As part of the research methods team at SAGE I encounter a number of researchers who say they are doing ethnographic research, yet it seems increasingly clear that the term ‘ethnography’ means different things to different researchers. On the one extreme, it is simply a term used sloppily to describe qualitative research in general, on the other extreme it tends to be used to describe a very particular approach to studying cultures using largely observational methods that seek to understand a culture from within its own shared customs and beliefs. Is it possible, therefore, for researchers to even use the word ethnography in social and cultural research and for us all to agree what it means when we use the term?
Ethnography is – strictly speaking – the term for the ‘result’ of research, not a technique. As in ‘I have written an ethnography of x’
However, it has become a term for ‘some qualitative research about some social situation’, which is a bit misleading. In this sense it is in the same boat as ‘grounded theory’ which seems to be used to indicate ‘some kind of qualitative research that i am trying to make sound more rigorous’.
These terms have their own specific meaning, and I think we need to use them appropriately or things get confused!