Ethnography: A Multi-method Approach

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 182-184).

Ethnography

There are several key strengths associated with ethnography. A critical differentiator of ethnography from other qualitative methods, that contributes greatly to the credibility of the data, is the in situ approach which allows the researcher to observe people’s actual experience. Another strength of ethnography is the process of immersion, especially if the observer assumes the role of complete participant, which enables the researcher to gain a sensibility and depth of understanding of the contextual, emotional, and social factors that define meaning within a group or for an individual.

Complementing the immersion process is the fact that ethnography is not an observation-only approach. Although observation typically represents the key component to an ethnographic study, true immersion and absorption in the study environment is derived from gaining participants’ input on many levels. Researchers often use observation as a starting point in the field from which they form an idea of where they need clarification or follow-up. This often leads to in-depth interviews or group discussions with participants and, in some instances, influential others (e.g., parents of the children participating in the Christensen et al. [2011] study). Unlike the multi-method approach discussed in this article, the utilization of multiple data sources in ethnography is squarely focused on augmenting the researcher’s observations, with the observations serving as the primary data. For example, an overt observer’s targeted questions may allow participants the opportunity to contribute their thoughts of what is going on in the study environment, help to clarify observed events for the observer, and enhance the observer’s ability to ultimately find patterns or themes in the study activities along with the meanings that participants associate with their actions. For a covert participant observer, this same process of augmenting observational data has to play out much more subtlety and with continued subterfuge, since the observer must avoid “blowing cover” while, at the same time, probing for information to help identify the patterns or themes without appearing to be doing so.

An ethnographic researcher studying the use of skiing equipment, for instance, might ask the skiers who are being observed (during a ski trip the researcher is taking with them) to discuss the circumstances that resulted in their switching helmets or the reasons they made particular adjustments on their skis. For the overt researcher these queries would be done explicitly and directly, whereas for the covert researcher they would be worked into what otherwise would appear to be normal conversation with other skiers. Other ancillary methods such as the review of relevant documents can also enrich observations and strengthen an ethnographic study overall. Russell et al. (2012), for example, were better able to understand their observations of team interaction among clinical and administrative staff in primary care offices by analyzing the internal communications and minutes from office meetings.

 

Christensen, P., Mikkelsen, M. R., Nielsen, T. A. S., & Harder, H. (2011). Children, mobility, and space: Using GPS and mobile phone technologies in ethnographic research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 5(3), 227–246. https://doi.org/10.1177/1558689811406121

Russell, G., Advocat, J., Geneau, R., Farrell, B., Thille, P., Ward, N., & Evans, S. (2012). Examining organizational change in primary care practices: Experiences from using ethnographic methods. Family Practice, 29(4), 455–461. https://doi.org/10.1093/fampra/cmr117

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