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Ethnographic Research – Complete Guide with Examples

Published by at August 14th, 2021 , Revised On August 29, 2023

What is Ethnographic Research?

Ethnography is a type of research where a researcher observes people in their natural environment.

Ethnographers spend time studying people and their day-to-day lives and cultural activities carefully. It takes a long-term commitment and exciting methods of data collection.

It has two unique features

  • The researcher carries out ethnographic research in a natural environment.
  • A researcher acts as a participant and researcher at the same time.

History of Ethnographic Research

During the period of colonialism, anthropology emerged as a formal and notable discipline. Anthropologists started to study traditional people and their cultures. There are many types of ethnographic studies used for various purposes.

Uses of Ethnographic Research  

Ethnographic research has the following uses;

  • Documentation of endangered cultures
  • Studying distant or new cultures.
  • Studying and observing people’s behaviour in a specific society or community over a more extended period with changing circumstances.

Malinowski’s six years of research on the people of Trobriand islands in Melanesia.

Today ethnographic research is also used in social sciences.

Examples:                                                                                                                                  Investigations done by detectives, police officers to solve any criminal mystery.        Investigations are carried out to learn the history and details of culture, community, religion, or games.
The research was performed to understand the social interactions of the people.                Research to understand the roles of families and organisations.

Advantages of Conducting Ethnographic Research

There are various methods of research based on the requirements and aim of the investigation. Here is the list of the key features of ethnographic research

  • You can conduct ethnographic research alone.
  • It allows you to observe the changes in people’s behaviour and culture over time and record it.
  • You can conduct it in any place.
  • It allows you to be a part of the community as a participant and take a close look at their lifestyle.
  • You can gather a piece of detailed information with abundant experience, which helps you in further research.
  • It provides the opportunity and pleasure of adventure as well as research.
  • You don’t need to spend anything on the setup and equipment.
  • You can learn to use any language of your choice during the research.
  • You can find out about historical changes and events.
  • You can use and enhance your skills and knowledge.
  • You are solely responsible for experimenting.
  • You get the opportunity to get to know the underlying realities and opinions of the people.
  • You get the chance to focus on the verbal and non-verbal behavior of the people.

Disadvantages of Ethnographic Research

  • It requires a lot of time.
  • It is challenging to conclude the results.
  • The researcher needs to work alone.
  • It requires patience, skills to interact with people, and staying within the community as a community member.
  • Personal safety and privacy would be at risk.

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What to do Before Starting your Ethnographic Research?

You need to identify your research question(s) and decide the mode of data collection. It’s better to choose a small group of people and aim to complete your studies within a short period. 

It would help if you asked a few questions to yourself.

  • Who will be your target participants?
  • Do you have enough time to conduct the research?
  • What’s the purpose of your study?
  • What kinds of resources do you have?
  • Do you have enough funds to conduct your research?
  • Do you have access to the community you want to study?

Types of Ethnographic Research

Realistic Ethnographic Research

It is unbiased documentation written in the third person. You can use the collected notes for interpretations. 

Case study

case study is a documented history and detailed analysis of a situation concerning organisations, industries, and markets. It aims at discovering new facts of the condition under observation. 

It includes data collection from multiple sources over time.

Critical Ethnographic Research

It focuses on the marginalised community to study inequality and dominance.

How to Conduct Ethnographic Research?

Step 1: Problem Formulation

Before conducting any research, the essential step is selecting the problem you want to carry out your study.

Step 2: Select a Research Setting

After Selecting a research problem, you need to select the location of your research. It will help if you prefer a familiar place and community in which you can fit comfortably.

Step 3: Get Access to the Community

You need to get access to the community you want to study. How do you reach the community you want to study? 

You need to get official permission to conduct your research on a specific group of people. You can also join the community as a volunteer instead of a researcher.

There are two types of access, such as:

Open access: You don’t need to seek permission to conduct your research and collect data in this type of access. You can observe the population. You need to get accepted by the group to proceed with your research.

Example: Public in market places, parties, concerts, etc., are regarded as open-access groups.

Closed-access: In this type of access, you need to get permission from the gatekeeper of the community you want to study. 

Example: Schools, colleges, corporations, etc.

Step 4: Represent yourself to the Group

It would help if you asked yourself a few questions before introducing yourself to the group members.

  • How will you introduce yourself to the community you want to study?
  • What would be your role in the group?
  • How actively do you want to participate in the group’s day-to-day activities?
  • Will the group accept you as a researcher and allow you to conduct your research?

You can either inform the participants about the experiment, and it’s called the overt approach. You can hide the research and oversee people’s behaviour. It’s called a covert approach.

You can also act as a participant of the community performing the activities like the group, called active observation. It allows the community to feel more comfortable with the researcher.

Similarly, you can keep yourself away from the group without performing any activities like them and observe them as a researcher. It is called passive observation.

It would help if you tried various approaches until you find a suitable method to proceed with your research.

Step 5: Collecting and Recording the Information

You can collect the data by the following methods;

Observation: You can participate in the group activities or observe the group’s behavior, either informing them about the experiment or keeping them unaware of the investigation.

Interviewing: You can carry out direct conversations with all group members or obtain information from a specific member of the group. It’s better not to rely on the informants as they may interpret the data according to their perception rather than delivering in its actual context. 

Archival Research: You can also use existing information stored in the previous researchers’ records to proceed with your research.

It becomes difficult to gather and record the information at the same time. 

What should you do in this situation?

You can maintain a notepad to record your observation immediately or sometimes wait until you leave the setting to record your observation. It’s better to note down your observations as soon as possible before you forget them and struggle to recall them. You can write down your field notes or record the people’s audios or videos while talking to them.

Your notes should include the following features:

Running/Field Notes: these are the observations that you note down daily. The idea is to record your observation immediately after observing it. It would help if you observed the individual activities of the group members and perspectives.

Ethnographic research involves immersing in a community or culture to understand its nuances. Researchers observe, participate, and interview to grasp social practices, beliefs, and behaviors. It provides rich insights into how people experience and interpret their world.

About Carmen Troy

Avatar for Carmen TroyTroy has been the leading content creator for ResearchProspect since 2017. He loves to write about the different types of data collection and data analysis methods used in research.