Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that entails immersing oneself in a specific community or organization to closely observe their behavior and interactions.
Additionally, the term “ethnography” refers to the written account produced by the ethnographer summarizing their research findings.
This research method provides a flexible framework for acquiring in-depth insights into a group’s collective culture, norms, and social dynamics.
However, conducting ethnography comes with practical considerations and ethical complexities that need to be addressed.
In this article, we will explore the definition of ethnography, its purpose, various ethnographic techniques, and provide examples.
What is Ethnographic Research ?
Ethnography is a research method that entails embedding yourself into a group or community’s environment and documenting what you see.
The researcher frequently resides in the community under study. Comparative to quantitative research, this results in a considerably deeper understanding of the people being studied.
In order to understand the participants’ social interactions, researchers who are doing an ethnographic study spend time with them, engage closely with them, and gather information through participant observation, face-to-face interviews, etc. Since it requires close observation of the participants and a thorough description of their cultures, behaviours, shared differences, and practises, ethnography in qualitative research is often referred to as “thick description.”
Anthropology, the study of human civilizations and cultures, is where ethnographic research gets its start. This qualitative research methodology is used by social scientists in fields such as cultural studies, education, and healthcare.
Examples of ethnography
Indigenous People Ethnography
There are many examples of ethnographic studies that examine indigenous cultures and how they differ from or are similar to Western culture. Throughout this work, be on the lookout for the colonialism trap.
Remember that ethnography doesn’t always take place in a remote location. You can do an autoethnographic study on yourself or a very ordinary setting, such as your office or house.
Since the advent of the internet, many researchers have been interested in people’s digital lives. Some studies have shown how we build our online identities.
There is a long history of teachers and academics employing ethnographic methods in classrooms to investigate how learning occurs.
Working-Class and Immigrant Ethnography
A number of sociologists employ ethnographic techniques to gain a deeper understanding of how those on the margins of society deal with universal concepts like capitalism, globalisation, and race.
Ethnography in a Store
Being an ethnographer in a grocery store involves dealing with the customers on a regular basis (perhaps as the cashier) and observing how people interact and collide in the environment.
Ethnographic methods encompass a range of techniques employed to gather data for ethnographic studies.
These methods serve as the means by which researchers gain knowledge about the social contexts they are investigating and tap into the perspectives of the participants.
The three primary ethnographic methods include participant observation, interviews, and archival research. Researchers typically utilize a combination of these methods to collect comprehensive data for their study.
Ethnographic observation can take two forms: active participant observation and passive participant observation.
Active participant observation involves fully immersing oneself in the study group, engaging in their daily activities, and directly participating to gain hands-on experience and understand their perspective.
Passive participant observation, on the other hand, involves observing and taking notes without actively participating in the group’s activities. It focuses on careful observation to gather insights. Qualitative observation plays a significant role in ethnographic research.
In ethnographic fieldwork, interviews involve observing participants in their natural environments and asking them questions to gain deeper insights. Researchers employing this method interact with the study group to understand their actions and thought processes. Conducting interviews during ethnographic fieldwork allows researchers to ask questions directly related to participants’ experiences, unearthing valuable insights that may not be revealed in interviews conducted outside of their natural environment.
Archival research is an ethnographic method where researchers collect and analyze existing research data, websites, annual reports, and other relevant written documents to gain a better understanding of the people and places being investigated.
When used in conjunction with other methods, archival research helps researchers become better prepared by providing information about participants’ demographics, economic status, education levels, cultures, interests, and more before conducting the ethnographic fieldwork.
How to Conduct Ethnographic Research?
If you’re considering conducting an ethnographic study, the following are the main steps involved in the process:
- Identify the research questions: Determine the specific questions you aim to answer with your ethnographic study. This initial step helps shape the goals and direction of your research.
- Choose the appropriate methods: Select the best ethnographic methods to collect the necessary data. You may opt for a single method or a combination, such as ethnographic observation, interviews, and archival research.
- Obtain informed consent: Contact potential study participants, explain your research, and seek their informed consent to ensure ethical considerations are met.
- Conduct ethnographic fieldwork: Immerse yourself in the field setting, observe, ask questions, gain insights, and take detailed notes about the social context and participants’ perspectives.
- Analyze the data: Engage in data analysis by identifying patterns and themes within the collected data. This process, often involving coding, helps uncover meaningful insights. Consider using qualitative analysis software, like Delve, to facilitate and streamline this time-consuming task.
- Compile and report findings: Document all the insights gained from your research, including answers to your research questions, in a comprehensive manner. This output, known as ethnography, provides a detailed description of the research subjects, the insights obtained, and the research process itself.
What is ethnography used for?
In order to better comprehend a remote tribal community’s culture, ethnographic research frequently involved an anthropologist residing among them for an extended period of time.
Sometimes, this kind of research can go on for years. For instance, Colin M. Turnbull spent three years residing among the Mbuti people in order to write the renowned ethnography The Forest People.
Nowadays, ethnography is a widely used method in many social science disciplines outside of anthropology. It is used to research certain communities within the researcher’s own society as well as distant or other cultures.
For example, ethnographic research (also known as participant observation) has been used to study police officers, contact center workers, and football fans.
Different Approaches to Ethnographic Research
Ethnography encompasses various approaches that researchers can adopt, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Key distinctions include open vs. closed settings, overt vs. covert ethnography, and active vs. passive observation.
These considerations play a crucial role in shaping the researcher’s approach.
1. open vs. closed settings
Ethnographic research can take place in either open or closed settings.
Open settings refer to environments with no formal barriers to entry, such as a neighborhood community or fans of a specific sports team.
Gaining initial access to open groups is generally straightforward, although immersing oneself in loosely defined communities may pose challenges.
In contrast, closed settings like businesses, schools, or cults are more difficult to access. However, once access is granted, the ethnographer can fully immerse themselves in the setting. Gaining entry into closed groups may involve negotiation or assuming a specific role within the organization.
2. overt vs. covert ethnography
Most ethnographic research is overt, where the ethnographer openly declares their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the group members being studied. Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent. However, participants may alter their behavior when aware of being observed.
In contrast, covert ethnography involves the researcher not disclosing their research intentions and assuming a different pretext for their presence. This approach allows access to environments where researchers would otherwise face resistance. However, concealing the researcher’s role can be seen as deceptive and unethical.
3. active vs. passive observation.
The level of immersion within the community can vary based on the demands of the research and the nature of the setting.
Researchers can adopt an active or passive role as participants. Active participation involves fully integrating into the community, carrying out tasks, and engaging in activities like any other member. Active involvement may help participants become more comfortable with the researcher’s presence, but it carries the risk of disrupting the community’s regular functioning.
On the other hand, passive observation involves maintaining a more distant and non-participatory role, allowing for careful observation and note-taking. However, community members may alter their behavior in response to being observed by an outsider.
While ethnographers often have a preference for their level of participation, flexibility is crucial.
Depending on the circumstances, access to the community and specific practices may require adjusting the level of involvement. Ethnographers must navigate these considerations to ensure a comprehensive and ethical study.
Gaining Access to a Community
One of the primary considerations for ethnographers is the question of gaining access to the community or setting they wish to study. The level of difficulty in obtaining access can vary significantly. Ethnographers may employ various strategies:
- To access the fans of a particular sports team, attending games and engaging in conversations with the fans can be a starting point.
- When seeking access to employees in a specific business, contacting the management and obtaining permission to conduct a study within the organization is a common approach.
- In some cases, ethnographers may perform covert ethnography within communities or organizations they are already personally involved in or employed by.
- It is crucial for ethnographers to remain flexible and consider alternative approaches if gaining access to the desired setting proves to be impossible. Exploring comparable settings or communities can provide valuable insights when faced with access limitations.
Working with Informants
Informants play a significant role in ethnographic research. These individuals are directly involved in the group or community under study and serve as primary points of contact for the researcher. They facilitate access to the group and offer insights to enhance the researcher’s understanding.
While informants can provide valuable assistance, it is essential to exercise caution. Relying too heavily on a single informant may lead to a biased perspective that does not accurately represent the entire group. Moreover, informants may tailor their information to align with the researcher’s expectations, potentially distorting the data.
To mitigate these issues, it is advisable to establish a network of diverse contacts within the group to gather a broader range of perspectives.
Observing the Group and Taking Field Notes
Observation lies at the core of ethnographic research, where researchers immerse themselves in the group’s activities and dynamics. Field notes are essential for recording these observations and serve as the foundation for the final written ethnography. While traditionally handwritten, other methods like voice recordings can also be employed.
Field notes should comprehensively capture all relevant data, including observed phenomena, conversations, and preliminary analysis.
For example, when studying the interactions between service staff and customers, noting details such as body language, recurring phrases, and differences among staff members can provide valuable insights. It is crucial to document even observations that may fall outside the initial research scope, as they may prove significant later on.
Maintaining detailed and well-organized field notes is essential. Researchers should review and expand upon their notes, adding further details and context. This process involves taking the time to ensure clarity, including relevant information such as dates and locations.
Remember, thorough and meticulous field notes enhance the researcher’s ability to analyze and interpret their observations accurately.
Writing an Ethnography
Once the data collection and observation phase is complete, the task of transforming the findings into a cohesive ethnography begins.
This process involves reviewing field notes, analyzing the data, and presenting a compelling account of the behaviors and dynamics observed during the study.
The Structure of an Ethnography
Ethnographies can take various forms, such as articles, theses, or even entire books. While they may not always adhere to the standard structure of a scientific paper, they should generally include an introduction and conclusion.
Some ethnographies adopt a thematic approach, focusing on different aspects of the research before providing a concluding analysis.
In contrast, others may follow a more traditional structure, including sections such as introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion, especially when combined with other research methods.
The Content of an Ethnography
The primary goal of a written ethnography is to provide a comprehensive and authoritative account of the social setting under investigation, aiming to convince readers that the observations and interpretations are representative of the reality observed.
Unlike some other research methods, ethnography often employs a more personal approach due to its embedded nature. It may involve discussing the researcher’s personal experiences and emotions during the course of the study.
Personal Reflection in an Ethnography
Incorporating personal reflections can enhance the authenticity of an ethnography. Researchers may share their frustrations, challenges, or breakthroughs encountered during the research process.
These reflections offer insights into the researcher’s journey, contributing to a deeper understanding of the context and the dynamics at play.
Analysis in an Ethnography
Ethnography goes beyond mere observation by providing structured and narrative explanations of the observed phenomena.
While researchers can draw upon existing theories, they also rely on their direct experiences and intuitions, even if they challenge their initial assumptions.
This integration of theory and personal insights allows for a more nuanced analysis of the observed data, presenting a well-rounded interpretation to address any discrepancies or alternative explanations.
By effectively organizing the structure, incorporating personal reflections, and providing insightful analysis, ethnographers can create a compelling and comprehensive ethnography that contributes to the broader understanding of the researched culture or community.
Example of Analysis in an Ethnography
Contrary to Griffiths’ (2019) claims, my own observations suggest that the development of strong interpersonal bonds among retail workers is not always a universal response to the stresses of their work. Several possible factors may contribute to this discrepancy. Firstly, it is plausible that the specific layout and design of the store discourage opportunities for informal interactions and bond-forming among employees. Additionally, the presence of an external observer, namely myself, may have inadvertently disrupted the natural dynamics within the workplace, leading to a more guarded demeanor among the staff. These contrasting findings highlight the importance of considering contextual factors and the potential influence of the researcher’s presence when interpreting the observed phenomena. It calls for a more nuanced understanding of the complexities at play within the specific retail environment being studied.
Advantages of Ethnography
The ability of ethnography to give researchers direct access to the customs and culture of a particular group is one of its main benefits.
This approach enables a first-hand understanding of people’s actions and interactions in a particular context. By immersing themselves in the social environment, researchers can gain access to authentic information and observe dynamics that may not be easily discovered through direct questioning.
Ethnography is also known for its openness and flexibility as a research method. Instead of aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis, it focuses on providing a comprehensive narrative account of a specific culture.
This approach allows researchers to explore various aspects of the group and setting, offering a rich and detailed understanding of the cultural context.
- Direct participant contact and personal experience in the natural environment, allowing for first-hand data collection.
- Provides detailed and authentic information about research subjects, including behavior and underlying reasons.
- Unearths unique cultural qualities and experiences that other qualitative research methods may miss.
Disadvantages of Ethnography
One notable disadvantage of ethnography is the time-consuming nature of the method.
To develop a representative picture of the culture and gather sufficient observations, researchers typically need to spend a significant amount of time in the field.
This can range from a few weeks to several months of immersion, requiring careful planning and commitment.
Another challenge with ethnographic research is the potential for observer bias. Since writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, it can be difficult to maintain the necessary objectivity when analyzing a group in which the researcher is embedded.
The researcher’s own perspectives and biases may unintentionally influence the interpretation and representation of the data.
Additionally, ethical considerations arise in ethnography. Researchers must navigate issues such as disclosing their role to group members and handling sensitive information obtained through observation and reporting.
These ethical concerns require careful attention and adherence to research ethics guidelines.
- Time-consuming and requires expertise for effective execution.
- Conducting an ethnographic study can be expensive, involving travel and extended periods of living with participants.
- Researcher presence may impact participant behavior, potentially affecting research validity and authenticity.
- Researcher bias may influence study design and implementation.
|Pros of Ethnography||Cons of Ethnography|
|✔Provides direct access to the culture and practices|
✔Offers understanding of behavior and interactions
✔Access to authentic information and spontaneous observations
✔Open and flexible approach
✔Provides a rich narrative account of a specific culture
❌Risk of observer bias
When to Use Ethnographic Research?
- To understand reasons behind social behavior in a particular setting.
- To examine social interactions and gain insights into social phenomena.
- To comprehend cultural norms and perspectives within a specific group.
- To study workplace behaviors and dynamics.
Considerations for Employing Ethnographic Research:
- Determine if ethnographic research is the most suitable method for data collection, considering alternative approaches.
- Assess the ease of accessing the social setting under investigation.
- Identify potential ethical issues that may arise during the ethnographic study.
- Determine the duration and methodology for the research.
By addressing these questions and considerations, you can determine the appropriateness of utilizing ethnographic research for your study.
Examples of Ethnographic Studies
Ethnographic studies have been conducted in various fields, yielding valuable insights into different cultures and communities. Some notable examples include:
- Margaret Mead’s Study in Samoa: Margaret Mead’s ethnographic study in Samoa explored the cultural differences in adolescent development and challenged Western notions of sexuality and gender roles.
- Jean Briggs’ Study in the Canadian Arctic: Jean Briggs conducted an ethnographic study in the Canadian Arctic, providing insights into the Inuit culture and their child-rearing practices.
- Tricia Wang’s Study on Chinese Migrant Workers: Tricia Wang conducted an ethnographic study on Chinese migrant workers, shedding light on their working conditions, social networks, and struggles for social mobility.
These examples demonstrate how ethnographic research can uncover unique cultural insights and challenge existing societal assumptions.
Should You Consider Ethnography for Your Research?
If you are a student contemplating the use of ethnographic research for your thesis or dissertation, it is important to critically evaluate whether it is the most suitable approach for your study:
- Consider the data collection methods: Reflect on whether the information you seek can be effectively gathered through alternative means, such as surveys or interviews. Assess the strengths and limitations of each method and determine which approach aligns best with your research goals.
- Evaluate access to the community: Assess the feasibility of gaining access to the specific community you intend to study. Reflect on the potential challenges and barriers that may arise, such as cultural norms, language barriers, or geographic constraints. Understanding the accessibility of your target community will help you plan and execute your research effectively.
- Plan your research approach: Outline how you will conduct your ethnographic research and determine the appropriate timeframe required. Consider factors such as the duration of data collection, participant observation, and engagement with community members. Develop a clear research plan to ensure the successful execution of your study.
- Address ethical considerations: Ethical issues may arise when conducting ethnography, particularly regarding informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality. Take time to carefully consider and address these concerns, ensuring that your research adheres to ethical guidelines and respects the rights and well-being of the participants involved.
If you ultimately decide to pursue ethnography, it is advisable to select a relatively small and easily accessible group. This will enhance the feasibility of your research within the constraints of a limited timeframe, facilitating a more focused and comprehensive study.
Remember, making a thoughtful and informed decision about the research approach will contribute to the overall success and rigor of your study.