22 January 2018

Ethnography & Case-Study Research: Grey Literature

What is "grey literature"? Is this a term that you use in your work? Why does knowing this language matter?

The first time I heard the term "grey literature" I was speaking with an anthropologist who had become a public servant with the Canadian federal government. He was describing some of the tasks of his job in policy development and mentioned reviewing grey literature.

I could not recall ever using myself this term myself, or coming across it in ethnographic studies or methods handbooks. When I asked him to elaborate, he referenced all of the internal reports and white papers that provided important background for current policy issues. The term struck me as a peculiar, almost demeaning way to talk about existing documents that seemed like they were rather important in giving a researcher a holistic picture of the context under study.

Although a strange term to my ears, clearly the concept of "grey literature" was a normative term in the field of policy development and in the public service.

The next time I heard the term grey literature, it was when I was hired to develop a case-study for OCWI. As my supervisor outlined the project she envisioned, reviewing the grey literature on the program being evaluated and in locating it in its larger context would be paramount.

Again, it struck me that this term  despite being rather foreign to me  was part of the everyday language of Case Study and Program Evaluation research that I was now venturing into.

So, what is "grey literature"? 

The term seemed so foreign to me, and yet seemed to describe something so familiar or commonplace that I found myself overthinking the concept, and worrying that I was out of my depth as an ethnographer doing Case Study and Program Evaluation research.

As it turns out though, as an anthropologist, I have always worked with grey literature  I just didn't have this blanket term in my methodological vocabulary!

Grey literature encompasses all of the documents that are available, but not intended for wide distribution. Think of the term as contrasting with "black and white" literature that is commercially published (see Western University Library's informative, quick video on the topic of grey lit).

According to the International Conference on Grey Literature (GreyNet), grey literature includes the "multiple document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business, and organization in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body." As such, grey literature includes:

  • government documents and websites
  • white papers
  • evaluations and research reports
  • conference proceedings and unpublished/ working-papers
  • data (e.g. census, geospatial, economic)
  • practice guidelines
  • patents
  • theses and dissertations
  • internal communications
  • community-based websites, newsletters, and blogs

For some anthropologists, perhaps "grey literature" is already a prominent part of your methodological vocabulary. However, in speaking with colleagues, I have found that I am not the only anthropologist who was unfamiliar with this term, even though I am deeply aware of the importance of the kinds of documents it references.

So, to come back to the last question I posed at the beginning of this post...

Why does knowing this language matter?

Knowing this language matters because it allows us to speak about and champion our skills as social researchers to a broader public.

As I have discussed in previous posts in this series, anthropological ethnography has a lot of offer in projects centred on case studies or program evaluation (and beyond). However, in order to show that we can 'walk the walk' of these kinds of projects, and with these kinds of audiences, we first need to learn how to 'talk the talk'.

Quick links and further reading: