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What Is Ethnography? - Studying Cultural Phenomena

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  • 0:58 Ethnographies:…
  • 2:38 When to Use Ethnographies
  • 3:08 Ethnography Procedure
  • 6:02 Assessing Ethnographies
  • 6:30 Ethical Considerations…
  • 7:14 Ethnography Practice
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst
Researchers use various methods to answer questions. Some questions cannot be answered through quantitative measures; they are best addressed through qualitative research methods, such as ethnography. This lesson will discuss the defining qualities, methods, and uses of ethnography.

Why Ethnography?

Why do some cultures expect their daughters to marry before the age of 15? How does a person's specific family values impact the way he or she acts in public with friends? What are the origins of bullying in an all-male classroom?

These are complicated questions that cannot be answered through a simple survey or other quantitative research design method. These and similar questions are best answered through qualitative research methods of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting observed information. More specifically, these questions are best addressed through the use of ethnography. This lesson will define ethnography and describe the characteristics, step-by-step procedures used to complete ethnographies, and discuss how to assess ethnographies.

Ethnographies: Definition and Defining Qualities

Sociology Student: I really want to understand bullying and its origins among specific groups. I was reading an article the other day on same-gender classrooms and the bullying that goes on in all-male classrooms. I just don't know how to research this topic.

Helpful Classmate: You should consider ethnography! Ethnography is a type of qualitative research design aimed at studying cultures and groups from a unique perspective - that of the subject. The word ethnographies literally means 'writing about people groups.' Ethnographies are holistic in nature and include a history of the culture being studied, their routines and practices, and discussion of their environment.

Sociology Student: Oh, that sounds like a great approach. What else should I know about ethnographies?

Helpful Classmate: There are several defining qualities that are unique to ethnographies:

  • Ethnographic research is the observation of groups of people or a culture in the field or, in other words, in a natural setting.
  • Observations are the main form of data collection, but interviews are often used to clarify the researcher's observations.
  • The researcher pays attention to the context, artifacts, and environments of the subjects in addition to their interactions with each other.
  • Ethnographies are long-term studies. This allows the researcher to experience the regular patterns and routines of the community of study, as well as seeing how it responds to new or different situations.
  • The researcher also plays the role of the learner. In most research designs, the researcher is the expert. However, in ethnographies the researcher assumes a role where he or she knows very little and is in the research setting to learn.

When to Use Ethnographies

Helpful Classmate: Yes, I do think your question of 'What are the origins of bullying in an all-male classroom' can be addressed through ethnography. You can also use ethnographies:

  • When searching for meaning of cultural norms and views.
  • When examining or trying to find reasons for the use of certain behaviors or practices.
  • When examining social trends and instances, like divorce and illness.
  • When examining social interaction and encounters.
  • And when trying to understand the roles of families, relationships, and organizations.

Ethnography Procedure

Sociology Students: So how do I begin?

Helpful Classmate: Well, you have completed the first step - that is to identify a question or problem to address. Next, you want to formulate additional questions that will guide what you observe and how you collect data. Once your guiding questions have been established, the data collection process begins.

First, you have to gain access to the population being studied. There are two access types you will encounter when conducting ethnographic research: open access and closed access.

Open access is when the researcher does not need permission to collect data and observe the population. For example, communities, groups in malls, concerts, and any other public settings are considered open access. However, the researcher must be accepted by the group in order to conduct research. Without this acceptance the researcher will probably be able to make observations but cannot take the research any further by conducting interviews with individual group members or ascertain other relevant information.

Closed access is when the researcher needs permission and introductions from the 'gatekeeper' of the population. For example, hospitals, schools, and corporations are considered closed access. For your research, you will need permission from the teacher of the classroom, the principal of the school, the school district, and maybe even the students' parents.

Access is critical because without it observations cannot be verified through interviews and the researcher cannot gain access to other important information that may inform the study, such as group artifacts, history, and the environment. Once access has been granted, the researcher begins to collect data by conducting long-term observations and in-depth interviews with the population. The interviews provide the researcher with a cross-check on assumptions and observations made. This period of data collection is on-going until the research is complete.

The researcher will record the data collected by taking notes, photographs, making maps, and using any other means necessary to record the observations. It is also critical that the researcher note and observe the environment that the population spends the most time in. So in your case, you will want to take an inventory of the classroom and note any changes throughout the year.

Data collection and data analysis happen concurrently with ethnographies. Once a hypothesis has been formed, the researcher will continue to look for emerging patterns while comparing the data previously collected with the data he or she is continuing to collect.

Finally, once all observations are over and the data has been collected, it is time to write the ethnography. Ultimately, the researcher is telling a 'story,' and the final product should be written so that the culture or group is brought to life, making the readers feel like they are in the population setting and can understand their culture and way of life.

Assessing Ethnographies

Helpful Classmate: You need to consider how to assess the validity and reliability of your ethnography as well. You should ask yourself the following questions:

  • How reliable is my study? Can it be replicated by myself or by others? That's referred to as external reliability.
  • Does my study measure what it proposes to measure? This is referred to as internal validity.
  • Can my findings be extended to other groups? This is referred to as external validity.

Ethical Considerations of Ethnographies

Helpful Classmate says: Researchers must be aware of the ethical considerations when doing ethnographic research. A big consideration is will the researcher inform the participants of their study and be transparent about the research being conducted? This is referred to as overt research. Or will the researcher not inform the participants, referred to as covert research, in which case the researcher must worry about deception and loss of trust from the group.

Other ethical implications that must be considered include:

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