Dissertation Abstracts

Doing Feminist Text-Focused Institutional Ethnography in UK Universities

Author: Órla M Murray, orlammurray@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Professor Liz Stanley
Year of completion: 2018
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: institutional ethnography , higher education , feminism , audit culture
Areas of Research: Institutional Ethnography , Education , Organization


My thesis concerns how to do feminist sociology using Dorothy Smith’s ideas about Institutional Ethnography (IE), exploring the textually-organised relations of ruling focusing on UK higher education. How and in what ways do texts organise UK higher education, and what can a feminist research approach add to understanding this? The first part of the thesis charts the development of Smith’s ideas and how they have been received and used by others. From this, I develop a typology of IE approaches and commit to doing text-focused IE, alongside considering whether and how IE can retain its feminist roots. This requires consideration of what makes research feminist and how to do it in practice, resulting in feminist epistemological discussions and a consideration of how to do reflexive and accountable text-focused IE. This sets the scene for a methodological experiment in the second part of the thesis, in which three different IE text analysis methods are developed, based on Smith’s work. These are then used to investigate in detail key texts which help organise UK higher education: (i) a close-reading of one specific text, the National Student Survey; (ii) an analysis of the Economic and Social Research Council’s research funding application process as a textually-mediated process; and, (iii) an investigation of the Research Excellence Framework as a discourse. These later chapters explore different but intertwined ways in which UK higher education is textually-organised through how teaching and research activities are assessed and funded. By focusing on the ways in which the accountability processes involved are negotiated at a local-level, I explore how much agency people have in interpreting texts into activity and the translation involved in fitting their work into textual forms for evaluation purposes. In answer to my overarching question, how do texts organise UK higher education, while texts help organise and regulate people’s everyday activities within an institutional framework, authors and readers have interpretative agency in negotiating and translating the meaning of institutional texts. This applies to the researcher as an authoritative reader and as a writer of texts concerning academic working processes. Interpretative agency also differs depending on someone’s role and associated authority, which also has to be inscribed in the process of textualisation. The ‘moment’ of textualisation is important because texts often stipulate who or what is legitimate and who and what has authority within a particular context. In this sense, people are always behind and in front of the texts, both as authors and readers and as the collective weight of people’s interpretations in producing ‘correct’ readings of authoritative texts becomes solidified into further texts within a web of institutional texts. Thus, an authoritative individual or collective readership can give weight to and popularise unintended interpretations of texts, as has been the case with some key UK higher education regulatory texts. The interplay between textual requirements, interpretations seen as authoritative, and agency in reading and writing texts, comes out in all three of my focused investigations as an ongoing and cumulative negotiation of institutional power through textual gaming. Although in Smith’s sense the textually-organised relations of ruling are present and have impact, this occurs differently regarding the three different textual organising processes investigated, and interpretative presence continues to be exercised through the agency and translation work involved in reading and writing organising texts in UK higher education. The thesis concludes by returning to the question of how and in what ways a feminist approach, and in particular a more text-based way of carrying out Smith’s IE, can aid in understanding these processes.