Am I writing an ethnography of Canadian career development?

I had a really interesting meeting today with Kris Magnussn (Dean of Education at Simon Fraser University). After gracefully and engagingly answering my scattergun questions about the Blueprint for Life/Work Design and career development in Canada he asked me whether I’d gotten what I wanted.

I said “I think so” and tried to explain what I planned to do with this material. As I blathered on about my blog and writing articles Kris made a really useful suggestion. “Why don’t you write this up as an ethnography of Canadian Career Development.”

As I’ve thought about it, this seems more and more like a good idea. I originally came to Canada to study the Blueprint for Life/Work Design, but as I’ve travelled my understanding of what the real story is has got bigger and less focused. I’m pretty sure that there is a decent scholarly article inside of me that traces the story of the Blueprint and looks at why its success has been limited, but this is only a fragment of what I’ve learnt since I’ve been here.

The Blueprint was and is an amazing innovation. It offers a way to link policy, practice, resources and outcomes. It provides a common language for different sections of the career development community to talk to each other and perhaps even more important it offered the potential to be a language through which the career development community could talk to other  areas (HR, teachers etc). However, the Blueprint rose and stalled and while it transformed the practice of many, it didn’t and doesn’t define Canadian career development.

So as I’ve travelled I’ve seen a lot that has very little to do with the Blueprint. My problem is that while I’ve been here I’ve visited seven provinces, talked to everyone from national policy makers to kids in schools and consequently while I’ve learnt a lot it doesn’t all hang together as a conventional piece of empirical research. There is a definition of expertise that goes something like “an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing”. In other words we are generally happier with people getting deeper than we are with them getting broader. You only need to look at my publications to see that this is generally the way I play it, but if you look at my blog you can see I’m also interested in saying something about the broader issues.

So what I’ve heard over the last month or so is a very broad story of career development in Canada. It is a story of a profession on the edge of receiving real public and policy interest, but also of a profession in crisis, it is the story of innovation and of the defence of tried and tested ways of doing things, it is a story of optimism and pessimism, of change and stasis and of growth and decline. In other words it is the story of people and by its nature it resists simplification into a 5000 word academic summary. So what do I do with all of this stuff?

I’m not sure, and I’d like some suggestions from anyone reading this. But, I’m starting to feel that an ethnographic form might be the right way to pull all of this together into something useful. I’ve never really written an ethnography before so I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do this, but it feels right. The story I’ve found is my story as much as it is the story of Canadian career development and finding a way to tell that story that acknowledges and utilises this subjectivity feels both honest and right.

So what do people think? Should I give it a go? What should I read to give me some ideas, approaches and models for the write up?



  1. Glad to hear it is feeling like it may be coming together in various forms. I looked up ethnographic study to refresh my knowledge of it. This slide pack might spark of some ideas of stuff you might want to include before you leave the great white north. Have you taken lots of photos? Not just of people and places but of things that might illustrate some of your observations? trasport, work spaces, signs, that sort of thing?

  2. hi tristram, i’ve been following your travels with interest! i definitely think you have an interesting case study, but i’m not really sure that you have an ethnography. for me an ethnography is about building up a rich amount of data about a specific cultural setting over a period of time through becoming part of the group you are studying. I’m not saying that to lessen what you *have* got, which i think is a really useful survey of current practice in an unfamiliar setting, and your knowledge and experience from the UK gives you an interesting perspective with which to observe and comment on canadian practice. i just don’t think this is an for outputs, is there a book in there?

  3. Hi Tristram, I believe I warned you that Kris was a rather clever guy. The ethnographic idea is an interesting one, although I must say I laughed when I saw it. Readings I’ve done in the vein are always of researchers getting into substance abusers or gang life — really seedy stuff where there life is always in danger. I’m trying to imagine you skulking around Canada’s back alleys having clandestine conversations with career development specialists huddling behind garbage bins, always looking over your shoulder to see if the police are coming. It’s a great image!

  4. Thanks to everyone for their thoughts on the idea of ethnography. Korin, it is funny you post one of Sam Ladner’s presentations. I interviewed her for a Vitae project about a year ago. The presentation is great though. Did you see the bit on Prada?I have been taking lots of photos of all sorts of stuff – places, objects, people and so on. Data is everywhere, but there is so much.Nick, thanks for the thoughts. Ethnography seems to have a lot of definitions. I think that I’ve been doing some of the moving between insider and outsider status that you allude to. As for the longditudinal aspect – I can see that is more questionable. Although I will have spent two months in Canada it has been spent as a journey, meeting lots of different people rather than staying with any one person. I suppose that I’m struggling with the issue of genre here really. What is the appropriate way to tell the story that I have to tell. Dave, interesting that you describe the urban ethnography as a parallel for experiences in career development. I was thinking more of the experience of going to far flung lands and trying to make sense of cultural practices. The Trobian Cricket sort of thing. I’m not sure that my experience here is really either of these, but I’ve certainly seen a fair bit of people working in gangs and of engaging in things that I can’t understand.I’ll think on about how best to write this up.

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