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In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We’ll continue to learn about the design stage in February with a focus on Choosing Methodology and Methods.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a widely used qualitative methodology, growing from roots in anthropology to acceptance in a wide range of disciplines. According to The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research:

Ethnography originated as a distinct methodology in the early twentieth century with the professionalization of anthropology under Franz Boas in the USA and Bronislaw Malinowski in England. These pioneers shaped the practice of living in field communities for months or years as participant observers and as collectors of texts and accounts. For sociologists, the important methodological moment was the development of the Chicago School of ethnography, led by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, whose interest in ‘natural areas’ and social ecology produced a vigorous and wide-ranging set of studies of urban social change. Ethnography, much expanded and much interrogated as a methodology, was subsequently appropriated and honed in a wide range of disciplines and subject areas, including education, medical studies, science and technology, deviance studies, innovation and entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, international development, communications, organizational development and, not least, action research. All these fields use ethnography as a means of illuminating lived experience where social and cultural contexts are poorly understood. Ethnography, which intrinsically involves a feedback cycle of using newly acquired information to inform and modify the direction of the inquiry, fits well with the process of collaborative or co-generational action research, in which researchers and practitioners develop an increasingly comprehensive understanding of an actual or potential social, community or organizational change.

There are many types of ethnographic research; digital/online ethnographies and authoethnographies will be discussed in separate posts.

In ethnography, methodology and methods are intertwined. According to the Encyclopedia of Research Design:

Ethnography, in the simplest sense, refers to the writing or making of an abstract picture of a group of people. “Ethno” refers to people, and “graph” to a picture. The term was traditionally used to denote the composite findings of social science field-based research. That is, an ethnography represented a monograph (i.e., a written account) of fieldwork (i.e., the first-hand exploration of a cultural or social setting). In contemporary research, the term is used to connote the process of conducting fieldwork, as in “doing ethnography.”

An expectation of ethnography is that the ethnographer goes into the field to collect his or her own data rather than rely on data collected by others. To conduct ethnography is to do fieldwork. Throughout the evolution of ethnography, fieldwork persists as the sine qua non. Fieldwork provides the ethnographer with a firsthand cultural/social experience that cannot be gained otherwise. Cultural/social immersion is irreplaceable for providing a way of seeing. In the repetitive act of immersing and removing oneself from a setting, the ethnographer can move between making up-close observations and then taking a distant contemplative perspective in a deliberate effort to understand the culture or social setting intellectually. Fieldwork provides a mechanism for learning the meanings that members are using to organize their behavior and interpret their experience.


Coghlan, D., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2014). The SAGE encyclopedia of action research (Vols. 1-2). London, : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446294406

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288

Open Access Articles Using Ethnography

Ayala, R. A., & Koch, T. F. (2019). The Image of Ethnography—Making Sense of the Social Through Images: A Structured Method. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Abstract. Although systematic observation and interviews are the most common techniques in ethnography, a deep understanding requires research tools adapted to exploring beyond the observational scope. Nonconventional methods can support ethnography and complement observations and thus refine the construction of meaning. Qualitative research literature deals disproportionately more with some forms of data, typically text, lacking a structured method for visuals. This article arises from a case study using nonconventional methods, such as sociograms and participant-made drawings, and presents a structured method to attain enriched ethnographic analysis. Using this structured method, the research then draws on representation, visualization, and interaction as ports of entry into group dynamics. The aim being to open a way to discovery when visual and interactional representations do not easily translate into words. Spoken language presupposes an ability to capture and convey thought with precision and clarity and to know how the interlocutor may interpret words. A structured method to analyze images can fruitfully assist in the process. Since every research participant has a view on or a way of making sense of the research subject, the method is universal in application.

Bell, K., & Wynn, L. (2021). Research ethics committees, ethnographers and imaginations of risk. Ethnography.

Abstract. Ethnographers’ concerns about institutional ethics review are by now well-known and several hypotheses have been advanced to explain their complaints. Many have highlighted the lack of epistemological fit between ethnographic methods and ethics review paradigms. Others point to the existence of a “victim narrative” and suggest that circulating horror stories are unrepresentative of ethnographers’ experiences, or argue that ethnographers’ complaints disguise a self-interested and un-reflexive desire to avoid oversight. A final explanation suggests that resistance is restricted to an ageing cohort of scholars raised in an era before ethics review became the norm. Drawing on two surveys of ethnographers conducted a decade apart, we conclude that the most convincing explanation for the longstanding “chorus of complaint” is the fundamental epistemological conflict between ethnographic methods and the way ethics review is currently constituted. We conclude that the time has come to radically reframe and restructure ethics review regimes.

Bieler, P., Bister, M. D., Hauer, J., Klausner, M., Niewöhner, J., Schmid, C., & von Peter, S. (2021). Distributing Reflexivity through Co-laborative Ethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 50(1), 77–98.

Abstract. In ethnographic research and analysis, reflexivity is vital to achieving constant coordination between field and concept work. However, it has been conceptualized predominantly as an ethnographer’s individual mental capacity. In this article, we draw on ten years of experience in conducting research together with partners from social psychiatry and mental health care across different research projects. We unfold three modes of achieving reflexivity co-laboratively: contrasting and discussing disciplinary concepts in interdisciplinary working groups and feedback workshops; joint data interpretation and writing; and participating in political agenda setting. Engaging these modes reveals reflexivity as a distributed process able to strengthen the ethnographer’s interpretative authority, and also able to constantly push the conceptual boundaries of the participating disciplines and professions.

Meier zu Verl, C., & Tuma, R. (2021). Video Analysis and Ethnographic Knowledge: An Empirical Study of Video Analysis Practices. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 50(1), 120–144.

Abstract. This paper discusses the practical foundations of ethnographically informed video analysis by investigating empirically one of the core activities of video research in sociology: the video data session. Most discussions are shaped by methodological considerations, little is known however about actual video analysis practices. By making these practices itself an object of analysis, we do show how interpretation is a social and communicative activity. In doing so, we highlight different forms of knowledge that are a resource for and topic of ethnography and video analysis. To frame our argument, we discuss the current methodological discourse on videography. Subsequently, we focus on empirical video data from video data sessions of a research network in order to discover the details of video analysis practices. We conclude this paper by highlighting our empirical findings: Video analysis is carried out communicatively by labelling knowledge, creating quotable objects through bodily reenactments, translating professional knowledge, and reassessing irritations.

Pacheco-Vega, R., & Parizeau, K. (2018). Doubly Engaged Ethnography: Opportunities and Challenges When Working With Vulnerable Communities. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Abstract. Understanding the unique challenges facing vulnerable communities necessitates a scholarly approach that is profoundly embedded in the ethnographic tradition. Undertaking ethnographies of communities and populations facing huge degrees of inequality and abject poverty asks of the researcher to be able to think hard about issues of positionality (what are our multiple subjectivities as insider/outsider, knowledge holder/learner, and so on when interacting with vulnerable subjects, and how does this influence the research?), issues of engagement versus exploitation (how can we meaningfully incentivize participation in our studies without being coercive/extractive, and can we expect vulnerable subjects to become deeply in research design/data collection, and so on when they are so overburdened already?), and representation (what are the ethics of representing violence, racism, and sexism as expressed by vulnerable respondents? What about the pictures we take and the stories we tell?). Through the discussion of our research on the behavioral patterns, socialization strategies, and garbage processing methods of informal waste pickers in Argentina and Mexico, we ask ourselves, and through this exercise, seek to shed light on the broader questions of how can we engage in ethnographies of vulnerable communities while maintaining a sense of objectivity and protecting our informants? Rather than attempting to provide a definite answer, we provide a starting point for scholars of resource governance interested in using ethnographic methods for their research. We highlight the challenges we’ve faced in studying cartoneros in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and pepenadores in León (Mexico) and engage in a self-reflective discussion of what can be learned from our struggle to provide meaningful, engaged scholarship while retaining and ensuring respect and care for the communities we study.

Pool, R. (2017). The verification of ethnographic data. Ethnography, 18(3), 281–286.

Abstract. Anthropologists are increasingly required to account for the data on which they base their interpretations and to make it available for public scrutiny and re-analysis. While this may seem straightforward (why not place our data in online repositories?), it is not. Ethnographic ‘data’ may consist of everything from verbatim transcripts (‘hard data’) to memories and impressions (‘soft data’). Hard data can be archived and re-analysed; soft data cannot. The focus on hard ‘objective’ data contributes to the delegitimizing of the soft data that are essential for ethnographic understanding, and without which hard data cannot be properly interpreted. However, the credibility of ethnographic interpretation requires the possibility of verification. This could be achieved by obligatory, standardised forms of personal storage with the option for audit if required, and by being more explicit in publications about the nature and status of the data and the process of interpretation.

Ravindran, A., Li, J., & Marshall, S. (2020). Learning Ethnography Through Doing Ethnography: Two Student—Researchers’ Insights. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Abstract. In this article, we present the accounts of the field experiences and challenges of two graduate student-researchers practising ethnographic methodology, conducting fieldwork, and writing up “post-modern” ethnographies that are both creative and “integrative”. We describe the complexities and tensions when two student-researchers negotiated many issues in the field and “behind the desk” as they transformed the texts: epistemology and ontology, reflexivity and auto-ethnography, and writing researchers and participants in and out of accounts. We conclude with a discussion on pedagogical implications, and consider the value of learning ethnography through doing ethnography.

van Dooremalen, T. (2017). The pros and cons of researching events ethnographically. Ethnography, 18(3), 415–424.

Abstract. Events (remarkable, disruptive happenings) are important subjects of study for understanding processes of change. In this essay, I reflect upon the issue of what the ethnographic method has to offer for the analysis of this social phenomenon. To do so, I review three recently published ethnographic studies of events. My conclusion is that it is indeed a very useful method for understanding the feelings and ideas of people who are experiencing eventful situations, for instance around protests or natural disasters. However, using this method also brings about practical difficulties, such as the ‘luck’ that an event occurs at the ethnographic fieldwork site. Next, as transformative responses to events are not bound by the place or time of the happening, other methods (interviews, discourse analysis, surveys) that make it easier to follow them in varying locations and periods might be more suitable for getting a comprehensive picture of their meaning-making dynamics.

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