Ethnography Experience
Andrew Austin © 2011

Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows.  These meanings are handled in, or modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters. Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism 

Ethnography, or field research/study, is the first-hand study of a social setting (a workplace, marketplace, etc.) or cultural phenomena (music culture, social movement, and so forth), the purpose of which is to describe empirical facts and interpret the meaning of social activity and its products. Ethnographic approaches range from strict observation with little direct interaction with research subjects to active participation in on-going social activity.

The ethnographic approach typically involves the following steps:
1. Select a research area or subject.
2. Review the literature concerning that area or something approximating it.
3. Identify which variables are of interest to you and of importance to the subjects under study.  Develop sensitizing concepts.
4. Developing a plan on how to enter the field site and maintain a presence there, as well as how to exit gracefully.
5. Gather data. This requires taking careful field notes of observations and interviews.
6. After completing the data collection phase, you systematically analyze the data for patterns and meanings. In doing this, it is important to attempt to consider the world from the perspective of the participants.

Since the summer schedule is compressed, it is not possible to produce a rich ethnographic study. The goal of the assignment is an ethnographic experience. Reserve some part of a day to conduct a brief field study. Because there will not be time to secure approval from the IRB (Institutional Review Board), this study cannot be used for any purpose other than the present course. This is strictly a course assignment.

More on Ethnography

In field study, the emphasis is on symbols, language, music, artifacts, action, and interaction. Data are in the form of texts, discourses, and social behavior. Researchers tend to be interpretive rather than positivistic. They see social reality as symbolic and socially constructed, rather than as numbers to be plugged into equations. Researchers are curious about everyday life, how meanings are collectively and socially produced during interaction and in context, how social actors perceive, define, make sense of their social world.

Choosing a Site

Pick a site that will provide you with data appropriate to your research question or questions. Find out what you can about site beforehand. Issues:
1. Number of sites. Will this be a single place or setting, or multiple places or settings?
2. Public versus private settings. How open is the setting? What is your degree of access?
3. Are you familiar with the setting? Benefits to familiarity are entrée and rapport. Drawbacks are biased preconceptions.
4. Practical considerations. What is the time and risk involved? Are there dangers? What are your personal characteristics and attitudes? If you are an impatient anti-racist, how well will you do studying the Ku Klux Klan?
5. Ethical issues. Are there vulnerable individuals? Is this a disadvantaged group? What is your purpose there?
Planning Field Research

Decide what role you will assume in the research site. Will you assume an existing role? Will you creating a new role? The role of the novice is often a useful strategy. Issues:
1. Level of involvement. Problems of objectivity and risk must be considered.
2. Disclosure. Will you be deceiving people?
3. Access to data. Have you identified insiders, gatekeepers, and key informants?
4. Researcher effect. Will your presence alter the conditions?
5. Entrée and rapport. Develop strategies for entering and moving through the research site. Trust and openness are important. Obtaining and maintain informant confidence.
6. Sampling strategies will be of the non-probability type: theoretical, purposive, and snowball.

Recording Data

Determine the types of data you are interested in and the best methods of collecting that kind of data. You cannot observe and record everything. Theory and sensitizing concepts will often guide and shape the data you collect, but be prepared to think outside the box. Will you just observe? Will you engage in casual conversation? Will you conduct in-depth interviews?

When taking notes it is crucial to distinguishing observations, interpretations, and feelings. I recommend designing a note taking pad with categories for observations, analytical concepts, and impressions. Rewrite your notes and file them along with catalog notes. If you use electronic recordings, transcribe them as soon as possible. When using electronic recordings it is best to inform the subjects they are being recorded. This may seem obtrusive, but subjects soon forget they are being recorded. Your questions will be of a greater annoyance than the audio or video recorder.

There are two basic strategies for note taking, largely determined by the character of the research and field site:
1. Simultaneous note taking (which includes recording). Write more, not less.
2. After-the-fact note taking. Do not rely on memory any more than you have to. Write more, not less

Pros and Cons of Fieldwork

What are the strengths of this approach? Many, I think. Performed carefully, findings enjoy greater validity and depth of understanding of subjects’ own experiences. Put another way, field work provides a means of achieving verstehen, or subjective understanding. Ethnography offers new insights and may lead to the development of new and creative theory. Field work is more flexible than positivistic models and it can be relatively inexpensive. Weaknesses? There are several. It is time consuming and possibly risky. Ethical problems can pop up with alarming regularity. The give and take in the field lacks precision and reliability. Some would say that it is subjective and interpretive, but I don’t view that as a weakness. Generalization is problematic (the solution to which is avoid over-generalizing).

Is field research scientific?

Field research is the first-hand observation of social life in its natural settings/environments. Is field research scientific? Good science is theoretical, empirical, logical, objective, skeptical, and systematic.  The scientific character of this research practice is open to interpretation. In my view, ethnographic work is scientific to the extent that is models the practices of good science.