What is an Ethnographic Study? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 Qualitative and…
  • 1:20 What Is an Ethnographic Study?
  • 2:37 The Challenges of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at one type of important qualitative research publication - ethnographic studies. We'll define what ethnographic studies are, how they are conducted, and how they contribute to various fields of study.

Qualitative and Quantitative Studies

Ethnographic studies are types of qualitative research publications. Before we dive into the details of ethnographies, let's clarify the differences between quantitative and qualitative studies. Quantitative studies are those that use numerical data and statistical analyses to test their hypotheses. If completed correctly, quantitative studies can help generate theories that can be generalizable to an entire population of data.

For example, assume that a quantitative analysis is done on the high school graduation rate of students who can read at their grade level in 5th grade. The analysis shows that 5th grade reading level and high school graduation are highly correlated, meaning they move together closely - as reading levels increase, so do graduation rates. This quantitative study provides a useful theory, even though we don't know anything about the individual stories of the kids in the study.

On the other hand, qualitative studies don't use numerical data. Instead, they use different methods to tell a detailed story about a theory or phenomenon by providing a thick, rich description that recreates an event, shares a story, or describes a culture or setting.

What Is an Ethnographic Study?

An ethnographic study is one that comes from ethnographic research, a qualitative method where researchers completely immerse themselves in the lives, culture, or situation they are studying. They are often lengthy studies. For example, two famous ethnographic studies were completed only after one author lived as a member of a gang in Chicago for nine months. This allowed him to write about the organizational structure and the forms of power that existed in street gangs.

Another study was written with the purpose of understanding a very isolated tribe in the Amazon basin. The author lived with a tribe for over a year while performing data collection, the stage of research where authors take notes and pictures, perform interviews, and collect anything that can better inform their studies.

Ethnographic studies began as a type of research used by anthropologists to understand different foreign cultures, especially those living in places yet to be modernized. As researchers returned with such detailed insight, other disciplines in the social sciences began to use ethnography as a research methodology to understand group dynamics in modern situations, such as prisons, schools, work places, and places of worship.

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