Ethnography as a research method

1. Think of three good research questions that could be answered using this approach.

It’s worth noting that I have a personal interest in each of the three possible areas of study outlined below.  As Blum Malley and Hawkins advise, “no matter what, the most important factor when selecting your own site is choosing a place or space or group of people to whom you already feel connected in some way, either by direct membership, burgeoning interest, or cultural/political belief…’

  • An analysis of the types of student participation in an online learning course (adopting a grounded theory approach).
  • ‘From Newbie to Jammer’: an exploration of the journey of a roller derby recruit from novice to competitive player.
  • Reading groups: an exploration of the development of a sense of group membership within reading groups (or, perhaps, an exploration of the different types of members of a reading group).

Each of these research questions is idiographic rather than nomothetic, as aligned with a constructivist paradigm.

(Coe, in Waring et al, 2012, chp. 2)

2. What assumptions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) seem to be associated with this approach?

Ethnography is a qualitative research method associated with interpretivist/constructivist approaches. Eisner’s discussion of subjectivity and objectivity and the role of the self within research is central to a consideration of the ethnographic method and the role of the researcher.

(Eisner, 1992, p.12)

3. What kinds of ethical issues arise?

There are very many ethical issues associated with the ethnographic method. Many of these are highlighted in this discussion (see 10:58 onwards):

As a method, it is ethically challenging: valid ethical questions can be raised about the participatory nature of the ethnographic method: about being part of a community, developing close bonds and relationships and then leaving your research space. Thus, informed consent is a key consideration for ethnographers: consent from participants is vital. However, as the discussion above highlights, gaining consent from online communities can be more problematic as you don’t often know who’s there, and membership and participation can be transient.  As highlighted in the video, it’s the responsibility of the researcher to be aware of ethically responsible conduct and to be reflexive about what they’re doing.

4. What would “validity” imply in a project that used this approach?

(Eisner, 1992, p.13)

The ethnographic method risks the criticism of being a subjective endeavour; with all observations, findings and conclusions being filtered through the prism of the researcher’s lens, how can the validity of the research be assured? As Blum Malley and Hawkins note, within ethnographic research, there is a requirement for triangulation:

‘As you try to piece together the complexity of what it all means, you can and should engage in the process of double and triple checking your own interpretations of information at your site by delving into other insider and outsider perspectives and complementing it with secondary sources of information; in ethnographic research this is called triangulation. Imagine a triangle with three points: first, your interpretation; second, the interpretation of the people who belong to the site community; third, the interpretation of other outside observers/scholars (secondary sources). Somewhere in the middle of the triangle made by those three points, you will complete your reading of the cultural texts at your site and find the “partial-truths,” your own perspective, of your ethnography.’

Letherby’s concept of theorised subjectivity, previously considered here, is also pertinent. Through a critically reflexive stance, and through effective triangulation activities, valid research findings can be proposed.

5. What are some practical issues that would need to be considered?

Gaining access to the research site is a key practical concern, as is establishing rapport. Kawulich (2005) suggests that letters of introduction or other information pertaining to one’s position/institutional affiliations can help with this. She also suggests that using personal contacts to gain entry is advisable.  For the novice researcher, recording and logging data can also be challenging: note-taking, when one is both a participant and an observer, is not always possible. Another practical issue is how to ensure that research findings to participants in a meaningful way. Kara’s exemplar of the distribution of research findings as a graphic novel to the homeless participants in a study is a good demonstration of how this might creatively and ethically be achieved.

Blum Malley, S. and Hawkins, A. Engaging Communities.

Eisner, E. (1992). Objectivity in Educational Research. Curriculum Inquiry, 22(1), 9-15.

Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2),

Scott, J, Williams, M & Letherby, G. 2014, Objectivity and subjectivity in social research, SAGE Publications Ltd., London.

Arthur, J., Waring, M., Coe, R. and Hedges, L. (eds) (2012). Research Methods and Methodologies in Education. London, Sage.

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