Ethnographic Enquiry

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    Dear All

    I am currently completing my M.A (Urban Geography) dissertation and I am still battling with applying ethnography in obtaining data for my research. I do not want to confuse it with qulitative research methods even thought they are somewhat similar. How can I present a full ethnographic study without having it appear like a qualitative study?

    Elspeth Kempe

    Hi Ernestina,
    My understanding is that ethnographic studies are qualitative studies, so if you are doing an ethnographic study that’s what it will look like!

    Look at it this way: a quantitative study is one where you look at how ‘quantities’ or ‘amounts’ of things vary across your research site – for instance how many people live in this part of the city as compared to that part and why there are these differences. Numbers, figures are an important part of your data and statistical analysis is part of your methodology.

    In a qualitative study the numbers are not really important, you will be asking different questions – how do people live in this part of the city compared to that part of the city, for instance. In ethnographic studies you research, in detail, aspects of how people live their lives.

    Take a look at the PowerPoint presentation on ethnography here:…/RCI%20WORKSHOP%202005.ppt
    and at the Wikipedia entry on enthography here:


    Thank you very much Elspeth but im afraid that is not it. My supervisor told me that there are some qualitative elements to ethnography and it should not be mistaken for such. I have read widely on ethnography and it looks like some form of narrative, story telling in a weird but artistic way. For example, in qualitative studies you have a chioce of how you formulate your questions and links or connections are easier to read off. Ethnography however, gives me a sense of going a step beyond that, like you said, in (great) detail. I dont want my study to appear like its a qualitative one whereas my methodology states ethnography…and this is what i m afraid of. External and internal examiners who are aware of the method would crucify me if and should it come out as a somewhat qualitative study. I tried accessing the powerpoint and somehow it does not open but Il keep on trying.

    Thanks a lot, I appreciate your input

    Elspeth Kempe

    Hi Ernestina,
    I’m not too sure why your supervisor does not want your ethnographic research to be mistaken for qualitative research, as ethnography is a method or approach used in qualitative research. It is part of the ‘family’ of qualitative research methods (other methods/approaches are phenomenology, grounded theory, etc), so therefore it is going to look ‘somewhat qualitative’! You can’t get away from it!

    The reason I defined quantitative as well as qualitative research in my previous post is that all research is divided into two major groupings, qualitative and quantitative, and all research carries the hallmarks of the two divisions: quantitative primarily involves numbers, qualitative primarily involves description and you can see which ‘tative’ grouping the research belongs to just by taking a quick look at it. Sorry to hammer on like this, but I think it’s important to realise that ethnography doesn’t just ‘have’ qualitative elements, it IS qualitative simply because of its descriptive nature.

    Having said all of that, it occurs to me to wonder if what is really worrying your supervisor is that unless you are careful to follow rigorous ethnographic research methods your research might not be sufficiently ethnographic in nature, and will, as a result, look like a rather nondescript qualitative study.

    If that is the case, stop worrying about the qualitative side of things, find out how good ethnographic studies are done, which variety of ethnography you want to do, and make sure yours is done that way.

    This might be a useful quote for you to think about:

    “The aim of the ethnographer is to learn from (rather than to study) members of a cultural group — to understand their world view as they define it. Ethnographic researchers sometimes refer to emic and etic perspectives.
    An emic perspective refers to the way the members of the culture envision their world–it is the insiders view.
    The etic perspective, by contrast, is the outsiders interpretation of the experiences of that culture.
    Ethnographers strive to acquire an emic perspective of a culture under study. Moreover, they strive to reveal what has been referred to as tacit knowledge. Information about the culture that is so deeply embedded in cultural experiences that members do not talk about it or may not even be consciously aware of it.”

    Note that “ethnographers LEARN FROM members of a cultural group”, an emic perspective is gained and discussed. In the much wider perspective of qualitative studies these group members might be simply studied, an etic perspective given. So in order to do a good ethnographic study you HAVE TO get inside information. Is this perhaps what your supervisor means when s/he talks about making sure that your research is not mistaken for qualitative work?

    As a point of interest, what is your research question and which Johannesburg university are you studying at, UJ or Wits?



    Hi Elspeth

    Thanks for the insightful comments. I am at Wits and have been doing or rather trying to master the skill and art of ethnography for 2 years now. Believe I know the differences between basic research methodologies, I lectured on them last year to undergrads in our department. There is a wide literature on ethnography itself. As i said, it is somewhat qualitative but it takes it to the next level. I have been looking at the University of Sussex ethnography course for Geography students and I must say that I found it intriguing and very sophisticated. I have a site i have been working and interacting with for the last 2 years as part ;of my study and yes, it is exactly what my sup. wants to see, insightful, descriptive and reflexive ethnographic work. And if i may ask, what is your area of interest and where are you studying?



    I am not an expert on this, but from my experience I think the report of ethnography try to find the thing that is not on your purpose. I mean you found the information from the real behavior of target without any clue that researcher insert during conduct the focus group or during doing the depth interview. There’s no question guide but you let everything happen as usual and it must be you who have to pin point the important information.

    So I think the way to do the presentation should do in the way of telling the story and you pop up the piece of information piece by piece during the story is going on.

    Last time , once I did the ethonography, I found that mum also have to stop herself to be spoiled by some candy that she also prohitbit it for her kids. But it also hurt herself too !!!

    hope it can help


    🙂 thank you for the delightful response benjaporn….I think you are right, the trick is to tell a story, and that is the angle that I am going to be taking from here on 🙂 Thank you very much!!!

    Elspeth Kempe

    Hi Ernestina
    Sorry for the delay in replying, but my life suddenly got overloaded with deadlines!

    Going back to your original post, you say you are “still battling with applying ethnography in obtaining data for my research.”

    What methods are you using to collect your data, that you are struggling to apply ethnographic methods?

    I’m also at Wits, but on the Education Campus.



    Some useful definitions of ethnography

    I especially like the one by Roger Sanjek
    “The word ‘ethnography’ has a double meaning in anthropology: ethnography as product (ethnographic writings—the articles and books written by anthropologists), and ethnography as process (participant observation or fieldwork). The product depends upon the process, but not in any simple A>B relationship. In constructing ethnographies, anthropologists do more than merely ‘write up’ the fieldnotes they record as part of the process of doing fieldwork. If ethnographies can be seen as the building blocks and testing grounds of anthropological theory, ethnographies and the ethnographic process from which they derive are also shaped and moulded by theory.

    As a written account, an ethnography focuses on a particular population, place and time with the deliberate goal of describing it to others.”

    “Ethnography” by Roger Sanjek in Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (2002), Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer (eds.).



    Ethnography is a qualitative data collection approach. You might want to justify why you have chosen to use this approach versus other qualitative approaches. You will do well to begin your method section by first telling the reader why you are using qualitative and not quantitative and then say why you have chosen ethnography. I strongly encourage you to speak with one of the anthropology professors there at wits such as Professors Thornton, Copeland or Vawda. Prof. Vawda, who is in urban anthropology, should be particularly helpful. In addition, you might, if you have the time, find that taking a course in ethnography or an anthro method course will help you to gain some insight. Good luck


    I think Walton has a point there and just to add that ethnography is a qualitative approach in data collection mostly used by social scientist and anthropologists in particular. so differentiating between qualitative and ethnography to my view is not really that important in your study for one is a sub to the other. but i think this will depend on what you want to arrived at in your study. As Kathrine said one is the product and the other a process and i believe you should use the two but principally the process. It is difficult to present a full ethnographic study without having it appear like a qualitative study OR i will prefer you use triangulation in your study, ethnography and other quantitative tools.


    Hi Ernestina,

    I probably joined this chat late but my contribution is quite simple. What can add a bit of difference is your narration and interpretations of findings.A robust ethno study includes observation it is the emotions and feels that come with the observed phenomena that gives the study the unique touch required of an ethnographic methodology.

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