Ethnographic Research Methods
is one of the hallmarks of ethnology or cultural
anthropology. In its early history, anthropologists went
into the field but often did not have the language skills
and/or lived apart from those they were studying. Bronislaw
Malinowski in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, among
others, went beyond the second-hand information of traders
and colonial administrators to help establish participant
observation as a method of research.
participant observation, the ethnographer lives among
those in his/her study and participates in the
community’s round of activities over an extended period
of time. Alice Reich has described participant
observation as "a time-honored tradition of making a fool of
oneself for a point" (Kutsche 1998:5). Why a fool?
Generally, the ethnographer is not a member of his/her study
community so s/he comes as a stranger. When in a
totally foreign environment, one naturally expects that
there will be misunderstandings. By overcoming these, we
learn about those around us and ourselves.
by Bohannan and van der Elst (1998:26), "Even the simplest
of cultures is vastly more complex than the mind of any
single person, whether native or observer can encompass." In
other words, there is no one person who has experienced, and
therefore knows; all there is to any culture. Indeed, there
may be some who know more than others and they are "found"
treasures when undertaking any research. More likely, one
will encounter an individual who has limited knowledge. Like
those in one’s research, an ethnographer cannot possibly
see and explain everything. One should be cognizant that
the task ahead can be never-ending and certainly is not
above in mind, your observations will be limited or
affected by a number of factors. Where are you
positioned within the setting/event? What kind of
setting/event is this? Are you strictly an observer or are
you a participant? If a participant, how so? How many people
are there (do you have a full or obscured view)? How do the
participants use the space? Is note-taking possible? What
effect, if any, does your presence have?
up with a partner for this assignment. You are
to select a public space where you are part of the
local scene. Basically, you do as you typically do as a
member of the public (you observe without drawing
attention to yourself) but in this case you consciously
evaluate the interaction(s) that you observe. Since you
are not interviewing, you do not need a consent form.
Observing does NOT mean stalking the individual(s)!
One example of a public place might be a line to buy movie
tickets (even waiting for the film to begin), or shopping,
or sitting in the cafeteria at a table having lunch or
sustained period of 5-20 minutes, make your
observations as a pair, i.e., you and your partner should be
together. Avoid being judgmental in your
descriptions, i.e., be objective. If you write
"international student," or "married couple," how do you
know this? You are assessing data and coming to a
conclusion—state what those bits of evidence are from which
you are drawing. Be aware of verbal and nonverbal forms
of communication, i.e., kinesics (body language) and
proxemics (social distance). It is all data.
Describe the setting (a schematic drawing can
Describe the individuals on which you are
focusing. Who is a major or minor actor in this?
Describe the activity and/or interaction(s)
Why did you focus on what you did?
making your observations as a team, discuss the above
event(s) with your partner. How did your observations
compare—similar or different? How so? How would each of you
interpret what you saw? What did you learn from this
discussion? This commentary is to be part of your written
assignment; marks will be deducted without this aspect.
Since everyone will have his/her own experience, you will be
expected to contribute to class discussion on this topic.
your observations. There is no set number of words or
pages as the amount you write is reflective of
the observation time and the activity.
be turned in on turnitin.com.