multiple methods

Ethnography & the Observation Method: 15 Articles on Design, Implementation, & Uses

“Ethnography & the Observation Method” is a compilation Ethnography & the Observation Methodthat includes a selection of 15 articles appearing in Research Design Review from 2013 to 2021. There are certainly many other articles in RDR that are relevant to ethnography and the observation method — such as those having to do with multiple methods, e.g., A Multi-method Approach in Qualitative Research, and a quality approach to design, e.g., Quality Frameworks in Qualitative Research, and transparency, e.g., Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency — however, the 15 articles chosen for this compilation  are specific to this method. It is hoped that this brief text will be useful to the student, the teacher, and the researcher who is interested in furthering their consideration of a quality approach to designing and conducting ethnographic studies.

“Ethnography & the Observation Method: 15 Articles on Design, Implementation, & Uses” is available for download here.

Five similar compilations, devoted to particular methods or techniques, are also available:

“Reflexivity: 10 Articles on the Role of Reflection in Qualitative Research” is available for download here.

“The Focus Group Method: 18 Articles on Design & Moderating” is available for download here.

“The In-depth Interview Method: 12 Articles on Design & Implementation” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Data Analysis: 16 Articles on Process & Method” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Research: Transparency & Reporting” is available for download here.

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

A Multi-method Approach in Qualitative Research

A portion of the following is taken from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 288-289).

In contrast to mixed methods, a multi-method approach in qualitative research is one in Multiple methodswhich the researcher combines two or more qualitative methods to investigate a research question or phenomenon. Although the terms “multi-method” and “multiple methods” are sometimes used to refer to qualitative–quantitative (or mixed-method) research (e.g., Brewer & Hunter, 2006; Snape & Spencer, 2003), this terminology is reserved here for research strategies that incorporate more than one qualitative method and do not include any quantitative methods.

Qualitative multi-method research—due to the additional data collection and analysis considerations—has the potential disadvantage of consuming valuable resources such as time and available research funds. However, this is not always the case and, under the appropriate conditions, multiple qualitative methods can prove very useful toward gaining a more fully developed complexity and meaning in the researcher’s understanding of a subject matter compared to a single-method research design (cf. Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Flick, 2007).

Ethnography is one such example. Observation is the principal method in an ethnographic study; however, it is often supplemented with other qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews (IDIs), focus group discussions, and/or documentary review in order to provide a more complete “picture” of the issue or phenomenon under investigation. Other applications of multi-method qualitative research are not uncommon. Lambert and Loiselle (2008), for instance, combined focus group discussions and IDIs in a study with cancer patients concerning their “information-seeking behavior.” These researchers found that this multi-method approach enriched the study because one method helped inform the other—for example, group discussions identified relevant questions/issues that were then used in the IDIs—and contributed unique information—for example, the IDIs were effective in obtaining details of patients’ information-seeking processes—as well as contextual clarification—for example, the focus groups were more valuable in highlighting contextual influences on these processes such as the physicians’ preferences or recommendations. Lambert and Loiselle concluded that the multi-method research design “enhanced understanding of the structure and essential characteristics of the phenomenon within the context of cancer” (p. 235).

Research Design Review has published articles on two special types of multiple-method qualitative research—case study and narrative research—each of which is a form of “case-centered” qualitative research, a term coined by Mishler (1996, 1999) and used by others (cf. Riessman, 2008) to denote a research approach that preserves the “unity and coherence” of the research subject throughout data collection and analysis. A six-step approach to case-centered research design is discussed in this article.

Regardless of the particular multi-method design or type of research, a multiple-method approach requires a unique set of qualitative researcher skills. These skills are discussed in this article—“Working with Multiple Methods in Qualitative Research: 7 Unique Researcher Skills.”

Brewer, J., & Hunter, A. (2006). Foundations of multimethod research: Synthesizing styles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Flick, U. (2007). Designing qualitative research. London: Sage Publications.

Lambert, S. D., & Loiselle, C. G. (2008). Combining individual interviews and focus groups to enhance data richness. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62(2), 228–237. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04559.x

Mishler, E. G. (1996). Missing persons: Recovering developmental stories/histories. In R. Jessor, A. Colby, & R. A. Shweder (Eds.), Ethnography and human development: Context and meaning in social inquiry (pp. 73–100). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Mishler, E. G. (1999). Storylines: Craftartitists’ narratives of identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Snape, D., & Spencer, L. (2003). The foundations of qualitative research. In J. Ritchie & J. Lewis (Eds.), Qualitative research practice. London: Sage Publications.