What is institutional ethnography?  At a basic level, institutional ethnography is the study of the social organization of everyday life.  What it does not do is objectify the subjects or people into objectifications of the everyday world that one is studying.  The social ontology of institutional ethnography, its underlying fundamental, essential principle, is that the social is something that unites people’s activities.  As I see in the day to day everyday, people “do” things.  However, there is more to it than this basic definition.  There are key features that determine its scope and its facets.

Institutional ethnography’s emphasis is on research as a form of discovery rather than the testing of a hypothesis.  In sociology, the emphasis is on conducting studies, interviews, and research to support a preexistent hypothesis rather than exploring a problem from the bottom, from the people affected most and tracing it up a chain of command to the very institution or institutions “controlling” the subjects.  Institutional ethnography accomplishes this through the use of interviews “for the investigation of organizational and institutional processes.” (IEAP:  15) As a result, practitioners of institutional ethnography begin where they are and discover the institutional organizations of power that control people experiences.

Institutional ethnography is a sociology for people.  Without realizing that previous sociological practices and methodologies reinforced the institutions’ underlying social relations and language that is and was embedded in the cultural structures of each institution.  Sociologists accepted this societal-propaganda without questioning it because it was accepted as normal, those sociologists were part of the institution, and they could not see past the institutional male-centric language because that language was the norm.  When it rose to prominence, feminism began questioning the very ontology of society.  Institutional ethnography begins where people are and proceeds to discover the workings of the social structure that extends beyond any one of us.  (IEAP:  3)

Institutional ethnography looks for the problematic in the everyday world.  It is a form of inquiry that begins where people “actually are and addresses the problem of how our everyday worlds are put together in relations that are not wholly discoverable within the everyday world.” (EWAP: 47)  It is the reframing of sociology into an outline that works to understand how the simple, daily, and minute functions of our society are tied to a series of institutional relations beyond the individual subject.   Institutional ethnography is the study of how people in the everyday world actually work within those institutions.

Institutional ethnography is a mode of inquiry.  While Smith views ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and phenomenonology as methodologies that view the social as the coordinating of people’s activities (IWAP:  17), she expands this into a methodology that is at once more everyday and more expansive.   With institutional ethnography, the coordinating and analysis of people’s activities on a large scale is viewed from individual subjects across horizontal and vertical institutional processes.  This mode of inquiry refuses to isolate the individual from the inquiry and at once looks at the institution through the microscope of an individual subject.

These are just some of the key features of institutional ethnography.  It is not a methodology that is defined in concrete terms that are inflexible from study to study as most other methodologies are structured.  This makes institutional ethnography a much easier vehicle in which to explore institutional, intra-institutional, and inter-institutional processes from one corner of a social institution.  While it is difficult to define succinctly, it is more encompassing and more inclusive of all the subjects involved in the social process being questioned.



Dorothy Smith Quotes

The concept of the problematic makes it possible to differentiate clearly between, on the one hand, the actual properties of the everyday / everynight worlds of out contemporary societies that are never self-subsisting but always tied in multiple ways to complexes of relations beyond them and, on the other, making that actual organization the problematic of an inquiry that tracks from people’s experience of the local actualities of their living in the relations present in and organizing but at best only partially visible within them.  (IE: 38-39)

The problematic is the cornerstone of institutional ethnography.   It defines the major issue that needs to be researched from the everyday into the institutional relations that affect the everyday.  Without it, the significance of institutional ethnography loses its major basis.  This quote best exemplifies the problematic.


“Sociology has emerged and taken on its characteristic relevances and conceptual organization in the context of an apparatus, consisting of the varieties of administration, management, and professional organization, interwoven by the multiple forms of textually mediated discourse. ” (EWAP: 152)

As it developed, sociology incorporated the social-propaganda, administrative-propaganda and cultural-propaganda of the societies in which it operated.  Since those societies and sociology were and are dominated by men, the texts and processes used did not seem worth tearing apart for analysis because they were invisible, much like the work of women.  It is significant that institutional ethnography tore apart this assumption and began analyzing social institutions from a completely different perspective.


“A sociology beginning from the standpoint of women thus takes up the relation to this ruling apparatus of those whose work has been both necessary to and unrecognized by it.” (EWAP: 153)

Feminism challenged the fabric of the dominant society’s way of thinking and looking at everything that for centuries minimized all of the work of women, devalued their intelligence, and devalued their labour.  Institutional ethnography determined that feminism was the most significant means to challenge the status quo of that ruling apparatus.

“Institutional Ethnography is distinctive among sociologies in its commitment to discovering ‘how things are actually put together,’ ‘how it works.'” (IEAP:  1)


Other sociological methodologies insist on a strict ideological structure to analyze a particular hypothesis; institutional ethnography begins researching a problem or a problematic from its very basic source, from the individual and the local.  It traces it up the institutional chain of command to determine how institutions actually function and how those institutions treat individuals and how texts are used.  Institutional ethnography was the first method of inquiry to significantly forge a different way of looking at social structures.


“Institutional ethnography isn’t about studying institutions as such.  Rather it proposes a sociology that does not begin in theory but in people’s experience.”  (EWAP:  2)

Institutional ethnography treats people as human beings, as individuals, as important.  Other sociologies may study institutions as such, but institutional ethnography’s goal is to study people’s experience, to value their roles in the everyday. It is significant that institutional methodology looked at the status quo and decided that there is a better way to study social structures and institutions through the individuals that work with them the most.



Smith, D. E. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Smith, D. E. (2006). Institutional ethnography as practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.