to the research, involving extensive observation over time as well as interviewing. She observed events when children were really eating such as mealtimes or birthday celebrations etc., as well as children’s play around food events.