Ethnography is a qualitative research method that involves immersing yourself in a specific demographic, community, organization, or group to observe and/or interact with its participants in their natural environment. The firsthand, high-quality data that comes from watching life as it happens, rather than how it’s manipulated in a lab, can be used to draw real conclusions about how people and groups work.
If you’d like to learn more about this valuable research method, check out our guide below!
How Ethnography is Used
Ethnographic research is mainly used in the social and behavioral sciences. It originated in anthropology with the goal of exploring new races and cultures, but now it’s used to explore specific populations within a researcher’s (or ethnographer’) own society. Ethnographers can study anything from a village of indigenous people to employees in a corporate office or students in a high school.
Ethnographers must consider three methods before starting their research:
1. Open vs. Closed Settings
The setting refers to the environment where the research is done.
In open (or public) settings, the ethnographer has unrestricted access to a population (e.g., a neighborhood), which can be more convenient but may prevent complete immersion within a less close-knit community.
In closed (or private) settings, the ethnographer faces boundaries to gaining access to a population (e.g., a school), but complete immersion and more thorough research are possible once access is gained.
2. Overt vs. Covert Ethnography
In overt ethnography, the researcher clearly defines and explains their role and purpose to the participants. Overt research is more standard, and while it is more ethical because participants provide informed consent, it can generate skewed data because participants may behave differently with the awareness that they’re being observed.
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In covert ethnography, the researcher doesn’t disclose their role and often provides an alternate explanation for their presence among the population. While the deception about the intent can be considered unethical, the data is more realistic because participants maintain their natural behavior.
3. Active vs. Passive Observations
The level of integration into a population can also impact the data obtained.
With active observations, the ethnographer fully integrates to participate in the same tasks and activities as the participants. While the participants may feel more relaxed, the researcher’s substantial involvement can disrupt the group’s normal functions.
With passive observations, the ethnographer solely observes without interfering in the participants’ activities. While the researcher can make more thorough observations and keep detailed records, the participants may behave differently because they know they’re being observed.
The goal of ethnographic research is to collect data with minimal personal bias and focus on the participants’ perceptions and experiences. This allows the ethnographer to gain comprehensive and authentic insights – which may be missed through standard research interviews – into how the participants view and interact with the world and then accurately present their findings to others.
An ethnography is a written account of research findings. A researcher uses their field notes (detailed written or voice recordings) to convey their observations and explanations of the perceived phenomena in an article, thesis, or book. Ethnographies are usually more personal than other research papers because researchers usually include their feelings and experiences regarding being immersed in the group. Here’s an example:
Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote the ethnography Death Without Weeping. Scheper-Hughes provides an account of her 25-year c into the lives of the women and children who live in the favela village in Northeastern Brazil. The participants’ lives revolve around scarcity, sickness, and death, and Scheper-Hughes sets out to understand how women maintain maternal love despite the common deaths of their infants. She presents her findings both with scientific objectivity and with her own values and empathies.
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