A Simple Guide to Ethnography
Copyright 2013 - David W. Guth
Last Updated 23 July 2013
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Ethnography is unobtrusive research through observation and limited interaction. The researcher plays the role of an independent, neutral and - in the case of immersion - an invisible observer. The key is to make detailed observations of the environment with minimal interaction. You do not want to influence the data you collect by interacting with the subjects of your observation. Ethnographic research can be very complex and involve a scientific process of data collection and coding.  However, for the purposes of undergraduate-level research, a more simplistic approach is often all that is necessary. These are some basic steps in conducting ethnographic research:
  • Start with a game plan. Before you begin this process, have a good sense of the kind of data you want to collect.  That's why a good foundation of secondary research is very helpful in this process. Knowing the nature of the challenge you face can dictate the kind of data you want to collect. For example, if your challenge is to attract more tourists to a community, then you should focus on how visitor-friendly the community is in terms of signage, parking, accommodations, etc.
  • Start with an open-mind and fresh eyes. Objectivity is mandated.  Don't begin observing a situation with preconceived notions.  They can color your observations and keep you from getting to the truth.  For example. an observer from a big city may assume that people in rural communities are jealous of his or her lifestyle.  The researcher may be surprised to discover that such an assumption may be completely opposite from the truth. Forget what the brand is or what the client wants it to be.  Try to figure out what it really is.
  • Remember that you are a researcher and not a spy.  All researchers -- especially those who represent this university -- are expected to engage in ethical conduct.  It is not necessary to lie to someone who may be curious about what you are doing.  It is all right to tell someone who you are, who you represent and the reason you are observing. The worst case scenario is that the person may not wish to talk to you or will ask you to leave.  If that's the case, disengage with courtesy.  However, more often than not, such a disclosure may open a useful line of conversation that provides meaningful information.
  • Be super-vigilant. Don't try to decide what is and is not important while you are in the field.  Take it all in.  The time for deciding which data are meaningful and which are not comes later during analysis.  Sometimes the smallest, most innocuous observation can become an important key in addressing your client's needs.  Ask yourself:
  • What does it look like?
  • What does it smell like?
  • What does it sound like?
  • What does it taste like?
  • What does it feel like?
To put it another way, pay attention to all of your senses.  For example, Tacoma, Washington, is known for the pungent smell emanating from its local paper mills.  Outsiders call it the "Tacoma Aroma," an image the local Chamber of Commerce would just as soon forget.  Individual observations may seem meaningless. However, in combination with other observations, may serve like individual puzzle pieces completing a picture.
  • Take notes. Have a note pad or a small tape recorder with you. If it is practical, a camera can be very useful.  A good ethnographic observation takes in a lot of detail.  Don't rely on your memory. If you are in a situation where a note pad or recorder are not practical, possible or may have a negative effect on interaction, try to capture on paper or on a recorder what you have observed and heardas soon as possible after the fact.
  • Engage in meaningful small-talk. Some forms of ethnography involve informal interviews.  These may be "off-the-cuff" conversations researchers have with people they meet, such as small talk with a server in a restaurant. Meeting and talking with people can be a source of valuable data.  Remember the first point -- you have a game plan and are looking for certain kinds of information. Keep the conversation informal and light.  If you want to take notes or record the conversation, ask first - but keep in mind that doing so may influence the conversation and remove its spontaneity.  The key is to make people you encounter comfortable.  They are more likely to trust you as a casual friend than as a formal interrogator. And, again, never lie about who you are and what you are doing.
  • Write your ethnographic descriptions in a neutral, third-person voice. When it comes time to commit your research to paper, deliver just the facts.  Save any opinions you might have for the analysis (which is addressed in the next point).  Stay away from the first-person "I" and "we," as well as the second-person "you."  The observer writes the description as if he or she is on the outside looking in.  If you use people's names, always use the full name (if known) in first reference and the family (last) name in second an subsequent references. Calling a person by his or her first name is too causal and can be considered, by some, as disrespectful.
  • Analyze, don't recommend. It is permissible to make suggestions about future avenues of research and possible tactics/strategies to pursue.  But remember that recommendations are not made during the research stage.  Those come in the planning process and in conjunction with a comprehensive examination of goals, objectives and tactics. All observations and suggestions should be supported by evidence.  For example, it is not enough to say a town's downtown area is unattractive.  Cite specific reasons and standards by which you make such a judgment.
  • Write your report as if you expect those you have observed will read it. It is all right to have passion for your work.  But don't let that passion spill over into this narrative.  This is research and, therefore, not the place for it.  Your tone should be neutral, not strident.  Frame your comments in positive terms. It is permissible to make criticisms.  However, if you do, remember the Mary Poppins Rule: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Ethnography is considered primary research in that it is original research created by the observer.  It is also qualitative, informal research, which means it is not necessarily representative of that which is being studied. (For example, activity within a community may be different on a weekend than it is on a weekday.) Upon its completion, ethnographic research may raise questions and suggest solutions that merit further research. Ethnography should not be the only research you conduct, but should be part of a more comprehensive research strategy.
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