Andrew Austin © 2011. 2012
Consult the syllabus for expectations on format, style, word count, deadlines,
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
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
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
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
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
6. Sampling strategies will be of the non-probability type: theoretical,
purposive, and snowball.
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.