|Ethnography is unobtrusive research through observation and limited interaction.
The researcher plays the role of an independent, neutral and - in the
case of immersion - an invisible observer. The key is to make detailed
observations of the environment with minimal interaction. You do not
want to influence the data you collect by interacting with the subjects
of your observation. Ethnographic
research can be very complex and involve a scientific process of data
collection and coding. However, for the purposes of
undergraduate-level research, a more simplistic approach is often all
that is necessary. These are some basic steps in conducting
- Start with a game plan.
Before you begin this process, have a good sense of the kind of data
you want to collect. That's why a good foundation of secondary
research is very helpful in this process. Knowing the nature of the
challenge you face can dictate the kind of data you want to collect.
For example, if your challenge is to attract more tourists to a
community, then you should focus on how visitor-friendly the community is in terms of signage, parking, accommodations, etc.
- Start with an open-mind and fresh eyes.
Objectivity is mandated. Don't begin observing a situation with
preconceived notions. They can color your observations and keep
you from getting to the truth. For example. an observer from a
big city may assume that people in rural communities are jealous of his
or her lifestyle. The researcher may be surprised to discover
that such an
assumption may be completely opposite from the truth. Forget what the
brand is or what the client wants it to be. Try to figure out
what it really is.
- Remember that you are a researcher and not a spy.
All researchers -- especially those who represent this university --
are expected to engage in ethical conduct. It is not necessary to
lie to someone who may be curious about what you are doing. It is
all right to tell someone who you are, who you represent and the reason
you are observing. The worst case scenario is that the person may not
wish to talk to you or will ask you to leave. If that's the case,
disengage with courtesy. However, more often than not, such a
disclosure may open a useful line of conversation that provides
- Be super-vigilant.
Don't try to decide what is and is not important while you are in the
field. Take it all in. The time for deciding which data are
meaningful and which are not comes later during analysis.
Sometimes the smallest, most innocuous observation can become an
important key in addressing your client's needs. Ask yourself:
- What does it look like?
- What does it smell like?
- What does it sound like?
- What does it taste like?
- What does it feel like?
put it another way, pay
attention to all of your senses. For example, Tacoma, Washington,
is known for the pungent smell emanating from its local paper
mills. Outsiders call it the "Tacoma Aroma," an image the local
Chamber of Commerce would just as soon forget.
Individual observations may seem meaningless. However, in combination
with other observations, may serve like individual puzzle pieces
completing a picture.
- Take notes.
Have a note pad or a small tape recorder with you. If it is practical,
a camera can be very useful. A good ethnographic observation
takes in a lot of detail. Don't rely on your memory. If you are
in a situation where a note pad or recorder are not practical, possible
or may have a negative effect on interaction, try to capture on paper
or on a recorder what you have
observed and heardas soon as possible after the fact.
- Engage in meaningful small-talk.
Some forms of ethnography involve informal interviews.
These may be "off-the-cuff" conversations researchers have with people
they meet, such as small talk with a server in a restaurant. Meeting
and talking with people can be a source of valuable data.
Remember the first point -- you have a game plan and are looking for
certain kinds of information. Keep the conversation informal and
light. If you want to take notes or record the conversation, ask
first - but keep in mind that doing so may influence the conversation
and remove its spontaneity. The key is to make people you
They are more likely to trust you as a casual friend than as a formal
interrogator. And, again, never lie about who you are and what you are
- Write your ethnographic descriptions in a neutral, third-person voice.
When it comes time to commit your research to paper, deliver just the
facts. Save any opinions you might have for the analysis (which is
addressed in the next point). Stay away from the first-person "I"
and "we," as well as the second-person "you." The observer writes
the description as if he or she is on the outside looking in. If
you use people's names, always use the full name (if known) in first
reference and the family (last) name in second an subsequent
references. Calling a person by his or her first name is too causal and
can be considered, by some, as disrespectful.
- Analyze, don't recommend.
It is permissible to make suggestions about future avenues of research
and possible tactics/strategies to pursue. But remember that
recommendations are not made during the research stage. Those
come in the planning process and in conjunction with a comprehensive
examination of goals, objectives and tactics. All observations and
suggestions should be supported by evidence. For example, it is
not enough to say a town's downtown area is unattractive. Cite
specific reasons and standards by which you make such a judgment.
- Write your report as if you expect those you have observed will read it.
It is all right to have passion for your work. But don't let that
passion spill over into this narrative. This is research and,
therefore, not the place for it. Your tone should be neutral, not
strident. Frame your comments in positive terms. It is
permissible to make criticisms. However, if you do, remember the
Mary Poppins Rule: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Ethnography is considered primary research in that it is original
research created by the observer. It is also qualitative,
informal research, which means it is not necessarily representative of
that which is being studied. (For example, activity within a community may be
different on a weekend than it is on a weekday.) Upon its completion,
ethnographic research may raise questions and suggest solutions that
merit further research. Ethnography should not be the only research you
conduct, but should be part of a more comprehensive research strategy.