research design

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.

Elevating Qualitative Design to Maximize Research Integrity

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 9-10).

All research that is aimed at understanding how people think and behave requires a principled approach to research design that is likely to maximize data quality and to instill users’ confidence in the research outcomes. This is no less so in qualitative than it is in quantitative research; and, in fact, the distinctive attributes and underlying complexities in qualitative research necessitate a quality approach to qualitative research design. This approach requires qualitative researchers to build certain principles into their research studies by way of incorporating and practicing fundamental research standards.

Total Quality FrameworkTo that end, the Total Quality Framework (TQF) was devised to provide a basis by which researchers can develop critical thinking skills necessary to the execution of qualitative designs that maximize the integrity of the research outcomes. This framework is not intended to prescribe a formula or specific procedure by which qualitative researchers should conduct qualitative inquiry. Rather, the TQF provides researchers with a flexible way to focus on quality issues, examine the sources of variability and possible bias in their qualitative methods, and incorporate features into their designs that mitigate these effects and maximize quality outcomes. Integral to the TQF is the idea that all qualitative research must be Credible, Analyzable, Transparent, and Useful. These four components are fundamental to the TQF and its ability to help researchers identify the strengths and limitations of their qualitative methods while also guiding them in the qualitative research design process.

By holding the quality of qualitative research design to a deep level of scrutiny when applied across the diverse, multidisciplinary fields utilizing qualitative methods — e.g., education; psychology; anthropology; sociology; nursing, public health, and medicine; communication; information management; business; geography and environmental science; and program evaluation — the discussion of qualitative research is significantly elevated and enables students, faculty, and practitioners to design and interpret qualitative research studies based on the quality standards that are the hallmark of the TQF.

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

Qualitative Research in APA Style

For the first time ever, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association [APA], APA Publication Manual2020) now includes relevant discussions pertaining to qualitative research. In the 7th (most recent) edition, the APA manual now integrates definitions and explanations of qualitative articles along side quantitative articles, gives a description and outlines approaches to qualitative meta-analyses in addition to quantitative meta-analyses, offers the reader unique data-sharing considerations associated with qualitative research, and presents a lengthy, detailed section on the “Reporting Standards for Qualitative Research.”

Even if you are not a devotee of the APA referencing style, qualitative researchers will benefit from reviewing the considerations found in the manual. For instance, the APA reporting standards stipulate five main areas for the Method section of a qualitative research article: 1) overview of the research design; 2) research participants and/or other data sources; 3) participant recruitment; 4) data collection; and 5) data analysis. It is noteworthy that in the Method area pertaining to research participants, APA recommends that the author go beyond discussing the number and demographic or cultural characteristics of the study participants to include “personal history factors” (e.g., trauma exposure, family history) “that are relevant to the specific contexts and topics of their research” (p. 100). With their emphasis on specific contexts, APA cites Morse (2008) and her discussion on the importance of reporting relevant details of the participants, which may or may not include demographic information — “Some demographic information may be pertinent: If it is, keep it; if not, do not report it” (p. 300). Morse goes on to remind researchers that “in qualitative inquiry, the description of the context is often as important as the description of the participants” (p. 300).

In addition to these characteristics, the APA style also states that, in the spirit of transparency, authors of a qualitative research article should discuss the researcher-participant relationship. Specifically, the manual asks authors to “describe the relationships and interactions between researchers and participants that are relevant to the research process and any impact on the research process (e.g., any relationships prior to the study, any ethical considerations relevant to prior relationships)” (p. 100).

These and other discussions on reporting standards — e.g., pertaining to the participant recruitment process and sampling, data collection strategy, and data analysis, along with a discussion of methodological integrity — are useful reading to not only the researcher who hopes to publish their work but also to qualitative researchers who are looking for a condensed version of qualitative research design considerations.

It has been a long time coming but hats off to APA for acknowledging qualitative methods and for giving careful thought to the unique attributes associated with qualitative designs in adapting their style standards.

American Psychological Association. (2020). The publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Washington, DC.

Morse, J. M. (2008). “What’s your favorite color?” Reporting irrelevant demographics in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 18(3), 299–300.