Qualitative Research – Ethnographic Methodology


Ethnographic methodologies are a significant part of any research. They are especially applied in the study of anthropology. Human beings exhibit special group characteristics like any other animals. Previous studies that have used an outside approach in their methodologies have always had some problems with the accuracy and quality of information gathered. As such, researchers and anthropologist recognise the need for them to integrate themselves into the group to ensure that the details of the group are clear to them and that they are gotten first hand. Some of other methodologies applied in the study of human groups also present challenges with the number and size of resources to be used while human beings can be used as the main tool in data collection (Coffey, & Atkinson, 1996). This essay therefore focuses on ethnographic methodology and methods in qualitative research. The paper will also focus on the definition of ethnography, the types, examples, framework, and some of the recent studies in the methodology.


Ethnography is a relatively new concept, with only decades of application and practices in sociology and other disciplines. Several definitions have been stated, although they appear to have a similar understanding of the concept as it is applied in all disciplines. Nisaratana Sangasubana describes ethnography as the art and science of describing a group of people or a certain culture (2011, p. 567). The same author continues to explain ethnography by citing other explanations. Sangasubana states that ethnographers primarily “search predictable patterns in the lived human experiences by carefully observing and participating in the lives of those under study” (2011, p. 567).

Another definition can be gotten from the work of Roberta Sands who states that ethnography is the approach that allows researchers and anthropologists to learn about the culture of a certain group of people by directly interacting with them and attempting to understand their group life (1990, p. 117). Ethnography is a form of qualitative research that uses cultural theory with the main instrument being the man to try to understand the dynamics of a group of people or their culture. In most instances, during ethnography, a researcher may fully immerse himself into the daily activities or culture of the subjects of his study. This makes the study more realistic and subjective aiding in accurate research and conclusions (Sangasubana, 2011, p. 567).


In ethnography, a number of methods are applied in the collection of data and analysis. These methods are meant to make the researcher have the maximum interpretations with the least personal bias. The types used include interviews, surveys, participant observation and the use of field notes (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974).The use of interviews in ethnography is an effective method, if effectively used. According to Steinar Kvale (2006, p. 496), the conducting of interviews should exhibit power symmetry with the same tool being used as a source of dialogue. The use of observation is also a recognised method of conducting ethnographic studies. This method is also recognised in most of the other forms of research that provide significant results in other disciplines.

According to Angrosino, observation provides a base for most of the researches done, which is especially vital in ethnography (2005, p. 729). The author also states that studies that rely on other methods of data collection have an observation as a significant part of interpreting the responses given by the respondents in the various studies (Angrosino, 2005, p. 729). The carrying out of ethnographic studies in most cases uses observation as the primary method. The method has been proven over time to be effective for this type of study. As Angrosino states, observation allows researchers to carry out their observations in the natural setting of their participants (2005, p. 729).

Sara Delamont in her book explores the various methodologies used in research by put more attention to fieldwork (2002). She describes the various stages that should be utilised in the conducting of fieldwork and concludes that field notes allow researchers to have a better understanding of their subjects and the study questions (Delamont, 2002). As such, ethnography utilises field notes in instances where the subject to be studied has a complex interaction or where the study is anticipated to take long. Karl Gallagher in ‘The Methodological Dilemma’ enumerates some of the dilemmas that are evident in a study conducted over the past few years (2008).


There are a number of examples worth mentioning in this essay, with some of the most significant works being done in the methods and types of ethnographic methodologies. A number of ethnographic methodologies exist and these have been used to carry out ethnographic studies. Some of the major examples include the novels written by Cronin with a special focus on the common person in Cornwall in the United Kingdom (Angrosino, 1994). The author describes life in the area where he manages to interact with the people together with how they cope with the often-cold weather. The author disconnects from the rest of the country and lives the life of the people in the area, shifting from the previously warm summers to the cold climate (Angrosino, 1994). In the research, the author also manages to describe the economic activities in the area and especially the fishing that is carried out and the processing industries that people are reliant on for the income.

By interacting directly with the people, the author manages to bring out the experience that may be new to him and obvious to the inhabitants (Lather, 2005).He also describes an example of a project that people carry out in the area, which is in the form of a green house. Through the interaction between the people and listening to their experiences, the researcher is able to infer the situations in which the natives of the area are able to cope with the temperature variations.

Ninetta Santoro and Geri Smyth carried out a research on the use of external researchers in ethnography. The aim of the research was to evaluate the significant of ethnic ‘others, in Australia and Scotland (2010). According to their findings, schools in these parts of the world have varying cultures, with this being a result of immigration and emigration that have taken place over the years (Santoro, & Smyth, 2010, p. 500). They observe the difficulties that researchers may encounter while conducting a study in an ethnic community that is foreign to them. They state that these kind of researches are best done by the ethnicities that are represented in the study themselves (Santoro, & Smyth, 2010, p. 500). Some of the other factors that were found to be of significant even within the same ethnic group were also stated as being age of the group, the gender differences that are represented and the social classes involved (Santoro, & Smyth, 2010, p. 500).


Conducting an ethnographic research involves several stages, with these beginning with the formulation of the questions that the research will answer. An ethnographer should have a major purpose for doing the study: the base on which to start (Coffey, & Atkinson, 1996). Reasons as to why ethnographic studies are conducted should therefore be well known to the researcher, with adequate consideration being made in comparison to other studies. Some of the reasons why an individual or group may choose to use this method of research include ease of undertaking where they can do the research alone (McTaggart, 1997).The study method also allows the researcher to observe over time based on the longitudinal nature of the method (McTaggart, 1997). It can also be carried out in any society to allow interaction between the participants and the researcher.

The method of research requires simple tools to carry out and analyse, thus bringing the researchers closer to the problem under study. It also allows the researcher an inside view of the society under study. However, as Santoro and Smyth (2010) state, there are researchers that consider research within a community in which they are already part of simpler that going to a new society. This type of research method is also crucial in social sciences where the study of a social grouping requires the subjects to be in their natural environments and in their realistic self.

After the researcher decides on the efficacy of the method, the next step is the decision on which data collection method suits the study. As stated above, several methods of data collection may be utilised including observation, interviewing and archival research (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974). These have their individual advantages over the other. The researcher has the privilege of deciding which applies best for the research questions. In observation, the participants are observed as the researcher integrates into their daily activities (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974). According to Crane and Angrosino, the researcher should maintain a personal distance while conducting the observations (1974). Angrosino states that observation is the act by which the researcher perceives the activities, relationships and interactions of people in a given societal setting in ethnography (2005).

In contrast to observational method in ethnography where the researcher directly observes the participants, interviews are also effective methods of data collection (Kvale, & Brinkmann, 2009). In this method of data collection, the researcher directs a conversation that enables him to gather the relevant data and information regarding the respondents (Kvale, & Brinkmann, 2009). Another method that is frequently applied is the use of archival research where the data and information regarding the subjects understudy is retrieved from existing materials. This is initially carried out to guide the researcher on the best way of carrying out the research and the likely findings while in the field. Numerous studies have shown that a combination of the above methods may be superior to relying on one of the methods (Kamberelis, & Dimitriadis, 2005).

A researcher needs to formulate the research questions with these followed by an evaluation of how much they know around the research question. This part of the research is crucial as it allows the researcher to define any gaps in the knowledge of the subject, further defining the study (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974). The next stage is the choice of setting that the researcher would like to carry out the research. This community is under study. The next step involved penetrating the group that is to be studied. This should be preceded by adequate permission from the relevant authorities (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974).

The researcher then needs to assume a role in the society. This means actively participating in the group as if they were part of it. The next stage is the collection of the data. The researcher does this by utilising the methods discussed above. Adequate use of notebooks and devices such as recorders should be made in the field to ensure that the data is collected first hand and is not easily forgotten (Higginbottom, Pillay, & Boadu, 2013). According to Luttrell (2010), a running description should be jotted down with some of the events that may have been forgotten being documented while at the field. Some of the other elements in note taking include methodological notes, personal feelings, and any other relevant information inferred (Higginbottom, Pillay, & Boadu, 2013).

Data analysis is the next stage. This can be done concurrently with data collection while in the field. Doing it concurrently allows the researcher to deduce some of the other themes that might be applicable during the remaining part of the study, while at the same time allowing them to decide on the major parts of the study (Delamont, 2002). As Delamont states in the literary works, some strategies that ethnographic analysis may apply include coding, sorting into patterns, outlier identification, construction and generalisation of theories and memo creation (2002).The researcher should then present the results after the analysis. The next section discusses some of the important studies in this field over the last few years.

Recent studies

Recent studies on ethnological methodology have mainly compared the different types of methodologies, with some showing the strength of each of these over the other (Atkinson, Coffey, & Delamont, 2003). Patti Lather in his research on teaching research in education evaluated the paradigms in research where he provided a review of some of the changes that have taken place over the years (2006). Lather together with Elisabeth Pierre proceeded to carry out an analysis of these changes in the form of post-qualitative research (2013). The authors support the use of ethnographic methodology by stating that a humanistic approach in research are higher in the strength of research types as they allow face-to-face interaction between the subjects and the researcher (Lather & Pierre, 2013, p. 630).

Sands also carried out research on the use of ethnographic methodologies in the field of healthcare where she established some of the utilities that it may have (1990, 127). She states that the future of ethnographic methodology should focus on the answering of questions such as the presence of such things as the prevalence of conditions in certain populations of patients (Sands, 1990, p. 127). The author also continues to state some of the futuristic utilisation of ethnographic methodologies, suggesting that future studies in social work apply the personalised king of methodology (Sands, 1990, p. 127).

Some researchers have also explored the use of ethics in ethnography, with most looking at the interaction between the researcher and the community or group under study (Denzin, & Lincoln, 2000). According to Gallagher, some of the other methods used to study group psychology may not be as effective as ethnographic methodology, but this method faces a couple of ethical challenges (2008). Another pertinent thing in ethnographic methodology is the issue of the ‘other’ as applied in some of the studies (2008). Researchers argue that some groups are best studied by the use of people already in the group as compared to external researchers (Crane, & Angrosino, 1974). These studies are, however, not enough. A lot of work still needs to be done on the same field. Some gaps in knowledge are present. They will be significant in directing future studies.


In conclusion, ethnographic methodology is a form of qualitative research methodology in social sciences where human beings are the primary tools of data collection. Researchers integrate with the group under study, with the attempt of describing a certain characteristic of interest. A significance and strength of ethnographic methodology is the ability of the researcher to get the information first hand. This eliminates some of the biases that may be present while using some other forms of data collections. Some of the characteristics of a group that have been studied this way include the group psychology and the interactions within the group. Researchers have also been able to study the effect of some health problems in a society as stated above. Evidence shows that the participation of an outside researcher may not be as effective as one who is native to the group under study. The framework for ethnographic methodology has also been discussed, with reference being made to some of the recent studies in the area.

Reference List

Angrosino, M. (2005). Recontextualising observation; ethnography, pedagogy and the prospects for a progressive political agenda in Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Angrosino, V. (1994). On the bus with Vonnie Lee. Journal Of Contemporary Ethnography, 23(1), 14.

Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., & Delamont, S. (2003). Key themes in qualitative research: continuities and changes. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Alta Mira Press.

Coffey, A., & Atkinson, P. (1996). Making sense of qualitative data: complementary research strategies. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Crane, G., & Angrosino, V. (1974). Field Projects in Anthropology: A Student Handbook. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Delamont, S. (2002).Fieldwork in educational settings: methods, pitfalls and perspectives. London: Routledge.

Denzin, K., & Lincoln, S. (2000). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Gallagher, K. (2008). The methodological dilemma: critical, creative, and post-positivist approaches to qualitative research. London: Routledge.

Higginbottom, A., Pillay, J., & Boadu, Y. (2013). Guidance on Performing Focused Ethnographies with an Emphasis on Healthcare Research. Qualitative Report, 18(1), 3.

Kamberelis, G., &Dimitriadis, G. (2005).On qualitative inquiry. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kvale, S. (2006). Dominance through Interviews and Dialogues. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(3): 480-500.

Kvale, S., & Brinkmann, S. (2009). Interviews: learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Lather, P, & Pierre, E. (2013). Post-qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 629-633.

Lather, P. (2005). From competing paradigms to disjunctive affirmation: teaching research methodology in education. Columbus: The Ohio State University.

Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 19(1), 35-5.7

Luttrell, W. (2010). Qualitative educational research: readings in reflexive methodology and transformative practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

McTaggart, R. (1997). Participatory action research international contexts and consequences. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sands, R. (1990). Ethnographic Research. Social Work in Health Care, 15(1), 115-129.

Sangasubana, N. (2011). How to Conduct Ethnographic Research. The Qualitative Report Volume 16(2), 567-573.

Santoro, N., & Smyth, G. (2010). Researching ethnic ‘others’: conducting critical ethnographic research in Australia and Scotland. Intercultural Education, 21(6), 493-503.

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