qualitative methods

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

“Ethnography & the Observation Method” is a new 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.

Towards a Credible In-depth Interview: Building Rapport

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 88-89).

IDI RapportNot unlike the discussion in “Building Rapport & Engagement in the Focus Group Method,” a necessary skill of the in-depth interviewer is the ability to build rapport with the interviewee. Rapport building begins early in the study design and continues through completion of the in-depth interview (IDI). The following are just a few guidelines that IDI interviewers should consider using in order to establish a trusting relationship with their interviewees and maximize the credibility of their outcomes:

  • Regardless of the mode by which the IDIs will be conducted, the interviewer should contact each recruited interviewee on the telephone at least once prior to the scheduled interview to begin establishing rapport. This preliminary conversation helps the interviewer and the interviewee make a personal connection, manage their respective expectations, and facilitate an open dialogue at the interview stage. In addition to building rapport, an early personal exchange with the interviewee also instills legitimacy in the research, which further aids in the interview process and makes the interviewee comfortable in providing detailed, thoughtful, and credible data.
  • The interviewer’s preliminary communication with the interviewee should make clear (a) the purpose of the study and the interviewer’s association with the research; (b) the anticipated length of the study (i.e., a date when the research is expected to be completed); (c) the breadth of the interview (i.e., the range of topics that will be covered); (d) the depth of the interview (i.e., the level of detail that may be requested, either directly or indirectly); (e) the time commitment required of the interviewee (e.g., length of a telephone IDI, the frequency participants are expected to check email messages in an email IDI study); and (f) the material incentive (e.g., cash, a gift card).
  • The interviewer should make a conscious effort to interject a sign of sincere interest in the interviewee’s remarks, but do so in a nonevaluative fashion, without displaying either approval or disapproval with the sentiment being expressed by the interviewee (e.g., “Your comments interest me, please go on”).
  • Particularly in the telephone and online modes, the interviewer must be able to identify and respond to cues in the conversation—for example, the interviewee’s audible hesitations or the background noise in a telephone IDI, or nonresponse from an email participant. The email interviewer also needs to be sensitive to the idea that they may have misjudged the participant’s intent. For instance, Bowker and Tuffin (2004) report on the potential difficulty in judging whether an email IDI participant has more to say on a topic or whether certain questions would be deemed redundant. In either case, these potential miscalculations on the part of the interviewer can interfere with the interviewer–participant relationship, with interview participants providing short retorts, such as, “Yes, that was the end [of my comments]!” (Bowker & Tuffin, 2004, p. 237).
  • With telephone IDIs, the interviewer–interviewee relationship can be enhanced by adding a webcam and/or an online component. The ability to see the interviewee and/or present stimuli to them (e.g., new program service features, promotional concepts, audio and video clips) during the interview takes advantage of the benefits of face-to-face contact.


Bowker, N., & Tuffin, K. (2004). Using the online medium for discursive research about people with disabilities. Social Science Computer Review, 22(2), 228–241. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439303262561

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.


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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. 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