Intercultural Learning and Ethnography: Observing Culture at Leeds Metropolitan University

Authors: Ricarda Zoellner and Lin Peachey


The following paper describes the module Observing Culture which is offered as part of the undergraduate language provision at Leeds Metropolitan University. The aim of the module is to prepare students for the year abroad and to enhance their cultural sensitivity by exploring shared cultural knowledge, values and beliefs. By observing and critically examining their own cultural practices, students are encouraged to become more aware of certain patterns under the surface of life, which should help them to gain a better understanding of their own and others' cultural worlds. The module incorporates an introduction to anthropological and sociolinguistic concepts, ethnographic research, reflective learning and ethnographic writing.

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This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).


Observing Culture is a relatively new module that was introduced in 2002 following some curriculum changes to the undergraduate language provision at Leeds Metropolitan University. It was developed after some members of the course team had attended lectures and workshops on “Ethnography for Language Learners” which were offered as part of the “Learning and Residence Abroad (LARA)” project. Although the module is mainly based on LARA, additional materials are included, sessions are shorter than recommended and the assessment is different.

The aim of the module is to prepare students for the cultural challenges of the year abroad by enhancing their cultural sensitivity, which should lead to a better understanding of their own and others’ cultural worlds.

Brief Module Description

The module takes an in-depth look at shared cultural knowledge, values and beliefs, and the way these are expressed through language, behaviour and social structures. By observing and critically examining their own cultural practices, students are encouraged to become more aware of certain patterns under the surface of life. The module incorporates four broad aspects, namely, an introduction to anthropological and sociolinguistic concepts, ethnographic research, reflective learning (including reflection and reflexivity) and ethnographic writing.

Anthropological and sociolinguistic concepts are explored in areas such as family and gender relations, social roles and behaviour, language and identity, rituals and symbolic meaning. This helps the students to interpret their own and other people’s language and behaviour, cultural practices and traditions, and reactions and responses.

In order to fully understand the aim of the course students are encouraged to look at the philosophical ideas and theories behind ethnographic research, including grounded theory. The approach aims to explore in as much detail as possible, examples which are seen as illuminating and aims to achieve ‘depth’ rather than ‘breadth’ (Blaxter, Hughes and Tight, 2001:64).

The generic research skills which are taught include formulating a research question, synthesising and presenting primary and secondary data, describing methods of data collection and data analysis (including ways of recording field notes accurately, participant and non-participant observation and conducting ethnographic interviews), identifying ethical dilemmas, drawing conclusions, evaluating and critiquing their own ethnographic work and making recommendations for future research. An adherence to academic conventions, such as referencing and avoiding plagiarism, is encouraged when students write up their ethnographic descriptions.

Students are introduced to the concepts of reflective learning, reflective writing and some of the appropriate literature. They are encouraged to record and then orally present some of their weekly tasks in a given format. This includes a structure for recording events, reflecting on them to examine their feelings and interpretations, and a reflexive element where the students draw out the main in-depth themes and questions that emerge.
Elements of high quality ethnographic writing are explored in the sessions. These include writing both analytically and descriptively, drawing out themes and synthesising, avoiding making high inferences, and presenting the data for public scrutiny.

Assessment consists of an individual written ethnographic research plan, individual observation notes and interview transcripts, and a group presentation.

Approaches to Teaching and Learning

The sessions are based on planned, systematic enquiry. They are designed to develop generic skills across languages including discussion, research skills, reflection and writing, and to prepare students to select a topic for their ethnographic research plan. An important element is co-teaching where the two tutors bring in their own emphases, which are intercultural learning and ethnographic research. The emphasis is on interactive group work and pair work and students learn from each other as much as from the tutors, both during the class sessions and when preparing the group projects.

The disciplines of anthropology and sociolinguistics are introduced through a variety of weekly tasks which are used as the basis for drawing out concepts. Topical materials are used to challenge or reinforce the notion of normality in the way in which modern art challenges traditional values and beliefs. Discussion is an essential feature of the module and the emergent issues encourage students to reflect on how values, traditions and behaviour change over time. For example, there are differences between generations in terms of credit card behaviour and the challenges faced by young people, such as coping with their parents’ partners. Socio-linguistic concepts are also explored: an examination of the language used to describe males and females encourages students to think about the origin of these words and they can compare the language they use to that of their parents, grandparents and peers.

Students carry out regular weekly tasks and receive continuous oral and written formative feedback from the tutors and peers. This is an essential element in the circle as it contributes to group reflection and leads to the step by step development of their research plans. Students are encouraged to critically analyse their own writing and to redraft their work several times. Guidance notes also support the students in the writing process which they find the most difficult part of the module.

Tutorials with small groups of students are also an essential feature of the module when the students are preparing their individual research plans.


Students are required to identify an observation context and topic in groups. They submit a portfolio which includes a research plan for an ethnographic study, evidence in the form of individual observation notes that have been carried out during the year, and an outline of their individual and group presentation. The plan should include a clear aim and a well-formulated research question, a critical analysis of the main concepts and secondary sources, a description and evaluation of their methods for collecting and analysing data, a summary of the ethical dilemmas they face and a bibliography.

In addition, students give a group oral presentation in which they synthesise the results of their individual observations, identify some of the main themes, critique their own data collection methods and summarise what they have learnt that may be relevant for the year abroad. The presentations are videoed and a reflective element is added as the students are required to evaluate their own performance (see Appendix 1 rich text format 8Kb) with other members of the group.

Following good practice, students are given the assessment criteria in advance. The assessment tasks are weighted as follows:

Written ethnographic research plan: 40%
Written individual observation notes: 30%
Oral presentation: 30%


The challenge for the tutors is to convince the students of the relevance of this module in the context of a language degree programme. This arises from the fact that the students tend to focus merely on the languages they are studying and they seem to view cultural awareness as something that can be taught through materials that are both situation and language specific.

It is hoped that by the end of the module the students will recognise that culture pervades all aspects of society and cannot be taught in its entirety. Having an inquisitive and critical mind and being open to other ways of thinking are crucial attributes for becoming a successful intercultural being. The real test as to whether this module is successful will be the fruits of the students’ experiences abroad.

Related links

LARA – The Learning And Residence Abroad Project