Ethnography

Much of the debate surrounding sociological research concerns whether we should study human experiences in a detached and supposedly 'objective' manner or whether we ought to put our empathetic chops to good use to understand others' livelihoods. 

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Table of contents

    Research methods lie at the heart of this debate: the researcher's choice of methods tells us about how they think knowledge should be obtained. Someone who conducts a Likert scale-based survey likely has different research orientations than someone who opts for in-depth interviews.

    • In this explanation, we'll be taking a look at the research method of ethnography.
    • We'll start with a definition of ethnography, followed by an outline of the difference between ethnography versus ethnology.
    • Next, we'll look at the different types of ethnography that sociologists might conduct in their research.
    • After this, we'll look at some prominent examples of ethnography in sociological research.
    • Lastly, we'll evaluate this type of research by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of ethnography in sociology.

    Definition of Ethnography

    Ethnographic research (or 'ethnography') is a form of research which emerged with studies of cultural anthropology, as well as the study of city dwellers by scholars of the Chicago School. It is a form of field research, which involves collecting primary data from a natural environment through observation and/or participation.

    Conducting Ethnographic Research

    Ethnographic research often takes place over an extended period of time, from a few days up to even a few years! The main aim of ethnography is to understand how research subjects understand their own livelihoods (such as life experiences, social status or life chances), as well as their livelihoods in relation to that of the broader community.

    According to Merriam-Webster (n.d.), ethnography is "the study and systematic recording of human cultures [and] a descriptive work produced from such research".

    Ethnography, happy crowd, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ethnographers can choose to study any social setting or community, as long as they can gain access to it!

    A sociologist might opt for ethnography if they wanted to study, for example:

    • the work culture in a corporate office
    • day-to-day life in a private boarding school
    • life in a small community, tribe or village
    • the workings of a political organization
    • children's behavior in amusement parks, or
    • how people act on vacation in foreign countries.

    Ethnography vs. Ethnology

    It's important to be able to distinguish ethnography from ethnology. Though they seem quite similar in nature, the key difference is as follows:

    • While ethnography is the study of a particular cultural group, ethnology deals specifically with comparisons between cultures.
    • Ethnology makes use of data that is collected during ethnographic research, and applies it to a particular topic in the context of cross-cultural research.
    • Those who study a single culture are called ethnographers, while those who study multiple cultures are called ethnologists.

    Types of Ethnography

    Considering the scope of human and cultural experience, it makes sense that there are several different approaches to conducting ethnographic research.

    Institutional Ethnography

    There are several types of ethnographic research, each with its own purpose - institutional ethnography is a key example of this. Institutional ethnography is different from traditional ethnography because it considers how various institutions impact our day-to-day lives and activities.

    A sociologist might want to examine the link between healthcare institutions and their clients' behaviors. When private insurance companies offer more expensive premiums to clients with more health-related issues, those clients may feel motivated to avoid high costs by staying healthy through clean eating and daily exercise. They may also choose to do this with their friends so that they can keep each other motivated.

    This demonstrates a link between institutions and everyday human behavior, as well as the basis for some social relationships.

    The research method was pioneered by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, and is largely considered to be a feminist-centered approach to sociological analysis. This is because it considers women's perspectives and experiences in the context of patriarchal institutions, structures and communities.

    It was developed in response to the rejection of women's perspectives (as well as those of other marginalized groups, such as people of color) from social science research.

    The word patriarchy is used to describe institutions, structures and communities that are characterized by male domination and female subordination.

    Business Ethnographic Research

    Whether or not you're aware of it, you have probably taken part in business ethnographic research at some point in your life. This type of research involves collecting information about markets, target markets and consumer behavior.

    The aim of business ethnography is usually to uncover market demands and user insights in order for businesses to more accurately design their products or services.

    Educational Ethnographic Research

    As the name suggests, the aim of educational ethnographic research is to observe and analyze teaching and learning methods. This can provide valuable insights into the factors that impact classroom behavior, academic motivation and educational achievement.

    Medical Ethnographic Research

    Medical ethnographic research is used to gain qualitative insights into healthcare. It can help doctors, other medical practitioners and even funding bodies to better understand the needs of their patients/clients and how to meet these needs.

    Seeking medical care is often a rather complex process, and the information that medical ethnography provides can make some useful contributions for improving and equalizing access to healthcare.

    Examples of Ethnography

    Ethnographic studies have made many contributions to sociological theory. Let's take a look at some of them now!

    On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

    Alice Goffman spent six years in West Philadelphia for an ethnographic study of the lives of a poor, Black community. She observed the day-to-day experiences of a community targeted by high levels of surveillance and policing.

    Goffman conducted a covert, participant observational study, gaining access to the community by having one of the members of the community introduce her as his sister.

    In covert participant research, the researcher participates in the subjects' day-to-day activities, but they are unaware of the researcher's presence.

    While On the Run was considered to be a groundbreaking work by sociologists and anthropologists, it raised important ethical issues about informed consent and confidentiality, with Goffman even being accused of committing a felony during the course of the study.

    The Making of Middletown

    In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd conducted an ethnography to study the daily lives of 'the average American' living in the small town of Muncie, Indiana. They used interviews, surveys, observations and secondary data analysis throughout the course of their research.

    The Lynds found that Muncie was divided into two types of classes - business class groups and the working class groups. Findings of the study showed that these broad groups were characterized by different lifestyles, goals and levels of wealth. Key concepts explored included work, home life, child-rearing, leisure, religion and community.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Ethnography

    Now that we've explored the method of ethnography as well as a few examples of it, let's take a look at some general advantages and disadvantages of ethnography as a sociological research method.

    Ethnography, people walking on street, StudySmarterFig. 2 - While ethnographic research provides valuable insights into people's daily lives, they can pose difficulties in terms of access and expenses.

    Advantages of Ethnography

    • Ethnographic studies tend to have high levels of validity. The group being studied can be observed in their natural environment, potentially without interruption or outside influence (if the researcher is acting covertly).

    • Ethnographic studies are also beneficial for giving a voice to marginalized groups by considering their experiences in their own environments. This offers another form of validity.

    • Ethnographic studies also tend to be holistic. By combining methods like interviews and observations, researchers can get a fuller picture of the community being studied. The combination of various methods in social science research is called triangulation.

    Disadvantages of Ethnography

    • Since ethnographic research studies a particular situation or community, its results don't tend to be generalizable to the wider population. However, this usually isn't an aim of ethnography - so there's some debate as to whether we can actually consider it to be a limitation of the method!

    • As we saw in Goffman's study in Philadelphia, ethnography can be vulnerable to several ethical issues. A researcher infiltrating a community's daily lives and environment raises questions about privacy, honesty and informed consent - especially if the researcher has to hide their true identity.

    • Even if a researcher can promise confidentiality to their research subjects, ethnography often involves studying vulnerable groups in disadvantaged positions, where the line between access and infiltration can become blurred.

    • Another key disadvantage of ethnography is that it tends to be time-consuming and expensive to conduct. Ethnographers can also struggle to gain access to closed-off communities.

    Ethnography - Key takeaways

    • The main aim of ethnography is to understand how research subjects understand their own livelihoods, as well as their livelihoods in relation to that of the broader community.
    • While ethnography is the study of a particular cultural group, ethnology deals specifically with comparisons between cultures.
    • Institutional ethnography is slightly different from traditional ethnography, in that is considers how institutions impact everyday behaviors and relationships. Other examples of ethnography include business, educational and medical ethnography.
    • Ethnographic studies can have high levels of validity and holism by studying communities in their own environment.
    • However, ethnography can also raise ethical and practical issues, such as privacy and cost-effectiveness.

    References

    1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Ethnography. https://www.merriam-webster.com/
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnography

    What is the definition of ethnography?

    Ethnography is a research method that involves the systematic observation and recording of human behavior, relationships, and cultures.

    What is the difference between ethnography and ethnology?

    Ethnology applies data that is collected during ethnographic research to the context of cross-cultural research. While ethnography is the study of a particular cultural group, ethnology deals specifically with comparisons between cultures.

    What are the disadvantages of ethnography?

    Ethnography is often time-consuming and expensive to conduct. It can also raise ethical issues related to honesty and confidentiality. Some argue that ethnography suffers from a lack of generalizability, but others argue that this isn't an aim of ethnography in the first place!

    What are the goals of ethnography?

    The main aim of ethnography is to understand how research subjects understand their own livelihoods (such as life experiences, social status or life chances), as well as their livelihoods in relation to that of the broader community.

    Is ethnography qualitative or quantitative?

    Ethnographers make use of various research methods, including observations, interviews and surveys. The researcher's aims and research orientations will impact whether they choose qualitative methods, quantitative methods or a mixed methods approach.

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