Gathering Quality Ethnographic Data: 3 Key Considerations

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 204-206).

Data Gathering is one of two broad areas of the Total Quality Framework Credibility component that affects all qualitative research, incEthnography peacockluding ethnographic research. There are three primary aspects concerning the gathering of data in ethnography that require serious consideration by the researcher in the development of the study design. To optimize the measurement of ethnographic data, and hence the quality of the outcomes, researchers need to pay attention to:

  • How well the observers have identified and recorded all the information (e.g., verbal and nonverbal behavior, attitudes, context, sensory cues) pertinent to the research objectives and constructs of interest. A well-developed observation guide and observation grid can assist greatly in this effort. Not unlike the development of an in-depth interview or discussion guide, the ethnographer seeks to identify those observable events—including the specific individuals (or types of individuals), the verbal and nonverbal behaviors, attitudes, sensory and other environmental cues—that will further the researcher’s understanding of the issues. During the design development phase, the researcher might isolate the observations of interest by:
    • Looking at earlier ethnographic research on the subject matter and/or with similar study populations.
    • Interviewing the clients or those who have requested the research to learn everything they know about the topic and   their past work in the area.
    • Consulting the literature or other experts concerning the behaviors and other occurrences associated with particular constructs.
    • “Shagging around” (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982) the observation site(s) to casually assess the environment and begin to learn about the participants.

 

  • Observer effects, specifically—
    • Observer bias, that is, behavioral and other characteristics (e.g., personal attitudes, values, traits) of the observer that may alter the observed event or bias their observations. For example, an observer as a complete participant would bias the observational data if there was an attempt to “educate” participants on a subject matter for which the observer had personal expertise or knowledge.
    • Observer inconsistency, that is, an inconsistent manner in which the observer conducts the observations that creates unwarranted and unrepresentative variation in the data. For example, an on-site nonparticipant observer conducting in-home observations of the use of media and technology would be introducing inaccuracies in the data by observing and recording the use of television and gaming in some households but not in others where television and gaming activities took place.

 

  • Participant effects, specifically, the extent to which observed participants alter a naturally occurring event, leading to biased outcomes. This is often called the Hawthorne effect, whereby the people being observed, either consciously or unconsciously, change what is being measured in the observation because they are aware of the observer. For example, an ethnographer conducting an overt, on-site passive observation of teaching practices in a school district would come away with misleading data if one or more school teachers deviated from their usual teaching styles during the observations in order to more closely conform with district policies.

 

LeCompte, M. D., & Goetz, J. P. (1982). Ethnographic data collection in evaluation research. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 4(3), 387–400.

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

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