Walking with Strangers

Critical Ethnography and Educational Promise

by Barbara Dennis (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXVI, 298 Pages
Series: Critical Qualitative Research, Volume 29


This book tells the methodological tale of a long term critical ethnography with a midwestern school district whose new language learning, transnational population was increasing. Rather than report on the findings of the study, the author shares the intimate methodological details of doing participatory ethnography of a school under transformation. Approaches aimed at shifting attitudes and possibilities included the use of Theatre of the Oppressed and analyses of monocultural mythmaking introducing new concepts. The author introduces an analysis of change that builds from a David Wood’s deconstruction of time. Taken all together, the book illustrates creative and novel ways to engage in social justice transformation with school partners using participatory critical ethnography.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Theory, Practices and Politics in Using the Label Critical: Naming Matters
  • Chapter Two: We: Complex Relationships at the Slash of Insider/Outsider Dynamics
  • Chapter Three: Ethics of Being With/In
  • Chapter Four: Same over Time? An Historical Context Written by Dini Metro-Roland
  • Chapter Five: “Hispanics are the New Niggers” and Other Monocultural Myths: Narrative Reconstructions
  • Chapter Six: Methodologies of Possibility: Theatre of the Oppressed as Transformation
  • Chapter Seven: “The times they are a-changin’ ”
  • Chapter Eight: Walking With Strangers
  • Appendix A: Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action as Metatheory
  • Appendix B: Comparison of Various Critical Orientations
  • Appendix C: Theoretical Details: Carspecken’s Critical Ethnography
  • Appendix D: Dramatization for Teacher Professional Development
  • Appendix E: A Short Course on Wood’s Hermeneutic Models of Time
  • Series index

←xii | xiii→



The “position of the stranger stands out more sharply if, instead of leaving the places of his activity, he settles down there.”

(Simmel, 1908 in Lemmert, 1993, p. 201)

Sometimes we end up in the middle of something we never quite knew we were getting into. Sometimes we find ourselves in foreign territory, bewildered and lonesome, doing our best to figure out what is going on around us while also trying to figure out ourselves. Sometimes we look in the mirror and see something new. These were the kinds of experiences I had in Unityville.1

This “years later” context now includes the U.S. Government, under the administration of President Donald Trump, separating children from their parents at the border, promoting attitudes of criminalization toward border crossers, and seeking the funds to build, maintain and militarize a wall on the U.S. southern border. I feel walled in by the starkly expanding contradictions between these policies and the epitaph “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The unacceptable murder of Black people by state force and the further destruction of native land evidence the persistent and pervasive reach of white supremacy with its unequal treatment of Black and Brown peoples. This current moment offers a particularly poignant vantage point for returning to the methodological story of our ethnographic work with “newcomers” in Unityville.

←xiii | xiv→

Unityville is a suburban town in the Midwest United States where transnational and immigrant youth were enrolling in the schools at expanding rates. Many educators in Unityville felt unprepared to succeed with the new students. I was invited into Unityville schools because the educators wanted help. I am a critical participatory ethnographer and I facilitated what we eventually called the “IU-Unityville Outreach Project”—a critical collaborative participatory ethnographic endeavor through which inquiry, methodology, and educational project activities were inseparable. This book is a story about strangers, ordinary strangers, trying to understand one another through the contexts of inquiry and schooling. As one of many tales that could be told about our experiences with the project, this is a methodological one.

People in Unityville thought of their town and their schools as monocultural. When “newcomers" moved in, things seemingly began to change. Of course, they did. Though change itself might be resisted, it is an unavoidable characteristic of human life. Into the schools walked middle-class students from Japan whose fathers had assumed temporary positions in their corporations’ nearby offices. Flanking them on all sides were students from Mexico who had migrated with their families for a variety of reasons including opportunities for work and education. Mingled with the students from Mexico were youngsters from other Central and South American countries. Spanish-speakers comprised the largest group of “newcomers,” wielding the smallest amount of economic, political, and cultural U.S. capital. In addition to these groups, there were families arriving from a variety of countries. There was a Palestinian-Israeli family, a Taiwanese family, and a Russian family, for example. The ethnic, national, linguistic diversity of Unityville has continued to blossom through the years, family by family and group by group. Though it might seem obvious that the migrating students and their families were strangers to Unityville schools, we should also note that I, too, was an outsider there. For whites in Unityville, African Americans had been outsiders in earlier days. And, Unityville sits on the historical land of Kiikaapoi, Miami, and Adena Native peoples for whom Euro-Americans had been strangers.

Early ethnographers were considered outsiders. In fact, ethnographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were largely progeny of the reigning European colonial ambitions and mindsets. The difference between ethnographer and “native” was unacknowledged fodder for ethnographic judgments and discoveries. Contemporary ethnographers have to take seriously what it means to enter and leave communities to which one does not belong. Researchers both magnify and traverse their tenuous connection to insiders by establishing relationships with their participants and joining in the life activities through which their participants are simultaneously engaged. That was my position in Unityville. I didn’t even know ←xiv | xv→where Unityville was on a map before this project began. I brought with me a team of graduate students, all of whom were unfamiliar with both Unityville and one another. Though we came from the same university, we were from different departments, different countries, different language groups, different religious upbringings, and with different interests.

The strangeness doesn’t end there. Community members themselves can co-exist without really knowing or understanding one another. People in Unityville assumed that without the “newcomers” their town was monocultural and homogeneous. Perhaps their presumed similarities ended up hiding things they did not know about each other and erasing things they didn’t know how to see. There was newness to be found even in the most familiar of relationships and contexts. “The stranger is an element of the group itself” as we discover that “a trace of strangeness … easily enters even the most intimate relationships” (Simmel, 1908, in Lemmert, 1993, pp. 200, 202). As Ahmed (2000) has argued, “The stranger is somebody we know as not knowing, rather than somebody we simply do not know” (p. 55). According to Ahmed (2000) our knowledge of ourselves is intimately linked to how we understand the boundaries of our self-knowledge by marking strangers as outsiders to that self-knowledge. In a deep way, then, border-crossers, transmigrant youth, strangers are already both disruptive of the center and part of its very definition.

The IU-Unityville Outreach Project developed into an opportunity for diverse groups of people to come together in an attempt to face resistance, fears, dreams, struggles, triumphs, community, and relationships. When we began, people were barely speaking with one another about the “newcomer” “situation.” Critical participatory ethnography became our path to caring about, understanding, and expressing our shared and disparate life trajectories. Somehow, day-by-day, we forged this complicated nest of research and educational engagements. We began walking together.

I was primarily responsible for the research effort which was seamlessly intertwined with the overall project aimed at reaping the social and educational benefits of this newly diversified school population. This book is about the methodological practices, theories and experiences that constituted the project. The research was critical because we drew on critical metatheory and methodology and because we cared about fostering more just and equitable social circumstances, where people could listen to one another, speak freely of their experiences and their needs, and foster mutual understanding and respect. We studied white privilege/supremacy, language oppression, and other damaging forces involved in the maintenance of the status quo in order to resist those forces. We harbored special concerns for Untiyville’s strong and articulate transnational youth caught in conditions set to ←xv | xvi→disempower them and leave their lives under-articulated. This special concern both united and distanced us from people in Unityville, though it was a steady feature of our encounters across the life of the project. This story brings to the foreground the methodological practices, decisions, creativities, and challenges while backgrounding the substantive stories. Thus the book offers a reversal on the more typical ethnographic tales that background methodology in order to foreground participants, fields and communities.

The book enters the scholarly conversation at a time when post-qualitative approaches challenge the very tradition of qualitative methodologies like ethnography and give reason to question the doing of social research.

What does it mean to produce a methodological text in this moment? What does such a text have to offer? Part of the answer to these questions depend on how one conceptualizes research. For me the most ideal image of research is an egalitarian and equitable conversation. A conversation with people that seriously honors and defers to the wisdom, value, and ethics of those at the metaphorical table. It is purposeful and dialogic, fallible and action-oriented, ethical and open. It takes into account the perspectives of all who would be affected by its work to the extent possible, recognizing that this will always be partial. At a presentation during the International Congress on Qualitative Inquiry 2016, an audience member asked the esteemed group of scholars comprising the panel, “Why should we continue to do qualitative inquiry?” One of the panelists had an answer for himself. Norm Denzin said that as a veteran of the Vietnam war, he must still actively do things to try to make the world a better place. He still believes this is possible. He still believes research has a place in this goal. So do I. And, as hate crimes are on the rise, anti-immigrant propaganda is being spewed, whiteness persists as a rallying cry for racial brutality, and blatant anti-factualism is publicly tolerated, it is important to speak into the conversation with careful methodological exploration of what it is research can offer the world, not just in the realm of findings, but in the realm of doings. Using my image of research as a conversation, “findings” are not to be thought of as FOUND or as FINAL. Instead, the findings themselves are conceived as only an aspect of the iterations of knowledge and methodology.

←xvi | xvii→

There are a few publications reporting the findings of IU-Unityville Outreach Project (see Brantmeier, 2007; Korth, Martin, & Sotoo, 2007), but this book is unique because it speaks of the research process itself. The methodological focus of this book is very different from other critical ethnographies, including those that look specifically at the situation of marginalized youth in schools. Laurie Olsen’s (1997) Made in America is a splendid ethnography of immigrant students and teachers in a diverse school community. She cared about many of the same substantive issues we confronted in Unityville. Lourdes Diaz Soto (1997) critically examines how bilingual students and families struggle in the context of public schooling in one particular industrial community (see Language, Culture, and Power: Bilingual Families and the Struggle for Quality Education published in 1997). Loukia Sarroub’s All American Yemeni Girls: Being Muslim in a Public School, 2005, focuses on the experiences of Muslim girls in a public school in the Midwest as “othered.” A study by Enrique Sepúlveda III (2011) introduces a pedagogical approach (acompañamiento) he used with Mexican transmigrant youth in California. Acompañamiento is an orientation toward walking with which tightly corresponds to the methodological orientation I present in this book. Such critical studies in educational ethnography make compelling arguments and provide rich descriptive accounts. They help us understand the diverse opportunities heeded and missed with students of color in our U.S. schools.2

As a complement to the substantive publications, this book provides a detailed analysis of the critical inquiry process itself, including innovations to both theory and practice. The book should benefit researchers who want a firsthand account of what it means to be in the field critically. By foregrounding the methodological tale, I do not ignore the substantive interests and concerns, but rather tightly link their emergence to the fieldwork and analysis through which they are contextualized. Students often ask me to talk about the aspects of research that are not easily made visible: How were decisions made in the field? How were problems confronted? What kinds of innovations were employed? How were the data analyzed? What kinds of relationships were developed? Were there ethical issues? I want to take readers into the heart of my research practices—its challenges, surprises, and insights, through my experiences in Unityville schools.

This collaborative and participatory critical ethnography emphasizes a withness. Researchers did not enter the field with research questions and a plan for collecting data. Instead, we created ways to interact, explore, draw out, and express that which we were both experiencing and desiring as individual members of an integrated project. The collaborative and participatory character of the study constitutes the interstitial tissue of our work together. Similar to the description of acompañamiento by Sepúlveda (2011), we took an attitude of walking with as ←xvii | xviii→strangers to one another, learning side by side. Acompañamiento is described by Sepúlveda (2011) as being

borne out of a deep sense of empathy, a place where people can come together to dialogue on their most pressing concerns and to support each other as they made their way in their new school and country. It emerged because fellow human beings were in need … acompañamiento represents the creative acts of a people making space, creating place, and building community in an increasingly fragmented global world. (p. 568)

We used a variety of data collection and analytic techniques producing a rich constellation of methodologies. For example, we used Baol’s Theatre of the Oppressed (1979) with teachers as a way to explore bullying experiences of “newcomer” students (Chapter 6). Using drama with participants blurred the line between data collection and data analysis. It also introduced analytic challenges—bringing the ethnographer face-to-face with “acting as if” structures of meaning and the juxtaposition between the way things seem and the way things could be. Such methodologies do not stand as a recipe for how others should conduct ethnography, but rather exemplify the ways in which researchers might respond to the context in the process of conducting research. Being responsive to the site requires researchers to weave together opportunities for data generation that are appropriate to the situation with the potential to transform, create, and adopt analysis procedures that are intersubjectively attuned to interactive and relational aspects of the site.

Another interesting feature of this particular ethnography was its active focus on change. The IU-Unityville Outreach Project was aimed toward transformation. Thus, it was necessary to pay attention to what changed and what didn’t, mechanisms for maintaining the status quo, and various ways in which change could be noticed through differing conceptions of time. Of course, progress in Unityville was multifaceted and uneven. Depicting and understanding such transformations required the development of subtle analytic techniques. I drew on Wood’s (1989/2000) philosophy of time to generate analyses and demonstrate both the process and the outcome of that methodological effort (Chapter 7). You will see these and other unique aspects of the study highlighted in the chapters that follow.

Being a stranger is not, in and of itself, extraordinary, but for us, it ushered in a precious opportunity, seemingly beyond any one person’s vision or effort, any single group’s monopoly. It was having the strangeness within that energized and made possible all manner of critical and hopeful potentials both methodologically and practically. What ensues is a methodological dialogue that inseparably unfolded through a concern for the educational opportunities available to transmigrant students, strangers amongst strangers in an inevitably turbulent and exciting time in the life of Unityville schools. “One of the radical promises of critical research is the possibility that we can tell a different story” (Fine, 2018, p. 11).

←xviii | xix→


  1. Unityville is a pseudonym.

  2. See Appendix A for a brief review of the substantive ethnographic literature.


Ahmed, S. (2000).Strange encounters: Embodied others in postcoloniality. New York, NY: Routledge.

Boal A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group.

Brantmeier, E. (2007). Everyday understandings of peace and non-peace: Peacekeeping and peace building at a U.S. Midwestern high school. Journal of Peace Education, 4(2), 127–148.


XXVI, 298
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXVI, 298 pp., 3 color ill., 8 tables.

Biographical notes

Barbara Dennis (Author)

Barbara Dennis is a peace and social justice activist, and critical educational ethnographer. She is a professor of qualitative inquiry in the Inquiry Methodology program at Indiana University’s, School of Education. She regularly publishes on feminist ethnography, critical participatory ethics, and methodological theory.


Title: Walking with Strangers
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