“Culture is not lying about, waiting patiently to be discovered; rather it must be inferred from the words and actions of members of the group under study.” ‘Culture’ as such, as an explicit statement of how the members of the social group act and believe they should act, does not exist until someone acting in the role of ethnographer puts it there” (Wolcott 1987)
Ethnographic research is interested in discovering the context for research, rather than just data. “Devoid of context, data becomes sterile.” It is not an easy subject to get a clear definition on, largely becaus of it's 'contextual' nature.
In terms of method, ethnographic has most of the following features:
1. Peoples behavior is studied in everyday contexts, rather than under conditions created by the researcher, such as experiemtns.
2. Data are gathered from a range of sources, but observation and/or relatively informal conversations are usually the main ones.
3. The approach to data collection is “unstructured”, in a sense that it does not involve following through a detailed plan set up at the beginning, nor are the categories used for interpreting what people say and doe entirely pre-given or fixed.
4. The focus is usually a small number of cases, perhaps a single setting or group of people, of relatively small scale. Indeed, in life history research may even be a single individual.
5. The analysis of the data involves interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions and mainly takes the form of verbal descriptions and explanations, with quantification and statistical analysis playing a subordinate role at most.
In other words, “As a set of methods, ethnography is not far removed fromthe sort of approach that we all use in everyday life to make sense of our surroundings”.(Hammersly 1998) Another definition, again from Hammersly is
– iterative-inductive research (evolving in design through the study), drawing on
– a family of methods
– involving a direct and sustained contact with human agents
– with int he context of their daily lives (and cultures);
– watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions, and
– producing a written account
– that respects the irreducibility of human experiance,
– that acknowledges the researcher’s own role.
Bishop identifies some possible steps in ethnographic research.
1. Identifying Problems: Finding a setting
2. Entering the setting
3. Collecting Data: Inscription
4. Interpretation: Identifying Themes
“It is an interesting contradiction that the ethnographic process calls for strict organisation, which is linear in nature, yet the interpretation calls for more circular vision which is recursive.”
Barbara Hall has written a nice summary of ethnographic methods.
Ethnographers engage in "participant observation" Through this, ethnographers seek to gain what is called an "emic" perspective, or the "native's point(s) of view" without imposing their own conceptual frameworks.
Objectivity, Ethnographic Insight and Ethnographic Authority
Ethnographic research is not objective research at all.
"Consideration needs to be given to the partiality of all truth when the self is central to the fieldwork encounter. The distinction between subjective and objective may even become blurred." Research is effected by the attitudes and beliefs we hold. It is important to recognise this. In a situation where Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase was in conflict personally with an important female member of the group she was studying, she recognises that her research is effected by it. "My intense anger toward her led to my slipping into a situation of complete subjectivity. I was deeply wounded on a personal level and was unable to distance myself as a researcher. Had I managed to overcome my irritation and approach her, my data on this unique woman would have been much fuller." (Crick 1993)
– Ethnography is an interpretive endeavor undertaken by human beings with multiple and varied commitments which can and do affect how the research is done and reported. We all have backgrounds, biographies, and identities which affect what questions we ask and what we learn in the field, how our informants let us in to their lives, and how our own interpretive lenses work.
– Not all fieldsites are "foreign" for ethnographers in the same way. Some ethnographers are native to the communities in which they study, whereas some enter as complete strangers with no obvious common ground. Even though they may learn somewhat different things, both kinds of researchers are legitimately able to undertake ethnographic research.
– Ethnography is not replicable research (like many kinds of science).
– Ethnography is not based on large numbers of cases (like quantitative research).
– Ethnographers are expected to be "reflexive" in their work, which means that we should provide our readers with a brief, clear picture of how the research we have done has been or could have been affected by what we bring to it. This can take the form of revealing details of our own experience or background to readers up front.
– Ethnographers should have more than one way to show how we arrived at the conclusions of our research; we expect to have a collection of fieldnotes, interviews, and site documents (where possible) which work together to support our claims. This is called triangulation. (Hall 2006, Sanjek 1990)
One of the first things we need early on in order to conduct a successful ethnographic project is an appropriate guiding question. Having a guiding question before beginning fieldwork is a good idea because it gives you some way to focus your attention productively in early visits to your fieldsite.
Guiding questions are aimed at the basic point of ethnography: gaining the world view of a group of people. Common formats for guiding questions might be:
How is a certain social or cultural practice socially constructed among members of a certain group?
Example: How is arranged marriage socially constructed among matchmakers in contemporary Japan?
Guiding questions should encode larger questions regarding culture or social practice within them. See Theoretical Context for more details.
Today, however, fieldsites can be nearly anywhere. Research may still focus on village life, but it is also increasingly likely to take place in urban locales or in the native language of the ethnographer.
Ethics in Ethnographic Research
Since ethnographic research takes place among real human beings, there are a number of special ethical concerns to be aware of before beginning. In a nutshell, researchers must make their research goals clear to the members of the community where they undertake their research and gain the informed consent of their consultants to the research beforehand.
Other issues include
-the distinction between overt and covert research
– who is in control?
– balancing rights and commitments
Ethnographers engage in participant observation in order to gain insight into cultural practices and phenomena. These insights develop over time and through repeated analysis of many aspects of our fieldsites. To facilitate this process, ethnographers must learn how to take useful and reliable notes regarding the details of life in their research contexts. Fieldnotes should be written as soon as possible after leaving the fieldsite, immediately if possible. Even though we may not think so when we are participating and observing, we are all very likely to forget important details unless we write them down very quickly.
Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein (1997) have developed a list of what should be included in all fieldnotes:
Date, time, and place of observation
Specific facts, numbers, details of what happens at the site
Sensory impressions: sights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes
Personal responses to the fact of recording fieldnotes
Specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language
Questions about people or behaviors at the site for future investigation
Page numbers to help keep observations in order
There are 4 major parts of fieldnotes, which should be kept distinct from one another in some way when we are writing them:
1. Jottings are the brief words or phrases written down while at the fieldsite or in a situation about which more complete notes will be written later. Usually recorded in a small notebook, jottings are intended to help us remember things we want to include when we write the full-fledged notes. While not all research situations are appropriate for writing jottings all the time, they do help a great deal when sitting down to write afterwards.
2. Description of everything we can remember about the occasion you are writing about – a meal, a ritual, a meeting, a sequence of events, etc. While it is useful to focus primarily on things you did or observed which relate to the guiding question, some amount of general information is also helpful. This information might help in writing a general description of the site later, but it may also help to link related phenomena to one another or to point our useful research directions later.
3. Analysis of what you learned in the setting regarding your guiding question and other related points. This is how you will make links between the details described in section 2 above and the larger things you are learning about how culture works in this context. What themes can you begin to identify regarding your guiding question? What questions do you have to help focus your observation on subsequent visits? Can you begin to draw preliminary connections or potential conclusions based on what you learned?
4. Reflection on what you learned of a personal nature. What was it like for you to be doing this research? What felt comfortable for you about being in this site and what felt uncomfortable? In what ways did you connect with informants, and in what ways didn't you? While this is extremely important information, be especially careful to separate it from analysis.
Methods of writing fieldnotes can be very personal, and we are all likely to develop ways of including and separating the above four parts which work for us but might not work for others.
While participant observation lends information about behavior in action, interviews provide a chance to learn how people reflect directly on behavior, circumstances, identity, events, and other things. This can be very valuable in fulfilling the main goal of ethnography: gaining an insider's perspective. establishing rapport with the informant. The best way to do this is by being a good listener. It is crucial for ethnographers to listen far more than we talk in interviews.
Before interviewing, we should ask ourselves what we want to learn from the interview. It is a good idea to make a list of possible questions which can help to hone in on different aspects of the guiding question. Plan open-ended questions
It is important to tape the interview, with the informant's informed consent. (Briggs 1986)
Generally using an unstructured interview style, with open ended questions, on topics raised from within the research setting, in places and at times to suit the participant, and usually fairly informal.
Questions allow a range of responses, allowing the participant to react in a variety of ways. “What is going on here?”, “How do you feel about …?” You may have a few areas you want to cover, and maybe a few questions predetermined, but otherwise will want to be free to persue lines of interest, or introduce topics as they occur. (Hammersly 1998)
"Mood is important. Recorder and Narrator spometimes hit on a rhythm. Questions may expose a rich vein of imformation or a few jokes might have put everyone in a good mood." (John Perry) Interruptions couldn't be stopped in most situations, partly because the subject was involved in what was going on in daily life – part o which was what made him interesting to interview. Sometimes they were even useful, the visitor "might set off a train of thought or remind him ofsomething." Perry points out that "All autobiography is artifice, the construction and presentation of a text for an imagined audience." A military figure might write his menoirs with the purpose of justifying his conduct in a battle to both his peers and the public at large. (Crick 1993)
Other methods can include Focus groups, and ‘Planned discussion groups’.
Here the notion of HOW people react to something in interaction is emphasised; how meaning is created in croups. Groups are faithful to the idea that people’s feelings, perceptions and attitudes are formed not in isolation but in interaction with others. Groups generate conflicting ideas, making people change their mind and think again; they are therefore very creative….in some ways more creative and less directive than in an individual setting. Ideas emerge that the interviewer amy not have thought of. They reflect the idea that people make sense of their world in interaction, not as individuals. Interesting is the gap between what people say and what they do, what they say they should do and what they do.
Planned discussion groups.Group discussion gives the opportunity to compare private and public discourses. Partici[pants are likely to be a naturally occuring group, who have a relation to the topic because they are already part of the context of the research. Generally conducted in settings the participants are familiar with. Another point is that women often feel safer talking in a group than on an individual basis. Some groups of people are simply not used to discussing things in groups. (Hammersly 1998)
Thinking carefully about our sites and how they function and asking questions of our informants helps us to decide what kinds of documents might be available. There are a variety of kinds of documents which might be relevant for our projects. These documents are not produced for research purposes.
Generally, these documents can be divided into three categories. Be absolutely clear in the final paper how the documents used fit into these categories!
Documents produced by the people in your fieldsite. These kinds of documents can help us learn how the group in question expresses itself to either insiders or outsiders. What is written about and how? Why would this document be produced? Who will read or use it, and how? What isn't included that could be? What does it tell you, either directly or indirectly, about your guiding question? Specific reflection on the topic of our research need not be present for us to find documents produced by our informants useful.
Documents produced by people somehow like the people in your fieldsite. These kinds of documents can help us learn about general issues which might affect our specific fieldsite. We might learn specific vocabulary for trial use in our site through reading these kinds of documents. It is also possible to become sensitized to certain issues which may be present in our sites before approaching the group directly. Always remember that considerable variation among sites exists and that not everything you learn will be relevant to your specific site.
Documents produced about the people in your fieldsite. These kinds of documents can help you to place your group in a wider institutional, interactional, or global context. We can learn more about what kinds of constrictions are placed upon the people in our site, prejudices against them, privileges they are accorded, or their reputations among certain other groups of people. Useful sources of demographic information or documentation of historical events might also be available. (Hammersly 1995)
In ethnography, data analysis most usually takes place throughout the project.
While there is no single canonical way to approach ethnographic data, the following points may be useful in helping us arrive at some conclusions:
Read through the fieldnotes,Becoming very familiar with the information.
Mark any patterns, connections, similarities, or contrastive points in the data.
Follow up on what you noticed above by looking for "local categories of meaning" in the data. What terms do the informants have for things? What can you as a researcher identify as themes, even if the informants don't?
Try triangulating among the various forms of data you have gathered. If a point or an explanation holds across several sources you have gathered – if, for example, it can be supported by fieldnotes, interviews, and/or site documents – then you can be more sure that you have found something integral to understanding your site.
Bishop W "Ethnographic Writing Research" Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1999
Briggs C. "Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research." New York: Cambridge University Press. 1986
Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth and Bonnie Stone Sunstein "FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research." Blair Press: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 1997
Crick M, Geddes W "Research methods in the field : ten anthropological accounts" Publisher: Geelong, Vic. : Deakin University Press, 1993
Hammersley M, Atkinson P "Documents" In Ethnography: Principles in Practice. Pp. 157-174. Second edition. New York: Routledge. 1995
Hammersly M “Reading Ethnographic Research” Londin: Addison Wesley, 1998.
Hall B "Ethnographic methods" <http://www.sas.upenn.edu/anthro/CPIA/METHODS/Ethnography.html> accessed April 2006
Sanjek R"On Ethnographic Validity" In Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology. Pp. 385-418. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1990
Wolcott H “On ethnographic intent” New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1987