Ethnographic Design: Definition, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Qualitative Research
  • 1:22 Ethnography
  • 3:45 Strengths & Limitations
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Though often researchers are interested in individuals, sometimes they are more interested in the characteristics of a community at large. In this lesson, we'll look at ethnographic research and its advantages and disadvantages.

Qualitative Research

Cal's father was a prosecutor, and when Cal was a kid, he used to sit in the courtroom for hours watching his father work to put criminals away. He began to notice some patterns emerging. Often, the children of incarcerated criminals would themselves end up incarcerated. The family members called to testify in cases were often jaded and looked at cops and lawyers with a skeptical eye.

Now, Cal is all grown up. He's a psychologist, and he's really interested in studying the community that consists of families of incarcerated criminals. Why do they think the way they do? How do they view law enforcement and the legal system? What is different about their community and culture compared to the community and culture of the United States at large?

These are all good questions, and there are many ways that Cal can answer them through research. One way that Cal can approach these questions is by doing qualitative research, which involves examining non-numerical data to find answers to his questions. There are many types of qualitative research. Let's look closer at one qualitative research method - ethnography - and its strengths and limitations.


Okay, so Cal wants to examine the families of incarcerated criminals to see what they have in common with each other and what he can figure out about the community that surrounds incarceration. So, he begins to hang out in circles where there are many incarcerated criminals. He observes and interviews family members of the incarcerated and makes notes about what he sees. Afterwards, he'll go back through and look for patterns in his notes.

Essentially, Cal is conducting an ethnographic study, which is focused on describing a culture's characteristics. It often involves looking at how the culture and beliefs of a community affect the behaviors and thoughts of individuals within that community. For example, perhaps Cal begins to notice that many people in the community he's observing distrust outsiders, particularly if they are involved in law enforcement or the legal system.

How does that affect members of that community? Perhaps children who grow up with an incarcerated parent, raised within the community of suspicion, end up being more than usually suspicious of cops. As a result, they do not turn to the police for help, instead learning to defend themselves. So, Cal notices that there is a higher rate of vigilante justice among children of incarcerated criminals.

In general, ethnography is not interested in any given individual and their subjective observations and responses. Instead, it is focused on the community and what patterns are prevalent within the community.

Ethnographic research is often done in the field. That is, the researchers usually go into the community they are studying. They might spend hours and hours over months or even years talking to people in the community. Observations, interviews and documents can all be a good source of information for ethnographic researchers.

The biggest challenge that faces those who do ethnographic research is the balance between getting close to their subjects and maintaining distance. In order to get the community to open up and because they are spending so much time within the community, ethnographers have to become very close to their subjects, sometimes even becoming a part of the community that they are studying. But they also have to maintain a certain amount of distance in order to be able to take a clear-headed, scientific view of their research.

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