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Comparing ethnographies when comparison seems impossible


This essay examines comparison in a double sense. Focusing on ethnographies of teachers’ work in the published literature, I ask whether it is possible to compare ethnographic studies across national borders without losing the particularities of local context, and also without losing the distinctive theoretical perspective of ethnographers operating within different national traditions. Building on the volume Comparing ethnographies, I explore as a tool an expansion of Noblit and Hare’s ‘meta-ethnographic’ approach. Because meta-ethnography aims to remain faithful to local contexts, it works for cross-national comparison; because it is meant as an interpretation of the ethnographers’ interpretations, it can allow for national differences in scholarly traditions. I illustrate with a comparison of ethnographies of practices in Danish and in Japanese preschools, identifying ‘reciprocal’ translations, ‘refutational synthesis’, and ‘line-of-argument synthesis.’ The essay demonstrates that meta-ethnography’s interpretive approach does permit comparison across national contexts and scholarly traditions, and that it actually encourages ‘theoretical generalisation’, the ability to expand our understanding, without obscuring local context.

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