ARTICLE 92: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Analysis: Part 4 of 7 Parts: Ethnographic analysis

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I wonder if ethnographic research was ever as vitally important as now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way people live, interact, socialise and survive.

No doubt, research on how to combat the virus is still the priority.

However, while numerous researchers are frantically working on finding an effective and safe vaccine, life goes on.

And it will take long before everybody is vaccinated anyway.

And we need to determine what the impact of unemployment, financial difficulties, famine, crime and the loss of loved ones on our psychological health is.

And we need to find ways in which to cope with the new reality.

I discuss ethnographic analysis in this article.

Ethnographic analysis typically addresses the issue of ‘what is going on’ between the participants in some segment (or segments) of the data, in great analytical depth and detail. Ethnographic studies aim to provide contextual, interpretive accounts of their participants’ social worlds.

Ethnographic analysis is rarely systematic or comprehensive: rather, it is selective and limited in scope. Its main advantage is to permit a detailed, partially interpretive, account of mundane features of the social world. This account may be limited to processes within the focus group itself, or (more typically) it may take the focus group discussion as offering a ‘window’ on participants’ lives.

Ethnographic analysis aims to ground interpretation in the particularities of the situation under study, and in ‘participants’ (rather than ‘analysts’) perspectives. Data are generally presented as accounts of social phenomena or social practices, substantiated by illustrative quotations from the focus group discussion. Key issues in ethnographic analysis are:

•           how to select the material to present,

•           how to give due weight to the specific context within which the material was generated, while retaining some sense of the group discussion as a whole, and

•           how best to prioritise participants’ orientation in presenting an interpretive account.

Researchers using ethnographic research, such as observing people in their natural settings, often ask the question what role the researcher should adopt when conducting research: an overt and announced role or a covert and secret role? The most common roles that you as the researcher may play are complete participation, participation as an observer, observer as a participant and complete observer.

The complete participant seeks to engage fully in the activities of the group or organisation being researched. Thus, this role requires you to enter the setting covertly so that the participants will not be aware of your presence or at least not aware that you are doing research on them. By doing research covertly you are supposed to be able to gather more accurate information than if participants were aware of what you are doing – they should act more naturally than otherwise. The benefit of the covert approach is that you should gain better understanding of the interactions and meanings that are held important to those regularly involved in the group setting. Covert research can, however, expose you to the risk that your efforts might prove unsuccessful, especially if the participants find out that you were doing research on them without them being informed and without their agreement. Such research can also lead to damage to the participants in many ways, for example by embarrassing them, damaging their career prospects, damaging their personal relationships, etc.

You will act ethically and more safely if you, as the researcher observe a group or individual and participate in their activities. In this case you formally make your presence and intentions known to the group being studied and you ask for their permission. This may involve a general announcement that you will be conducting research, or a specific introduction as the researcher when meeting the various people who will form part of the target group for the research.

This approach requires of you to develop sufficient rapport with the participants to gain their support and co-operation. You will need to explain to them why the research is important and how they will benefit from it. The possibility exists that you may become emotionally involved in the activities and challenges of the target group, which might have a negative effect on your ability to interpret information objectively.

The researcher as observer only is, as we already discussed, an etic approach. Here you will distance yourself from the idea of participation but still do your research openly and in agreement with the target group. Such transparent research often involves visiting just one site or a setting that is offered only once. It will probably be necessary to do relatively formal observation. The risk exists that you may fail to adequately appreciate certain informal norms, roles, or relationships and that the group might not trust you and your intentions, which is why the period of observation should not be too long.

The complete and unannounced observer tends to be a covert role. In this case, you typically remain in the setting for a short period of time but are a passive observer to the flow of activities and interactions.


Ethnographic analysis:

  1. Analyses events and phenomena in a social context.
  2. Is selective and limited in scope.
  3. Delivers a detailed interpretation of commonplace features of the social world.
  4. Focuses on specific aspects of the target group’s lives.

Key issues of ethnographic analysis are:

  1. How data to analyse is selected.
  2. The context on which the collection and analysis focuses.
  3. Interpretation and description of the findings by focusing on the target group’s orientation.

Observation is often used for the collection of data.

An emic or etic approach can be followed.

An etic approach is often also executed covertly.

Covert collection of data can promote accuracy because the target group for the research will probably behave naturally if they do not know that they are being observed.

A covert approach can be rendered inadvisable because of ethical considerations.

An overt approach requires gaining the trust of the target group for the research.


You probably noticed that it is near impossible to discuss data collection and data analysis separately.

Besides, ethnography is a research method, and ethnographic data collection and analysis are part of the method.

Natural scientists will probably only use it to trace the ontology of scientific concepts or phenomena.

And then the data will be historical in nature.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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