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    Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular group such as teachers, students, administrators, managers, disadvantaged groups, girls with disabilities, etc. Researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture and then sensing the underlying problems. The present paper focuses on answering what are ethnographic studies? What is the procedure for carrying out ethnographic research? How do these help in developing theoretical base for problems in education of a particular group?


    Ethnographic Research

    “Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behavior – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.


    “Ethnography is the art and science of describing a group or culture. The description may be of a small tribal group in an exotic land or a classroom in middle-class suburbia.” –David M. Fetterman, 1998.

    “When used as a method, ethnography typically refers to fieldwork (alternatively, participant-observation) conducted by a single investigator who ‘lives with and lives like’ those who are studied, usually for a year or more.” –John Van Maanen, 1996.

    Ethnography is defined by Spradley and McCurdy as “the task of describing a particular culture.” Ethnography is the predominant method used by cultural anthropologists interested in relatively primitive cultures.


    According to Spradley (1979), Ethnography is “the work of describing a culture”. The goal of ethnographic research is “to understand another way of life from the native point of view”.


    Ethnographic research is a social science research method. Ethnographic research is primarily descriptive research. It uses combination of both quantitative and qualitative research method to answer research questions about individuals within their social context. It entails observations and recording of behaviors (more quantitative), but it also seeks to understand the beliefs, attitudes, values, social roles, social structures, and norms of behaviors in an environment by using qualitative research methods.


    Ethnographic research relies heavily on up-close, personal experience and possible participation, not just observation, by researchers trained in ethnography. These ethnographers often work in multidisciplinary teams.


    A Brief History of Ethnography

    The term ethnography comes to us from anthropology. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defined ethnography as follows-‘a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.’ Ethnography as practiced in education has been shaped by cultural anthropology.

    The root of educational ethnography lies in the cultural anthropology. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists explored “primitive” cultures by visiting other countries and becoming immersed in their societies for extensive periods of time. They refrained from “going native” and identifying too closely with the people they were studying so that they could write an “objective” account of what they saw and heard. At times, there accounts compared distant cultures on other continents.


    Ethnography has its roots planted in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Educational Ethnographers developed and refined their procedures borrowed from anthropology and sociology. From the 1980s to the present, anthropologists have identified techniques of focusing on a cultural scene, conducting observations, analyzing data, and writing up the research (e.g., Fetterman, 1998; Wolcott, 1992, 1994, 1999).


    The Procedure of Ethnographic Research

    In ethnographic research, the activities and procedures are more integrated and less sequential than in other forms of research (particularly formulation of hypotheses). General activities for conducting ethnographic research are discussed below in detail:


    1). Identification of the Phenomenon to be Studied

    Suppose that a study is conducted on:

    The social problem of students in a desegregated urban high school

    This statement identifies the phenomenon to be studied as social interaction of high school students, specifically in a desegregated school. This is a general statement with little restrictions, but it does provide a starting point. If stated in question form, it would be, “What happens socially to students in a desegregated urban high school?”

    Such a statement usually implies, what are called foreshadowed problems-some what specific research problems that provide a focus for the study. Foreshadowed problems provide researcher with something to look for. They provide directions, but they should not be considered restrictive.


    2). Identification of Subjects

    The second step researcher needs to do is to identify primary subjects for the study and whose interaction must be considered. For this purpose, researcher generally uses the purposeful sampling technique to identify the subjects. Subjects to be studied must be identified; this often includes specifying conditions so that the study is feasible.


    3). Hypotheses Generation

    As the data collection proceeds in an ethnographic study, hypotheses may be formulated and modified. A study may begin with few of any specific hypotheses, but the data may imply hypotheses as the study goes along. The ethnographic researcher is very amenable to introducing new hypotheses and discarding hypotheses that are not supported. In ethnographic research hypotheses has been generated in a continuous process throughout the study. Ethnographic research may begin with no hypotheses and hypotheses may be formulated and modified along the way.


    4). Data Collection

    Primary method of data collection in ethnographic research is- observation. In ethnographic research, data collection involves participant-observation. It means that researcher becomes the part of the cultural group he/she is studying, observes and takes extensive notes on some subjects of their life. Here, researcher can have observation in three different ways:

    §  Active participant (assume role of participant)

    §  Privileged observer (does not assume role of participant but has access to the relevant activity for the study)

    §  Limited observer (used when opportunities for observation are restricted or absent)—least desirable

    However, data collection is not limited to participant-observation only. Other forms of data collection in ethnography include:

    §  Interviews

    §  Surveys

    §  Written resources

    §  Non-written resources (videotapes, photographs, etc.)


    Participant Observation: the main technique of data collection is participant observation. It allows the outsider investigator to function as an insider, through participant observation. Here, researcher can also play disguised role. The researcher becomes the part of the cultural group and though often unable to read and speak their language, observes and takes extensive notes on some aspects of their life. The participation continues for a fairly long period.


    Interviewing: Interviewing might be quite casual and informal, or it might be quite structured. Casual and informal interview can be done when an occasion presents itself during observation. Formal or structured interviews may be conducted with a predefined set of questions. For example in order to obtain the perceptions of the students’ social interaction, a number of the students, faculty, administrators, hostel wardens, cooks etc can be interviewed.


    5). Preparing Field Notes

    Making field notes is another important step in carrying out ethnographic research. It is important to record whatever has been observed or interviewed by the researcher. Field notes can be written in narrative, shorthand or in diagrammatic fashion. These require synthesis and summarization immediately after observation. Videotaping can also be an important way of recording observations.


    6). Reviewing other Sources

    There may be other sources of data that reflect on the research problem under study. These other sources often consist of records maintained on a routine basis by the organizations in which the study is being conducted. These records might support the observation data and the perception of the researcher. These other sources can be in form of:

    §  Achievement tests

    §  Attitude inventories

    §  Psychological tests

    §  Interest inventories

    §  Incidence of specific behaviours (discipline records)


    7). Triangulation

    Triangulation is qualitative cross-validation. It can be conducted among different data sources or different data collection methods. As Denzin (1978. p. 308) points out: Triangulation can take many form, but its basic feature will be the combination of two or more different research strategies in the study of same empirical units. Basically, triangulation is comparison-comparison of information to determine whether or not there is corroboration. It is a search for convergence of the information on a common finding or concept. To a large extent, the triangulation process assesses the sufficiency of the data. If the data are inconsistent or do not converge, they are insufficient. The researcher is then faced with a dilemma regarding what to believe.


    The following figure will illustrate triangulation in two different cases-one involving data sources and the other involving data collection methods. The figure applies to the social interaction example:


    Triangulation (the process of Qualitative Cross-Validation) for the Social Interaction



    Triangulation Involving Multiple Data Sources


    Counselors                                                    Faculty









    Triangulation Involving Multiple Data Collection Procedures


    Reviewing School Records                             Interviewing Faculty




    Observing Students


    8). Analysis and Interpretation

    Analysis in ethnographic research consists of synthesizing the information from the observations, interviews, and other data sources. Analyses tend to be less statistically oriented than analyses of experimental or survey data. However, there proportions and percentages that can be computed, based on classifications of items from interviews or types of activities and events observed. The analysis in ethnographic relies heavily on description; even when statistics are used, they tend to be used in a descriptive rather than an inferential manner. Inferential statistics might be appropriate if random sampling of events or of some characteristics of the study had been done. But we would not expect the research context to be a random sample of some larger population of contexts. The ethnographic researcher is probably more willing than other types of researchers to accept the uniqueness of the research context and its conditions.


    Interpretation involves attaching meaning and significance to the analysis, explaining descriptive patterns, and looking for relationships and linkages among descriptive dimensions. Once these processes have been completed the researcher must report his or her interpretation and conclusions.


    9). Description

    Reports based on qualitative methods will include great deal of pure description of the program and/or the experiences of people in the research environment. The purpose of this description is to let the reader know what happened in the environment under observation, what it was like from the participants’ point of view to be in the setting, and what particular events or activities in the setting were like. In reading through field notes and interviews the researcher begins to look for those parts of the data that will be polished for presentation as pure description in the research report. What is included by the way of description will depend on what questions the researcher is attempting to answer. Often an entire activity will be reported in detail and depth because it represents a typical experience. These descriptions are written in narrative form to provide a holistic picture of what has happened in the activity or event. This helps in the development of final formal theory.


    10). Drawing Conclusions

    Experimental and survey research typically leave drawing conclusions as one of the final steps. In ethnographic research, drawing conclusions is integrated much more with the other parts of the research process. This is partly because of the successive approximation procedure of coming to conclusions when conducting ethnographic research. Tentative hypotheses, theories, and conclusions are generated during the research, but the ethnographic researcher guards against drawing the final conclusions prematurely.


    Ethnographic Research in Education


    Ethnographic research has broad implications for many fields, including education. Ethnography in education is the process of providing holistic and scientific descriptions of educational systems, processes, and phenomena within their specific contexts. Ethnographic study in education helps in addressing the problems of education of a particular group (e.g. students, teachers, principals, professors, administrators, planners, etc) with respect to their culture. Ethnography is a research linked with culture and education is also a study that has culture involve in it. In the educational research, problems like the following have been dealt with observational studies of educational institutions and phenomena: school and community; schools; personnel; curriculums; and educational processes.


    Ethnography has found a growing use in educational research. The main technique is participant observation. The researcher becomes the part of the cultural group, like of students, teachers, etc. and observes and takes extensive notes on some aspects of their life. The participation continues for a fairly long period.


    To best understand the problem of education of a particular group, a researcher spends considerable time with the group. Researcher starts learning the cultural ways the group behaves or thinks. The researcher gathers data in the setting where the participants are located and where their shared patterns can be studied for example, classroom can be a setting for learning the shared patterns of behaviour of students.


    Example: An Ethnographic Researcher carries out a study on- How the students in a particular class respond to substitute teacher.


    Data collection

    Ethnographer can first collect the data through any of the source:

    §  Participant-Observation

    §  Semi-structured interviews

    §  Structured interviews

    §  Key informant interview

    §  Focus group interview

    §  Content analysis of secondary text or visual material

    §  Tests

    §  Projective techniques

    Ethnographic researcher will start observing how the students behave with a substitute teacher, what make them behave in that particular manner, what problems or interest they have with the teaching by a substitute teacher, etc. Ethnographer will make field notes of his/ her observations. Teachers or any other person from school administration can play the role of key informants that will inform the researcher about the students. Key informants can provide guidance to the researcher on where to find information and resources on topics study interest, how to access and gain participation of the study participants, and how to interpret the study findings.


    Analyses of Data:

    After the data collection, ethnographer will analyze the data in order to provide a description of both the students and their classroom; analyzing patterns of behavior, beliefs, and language; and reaching some conclusions about the meaning learned from studying students, their reaction with the substitute teachers, and their behaviour in the class in following context. The analysis process involves considerations of words, tone, context, non-verbal, internal consistency, frequency, extensiveness, intensity, specificity of responses and big ideas. Data reduction strategies are essential in the analysis.


    Qualitative Description of Data and Theory Building:

    After the collection and analyses of data researcher will draw some instances through observation or reflection and this will help in building theoretical base of the study. Ethnographic research is Inductive i.e. theory comes from the culture before the data is expressed. In ethnographic research theory develops from the data as rounded theory-not as preconceived theory.

    Once researcher will gain and analyze the data, he/she will provide description of the theme. He will give a detail rendering of the students and describe the scenes in the classroom in order to depict what is going on in the cultural sharing group of the students. This description needs to be detailed and thick, and needs to identify specifics. This description provided by the researcher will help the readers to understand the response of the particular group of students to the substitute teachers. In the Description part researcher will describe the following:

    ·        How students behave with a substitute teacher?

    ·        Do they face any problems when a substitute teacher comes for teaching?

    ·        Do they become more interested in learning when a substitute teacher comes to teach?

    ·        Does the teaching by substitute teacher effects students’ learning or achievement level?

    ·        How the students cope with the problem of discontinuation of teaching by a regular teacher?


    This description by the ethnographer will help in understanding the theme of the study. This description will help in the development of a theoretical base for a particular problem in education of a particular group. Description will give the detail of the entire activity and this will help in the development of a theory for a particular educational problem.


    Interpretation of Theme and Conclusions:

    After description and analyses comes interpretation. In interpretation, the ethnographer draws inferences and conclusions about what has learned. This phase of the analyses is the most subjective. In this section researcher will make a personal assessment, returning to the cultural theme being explored, and raising further questions based on the data. It might also include addressing problems raised in a particular selected field. In the above example of the ethnographic research in education, researcher will now interpret the already described and analyzed data. He/she will now attach a meaning and significance to the analyses, explaining descriptive patterns and looking for relationships and linkages among descriptive dimensions. Here the researcher can interpret the theme in the following manner:


    ·        By raising the problem of discontinuation of regular teachers in schools.

    ·        By telling the advantages or disadvantages of teaching by substitute teachers.

    ·        By suggesting how the students can be made to behave well with a substitute teacher.

    ·        By suggesting the needs of students in order to get familiar with a substitute teacher.


    Interpretation of the theme will help in developing conclusion of the study.


    Other Example of Ethnographic Research:


    A Study on ‘Poverty affects on schooling of children’

    Here researcher will collect data either through participant observation or through interview (including interview of key informants also). He /she will collect data and make field notes i.e. drawing instances from observation or other source of information. For example, researcher can draw the following instances:


    Poor students face socio-economic problems that affect their learning capacity. They also lack resources such as books, copies, pencils, schoolbag, dirty and ragged uniform etc. All these factors make teacher furious and they show indifferent attitude towards economically disadvantaged students. Other students in class room also keep indifferent attitude towards them. These students were also sometimes bullied by other affluent students. Moreover, they face various problems in their homes also, such as lack of proper nutrition, double burden of household chores, lack of attention paid by parents in their education etc. this mental and physical disturbance affects their willingness to attend school. In this way the poverty comes in the way of their education.


    After drawing such instances researcher will analyze and interpret the data and also provide a holistic qualitative description of the whole problem. After description he/she will draw conclusion in which suggestions to deal with the problem will be given by the researcher.


    In this way, ethnographic study helps in developing the theoretical base for problems in education of a particular group. Ethnographic research does not often start with a strong theoretical base, not it is much concerned with theory testing. There may be theory development, but formal theory enters research only after its relevance has been established. In ethnographic research, theory emerges from the data as grounded theory- not as preconceived theory. Ethnographic study helps in the development of a theory as it does not simply tabulate that a certain behavior has occurred, but it attempts to understand what the behavior means the persons under study.




    Fetterman, (1998). Ethnography, (2nd ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Harris, M. & Johnson, O. (2000). Cultural Anthropology, (5th ed.), Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

    Patton, M.Q. (1987). How to Use Qualitative Methods in Evaluation. Newberry Park, CA: Sage Publications.

    Spradley, J. (1980). Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Spradley, J. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Van Maanen, J. (1996). Ethnography. In: A. Kuper and J. Kuper (eds.) The Social Science Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., pages 263-265. London: Routledge.


    Deepshikha Singh



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