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Educational Research

Chapter 17
Ethnographic Research
Gay, Mills, and Airasian

Topics Discussed in this Chapter

The definition and purpose of

ethnographic research
The ethnographic research process
The types of ethnographic research
Key characteristics of ethnographic
research designs
Ethnographic research data collection

Definition and Purpose

Ethnographic research


A qualitative approach that studies the cultural

patterns and perspectives of participants in
their natural settings


To describe, analyze, and interpret the culture

of a group over time to understand the groups
shared beliefs, behaviors, and language
Objectives 1.1 & 1.2

Definition and Purpose

Ethnographic research

Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values,

concepts, beliefs, and practices that can be
attributed to the members of the group being

Three broad areas to help focus on tangible cultural


Cultural orientation where the people are situated

Cultural know-how how a group goes about daily
Cultural beliefs why a group does what it does
Objective 1.3

The Ethnographic Process

Nine steps to conduct an ethnographic study

Identify the purpose of the research study

Frame the study as a larger theoretical, policy, or

practical problem

The importance of most ethnographic problems is readily


Pose initial ethnographic research questions

A clear idea with some connection to cultural issues

Use general guiding questions that foreshadow the issue

Describe the overall approach and rationale for

the study
Objective 2.1

The Ethnographic Process

Nine steps (continued)

Describe the site and sample selection

The use of purposive sampling techniques

The use of key informants

Describe the researchers role

Entry to the site

Objective 2.1

The Ethnographic Process

Nine steps (continued)

Describe the data collection methods

Describe appropriate strategies for the analysis

and interpretation of data

Participant observation
Field notes

Use the methods discussed in the chapter on data

collection and analysis

Write the ethnographic account

Objective 2.1

Types of Ethnographic Research

Two differentiating features

The product itself, that is, the ethnography

The researchers intent

Three common types

The realist ethnography

The author studies the culture of schools

Written in an objective style
Uses common categories for cultural
description, analysis, and interpretation
Objectives 3.1 & 3.2

Types of Ethnographic Research

Three common types (continued)

The ethnographic case study

The focus is on describing a specific case

Descriptions of the activities undertaken by the group and the
shared patterns of behavior that develop over time

The critical ethnography

The author is interested in advocating for the emancipation of

groups marginalized in our society
Highly politicized
Advocates against inequities and domination of particular
groups in society
Addresses issues of power, authority, emancipation,
oppression, and inequity
Objectives 3.1 & 3.2

Characteristics of Ethnographic Research

15 distinctive characteristics

Conducted in a natural context

Involves intimate face-to-face interactions with
Reflects participants perspectives and behaviors
Uses inductive, interactive, and recursive
collection of unstructured data
Data is collected primarily through fieldwork
Objective 4.1

Characteristics of Ethnographic Research

15 distinctive characteristics (continued)

Uses multiple data sources including both

quantitative and qualitative
Frames all human behavior and beliefs within a
socio-political and historical context
Uses the concept of culture as a lens through
which the results are interpreted
Places an emphasis on exploring the nature of
particular social phenomena
Objective 4.1

Characteristics of Ethnographic Research

15 distinctive characteristics (continued)

Investigates a small number of cases in detail

Uses data analyses that involve the explicit
interpretation of the meanings and functions of
human actions that are presented through the
description of themes and interpretations within
the context or group setting
Offers interpretations of peoples actions and
behaviors that are uncovered through the
investigation of what they actually do and the
reasons for doing it
Objective 4.1

Characteristics of Ethnographic Research

15 distinctive characteristics (continued)

Offers a representation or interpretation of

peoples lives and behaviors that is neither the
researchers or the participants but is built on
the points of understanding and misunderstanding
that occur between the researcher and
Are necessarily partial, bound by what can be
handled within a certain time, under certain
specific circumstances, and from a particular
Objective 4.1

Ethnographic Techniques

Three major techniques

Participant observation
Field notes


Collecting data using many sources rather than a

single one
Multiple sources


Objective 5.1

Ethnographic Techniques

Triangulation (continued)

Multiple informants
Consistency across sources and informants creates
a stronger understanding of what is truly going on

Participant observation

The researcher is immersed in the research setting

in order to get close to those studied as a way of
understanding what their experiences and
activities mean to them
Objectives 5.1 & 5.2

Ethnographic Techniques

Participant observation (continued)

Two purposes

To observe the activities, people, and physical aspects of

a situation
To engage in activities that provide useful information in
a given situation

Three varying degrees of participation

Active participant observer active engagement

Privileged active observer engaged in a more active,
privileged manner such as teaching a lesson
Passive observer little, if any, engagement
Objectives 5.3 & 5.4

Ethnographic Techniques

Participant observation (continued)

Recommended social behaviors

Negotiating entrance into the setting requires

the researcher to be able to clearly describe the
purpose, plan, and constraints likely associated
with the research
Reciprocity requires the researcher to move
between formal and informal ways of
interacting with participants
Objective 5.5

Ethnographic Techniques

Recommended social behaviors


The researcher must have a tolerance for

The researcher must have personal
determination coupled with a faith in oneself

Objective 5.5

Ethnographic Techniques

Field notes

A record of the researchers understanding

of the lives, people, and events that are
the focus of the research
The link between field notes and the

What is observed is ultimately treated as data

When writing field notes researchers should
give particular attention to the indigenous
meanings and concerns of the people studied
Objective 5.6

Ethnographic Techniques

The link between field notes and the

research (continued)

Field notes provide essential grounding for

writing broader, more coherent accounts of
others lives and concerns
Field notes detail the social and interactional
processes that make up peoples everyday
lives and activities
Objective 5.6

Ethnographic Techniques

Recommendations for observing and

recording field notes

Make mental notes and record them as

soon as possible after observing
Jot down key information

Capture key words and phrases without a lot of

Use a mnemonic device to help reconstruct the
observed events
Objective 5.7

Ethnographic Techniques

Recommendations (continued)

Dont worry about grammar or other rules

Trace what you did during the day
Avoid the temptation to recreate dialogue
Describe as completely and accurately as
you can all relevant aspects of the
Objective 5.7

Ethnographic Techniques

Recommendations (continued)

Record your personal reactions (i.e.,

reflective field notes)
Observe and record everything you
possibly can
Observe and look for nothing in particular
Look for bumps or paradoxes
Objective 5.7