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).


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.

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.

Qualitative Research: Design, Methods, & Online Mode

In 2020, there were 14 articles published in Research Design Review. These articles include those qualitative research design, methods, online modepertaining to broad issues in qualitative research design, such as sample size, as well as more narrow topics concerning specific qualitative methods – focus groups, ethnography, in-depth interviews, and case study research – and the online mode. A compilation of these articles is now available here for download.

In addition to these 14 articles, six compilations of earlier RDR articles were released in 2020 for download. These include:

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.