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Multi-Sited Global Ethnography of Elite Schools

Summary and Keywords

Multi-sited global ethnography is a methodological contribution to educational research methodology, and more broadly, ethnography. This new methodological framework was designed specifically for the research project “Elite Independent Schools in Globalizing Circumstances,” which studied seven elite schools, one school in each of the following geographical locations: Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Australia, South Africa, Barbados, and England, over a five-year period from 2010 to 2014. The aim of this article is to give a detailed methodological rendition of the epistemologies, and theoretical and conceptual bearings that underpin multi-sited global ethnography. Drawing attention to how the methodology reinvigorates conventional ways of doing ethnography, “different strokes” is used to allude to the new methodological elements we introduced in multi-sited global ethnography. Overall, the article highlighted the insights, hindsight, and oversights gained during and after fieldwork, so that further research can enrich multi-sited global ethnography.

Keywords: elite schools, multi-sited global ethnography, globalization, Marcus, Burawoy

Introduction: Provocations Against Methodological Diffidence

[We] need to question and constantly challenge methodological prescriptions . . . Social research is something much too serious and much too difficult for us to allow ourselves to mistake scientific rigidity, which is the nemesis of intelligence and invention, for scientific rigour, and thus to deprive ourselves of this or that resource available in the full panoply of traditions of our discipline.

(Bourdieu, cited in Wacquant, 1989, p. 54)

This article contributes to the current volume of the encyclopedia of education on a new methodology called “multi-sited global ethnography.” The methodological framework was designed specifically to address the research questions in the five-year research project “Elite Independent Schools in Globalizing Circumstances: A Multi-Sited Global Ethnography” (2010–2014). But to call something “new” in scholarly register can invite contradictory responses: skepticism on the one hand that something is indeed really new and, on the other hand, a whole gamut of questions about what qualifies as “new” in terms of methodological contributions.

Here I draw on Bourdieu’s inspirational advice cited at the beginning of this article, in which he implores researchers to avoid methodological diffidence so that something new can be added to the repertoires of methodology in social science research. While Bourdieu speaks against “methodological prescriptions” and “scientific rigidity” in social research, it should not be misconstrued that anything goes insofar as the choice of methodology is concerned. Instead, Bourdieu is quick to supplement that “we must, whenever possible, mobilize and put to work all of the techniques which are relevant and practically usable given the definition of the problem under investigation” (Bourdieu, cited in Wacquant, 1989, p. 54). In other words, a methodological axiom in research is “the problem under investigation” should determine the methodological design.

But there is more to a methodological choice and design. Methodological contributions are equally important to push the boundaries of research. What qualifies as new methodological contributions can, however, come in a plethora of methodological configurations where the orthodoxy of methodologies is put under scrutiny and where theory and method can combine in new ways to defy methodological “purism.”

This opening preamble in response to Bourdieu’s provocation on “methodological prescription” frames the overall discussion of the methodological contributions of multi-sited global ethnography while also documenting the nuts and bolts of how the methodology was designed and carried out by six researchers who conducted research in multiple sites, spaces, and places. More on the context and background of the elite independent schools project is then given in the “The Research Context and Questions” section.

Some qualifications about the account of the multi-sited global ethnography presented in this article is necessary here. It is not the definitive and only account published from the larger project. Our methodological accounts of multi-sited global ethnography have appeared in a number of publications. With each iterative account either individually or collectively, we added new theoretical ideas or zoom in on one important aspect of methodological articulation of multi-sited global ethnography while remaining faithful to some of its core features. For example, Koh and Kenway (2012), in a small section of their paper, focus on how they made the familiar strange with the “insider–outsider” pair-up of their ethnographic fieldwork in an elite school in Singapore; Epstein, Fahey, and Kenway (2013) added the theoretical motif of travel, which characterized much of the nature of the fieldwork conducted in our project, although their account of travel is also examined through a feminist lens. Kenway’s (2015) provocative account of multi-sited global ethnography problematizes the standard tropes and “de-orthodoxized” traditional ethnography left behind by the legacies of anthropologies such as Malinowski (1992) and Geertz (1973). In our jointly authored monograph, we gave a short introduction to multi-sited global ethnography, calling it “mobilizing multiplicities” (Kenway et al., 2017, pp. 11–15) to allude to the braided theoretical and methodological resources we drew from the sociology and anthropology of globalization and, broadly, critical theory to inform the framing of our methodology. More recently, the team gives a full account of multi-sited global ethnography and illustrates how the theory and methodology bear out in a few elite schools we studied (Kenway et al., 2018).

My rendition of multi-sited global ethnography presented here inevitably overlaps with the versions published. But some repetitions are necessary for the purpose of the encyclopedia volume and readership. One final qualification is the account here is not to be taken as reflective of the views of my collaborators as this version is written three years after the completion of the project and is my own reflective account. However, I argue that there are methodological benefits to reflection because it is through hindsight that we can achieve the oversight necessary to gain further insights for future implications of doing ethnographies as new research questions arise in new research contexts.

The Research Context and Questions

Our project studied seven different elite schools: Straits School in Singapore, Cathedral College in Hong Kong, Ripon College in India, Old Cloisters in Barbados, Founders in Australia, Greystone School in South Africa, and Highbury Hall in England. It was thus a multi-sited, multinational, and multi-geographical study of elite schools. However, these schools share a common history. They have historical links to the former British Empire’s elite “public” school model, what we also called “old elite schools” in our project (Kenway et al., 2018). These “old elite schools” are well over 100 years old and have very strong traditions where remnants of its colonial history are preserved as vicarious display of distinction. The schools have a local as well as international reputation for producing students who excel both in academic and non-academic fields. Most are on track to prestigious universities overseas or reputed local national universities. The schools take immerse pride in the lists of distinguished alumni they produced, some of whom occupy the top rungs of business, industry, the military, and government.

Notably, the schools are well resourced and have state-of-the-art facilities compared to the schools in the national context of which they are a part. They charge high fees indicating that these elite schools attract a specific class of clientele. Although the schools are independent of government control (with the exception of Straits School in Singapore), they offer either local/national exit exams or alternative exit pathways such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) or International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). The schools are well connected nationally, regionally, and globally. They have their closed circuits of networks of elite schools where students and staff exchange frequently occurs. Finally, our selected schools are a composition of mixed and single-sex schools: four are coeducational, two are girls’ schools, one is a boys’ school, while one is a boys’ school that only started admitting girls in Year 11 for the Cambridge Certificate Examination (Advanced Level) (GCE A Levels).

Several research questions drove this project. It is necessary to give a brief description of the questions here so that an understanding of why and how a multi-sited global ethnography was the methodology conceived to address “the problem(s) under investigation.” We wanted to examine how the British “public school” model has traveled to the former colonies of Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Barbados, Australia, and South Africa, and subsequently, over time, how the elite schools in early 21st century have been remodeled by the dynamics of local, socio-politico, and economic factors, and the forces of globalization (see Kenway & McCarthy, 2014). As such, it is the first study that examines the nexus between elite schools and globalization.

While we acknowledged pioneering studies in England (e.g., Lamber & Millham, 1968; Wakeford, 1969; Winberg, 1967), the United States (e.g., Cookson and Persell’s 1985 study of over 50 boarding schools), and Australia (e.g., Connell, Ashendon, Kessler, & Dowsett, 1982), and more recent U.S. representative ethnographic studies by Howard (2008), Gaztambide-Fernandez (2009), Khan (2011), and Weiss, Cipollone, and Jenkins (2014), a problem with this body of research is it suffers from Western parochialism. We addressed this problem by including three elite schools in Asia, in Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. This missing knowledge is significant for comparative understandings of elite schools in earlier and recent times from both East and West, and their broader education and social implications within the nations that host these schools and beyond.

It is well acknowledged that elite schools are hothouses that produce the “power elites” (Mills, 1956) and “state nobility” (Bourdieu, 1996) of their societies. As mentioned, the elite schools we studied continue to perform such functions. But these schools also have to keep up and stay ahead with the shifting landscape of education affected by complex forces of globalization, the political economy of global capitalism, as well as local/national/regional socioeconomic and political changes. This complex terrain demands that elite schools reinvent themselves in new ways on matters related to their traditions and curricula offerings, and align these with educational outcomes that equip students for employment opportunities in national/global economies.

These new educational issues presented fresh warrants for research. Our study examined how these schools are meeting the challenges of economic, social, and cultural change; how they are taking up the opportunities that change offers; and how they steer change in ways consistent with their traditions (Kenway et al., 2017). We were also interested in finding out if newer populations of students existed in elite schools or whether they continued to remain homogeneous in terms of race/class configurations. We further sought to explore how such schools broaden the social horizon of students whose class and privilege background trap them in a bubble of privilege. We aimed to find out how schools introduce community outreach and service learning at the same time as encouraging their students to think about local, national, and global responsibilities (Kenway et al., 2017).

Lastly, our project brings into focus how elite schools make class and contribute to new class formations that are not necessarily tied to the nation-states. While class analysis features in most studies of elite schools where Bourdieu’s class reproduction theory is a touchstone of analysis, we subjected our study of elite schools to fresh theories of class analysis to understand the links between such schools and transnational elite class processes, and to consider how elite schools operate in relation to transnational economic and cultural power configurations (Kenway et al., 2017).

A Methodological Fusion of Multi-Sited and Global Ethnography

It is easy to trace the genealogy of multi-sited global ethnography. The very term points to the amalgamation of two sets of methodological trajectories, George Marcus’s (1995) “multi-sited ethnography” and Michael Burowoy et al.’s (2000) “global ethnography.” This combinatory methodology also challenges the conventional approach of doing ethnography—a methodological territory that has steep roots in the older anthropological traditional as espoused by Malinowski (1992). It is important that I flesh out some of the main tenets of the two respective methodologies before I explain how we fused them together and came up with a conceptual matrix (see Table 1) to guide our study of elite schools in globalizing circumstances. But this grid did not emerge out of a tabula rasa. First, I turn to the theoretical and epistemological perspectives that underpin Marcus’s multi-sited ethnography.

Methodological Borrowing From Multi-Sited Ethnography

Marcus’s multi-sited ethnography departs from the Malinowski tradition of ethnography, which is methodological and fixated on the “intensive dwelling” (Clifford, 1997, p. 2) of a bounded field site where “peripheral” culture is the object and “othering” of the anthropological gaze” (O’Reilly, 2009, p. 88). He argues that it is no longer tenable to study a field site or place/locality in silo bracketed from the broader interlocking flows of the “circulation of cultural meanings, objects and identities in diffuse time-space” (Marcus, 1995, p. 96).

The metaphorical references to “circulation” and “diffuse time-space” are revealing of the theoretical influence of critical anthropologists and sociologists (e.g., Featherstone, 1990; Hannerz, 1992; Harvey, 1989; Lash & Urry, 1987; Sklair, 1991) on Marcus’s methodological innovation of ethnographic practice and inquiry. This new body of literature critiques the limitation of world system theory which organized capitalist development and international relations into core/semi-peripheral/peripheral units of analysis (Wallerstein, 1974). Collectively, critical scholars point to new processes such as “late capitalism,” “time-space compression,” “globalization,” and “transnationalism” as the new macro forces defining a globalized “world system.” That is not to say, however, that Marcus dismisses world system theory entirely. Instead, he argues that methodologically, “the contextual architecture framing” of ethnography involves “tracing a cultural formation across and within multiple sites of activity” (Marcus, 1995, p. 96).

The pervasive influence of postmodernism and emergence of interdisciplinary scholarship since the 1980s (e.g., cultural studies, media studies, feminist studies, cultural geography, critical theory) has redefined intellectual traditions across humanities and social sciences (Marcus, 1995). This has also hugely impacted on the way Marcus rethinks ethnography. As opposed to the singularity of disciplinary approach, bounded field site, and objects of studies, Marcus reconceptualizes ethnography as multi-sited—a methodological frame that does not dismiss the importance of “place”/“field site”/“locality,” but sees a field site as situated and embedded within larger forces of “connections,” “diffuse time-space,” “association,” and “spatial canvas” (pp. 97–98). What is evocative here is the anti-essentialism of “place” over the relationality of space that resonates with the late cultural geographer Doreen Massey’s (1994, 2005) work, although this is never mentioned in Marcus’s article.

Indeed, the allusion to spatial vocabularies are the defining features of multi-sited research, a methodology that is “designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some of literal physical presence, with an explicit, posited logic of association or connection among sites that in fact defines the argument of the ethnography” (Marcus, 1995, p. 105). Simply put, “to follow the thing” (Marcus, 1998, p. 92), and situating “the thing” across the fluidity of borders and (multi-)sites yet trying to make sense of the complexities of “the thing” studied “with a keen awareness of being within the landscape” and “changes across sites” (p. 112; my emphasis) is the essence of the methodological contribution of multi-sited ethnography. Marcus’s usage of “the thing” is deliberate because any object of research could be “mapped,” “tracked,” and “followed” in multi-sited ethnography. He gave several examples of “modes of construction” and “objects of studies” in his manifesto article on the emergence of multi-sited ethnography such as “follow the people . . . follow the thing . . . follow the metaphor . . . follow the plot, story, or allegory and etc.” (Marcus, 1995, pp. 105–110). Our multi-sited global ethnography also evidently borrows from this methodology and “follow(s)” certain things, as discussed in the section, ‘Defying the Sacred Norms of Ethnography as “Different Strokes”.’

But there is an important methodological point that he flags, and that is that “multi-sited ethnographies inevitably are the product of knowledge bases of varying intensities and qualities” (Marcus, 1995, p. 100) and that even as researchers “follow the thing,” the research explored can yield “along unexpected and even dissonant fractures of social location” (p. 100). I highlight these points because it was while and after undertaking the fieldwork, and reflecting on the project three years later, that I rediscovered the methodological wisdom of Marcus’s work. I discuss this in the section, ‘Methodological Borrowing from Global Ethnography.’

Methodological Borrowing From Global Ethnography

The methodological development of ethnography drawn on in our study did not stop with Marcus’s multi-sited ethnography. Next, our methodological design and the conceptual matrix drew inspiration from Michael Burawoy et al.’s (2000) “global ethnography.” Burawoy and his colleagues introduced “global ethnography” to address the challenges of globalization and show how it can be taken up generatively as a methodology in qualitative methods and fieldwork specific to anthropology and sociology (e.g., Appadurai, 1996; Browner & Sargent, 2011; Chong, 2007; Tsing, 2005). My colleagues, Epstein et al. (2013) point out that global ethnography offers methodological benefits because it draws attention to “multiple fields, scales and mobilities associated with globalization” (p. 471). They also introduced the notion of “field work as a travel practice,” drawing inspiration from James Clifford (1997) to reinvigorate multi-sited and global ethnography. However, they point out that this methodology is not a common framework/design in educational research (Epstein et al., 2013). Our “Elite Independent Schools in Globalizing Circumstances” project is the first education-focused study to integrate global ethnography in its methodological design.

There are key features central to global ethnography. It acknowledges globalization and the way globalization reconfigures research imagination and methodology. Burawoy et al. (2000) introduce the lens of three slices of globalization—global forces, global connections, and global imaginations for the undertaking of global ethnographies. These three axes are also the analytic categories that inform the construction of our conceptual matrix. While “place” or “field site” remain a central focus in global ethnography, “sites” or “fields” are now reconfigured as loosely bounded and deeply connected to larger global forces to produce “a global sense of place” (Gille & Riain, 2002, p. 277). Our premise is also that globalization is transforming the way elite schools imagine globalization. We wanted to study these elite schools and get to the specifics of how they so imagine globalization. This is why in our conceptual matrix our sociological inquiry into elite schools isolates how the three slices of globalization—global forces, global connections, and global imagination—impact on identity, curriculum, culture, community, and national context (Kenway et al., 2018).

By “global forces,” Burawoy et al. (2000) situate the analysis of ethnographic field site to a global frame of reference where “external “forces” are viewed as “the product of contingent social processes” (p. 29) that contribute to the ethnographic knowing and knowledge production of the object of investigation. Burawoy (2000) identifies imperial interests, colonial history, and capitalism as examples of “global forces” (Kenway & Fahey, 2014). More current examples of emergent “global forces” could include authoritarian populism that is shaping politics and governance (Appadurai, 2017), and neoliberal capitalism and finance (Cahill & Konings, 2017).

But the elite schools in our study have strong colonial lineage to the British model of elite “public” school. As stated in the section, ‘The Research Context and Questions,’ we wanted to find out how, for example, “imperialism” is one global force that has exported the model to the former British colonies, and how, over time, these elite schools have adapted and transformed the history and tradition because of another global force, “globalization.” We also analyze how “global forces” impact on the elements of “identity,” “curriculum,” “culture,” “community,” and “national context” of the elite schools studied.

Introducing “global forces” as a slice of globalization to ethnography challenges classical ethnography, which makes “a fetish out of the confinement fieldwork, the enclosure of the village, the isolation of the tribe” (Burawoy, 2000, p. 1). Marcus critiqued this as well when he advanced multi-sited ethnography. Global ethnography thus shifts the methodological lens to explore how the site under investigation is always deeply connected to other social processes and relations and “how localities assimilate these forces into their own socioscapes” or “how forces are resisted, accommodated to, and fled from” (Gille & Riain, 2002, p. 280). The practical implication for ethnographic fieldwork is that gathering “thick description” (Geertz, 1973), from within the field site is not enough. The “thick description” of the data must extend beyond localities.

Intimately connected to “global forces,” Burawoy (2000) introduces the second slice of globalization as “global connections.” While Marcus’s (1995) multi-sited ethnography acknowledges ethnographic practices across sites and his methodology of “following the thing,” no explicit methodological attention was paid to the global dimension of multi-sited ethnography. Thus, Burawoy argues that “it is only in the study of global connections that multi-sitedness becomes the object of theorization” (Burawoy, 2000, p. 30; original emphasis). This aspect of global ethnography is defined as “chains, flows, networks” (p. 31) whereby global forces are constituted. However, global connections can exist in multifarious ways.

Methodologically, in exploring “global connections,” the ethnographic data may be thinner at one site than in another; there may be a disconnection rather than connection; the global connection could be virtual rather than material (Burawoy, 2000, pp. 30–31). Despite these possible methodological caveats, Gille and Riain (2002) pointed out that “global connections” are taken up in the scholarship in close connection to “the agency of social actors” (p. 281). This aspect of global ethnography has inspired scholars to develop variations of border-related theory and methodology to study transnational connections, social movements, and migration studies (see, e.g., Amelia, Nergiz, Faist, & Schiller, 2012; Basch, Schiller, & Blanc, 2005; Kongeter & Smith, 2015; Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013). We also take up this frame of analysis across the seven elite schools studied and explored how “global connections” manifest in the five elements of “identity,” “curriculum,” “culture,” “community,” and “national context,” with specific questions of inquiries as spelt out in the columns in the conceptual matrix.

Finally, “global imagination” is the third “slice” to the understanding of globalization that Burawoy introduced to global ethnography. Globalization is a complex and contested phenomenon defined by social institutions, governments, think-tanks, and dominant groups to advance their ideological interests. But equally in the globalization literature there are also accounts of contested visions and imaginations of globalization. For example, the edited volume of essays on counter-globalization in Asia by Chong (2008) as well as books on grassroots globalization (e.g., Appadurai, 2001; Matthews, Ribeiro, & Albavega, 2012).

Indeed, as Burawoy (2000) points out, the methodological focus of “global imagination” is to “study how different images of globalization are produced and disseminated” (p. 31). Ethnographically, “global imagination” has methodological implications on how “identities” and “places” are constructed from imagination” (Gille & Riain, 2002, p. 285). Extending this frame to our study, we explored how elite schools imagine globalization with a focus on how such schools imagine globalization in relation to their curriculum, students’ identities, and their global future.

To shape our inquiries, we developed a conceptual matrix (see Table 1) as a generative framework for the analyses of the ethnographic data we collected. This global matrix combines two overlapping conceptual frameworks: (a) Burawoy et al.’s (2000) framework for global ethnographies: global forces, global connections, and global imaginations, as discussed in the section, ‘Methodological Borrowing from Global Ethnography’; and (b) our framework for sociological inquiry into elite schools: identity, curriculum, culture, community, and nation/national context. We applied this global matrix using the ethnographic data we collected to examine “the institutional life of the school and its more extended communities, and on the way they are interwoven with global forces, connections, and imaginations” (Kenway et al., 2018, p. 425; see also Kenway & Fahey, 2014; Kenway et al., 2017).

Table 1. A Global Matrix for Ethnographic Studies of Elite Schools

The Elite School

Global Forces

Global Connections

Global Imaginations

Identity (students particularly)

Socially selective intakes. Historical and economic sensibilities.

“Flexible citizenship”? Transnational or multinational?

“Possible lives” as global leaders envisaged via various activities and representations.


Specialization in and concentration on high-status/high-stakes knowledge.

International mobility; linguistic multicultural capital; orientation to foreign university entry and curricula.

Attractive imaginings of international study and careers in knowledge-driven, high-powered employment markets.

Culture (organizational climate and ethos)

Hot-housing appropriate elite aspirations and orientations to the economy.

Developing cross-border ties and networks and transnational social capital; building “integrative” social practices.

School’s web-based images of success on the global stage and the implied links between the school and global elites.

Community (families and alumni)

Economic capital, social class orientations.

Transnational lifestyle: expensive, exclusive, multi-continent, global alumni organizations.

Representations of desirable “communities of sentiment.”

National context

Colonial legacies; national location in the global economy.

Participation in international elite school associations and developing international school/university partners.

Activities that motivate the school itself to become more globally agential.

Source: Kenway (2015, pp. 45–46); Kenway et al. (2018, p. 425).

Three years have gone by since our project came to a close. In the concluding section, I reflect on the overall methodological contributions of multi-sited global ethnography, how we introduce “different strokes” to Marcus’s “multi-sited ethnography” and Burowoy’s “global ethnography.”

Multi-Sited Global Ethnography: Different Strokes, Different Folks

Both seminal and more recent studies (e.g., Cookson & Persell, 1985; Demerath, 2009; Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2009; Howard, 2008; Khan, 2011; Wakeford, 1969; Weinberg, 1967), largely deploy the conventional ethnography of “deep hanging out” (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2009) in one school or a cluster of schools over an extended period of time to gather a “thick description” (Geertz, 1973) of the school. As a reflective exercise, and also taking up Bourdieu’s challenge of “methodological prescription” in research, I detail in this section the “different strokes” we sought in terms of our methodological design to contribute afresh to ethnography. More importantly, we sought answers to the research questions we set out to investigate.

The “Different Folks”

We were a team of “different folks” of diverse nationalities with close links to the geographical locations of the elite schools located in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Barbados, Australia, England, and South Africa. The bio-histories are another unique feature we brought to bear on the methodological design of the fieldwork. The team comprised Jane Kenway and Johannah Fahey from Australia; Debbie Epstein from England with a diaspora connection to South Africa; Aaron Koh of Singaporean nationality but based in Hong Kong; Cameron McCarthy who is based in the United States but has a diaspora connection to Barbados; and Fazal Rivzi from Australia but with a diaspora connection to India.

Within the team were also overlapping theoretical interests spanning literary, postcolonial, feminist, cultural studies, critical sociology, and education policy, and, broadly, globalization. Given our strong theoretical bearings, one challenge for us all was it was impossible to do our ethnographic fieldwork without a theoretical lens or to take-up a neutral research position in the field. The multi- and interdisciplinary stances and bearings are amply illustrated in our first volume of essays where data from our first round of fieldwork was analyzed from a plurality of conceptual and theoretical frameworks. The essays were published in a special issue in Globalisation, Societies and Education edited by Kenway and McCarthy (2014). With hindsight, the methodological benefits of having “different folks” working on the project clearly enriched our study.

Fractured Space and Time as “Different Strokes”

The methodology of our study is necessarily multi-sited global ethnography as it involves seven elite schools spread across seven geographical locations. And our overarching research question, as mentioned, is to understand how “globalization” exerts pressure on these elite schools and the way they imagine globalization. But given the scale of the project and the intensive fieldwork, which included frequent traveling and three revisits for each of the seven elite schools over the five-year period of the study, it was clearly an impossible mission for the project to be undertaken alone or even by a small team of two or three.

Added to the fieldwork, on top of frequent Skype meetings across different time zones we had two occasions where we met as a team to discuss and analyze data collectively. After collecting substantial data from the first round of our fieldwork in the seven sites, we gathered in Australia in 2011, organized a one-day symposium, and presented our findings in the universities of Sydney, Monash, and Queensland. In 2014, when we finally completed our final round of fieldwork in the respective schools, we did another “gig” in universities of Bristol, Roehampton, and Birmingham. It was also in that three weeks that we began to conceptualize our jointed authored book, Class Choreographies: Elite Schools and Globalization, which was eventually published in 2017.

The methodological point that I want to make with the above details is our multi-sited global ethnography is a “different stroke” which involves traveling in/out of field sites rather than including the “habituation” and “dwelling” associated with the old traditions of ethnographic work (Clifford, 1997). We also had to work in fractured “time,” “place,” and “space” as opposed to the stable temporality “place” and “time” of the traditions of old ethnographies.

Ethnographic “Insider”/“Outsider” Pairing as “Different Strokes”

There are methodological challenges in conducting a multi-sited global ethnography, especially for a big research project such as ours that involves so many field sites. Ghassan Hage (2005), for example, shared his experience of conducting multi-sited fieldwork that involved Lebanese migrants in a few international locations, during which he came to the conclusion that “multi-sited ethnography (is) an untenable proposition” (p. 465). Understandably his reasons emerge from the practicalities of the intensive labor involved in multi-sited fieldwork. One reason is that the frequent traveling to collect data can take a toll on the researcher’s health as he/she might be overstretched on top of demands from the professional duties of teaching and family obligations. Another reason is the limited time to cover a few sites that could lead to “thin” rather than “thick ethnography” because “of one’s (limited) degree of immersion” (p. 465). But what constitutes “thin”/“thick” ethnography and the “degree of immersion” is something we problematize in our multi-sited global ethnography. I shall return to this point in the section, ‘Defying the Sacred Norms of Ethnography as “Different Strokes”.’

These methodological issues were as real for us as they were real for Hage, given the extensive scale and time period of our project. But fortunately for us, because of the generous funding received—thanks to the Australian Research Council and our partner universities—the project was supported by a full-time Senior Research Fellow, Johannah Fahey, as well as a Senior Research Project Officer, Diana Langmead, who undertook much of the organization, planning, administrative, and research support. The rest of us had to juggle our time between university teaching, other research commitments, and the time we needed to travel at various times and to work on the project. To overcome the intensive labor of fieldwork and possible health issues involved in the traveling involved, we introduced “new strokes” to the logistical and manpower allocation of our multi-sited global ethnography to lessen the otherwise onerous demand. First, we divided the labor across these seven field sites. We were not out to visit or study an “exotic” outpost as “outsiders” looking in with colonial gaze, as is the case with older traditions of ethnographic fieldwork. It would be ironic to do so as the elite schools we studied were historically situated in far-flung ex-colonies of the former British Empire. Instead, we organized our fieldwork so it was undertaken by pairs or trios, with each pair covering two field sites. But our pairing was not random. One had to be an “insider” who knew sufficient about the history, culture, education system, and politics of the country where the elite school is located; the other the “outsider,” the “stranger” to the location/field site. To give but one example: for the Singapore elite school field site we named Straits School, I paired up with Jane Kenway to do the fieldwork. I was the “insider” because of my connection and familiarity of Singapore by virtue of my nationality while Jane was the “outsider.”

Methodologically this “outsider”/“insider” pairing offered vantage points. As an “outsider,” Jane was able to view the familiarity I saw in the school as “strange.” She also decoded the “unconscious grammar” (O’Reilly, 2009, p. 111) in the school as well as the wider Singaporean culture and politics with more critical lens as the context was too close for me as the “insider.” My “insider” positioning, however, provided Jane with insights into the cultural nuances of Singaporean spoken discourse and interaction in the school. This complimentary “insider”/“outsider” positioning was generative as we were able to discuss and examine the data we collected reflexively, closed up, and through multiple lens. Importantly, the fieldwork pairing reduced our fieldwork to two sites each although this would also mean we had to share our ethnographic details and happenings with the other members of the team doing the same work across sites in our Skype meetings.

A Brief Reflection of the Problematic “Insider”/“Outsider” Pairing

However, reflecting on this pairing three years on, there were a few latent issues about power relations and the problematic binary of “insider”/“outsider” that seemed inconsequent while doing the fieldwork at that time. With hindsight, the power relations between us were magnified not so much between Jane and I but through how the school (by that I mean the principal, senior management team, and teachers) treated us differently. To the staff, Jane was a special guest in the school, a professor from the reputable Monash University. Importantly, she is white and spoke in an accent different from all of us, myself included. By contrast, the way I was treated was remarkably different. The principal and senior management team tried to find out quite subtly if I was an alumni of their rival school. They were also more suspicious of me because I am a Singaporean and someone who has gone through the system as a student, teacher, and now a researcher on Singapore education.

I recount an incident where my “insider” status was perceived to be intrusive, using evidence from my field notes, which I will quote verbatim, although some context is needed. On July 4, 2012, I attended a staff “contact time” where the principal as well as key leaders in the school briefed the staff on important matters and happenings in the school. Despite consciously putting on my ethnographic lens, I sat through the contact time without thinking it was anything special or significant as I had been a school teacher in the same system before. Thus, my familiarity as an “insider” regarded the “contact time” as routine. But I was wrong:

I happily walked out of the Lecture Theatre thinking my mission was accomplished when I heard the VP calling out my name. I was caught unguarded when she told me in a “friendly” manner that the P thought we shouldn’t be attending such staff meetings as it is not open to “outsiders” . . . She went on to say that we should seek clearance from her in future about what we could attend and that it was best to stick to the schedule given . . . I avoided any further debate with the VP but told her in the same “friendly” gesture that we won’t be writing about such “micro issues.” I had the discipline cases in mind but wasn’t sure if she was on the same page. Anyway, to avoid the awkwardness both of us defrayed into other topics. I mentioned how good their character and leadership programme is and that they came out strong out of the 10 case study schools that we were studying in our elite school project. I said all this with a certain pretentious to cover up my guilt of having trespass a territory in the school that I wasn’t permitted to enter. I thought it must be the news of the discipline cases. It wasn’t meant for my ears!

But I was rather disturbed by the whole incident. As an ethnographer, I felt I was really positioned as an “outsider” and made to feel guilty that I had trespassed a territory in the school that I was not permitted to . . . I reckon it is definitely the news of the discipline cases that were not meant for my ears. I was permitted to hear only legitimate voices of the interviews that have been arranged, but not unwholesome news from the “inner circle of authority” . . . The school only wants us to hear and know about their glamor and prestige but not the dirty linen! Jane immediately strategizes to have coffee with the VP tomorrow to clear this up. But this episode made me think about the im/permissible grounds of ethnographic work.

This episode highlighted my point about the problematic “insider”/“outside” binary and the assumptions of their functions in ethnographic fieldwork. Despite my identification as a Singaporean and therefore legitimately an “insider,” I was the suspected and intrusive “outsider,” but Jane, in my view, because of her power and status as a professor and to some extent her “white privilege,” was the respected “outsider” who could navigate the communications in the field site much better than me. Jane’s charming disposition as opposed to my somewhat serious countenance, meant we were really a contrasting “insider”/“outsider” pair, and this affected how each of us were treated and regarded by the inner circle of powerful people in the school. My encounter and experience of a lesser “insider” and more of an “outsider” reminds me of O’Reilly’s (2009) point that “generally ethnographers are only more or less insider or outsiders” and that “neither insiders nor outsiders are status-free” (p. 116). A further methodological point that I also want to raise from this reflection is that using an ethnographic lens in ethnographic fieldwork is not enough—wearing an ethnographic mask is equally important to navigate potential awkward moments and even risks in ethnographic encounters, with whoever, and wherever, or whatever the field site is.

Defying the Sacred Norms of Ethnography as “Different Strokes”

We look now at the ethnographic issue of “thin”/“thick” ethnography and the time spent immersed in field sites. One of the sacred tropes of ethnography is time spent in the field (Kenway, 2015), the longer the better for a variety of reasons, like getting to know the culture of the place, having more intimate connections, understanding and building rapport with the local community, and so on (O’Reilly, 2009). Walford (2007), for example, argues that a “prolonged period of investigation is essential for an ethnographer to get to know the ways of a culture” (p. 10). Anthropologists such as Rabinow, Marcus, Fauion, and Rees (2008) are also of the view that “temporality of slowness patience and gradual” (pp. 7–8) enables the ethnographer to know “natives’ point of view.” But going back to the practical question Hage (2005) raised, do researchers have the luxury of time now to be away from their university and family to carry out research that requires extended time out in the field such as (multi-sited) ethnography? This is rare by all accounts, I argue, particularly with a state/university funding model that privileges investment in certain disciplines over others and projects that yield the transfer of knowledge, income, and patents.

Our project defied the conventional approach of spending extended time immersed in the seven elite schools, although, methodologically, our project followed the “deep hanging out” (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2009) model of participant observation and interviews, building case studies around 10 students in each elite school and documenting the “semiotic ecology” (Koh, 2015) of the schools via photography to enrich our ethnographic understandings of the lifeworld, communities, and culture of the respective schools. But in terms of time spent in the field, this was three to four weeks in each site. But we revisited the same site twice in the subsequent two years of the study to follow new developments in the school. We also interviewed the same group of people in each school to see how their lives and plans had changed. We “followed a set of people” characteristic of multi-sited ethnography. However, the time we spent clearly did not match the expectation of the “purist” approach to doing ethnography, as the Malinowskian tradition does. But such tradition has been challenged in recent studies (see, e.g., Fahey, Prosser, & Shaw, 2015; Howard & Kenway, 2015; Kenway, 2015). Sara Delamont (2017) recently argued that what matters most in doing ethnography is not the duration of time spent in the field, but “the research questions, the confidence of the researcher . . . and the data they produce” (p. 336).

Indeed, we did not compromise on the data produced in the seven schools studied despite what would be perceived as fleeting, quick-time ethnography. We introduced to the rigor of our data analysis a “different stroke” in our multi-sited global ethnography by deploying a new theoretical set of “scoping optics,” comprising “telescope,” “microscope,” and “periscope,” to overcome criticisms of not adhering to the sacred norms and conventions of doing ethnography (Kenway, 2015; Kenway et al., 2018). Accordingly, “telescope” directs our analytic attention to the “global histories and activities” over time and space”; “microscope” examines “the fine grain of relevant aspects of each school”; and finally, “periscope” zeros-in on “what could not be seen in just one school or country” but across multiple sites and follows things in circulation across sites (Kenway et al., 2018, p. 439). While “purists” of ethnographic traditions could fault us for not following the standard tropes of doing ethnography, our analysis, nevertheless, is “‘thick’ because of our multiple angles of theoretical and empirical scrutiny” (Kenway, 2015, p. 52).

Keeping Ethnographic Sensibilities Open to New Data as “Different Strokes”

Imagine the huge corpus of data we collected across the seven schools, from interviews to artifacts such as school magazines and newsletters over the five-year period of study. Two sets of data stood out as the highlights of our project. First is the 10 sets of student case studies in each school. We interviewed the students in the last two years of their school (i.e., Years 11 and 12). After a two-year gap, we interviewed this same set of students who by then had dispersed across different parts of the world and were studying in different universities. We used Skype to conduct this last set of interviews to find out where they were, their life trajectories, and future plans. This methodology of “following the people” through face-to-face and virtual interviews allowed us to examine the “elite circuit” and mobilities of elite students (Koh, 2017) and their multiple trajectories and how we think class is indeed choreographed in elite schools (Kenway et al., 2017).

The second set of data is the social aesthetics we curated in the seven elite schools. This set emerged while we were conducting our fieldwork in the schools. Looking back, we did not allow our “methodological prescription” of the methodological design of multi-sited global ethnography to constrain our data collection or to look for intended data in our field sites. We kept an open ethnographic sensibility. Rereading Marcus’s (1995) landmark work on the emergence of multi-sited ethnography, his remark (p. 102) that “in projects of multi-sited ethnographic research, de facto comparative dimensions develop instead as a function of the fractured, discontinuous plane of movement and discovery among sites as one maps an object of study and needs to posit logic of relationship, translation, and association among these sites”

began to have provide deeper insights to the methodological openness of our multi-sited global methodology. We began to “follow the social aesthetics” in our seven elite schools.

Our ethnographic visit and subsequent revisits to the respective schools led to a more careful collection and curation of this set of data. It was a discovery which led to a mapping across all sites for comparative analysis. This was a layer of ethnographic data we did not plan for. But its prominence and visibility in the school was difficult to miss. Across the seven schools, we noticed that there was a rich ecology of aesthetics in the form of banners, billboards, advertisements, photographs of famous alumni, and even signatures and photos of famous people who visited the schools, framed as portraits mounted on walls. The history of the school was also evidently displayed, with a line-up of photographs of past and present principals, featuring principals from colonial to post-colonial times, reflecting the rich colonial deposits of the schools.

The data we collected also added another “different stroke” to our theorizing in our multi-sited global ethnography. We drew on social aesthetics (MacDougall, 1999), visual methodologies (Ross, 2013), and semiotics (Kress, 2010). The data from each school was later written up and put together into a volume of scholarly-cum-visual essays that explored the sensory dynamics of social aesthetics, drawing critical attention and examination of the analysis of sight, taste, sound, bodies, touch, and semiotics that amplify the “privilege” and “eliteness” in the schools (Fahey et al., 2015). Had we allowed our “multi-sited global ethnography” to trap our methodological and research imagination, we could have missed out on all this rich ethnographic data that provided and enriched our understanding of elite schools and the way we theorize anew ethnography.


Very rarely is methodology in a study given a full-blown account in a journal article, unless it is a journal devoted to research methods such as Qualitative Inquiry and the like, or edited volumes devoted to qualitative research such as this encyclopedia. Research methods, very often, are only “mentioned in passing” (Howard & Kenway, 2015, p. 1005); very often limited to how the “method” is undertaken, detailed, and described. But there is more to methodology. Let’s not forget that “methodology (is) understood as theoretically informed analysis of research approaches and techniques in a particular field or body of knowledge” (Howard & Kenway, 2015, p. 1005). I will echo Bourdieu’s point (cited in Wacquant, 1989) here again that methodology should not be prescriptive and rigid.

This article has introduced a new methodology, “multi-sited global ethnography,” specific for the study of elite schools. It is not just one of those accounts where we simply duplicated and recycled a “method” and imported it into our study. This was clearly not possible given the scope and scale of the study. We asked new questions that also required a new methodological framework that was robust enough and innovatively derived from theoretical, epistemological, and conceptual resources. As Bourdieu (cited in Wacquant, 1989, p. 54) has reminded us, “the problem(s) under investigation” is/are the anchor(s) that we need to return to when deciding on methodological choice and design.

In this article, multi-sited global ethnography is presented as a new approach to studying elite schools. I have called our contributions to ethnography “different strokes.” But caution is needed, as this methodological framework was designed to address the research questions specific to our study; it may not be duplicated as a whole into other projects. There are, of course, ways to take our methodology further as it can be taken-up and adapted for use in research on “schooling” and broader studies on comparative education research. As “the complexities of educational realities” emerge, what is needed is “multiPluriTrans”—taken apart as “multi,” “pluri,” and “trans” approaches to invoke the idea that ethnography is necessarily an interdisciplinary methodological enterprise (Bollig, Honig, Neumann, & Seele, 2015, p. 10). We leave it to other researchers to further explore or maybe dismantle our methodology and rebuild it anew with fresh methodological and theoretical insights.

Reflecting on our completed project three years later—and yes, reflection brings back memories, the good and bad, pleasant and not so pleasant—we realize that reflection is a powerful methodological framework which can bring to the fore “insights,” “hindsight,” as well as “oversights,” so that we can continue to reinvigorate ethnography with fresh approaches using “different strokes” and “different folks.”


The “Elite Independent Schools in Globalizing Circumstances: A Multi-Sited Global Ethnography” project was supported by the Australian Research Council (DP1093778). Further departmental Research Assistant [RA] supporting funds were given by The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Education, to support writing this article. I put on record my deep respect for my colleagues: Jane Kenway, Johannah Fahey, Debbie Epstein, Cameron McCarthy, and Fazal Rizvi. I also honor the superb, intelligent, and efficient administrative support of Diana Langmead. My team would readily agree with me she was the “administrative goddess” who organized everything for us. The views expressed in this article and its “imperfections” are, however, of course mine. Last, but not least, I thank Aiden Leung and Edmund Lim for their encouragement and support while writing this article.


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