A guide to ethnography

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word “ethnography” also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

What is ethnography used for?

Ethnographic research originated in the field of anthropology, and it often involved an anthropologist living with an isolated tribal community for an extended period of time in order to understand their culture.

This type of research could sometimes last for years. For example, Colin M. Turnbull lived with the Mbuti people for three years in order to write the classic ethnography The Forest People.

Today, ethnography is a common approach in various social science fields, not just anthropology. It is used not only to study distant or unfamiliar cultures, but also to study specific communities within the researcher’s own society.

For example, ethnographic research (sometimes called participant observation) has been used to investigate gangs, football fans, call center workers, and police officers.

Advantages of ethnography

The main advantage of ethnography is that it gives the researcher direct access to the culture and practices of a group. It is a useful approach for learning first-hand about the behavior and interactions of people within a particular context.

By becoming immersed in a social environment, you may have access to more authentic information and spontaneously observe dynamics that you could not have found out about simply by asking.

Ethnography is also an open and flexible method. Rather than aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis, it aims to offer a rich narrative account of a specific culture, allowing you to explore many different aspects of the group and setting.

Disadvantages of ethnography

Ethnography is a time-consuming method. In order to embed yourself in the setting and gather enough observations to build up a representative picture, you can expect to spend at least a few weeks, but more likely several months. This long-term immersion can be challenging, and requires careful planning.

Ethnographic research can run the risk of researcher bias. Writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, and it can be difficult to maintain the necessary distance to analyze a group that you are embedded in.

There are often also ethical considerations to take into account: for example, about how your role is disclosed to members of the group, or about observing and reporting sensitive information.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

If you’re a student who wants to use ethnographic research in your thesis or dissertation, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s the right approach:

  • Could the information you need be collected in another way (e.g. a survey, interviews)?
  • How difficult will it be to gain access to the community you want to study?
  • How exactly will you conduct your research, and over what timespan?
  • What ethical issues might arise?

If you do decide to do ethnography, it’s generally best to choose a relatively small and easily accessible group, to ensure that the research is feasible within a limited timeframe.

Different approaches to ethnographic research

There are a few key distinctions in ethnography which help to inform the researcher’s approach: open vs. closed settings, overt vs. covert ethnography, and active vs. passive observation. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Open vs. closed settings

The setting of your ethnography—the environment in which you will observe your chosen community in action—may be open or closed.

An open or public setting is one with no formal barriers to entry. For example, you might consider a community of people living in a certain neighborhood, or the fans of a particular baseball team.

  • Gaining initial access to open groups is not too difficult…
  • …but it may be harder to become immersed in a less clearly defined group.

A closed or private setting is harder to access. This may be for example a business, a school, or a cult.

  • A closed group’s boundaries are clearly defined and the ethnographer can become fully immersed in the setting…
  • …but gaining access is tougher; the ethnographer may have to negotiate their way in or acquire some role in the organization.

Overt vs. covert ethnography

Most ethnography is overt. In an overt approach, the ethnographer openly states their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the members of the group being studied.

  • Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent…
  • …but people may behave differently with the awareness that they are being studied.

Sometimes ethnography can be covert. This means that the researcher does not tell participants about their research, and comes up with some other pretense for being there.

  • Covert ethnography allows access to environments where the group would not welcome a researcher…
  • …but hiding the researcher’s role can be considered deceptive and thus unethical.

Active vs. passive observation

Different levels of immersion in the community may be appropriate in different contexts. The ethnographer may be a more active or passive participant depending on the demands of their research and the nature of the setting.

An active role involves trying to fully integrate, carrying out tasks and participating in activities like any other member of the community.

  • Active participation may encourage the group to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence…
  • …but runs the risk of disrupting the regular functioning of the community.

A passive role is one in which the ethnographer stands back from the activities of others, behaving as a more distant observer and not involving themselves in the community’s activities.

  • Passive observation allows more space for careful observation and note-taking…
  • …but group members may behave unnaturally due to feeling they are being observed by an outsider.

While ethnographers usually have a preference, they also have to be flexible about their level of participation. For example, access to the community might depend upon engaging in certain activities, or there might be certain practices in which outsiders cannot participate.

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Gaining access to a community

An important consideration for ethnographers is the question of access. The difficulty of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To gain access to the fans of a particular sports team, you might start by simply attending the team’s games and speaking with the fans.
  • To access the employees of a particular business, you might contact the management and ask for permission to perform a study there.
  • Alternatively, you might perform a covert ethnography of a community or organization you are already personally involved in or employed by.

Flexibility is important here too: where it’s impossible to access the desired setting, the ethnographer must consider alternatives that could provide comparable information.

For example, if you had the idea of observing the staff within a particular finance company but could not get permission, you might look into other companies of the same kind as alternatives. Ethnography is a sensitive research method, and it may take multiple attempts to find a feasible approach.

Working with informants

All ethnographies involve the use of informants. These are people involved in the group in question who function as the researcher’s primary points of contact, facilitating access and assisting their understanding of the group.

This might be someone in a high position at an organization allowing you access to their employees, or a member of a community sponsoring your entry into that community and giving advice on how to fit in.

However, if you come to rely too much on a single informant, you may be influenced by their perspective on the community, which might be unrepresentative of the group as a whole.

In addition, an informant may not provide the kind of spontaneous information which is most useful to ethnographers, instead trying to show what they believe you want to see. For this reason, it’s good to have a variety of contacts within the group.

Observing the group and taking field notes

The core of ethnography is observation of the group from the inside. Field notes are taken to record these observations while immersed in the setting; they form the basis of the final written ethnography. They are usually written by hand, but other solutions such as voice recordings can be useful alternatives.

Field notes record any and all important data: phenomena observed, conversations had, preliminary analysis. For example, if you’re researching how service staff interact with customers, you should write down anything you notice about these interactions—body language, phrases used repeatedly, differences and similarities between staff, customer reactions.

Field notes example
Spent afternoon observing differences between the service approaches of different staff behind the counter. Laura is the most actively engaged with the customers—engages them in conversation, tendency to smile and laugh. Paula presents more neutrally—customer made a joke earlier, she smiled politely but did not engage further. Customer was not noticeably perturbed.

Don’t be afraid to also note down things you notice that fall outside the pre-formulated scope of your research; anything may prove relevant, and it’s better to have extra notes you might discard later than to end up with missing data.

Field notes should be as detailed and clear as possible. It’s important to take time to go over your notes, expand on them with further detail, and keep them organized (including information such as dates and locations).

Writing up an ethnography

After observations are concluded, there’s still the task of writing them up into an ethnography. This entails going through the field notes and formulating a convincing account of the behaviors and dynamics observed.

The structure of an ethnography

An ethnography can take many different forms: It may be an article, a thesis, or an entire book, for example.

Ethnographies often do not follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, though like most academic texts, they should have an introduction and conclusion. For example, this paper begins by describing the historical background of the research, then focuses on various themes in turn before concluding.

An ethnography may still use a more traditional structure, however, especially when used in combination with other research methods. For example, this paper follows the standard structure for empirical research: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

The content of an ethnography

The goal of a written ethnography is to provide a rich, authoritative account of the social setting in which you were embedded—to convince the reader that your observations and interpretations are representative of reality.

Ethnography tends to take a less impersonal approach than other research methods. Due to the embedded nature of the work, an ethnography often necessarily involves discussion of your personal experiences and feelings during the research.

Example of personal reflection in an ethnography
During the second week, I became frustrated with my lack of progress in gaining the confidence of more than just my initial informants. The staff appeared to distrust me as an outsider…

Ethnography is not limited to making observations; it also attempts to explain the phenomena observed in a structured, narrative way. For this, you may draw on theory, but also on your direct experience and intuitions, which may well contradict the assumptions that you brought into the research.

Example of analysis in an ethnography
Despite the claims of Griffiths (2019), my own observations indicate that retail workers do not always develop any particular bond with one another in response to the stresses of their work. There are several possible reasons for this discrepancy: It may be that the layout of this particular store discourages such bond-forming interaction, or that my own presence was disruptive…
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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes and edits for Scribbr, and reads a lot of books in his spare time.

1 comment

FOLA
April 11, 2020 at 3:37 PM

Thank you so much for this exposition on Ethographic studies.

It is my intention to go this way in my phd study in Political Science

Can I ask further how long can it be deem to be an appropriate time studying when using this approach

How long can an observation take ?

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