ASEE 2010: Institutional Ethnography: A research method to investigate the work-life experiences of women faculty members in STEM disciplines

Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented among engineering faculty. A diverse engineering faculty body is important because it increases the likelihood of equitable hiring practices and reduces the likelihood of a hostile workplace climate, among other reasons. In turn, research hypothesizes that a diverse engineering faculty body will attract, recruit, and retain diverse students to the engineering profession. While there are a bevy of research papers published every year to address this persistent concern, there are few new or innovative ideas informing our theoretical groundwork for understanding these underrepresentations.

Institutional ethnography (IE) is a method used in sociology to understand the experiences of marginalized people in different kinds of institutions. Operationalized by sociologist Dorothy Smith, IE allows researchers to examine how institutions’ rules and regulations impact the lives and work experiences of people who work in those institutions. The main data collection processes for IE are interviews, discursive analyses of organizational texts and documents, and observations to study institutional members’ interactions with these same texts and policies. Researchers focus on how institutional participants understand, perceive, and negotiate institutional rules and how those understandings and negotiations affects their personal and professional successes.

In this paper, we outline how IE is an effective method of investigating the experiences of women in STEM faculty positions. We describe IE’s use as a research method within the ADVANCE-Purdue project. ADVANCE-Purdue is a NSF-sponsored project that aims to improve the job success of faculty, with a particular focus on women of color, in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines of Purdue University. Using IE as a method to study the career-based experiences of the women faculty members of the STEM disciplines, we ask how institutionally generated texts (at the departmental, college, and university levels) shape their experiences as faculty members.

2010 Banerjee & Pawley