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What is ethnography?

Ethnography is the study of social interactions,

behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups,
teams, organisations, and communities.
The task [of ethnographers] is to document the
culture, the perspectives and practices, of the people
in these settings. The aim is to get inside the way
each group of people sees the world.(Hammersley)

Origin, Influences and Present times

Roots can be traced back to anthropological studies of small, rural (and often
remote) in 1900s
Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown participated indigenous
societies over long periods to document social arrangements and belief
Approach adopted by members of the Chicago School of Sociology (for
example, Everett Hughes, Robert Park, Louis Wirth) and applied to a variety
of urban settings in their studies of social life.
Has come a long way from study of other to study of self, from study of
society to study of state, social movements, courtesy, violence, development,
markets, virtual.

Minimally ethnography is

iterative-inductive research (that evolves in design through the study),

drawing on

a family of methods,

involving direct and sustained contact with human agents

within the context of their daily lives (and cultures);

watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions, and

producing a richly written account

that respects the irreducibility of human experience,

that acknowledges the role of theory

as well as the researchers own role,

and that views human as part object/part subject

(Adapted from OReilly, 2008)

Ethnography has most of the following features

(Atkinson and Hammersley)

Peoples actions and accounts are studied in everyday contexts, rather than
under artificial conditions research takes place in the field.
Data gathered from a range of sources, including documentary
evidence of various kinds, but participant observation and/or
relatively informal conversations are usually the main ones.
Data collection is, for the most part, relatively unstructured, in
two senses. It does not involve following through a fixed and
detailed research design specified at the start. And categories that
are used for interpreting are not built into the data collection
process Instead, they are generated out of the process of data
The focus is usually on a few cases, generally fairly small-scale,
perhaps a single setting or group of people. This is to facilitate indepth study.


If unstructured why methods?

Participant observation
Ethnographic interviews
Three kinds of data: quotations, descriptions, and excerpts of
documents, resulting in one product: narrative description
(Hammersley 1990)
Ethnographers Triangulate for Robustness rapid surveys,
indepth interviews, documents, signs and symbols (sources),
along with observation.

Participant Observation

Examining people in interaction in ordinary settings,

looking for patterns of their social world
A focus on words and actions of members of a group
what people do (behaviours), what they say
(language), social structure its functioning and the
tensions within
Drawing from natural sciences structural
functionalism, positivism, pragmatism and has evolved
furhter since poststructuralism.

Challenges in PO

Good rapport building skills
Being observant keep eyes and ears open
Participant or onlooker
Bias creeps in?
Is participant observation an oxymoron?
Tensions between participation and observation

Ethnographic Interview

A form of interviewing conducted in the context of a relationship with

interviewees with whom the researcher has, through an ongoing presence,
established relations of rapport and respect sufficient for a genuine meeting
of minds and that enable a mutual exploration of the meanings the
interviewee applies to their social world (Heyl, 2001).
Emphasis on

duration and frequency of contact the quality of the relationship with


on the meaning of actions and events to respondents

aims to grasp the natives point of view

Features and uniqueness

Ethnographic interviews are normally conducted in unstructured

What distinguishes it procedurally from other in-depth interviews
is the centrality of rapport based on relatively long-term contact
The investment of time in each round of interviewing and the
kind of openness on the researchers part that stimulates an
evenhanded relationship. Key feature the idea researcher
is there to learn from the respondent rather than
Distinguished from other types of interview analytically
by their focus on cultural meanings. (Fielding in Sage

Field notes

Descriptive written accounts of just-observed events, persons, places etc.

From broad to specific, focussed, from reflexive to active
Iterative back and forth Important

Field notes and note-taking

Scratch notes - Writing down all information that you

think may or may not be relevant to your research
Maintaining an intellectual diary putting together
ideas for analysis, maintaining a a distance from you
research problem and setting, avoiding overinvolvement
Writing about research experience, feelings and
emotions Malinowski (1967) writing about his
personal challenges living with the natives in his diary


Taking notes diary, small notebook, recorder etc. noting down

things to trigger your memory
Add details who said what, when and where, add background
information to aid memory Thick description (Geertz, 1973)
If in doubt write it down (OReilly, 2008)
Regularity and discipline
Supplementing field notes Videos, voice recordings,
photographs. E.g events such as gatherings, processions,

Challenges in note-taking

Overt note taking in certain research settings or contexts E.g:

casual conversations, situations of conflict, situations heavily
laden with emotions
Writing field notes from memory
Time consuming even after the actual field work
Ethnographic research as iterative-inductive moving back and
Notes impose a structure on events, shape what you see and
hear since everything cannot be recorded.

Reporting approach

Introduction (problem, questions)

Research procedures (ethnography, data collection, analysis, outcomes)

Description of culture/ field

Analysis of cultural themes

Interpretation, lessons learned, questions raised

(Adapted from Wolcott, 1994; Creswell, 2007)

Ethics and reflexivity in ethnography

Challenge of anonymity could become literary and

Making researcher visible
Writing self helps but not the only focus creation of
Fieldwork is a highly personal experience both
strength and weakness of ethnography


Extensive and prolonged fieldwork

Narrative writing approach unlike traditional approaches to social science research
Possibility and risk of going native
Rapport Skills and Patience

Some good texts to read

The Remembered Village. By M. N. Srinivas.

Gang leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
Cultivating Development by David Mosse
Wages of Violence by TB Hansen