ARTICLE 27: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnography

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Why would academics do research about people that they probably regard as inferior?

In a positive vein, probably because they want to help those who are less fortunate than them.

Did the researchers ask the people if they needed or wanted help?

I would think yes, at least most of the time. But not always.

And if the researchers try to help, will they do the right thing?

Unfortunately, not always.

I think it can be humiliating and frustrating to have outsiders dissect your value system and the way you have lived for centuries.

And then they tell you how you should live and what you should do.

Remember, these people know their culture and way of life and they are watching you while you observe them.

Sometimes it can be funny, but it can also be embarrassing and lead to serious damage and harm to both the people being researched and the researcher.

It is not easy for an outsider to understand the culture and being of another population group.

People with a populist orientation will probably feel that such differences are not important and that it should be eliminated.

That, however, is not the reality for many nations.

For an outsider ethnography as a research method is much more difficult than we think. That is also why many researchers embarrassed themselves when they tried to tell the world how people from other cultures think, live and do things.

What is ethnography?

Some may regard ethnography and ethnomethodology as the same thing.

They are not entirely wrong.

Ethnomethodology is the philosophy behind ethnic research.

Ethnomethodology claims that research deals with everyday life amongst people in a social setting; where currently observed behavior and interaction provides the most accurate and valid data.

For the purposes of this post, ethnomethodology is regarded as a paradigm that can be used with ethnography, which is a research method.

Ethnography, therefore, is the method by which ethnic research is conducted.

I will discuss ethnomethodology as a paradigm in a future post.

How did ethnography begin?

Ethnography mostly has colonialism as its foundation.

It relates to distant cultures that were occupied by the seafaring nations, largely between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Colonialism came to an end in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The influence of colonization can still be seen in what used to be colonies and is popular as a topic of research.

Unfortunately, some researchers call any kind of quantitative research ethnography.

Ethnography has traditionally been associated with social and cultural anthropology.

Sources consulted in ethnography

Ethnographic research sometimes needs to be done through semi-structured interviews or literature study that will include official documents.

This can include historical data and not just current observations.

The process of ethnographic study

Ethnography encompasses forms of research that are extremely diverse from a methodological point of view.

Ethnography can have a contemporary or historical focus.

It is the aim of ethnography to establish the hidden inferences that distinguish, for example, different eating habits.

Such a phenomenon is then placed in its social and cultural context.

Ethnography, therefore, is oriented toward studying shared meanings and practices, or culture.

As a researcher, you might need to study a community for a long period, perhaps years to gain some understanding of their culture and value system.

Although ethnography is traditionally associated with long-term fieldwork, some aspects are employed in applied settings.

Applied, or current settings require a naturalistic research approach.

Observing individual and group behavior in its natural context and participating in that context can generate insights that might otherwise have eluded you.

Ethnography follows a holistic perspective, based on the premise that human behavior and culture are complicated phenomena and are composed of, and influenced by, a multitude of factors.

These might include historical precedents, the physical context in which people live and work, the social structures in which individuals are embedded and the symbolic environment in which they act.

Ethnography assumes that all human behavior is intentional and observable.

Research should, therefore, be oriented towards understanding the reasoning behind people’s actions.

This means that you, as the researcher, and often not a member of the community, will probably spend time living in the community observing and doing in-depth interviews, reading and researching primary source material and observing the lives of the people that you wish to study.

Eventually, you will compile all this data and analysis to create a full picture of the group you are studying.

The picture includes not only reporting what people do or say but also some analysis that tells us about the social structure and worldview of the community.

You should not disrupt the environment or routine of the target for your research.

This means that you, as the researcher, might need to be “invisible” and involve yourself in unobtrusive observation.

In this instance, an etic approach will probably be more effective than an emic approach.

You will need to establish trust and rapport between you and those whom you do research on.

Also, you should guard against becoming emotionally involved with the target group for your research because it might cloud your judgement.

Research reports are in the form of a narrative, with key evidence, such as detailed descriptions of episodes, being reproduced to illustrate your findings and recommendations.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with ethnography include relativism, behaviorism, constructivism, critical race theory, critical theory, ethnomethodology and post-colonialism.


Ethnography literary means “to write about a group of people”.

Research topics and problem statements or questions require the study of social and cultural processes and shared meanings within a group of people.

Participant observation is the method most used in ethnographic research.

Normally ethnographers will spend lots of time in the field to study the lives of people from within their naturalistic setting.

The “thick” detail of the data that you can obtain through participant observation usually fulfils the key criterion of validity far better than data obtained by other methods.

Ethnographic research can also consult data sources such as interviews and literature studies.

It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for inductively generating new theoretical explanations.

Ethnographic research can:

  • follow a qualitative or quantitative approach,
  • will probably follow an etic approach, although an emic approach would also be possible, and
  • can be done by one or a group of researchers.
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