The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 212-213).
To safeguard the Credibility of the data generated from ethnographic research, it is important that the observer conduct observations in a manner that does not vary greatly across observation events. Regardless of the nonparticipant or participant role (overt or covert), the observer must be trained to understand why consistency matters and how inconsistency may result in unacceptable levels of unwarranted variation in the data.
Maintaining consistency can present a particular challenge in ethnography, where the unpredictability of naturally occurring events can make it difficult to maintain constant focus on the key elements related to the research objectives. Although the participants and the specific activities themselves will change from observation event to observation event, it is critical to the quality of data gathering that, for each observation, the observer concentrates on identifying and recording the behaviors, conversations, contextual factors, and other elements pertaining to the priority areas of observation (determined in the research design phase) and constructs of interest.
For example, in an in-person study to observe the use of a recreational park area among community residents on various days and times of the week, the observer must give deliberate attention to each component of the park relevant to the research objectives. If the observer focuses their observation on the children’s playground on some days, the soccer field on other days, and occasionally on the hiking trails, the research results will fail to provide a realistic assessment of residents’ use of the community park.
Although the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of ethnography—and its ability to challenge the observer’s attention to key variables—is a leading cause of inconsistent data collection, the quality of an observer’s observation may also vary due to inadequate training or personal reasons such as sickness or fatigue. Regardless of the cause, the ethnographer should strive for consistency across all observations by making sure that observers understand and are trained on the following:
- Research objectives, including background information on the topic and how the results of the research will be used.
- Specific areas or elements of observation that are prioritized, including the rationale for their priority status.
- Specific constructs or issues that are prioritized, including the rationale for their priority status.
- Observation grid, including how it is designed to be used (as both a recording and a reflexive device), how to complete the grid, and how to add important but unanticipated observational components to the grid.
- Types of observation sites the observer will be working in and how identifying the particular elements of observations of interest may be difficult in some instances—for example, observing a hiking trail at the community park may be narrow and congested—requiring the observer to work rigorously to stay alert and, in addition to taking in the scene as a whole, be ever mindful of the key elements in the observations related to the research objectives.
- Ways to deal with stress and fatigue on the job.