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Ethnographic Research Tools

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Ethnography is a research method that provides an alternative to traditional quantitative research, which is performed in a laboratory setting. Ethnographers study people, social groups, ethnic populations and religious groups using qualitative research tools--e.g., observation, interview, survey and analysis. This methodoloogy is a large part of research in the humanities and social sciences such as psychology, anthropology and sociology.


There are two types of observation work done in ethnographic research: participant observation and non-participant observation. Participant observation involves the study of a particular individual or group of participants through direct interaction--i.e., immersion. In order to engage in participant research, you are required to obtain permission to follow, observe and document the daily activities of subjects. Non-participant observation is the study of groups of people in public places. Rather than focus on a particular individual, who knows you are observing them, you watch a variety of people interacting. Non-participant observers are eavesdroppers.


Interview is research done through narrative. There are three types of interviews: structured, semi-structured and unstructured. Structured interviews involve a specific set of questions with limitations placed on subject responses. In this case the researcher is only interested in learning about a specific part of the subject's life. This is common practice in product research; participants are asked about their thoughts and feelings in regard to particular stimuli, not life in general. Semi-structured interviews are similar to structured interviews in that they begin with a general framework but are free to evolve around the subject's narrative--i.e., the subject is able to get a little sidetracked. Unstructured interviews allow subjects to speak freely. Although the researcher may begin with a general prompt or conversation to gain trust, effort is made to allow the free expression of the subject--e.g., starting a conversation about the subject's job.


Surveys and questionnaires are like written interviews. They vary in degree of structure and researcher involvement. The primary advantage of surveying a population is the ability to produce large amounts of quantitative data, such as numerical ratings. Adding this tool to the ethnographic toolbox makes it easier to draw quantitatively meaningful, statistically significant conclusions from research.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is the study of physical evidence, the paperwork of culture. Anything from doctor's bills to ceramic art may be considered data. If participant observation is being used in addition to data analysis, researchers can ask for this information directly. Otherwise, they may gather it while taking notes in the field. To retain the validity of data collected for analysis, some researchers include a personal statement at the beginning of their literature that describes their subjective position. This statement may explain why certain evidence was ignored, judged unimportant or overlooked. For example, a young, male researcher documenting a genealogical connection might disbelieve the testimony of a sickly, old woman because he believed she was an unreliable source.


Sylvia Cini has written informative articles for parents and educators since 2009. Her articles appear on various websites. Cini has worked as a mentor, grief counselor, tutor, recreational leader and school volunteer coordinator. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Clark University of Worcester, Massachusetts.

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