observational research

Ethnography: Number of Observations

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 199-201), a qualitative methods text covering in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography, qualitative content analysis, case study, and narrative research.

An important decision that ethnographic researchers need to make is the ethnographynumber of observations to conduct, or, more accurately, the number of:

  • Sites to observe.
  • People within sites to observe.
  • Observational events (e.g., how often to revisit a particular site).

Addressing this question can be complex—a process of both art and science—or fairly straightforward. In the simplest case, the number of sites to observe and observation events will be dictated by the (1) breadth and depth of the research objectives, (2) breadth and depth of the target population, and/or (3) practical realities of the research (e.g., the accessibility of the target participants, financial resources, and time available to complete the study). If, for example, the research objective is to examine the implementation of new procedures at a county free clinic, the number of sites to observe is just one (the clinic) and the frequency of observations will be determined by such factors as the fluctuation in the patient load (i.e., the slow- and high-volume hours in the clinic) and level of procedural details the observer wants to capture.

A more complex situation arises when the focus of the research is on a broad target population such as consumers. For instance, ethnographic research to study how consumers shop for vitamins would most likely require many observations of the same or different individuals within a variety of retail environments (e.g., supermarkets, drug stores, and superstores such as Read Full Text

The Five Observer Roles in Ethnography

There are many variations of observational research, both off-and online, but central to the ethnographic approach is the role of the observer. This role has to do with both the physical as well as the psychological or emotional distance between the observer and the observed, and can range from remote off-site observation to complete immersion and participation in the study activities.

Broadly speaking, the observer is conducting either nonparticipant or participant observation. In nonparticipant observation, the observer may be either off- or onsite; and, in participant observation, the observer may be passive, a participant-observer, or a complete participant. Importantly, the observer may switch roles in the course of a study, e.g., moving from an on-site nonparticipant observer to a passive observer, then a participant-observer, and then a complete participant. These five observer roles are depicted below.

ethnography observer roles

Nonparticipant Observation

As a nonparticipant, the observer is observing in an unobtrusive manner either remotely (off-site) or within the study environment (onsite). An off-site nonparticipant observation might be the study of an online community or forum without any Read Full Text