Research Methods
CASA Writing Center
ethno = people
graphy = writing
ethnography = writing about people
"the study and systematic recording of human cultures;
also: a descriptive work produced from such research"
(Merriam-Webster, 2012).
"a systematic study of a particular cultural group or
phenomenon, based upon extensive fieldwork in one or
more selected locales" (Reimer, 2011, p. 163).
"The ethnographer is interested in the
socio-cultural contexts and processes in which
people live their lives, as well as the meaning
systems which motivate them... the actors and
their corresponding actions, behaviors, and
beliefs are examined within the cultural and
societal context in which they take place"
(Whitehead, 2004, p. 15).
study of a particular group - in their natural setting,
doing everyday activities, practices, processes
embedding oneself into a culture to observe and
describe patterns
cultural interpretation (Reimer, 2011)
cultural patterns or processes of a community
finding the inner workings of social settings
the data collection instrument (Reimer, 2011)
gaining the "insider" perspective
translating this perspective for outsiders
"We bring our cultural selves with us wherever we go, and
even with the best of intentions, an ethnographer can
never see life completely through another person's eyes...
the ethnographer is never able to completely write him or
herself out of the ethnography" (Reimer, 2011, p. 165).
a researcher - in and out of the field
an observer
a participant
an interviewer
an interpreter
To gain an "insider's" perspective on a community,
culture, or group of individuals
To develop a cultural interpretation
o cultural constructions, values, norms, processes,
Dogtown and Z Boys (2001)
Counter Culture (2009)
Foundations in anthropology, sociology, social
anthropology, cultural anthropology
o an interest in observing and understanding the
culture and processes of "the Other"
o i.e. tribal, native, or indigenous cultures
Ethnography has moved/moves beyond these
foundations to explore cultures and communities in all
areas of life.
As a process, ethnographic research allows the individual to
observe, interact, experience, and participate in a
community or culture.
As a product, ethnographic research - or an ethnography translates and offers an “insider’s” perspective on the
community or culture for outsiders.
 This allows others to understand the community or culture
more fully.
 Why might this be valuable?
data can be measured
deals with numbers
raw data is used to construct
graphs or tables
fails to capture human experience
data can be observed, but not
explores the experiences of
descriptive data
gathers information in a nonnumerical form
interviews, diary accounts, openended questionnaires,
Ethnographic research methods include both quantitative
and qualitative research.
quantitative: survey data, background research
qualitative: observations, field notes, interviews,
interactions, reflections
 Before beginning any research project, it is important
to consider what you are researching and why.
 What is your research question?
Please refer to your instructor’s assignment guidelines
and/or develop your own research question as necessary.
 “The need to protect research participants is so critical
that all ethnographers, even students conducting
ethnographic research for a class, must abide by this
code of conduct” (Reimer, 2011, p. 171).
 Please ask your professor or the Institutional Review
Board (IRB) for more information regarding ethical
considerations in ethnographic research.
 Code of Conduct, American Anthropological
Association (1998)
 Your ethnographic research should not:
 Harm or exploit its participants
 Your ethnographic research should:
 Seek informed consent from participants
 Respect the anonymity or recognition of participants
 “ethnographic reconnaissance” (Wolcott, 2008, p. 187).
 fieldwork – researcher in “the field”
 researcher as data instrument
 observation of community
 data collection
 Compose fieldnotes through observation.
 Revise and add to fieldnotes through reflection.
 Conduct interviews (informal or structured) and/or surveys with
members of the community or group.
Collect site documents and/or representative artifacts of the
community or group.
data analysis
report writing
reconnaissance: a mission to survey, explore, and obtain
exploration of a community or field site to orient oneself
Visit your site and check it out – it’s okay to feel like an
Wolcott (2008) argues that it allows the researcher "to
make a better-informed decision as to whether or how to
proceed with more thorough investigation" (p. 188).
"the field" is the natural setting of the community or
culture being observed
o For example, if researching the community of regular diners at a cafe,
one would observe this community at the cafe.
Give yourself time to observe.
o It is best to return to "the field" as often as possible to gain an insider's
perspective on the community and its processes, practices, and/or
Fieldwork cannot be rushed. Don’t procrastinate!
o "Certainly, the more time available for fieldwork the better" (Wolcott,
2008, p. 190).
 Ethnographer as the data instrument
 Using your own experiences, observations, and
perceptions to observe and take note of a community
or culture
 In addition to observation and interviews,
ethnographers conduct outside research to learn more
about the community or culture they are researching.
 This helps them in the field and also in writing their
ethnographic reports.
 This takes time!
 Be sure to seek permission to observe a community.
 Prepare a statement of purpose to explain your reasons
for being there.
 Return to your field site as often and as many times as
 This will depend on the time you have available to
conduct your own ethnographic research.
Participant Observation
The researcher becomes an active participant in the
community while observing.
Experiential observation
Non-Participant Observation
The passive observer
"fly on the wall"
The researcher does not become an active participant
in the community.
Focus on observation only - no interaction
"Participant observation is founded on firsthand
experience in naturally occurring events" (Wolcott, 2004,
p. 49).
Using all five senses to observe, experience, and absorb.
Documenting these observations in field notes.
 Keep a notebook with you to take notes and/or make
 Outsider perspective / insider perspective
 Each time you sit down to observe, date your notes.
 Some things you could consider are:
 Observe WHO is present – what are their roles?
 WHAT they are doing?
 WHY are they doing this?
 Consider the focus and purpose of your research.
“As quickly as possible, write up notes about what you
learn, including first impressions, problems you
anticipate, leads you might follow, analytical concepts
you may later want to consider. Keep track as well of
your emotional responses and information gained
through all your senses, not just what you have ‘seen’”
(Wolcott, 2008, p. 193).
 First impressions
 Information gained through all your senses
 Problems you anticipate
 Leads or interests you might follow
 Analytical concepts
 i.e. discourse community theory
 Emotional responses
(Wolcott, 2008)
 Seeking permission – informed consent
 Using a recording device
 Interviews – sitting down face-to-face with an
individual to discuss questions
 Formal – structured Q&A
 Informal – more like a conversation
 Guided by prepared questions, but flexible to discuss
responses of interviewee(s)
 Surveys – developing questions for participants to
respond to and return to the researcher
 Allow for a larger response population
 Can offer numerical data and open-ended responses
 How are people communicating?
 How is information gathered and/or shared?
 Genres – newsletters, memos, forms
 Media – images, web sources, videos
 “…texts… are reflections of shared practice, societal
norms, and public relationships, [and] they are
potentially rich sources of data” (Reimer, 2011, p. 168).
 You will analyze the data you have collected according
to the focus of your research.
 Return to your Research Question.
 Abstract
 Introduction
 Background – Review of the Literature
 Informing your reader about the community or culture, its history,
its construction, its importance, etc.
 Methods
 Discussing your methods of ethnographic research
 Results
 Analyzing the results
 Using the data you collected in your observations, interviews, site
documents, etc.
 Discussion
Select a community or group of individuals that you will
Develop a focus or question for your study.
o i.e. What are the goals and characteristics of this discourse community?
Set up a time to observe your community.
o It is best to return to your field of study numerous times.
Compose thorough field notes and return to reflect on
them often.
Interact with individuals within the community.
o Seek interviews or distribute surveys.
Organize your findings.
Analyze your findings.
Imagine you are asked to conduct ethnographic research to
learn more about the goals and values of college freshmen.
Create five (5) interview questions you could ask an
"insider" of this community.
Using the five (5) interview questions you created, travel
to another table and interview an individual.
o Be sure to take notes on their responses.
 If you’d like to look at some examples of ethnographic
research and reports, see the Writing About Writing
 Mirabelli, T. “Learning to serve: The language and literacy of food
service workers” (p. 538)
 McCarthy, L. P. “A stranger in strange lands: A college student
writing across the curriculum” (p. 667)
 Branick, S. “Coaches can read, too: An ethnographic study of a
football coaching discourse community” (p. 557)
American Anthropological Association. (1998). Code of ethics of the American
Anthropological Association. Retrieved from
Reimer, J. F. (2011). Ethnography research. In S. D. Lapan, M. T. Quartaroli, &
F. J. Reimer (Eds.), Qualitative research: An introduction to methods
and designs (pp. 163-188). Hoboken, NJ: Jossey Bass.
Wolcott, H. F. (2008). Ethnography as a way of seeing, 2nd ed. New York, NY:
Alta Mira Press.
Whitehead, T. L. (2004). What is ethnography? Methodological, ontological, and
epistemological attributes. Cultural Ecology of Health and Change
(CEHC). Retrieved from

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