May 08, 2005

Doing ethnography – quotes


‘[Ethnography is] a particular method or set of methods which in its most characteristic form… involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of research’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995: 1 cited in Walsh 2000: 226).

‘Ethnography is not a particular method of data collection but a style of research that is distinguished by its objectives, which are to understand the social meanings and activities of people in a given ‘field’ or setting, and an approach, which involves close association with, and often participation in, this setting’ (Brewer 2000: 59).

Participant observation:
This ‘involves data gathering by means of participation in the daily life of informants in their natural setting: watching, observing and talking to them in order to discover their interpretations, social meanings and activities’ (Brewer 2000: 59)

Researchers who become participant observers must attempt to ‘maintain the balance between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status; to identify with the people under study and get close to them, but maintaining a professional distance which permits adequate observation and data collection. It is a fine balance…’ (ibid: 59-60)

‘A proper balance in the participant observer’s dual role as part insider and part outsider gives them the opportunity to be inside and outside the setting, to be simultaneously member and non-member, and to participate while also reflecting critically on what is observed and gathered while doing so’ (ibid: 60).

Brewer differentiates beteen ‘participant observation’ (acquisition of a new role) and ‘observant participation’ (utilisation of an existing role to observe aspects of a familiar or unfamiliar setting’). It is this latter form of observation that Skeggs undertakes in her research.

‘With observant participation there are no problems of resocialization, acceptance or misunderstanding, since it is a familiar role and often in a familiar setting, but the observer must have a suitable role in which to observe where probing questions can be asked without appearing unusual or untypical. The role must be permanent enough to allow intensive observation of a period of time and be sufficiently broad and encompassing to permit access to a cross-section of events, activites and people in the field…’ (ibid: 61-2)
Although the researcher is able to get overt ‘insider’ status, observant participation nevertheless ‘reduces the capactiy of the researcher to achieve distance from the friendships, group ties and years of association built around the role that is being used for observation purposes’ (ibid: 62).

This method requires simultaneous ‘involvement and detachment’.

Selectivity: a problem of personal perspective, partiality, influenced by various conditions:

‘Postmodern ethnographers recognize that the participant observer’s view is a view, and a view is sometimes better than no view, and there are occasions when there is no alternative to a period of participant observation, but it should never stand alone as a research method for these sorts of reasons’ (ibid: 62-3).

‘Since interviewers are human beings acting in a face-to-face encounter that forms a piece of social interaction, they [postmodern ethnographers] query the role played by the interviewer, whom they see as ‘creating’ or ‘producing’ the data… Interview data are thus ‘situated’ and context bound to the interviewer (much like the participant observer). They are also bound to the situation in which they were collected’ (ibid: 67).

Feminist interviews redraw the power relationship between respondent and researcher to better access the subject’s voice. Conventional interviewing is critiqued as masculine; instead, ‘stress is laid on capturing women’s narratives, stories and biographical experiences by means of natural conversations in a personalized manner where interviewer and subject are partners’ (ibid: 68)

Feminist interviews involve: ‘openness, emotional engagement and the development of potentially long-term relationships based on trust and emotional reciprocity’ (ibid: 69). c.f. Ann Oakley – this contrasts markedly with the positivistic ethic of detachment / role distance and attempts to redress the patriarchal power struggle through the empowerment of subjects.

Furthermore, the purpose of a feminist interview is to offer benefits to participants such as empowerment, ‘enabling them to deal better with the problems they experience as women’ (ibid: 69).

Focus on particular topics e.g. women’s lives / experiences, which are ‘revealed and disclosed in their own words and in their own way in an interview situation in which they are empowered and not made to feel subordinate’ (ibid: 69).

‘Ethnographers are perhaps unique among social researchers in sharing the lives of the people they study. This means that they cannot… work as if in a vacuum – they pry into people’s innermost secrets, witness their failures and participate in their lives- which means they must operate a code of ethics that respects their informants’ (ibid: 89).

Even though overt research remains the best choice, entailing a great amount of openness, it can also be ‘invasive’ and ‘intrude on privacy’, involving ‘varying degrees of truth’ (ibid: 99).

‘The myth that ethnographers are people without personal identity, historical location and personality, and would all produce the same findings in the same setting, is the mistake of naive realism’ (ibid: 99).

‘Complete participation in the situation is impossible; such immersion would risk going native, and so a degree of marginality in the situation is needed to do research… a poise between a strangeness that avoids over-rapport and a familiarity that grasps the perspective of people in the situation’ (Walsh: 233, emphasis in original).

‘This position creates considerable strain on the researcher as it engenders insecurity, produced by living in two worlds simultaneously, that of participation and that of research’ (ibid).

Rather than viewing research as a series of hermetic stages, modern methodology conceives research as process: ‘It does not follow a neat pattern but is a messy interaction between the research problem, the design of the research and data collection and analysis’ (Brewer: 102-3).

Validation / verification
1. Member validation – ‘consists of the ethnographer showing findings to the people studied and seeking verification in which the actors recognize a correspondence between the findings and what they, the actors, say and do. Thus verification is largely reduced to a matter of authenticity’ (ibid: 236). Problems = actors not being privileged observers of own actions, lack of conscious awareness about their actions, desire to rationalise beliefs/behaviours, or no interest in the ethnographic account

2. Triangulation
Often entails the employment of multiple methods, ‘triangulation’ as Denzin (1970) first termed a combination of methods of data collection e.g. participant observation, in-depth interviewing, personal documents, discourse analysis. Although traditionally associated with humanist, positivist and post postmodern notions of ethnography as a means of improving the ‘fit’ between analysis and the ‘reality’ it aimed to represent, even within postmodern ethnography it has relevance as an alternative to validation:

‘Practitioners recognize that all methods impose perspectives on reality by the type of data that they collect, and each tends to reveal something sightly different about the same symbolic ‘reality’ (Brewer: 76) – even if researchers can hardly claim that a final ‘truth’ has been unveiled and represented.

Ethnography presents problems – both analytical and ethical e.g. dependent on building up rapport / trust with people in feild, whilst using this to generate / collect data from them. Even in overt research this is problematic because researcher must withhold disclosure about activities to maintain sociability and gain access. Ethical issues also affect research publication – e.g. political implications damaging the people whose lives have been investigated.

‘Yet ethnography, through participant observation of the social and cultural worlds, opens out the possibility of an understanding of reality which no other method can realize’ (Walsh: 237).


Brewer, John. 2000. Ethnography. In Bryman, Alan (ed.). 2000. Understanding Social Research. (Place: publisher?)

Skeggs, B. 1994. ‘Situating the production of feminist ethnography’ in M. Maynard and J. Purvis (eds), Researching Women’s Lives from a Feminist Perspective. London: Taylor and Francis.

Walsh, David. 2000. Doing ethnography. In Seale, Clive (ed.). 2004. Researching Society and Culture (2nd ed). London: Sage.

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