Ethnographic Research



Characteristics of Ethnographic Method

The research carried out by anthropologists, someone who  scientifically studies humans, their customs, beliefs and relationships, is usually called ethnographic research or naturalistic inquiry. Ethnography means “literally, a picture of the ‘way of life’ of some identifiable group of people” and the product of ethnographic research is described as “a portrait of some group of people”. Ethnographers acquire their skills through long apprenticeships during which they work under the guidance of experienced researchers in field settings. One of the most fundamental and difficult ethnographic skills to acquire is theoretical sensitivity, which is “the attribute of having insight, the ability to give meaning to data, the capacity to understand and capability to separate the pertinent from that which isn’t”.


The purpose of ethnographic research is to determine how members of a culture function and interact within a natural setting. Ethnographic researchers do not enter a natural setting with the idea of manipulating variables to try to find out how various phenomena are causally related. On the contrary, ethnographers try to identify variables or constructs that occur naturally in the environment and to explain how these constructs are interrelated  in ways that account for how the culture functions.

       Ethnography is a qualitative form of observational research that differs in several important ways from quantitative forms of observational research. In quantitative observational studies, researchers specify the variables they are going to investigate before beginning their study.

       The results of ethnographic studies are presented in the form of a written account that includes a description of what the researcher has observed and the researcher’s analysis and interpretation of the observations. Whereas the objective of quantitative studies is often to provide an empirical test of some theory, the objective of ethnographic studies is to generate theories based on empirical data. Ethnographers attempt to devise theories on the basis of data they collect to account for what they have observed.


Features of Qualitative Research

1.      Qualitative research has the natural setting as the direct source of data and the researcher is the key instrument.

2.      Qualitative research is descriptive. The data collected are in the form of words or pictures rather than numbers.

3.      Qualitative researchers are concerned with process rather than simply with outcomes or products.

4.      Qualitative researchers tend to analyze their data inductively.

5.      “Meaning” is of essential concern to the qualitative approach: Researchers who use this approach are interested in the ways different people make sense out of their lives.



Qualitative Educational Research

Among educational researchers, the terms qualitative, naturalistic, and ethnographic research are used more or less synonymously.


Characteristics of qualitative research:

1.      Takes place in a natural setting and uses the researcher as the key instrument;

2.      Deals with descriptive data in the form of their words and pictures rather than numbers;

3.      Focuses on process, not merely product;

4.      Relies on inductive rather than deductive data analysis; and

5.      Focuses on how different people make sense of their lives.

The two primary means of collecting ethnographic data are participant observation and interviewing .



Ethnographers use the term fieldwork to refer to the time they spend observing and interacting with members of the group they are studying. As the term implies, fieldwork takes place in the natural setting of the group. The field is the arena inhabited (permanently or temporarily) by the participants in the study.

       Ethnographers rely on two primary means of collecting research data: participant observation and interviewing. Although interviewing is a technique commonly used by researchers carrying out widely different kinds of studies, participant observation is a technique unique to researchers using ethnographic methods.


Participant observation

As a participant observer, the researcher tries to become a part of the group he or she  is investigating by spending a great deal of time with members of the group (sometimes actually living with them) and  participating in the activities in which group members engage. While participating in group activities, the researcher simultaneously observes what is taking place in the group, hence the term participant observation .  Researchers typically write detailed accounts of what they have seen and heard during each observation period. These detailed accounts are called fieldnotes and constitute the data the researchers ultimately will analyze.

       Ethnographers who receive permission to observe and record the events occurring in a classroom are best classified not as participant observers, but rather as privileged observers.


Fieldnotes and Memos

Fieldnotes are researcher’s written chronological account of what occurred during each observation session. Although different researchers use different formats in writing fieldnotes, most fieldnotes consist of two parts: (a) an objective part that contains a comprehensive and detailed description of what has taken place and (b) a subjective part that contains the researcher’s reflections about what occurred during that particular observation session as well as a list of questions, hunches, or ideas the researcher may have concerning the study as a whole. Memos are relatively lengthy reflective pieces that researchers write at various times during their investigations to focus on the study as a whole, not on any particular observation session.

      Researchers usually do not write fieldnotes during the observation session itself, but rather immediately after the session has concluded. On the other hand, it is not unusual for researchers to make brief notes during the observation session to help them recall accurately what took place. It is important to write fieldnotes that are as accurate and comprehensive as possible, for the fieldnotes constitute the data the researcher will ultimate analyze.


Grounded theory

Throughout the study, the ethnographers constantly shifts back and forth from observing and notetaking to analyzing the observations. Ethnographers are constantly proposing a theoretical notion and checking to see if the notion is verified. The results of this interplay lead to what is sometimes called grounded theory, that is, a theory whose components  and their relationships to one another are embedded in reality.

       In addition to recording fieldnotes based on observations, ethnographers may also carry out interviews, administer questionnaires, and use written records, such as papers written by students or reports written by teachers or administrators.


Wed, 19 Oct 2011 @00:07

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