Ethnography Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Once the basic boundaries of ethnography are established, it becomes apparent that the concept of "culture" must also be considered; this leads to an examination of "context" as well as three basic concepts: ontology, epistemology, and methodology. The three most common research paradigms for ethnography, that of positivism, post-positivism, and critical theory, are discussed, and these paradigms are applied to the performance of ethnographic research. The paper then examines in more detail the relationship of the observer to the participant. After explaining the ethnographer's position as that of performing dual roles whenever engaged in ethnographic research, a few of the problems that can arise from this inherent need to perform dual roles is examined.

Keywords Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA); Behaviorism; Department for International Development (DFID); Epistemology; Ethnographic Exit; Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project (IBRFP); Methodology; Ontology; Positivism; Post-positivism; Critical Theory


Defining Ethnography

In recent years, it has become more difficult to create a definition of ethnography that is concise and at the same time agreed upon by a majority of scholars and scientists. As Hammersley (2006) notes, there is "a degree of eclecticism on the part of many who call themselves ethnographers" (p. 4). Nevertheless, Hammersley tries to create a broad definition that will pass the test. In his recent work he writes that he considers the term "ethnography" to refer to "a form of social and educational research that emphasizes the importance of studying at first hand what people do and say in particular contexts" (Hammersley, 2006, p. 4). Thus, ethnography is essentially a form of scientific fieldwork in which we have an observer making first hand observations and taking notes about a participant or participants.

To piece together a tenable definition for the term, we should also look at other ethnographers' ideas on what comprises ethnography, and thereby gather a description that might help us understand the theoretical underpinnings as well as the functions of ethnography. Simmons (2007) notes that ethnography originated in anthropology, and she asserts that the researcher needs to become "immersed in the culture being studied in order to study the social world." The author then explains that ethnographers usually gather information by using "in-depth interviews and participant observation, commonly known as fieldwork" (Simmons, 2007, p. 7). Participant observation is at the center of ethnographic data collection, and through observation the ethnographer tries to accurately understand "the cultural rules and expectations from the perspective of an insider" Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, as cited in Simmons, 2007, p. 10). Simmons then elaborates by asserting that an ethnographer should engage in "appropriate social activity" so as to become "immersed in and established as a temporary member of the group in order to learn its culture" (p. 10). The author points out that ethnographers must not only become in some way socially accepted by the group being studied, but that ethnographers must also simultaneously carry out the additional conceptual and operational responsibilities that comprise ethnographic fieldwork (Simmons, 2007). This dual role can be one of the biggest problems the ethnographer may face.

The Importance of Culture

Dumas' (2007) simple but important idea on what ethnography should also be considered, and relating to this, a definition of "culture" is also necessary since most ethnographers seem to agree that this is at the heart of all ethnography. Dumas observes,

Ethnography is the study of culture. Not individuals (psychology) or populations (demography) or nations (politics/history) or trends (cool-hunting). And why should we care about culture? Think of it as the basic software we all need to navigate the world - the operating systems that we carry around in our heads and use without really being aware that we're doing any such thing (Dumas, 2007, ¶ 9).

Thus, we should be aware that ethnography is essentially a study of culture, but we should not assume we all possess the same clear definition for the word "culture." Above, Dumas provides a good metaphor for the meaning of culture (the human equivalent to a computer's operating system software), while her definition also points out the difficulty in examining culture. If we are not aware of our own cultural point of view, if we can never truly step completely outside our own "operating systems," then it is obviously quite difficult to perform "objective" ethnographic studies. This is a central problem that all ethnographers face, and many academics touch on this problem, in one way or another, in their scholarly works.

Considering Context

Beaulieu (2004), who writes about Internet ethnography - and who therefore must consider the term "culture" in relation to the Internet - takes on the task of dissecting the word "culture" yet further. Her definition is similar to Dumas' "operating system", while it also develops Hammersley's idea of studying people in "particular contexts". Beaulieu simultaneously takes on the above-mentioned problem wherein ethnography is generally understood as observing real informants in a real location, a notion that calls into question the validity of performing ethnography through the Internet. Beaulieu argues that while "the field" as site, method and location in anthropology is essential in defining ethnography, even more central to the ethnographic approach is "the concern to provide accounts of what activities mean to people who do them, and the circumstances that give rise to those meanings" (Beaulieu, 2004, p. 159). Thus, she argues that while field notes or description is the basic method used to create the output of ethnography, this fieldwork is actually "subsumed to a partnered understanding of context," and this search for context behind the observations is essential to creating a clearer definition for the word "culture."

As Beaulieu sees it, beneath field notes or descriptions should lie the analysis of context, and such analyses should always be used as an attempt to discover what events mean to participants, and also how the "possibilities for meaning are themselves organised." This analysis of context is like perceiving an operational system from the outside to better examine it. Beaulieu provides a definition of culture that encompasses Internet ethnography:

Ethnographic methods therefore focus on observing and analysing a variety of 'patterned interactions' and provide an understanding of how and why these are meaningful. Taken together, these interactions and the conditions that make them meaningful, can be labelled 'culture' (Beaulieu, 2004, p. 159).

Though Dumas (2007) does not concentrate on defining the term "culture", she does seem quite aware that analysis of context during observation is key to ethnography. Thus, she points out the complexity of performing accurate and well-considered fieldwork when an unconscious, a priori cultural standpoint is lurking behind every observation. She writes,

The trouble is, lots of observational research basically stops right here [at simply recording observations]. We've observed the target in their natural habitat! We've recorded their rituals! We've coded their video diaries! But observation alone is dangerously inadequate. To see is not always to understand. Cultures need prodding to reveal themselves... (Dumas, 2007, 12).

Dumas also clarifies exactly what needs cultural prodding. She says this is frequently a set of diverse and often contradictory value systems, and a set of behaviors and rewards that can cause conflict with those values systems. In essence, our operational systems or contexts from which we observe the outer world is a complex web of cultural values and meanings that Dumas claims "will never come to light if all we do is listen to people's explicit statements" (Dumas, 2007, ¶ 15).


Research Paradigms

However, an ethnographer's exploration of culture, or the uncovering of contexts, produces its own inherent problems, as Hammersley wisely points out. The first problem he sees is that of accurately determining the "appropriate wider context in which to situate what we are studying," and the second issue is a question of how we are to "gain the knowledge we need about that context" (Hammersley, 2006, p. 6). Three relevant areas to examine are: ontology, epistemology and methodology. Ontology and epistemology are actually what Hammersley is referring to above, though he avoids using these terms by formulating his intriguing questions. Bransford (2006) offers concise definitions for these three concepts, and reviews the most fundamental research paradigms within ethnography. According to Bransford, ontology is an examination of the nature of reality and how it is understood to exist, epistemology examines the nature of knowledge, or the relationship between what can be known and the knower, and methodology is how the ethnographer goes about finding out whatever she believes can be known (Bransford, 2006, p. 178).

Whether conscious or not of this fact, ethnographers are nevertheless carrying out their research based on particular research paradigms. The three that are most common are:

• Positivism,

• Post-positivism, and

• Critical theory.

It is important that ethnographers look at these paradigms so that they are fully aware of the approach they are taking.


In the positivist paradigm, the ontological view on reality is that reality is completely external and can be fully apprehended and discovered. This then relates to the epistemological assumption that an ethnographer can be completely neutral and objective when gaining knowledge. This belief in turn means that good ethnographic research can be value-free, and that methodological procedures can reduce or eliminate bias in order to ensure the validity of data. As Bransford puts it, a positivist approach means that, methodologically, "cause and effect relationships between variables are verified through experimental procedures and empirical tests" (Bransford, 2006, p. 178). Behaviorism would seem to best...

(The entire section is 4558 words.)