Overview of Ethnographic Research and Practices
What is ethnography?
For the purposes of the year abroad research project, ethnography is research through observation – participating in the daily lives of a group of people to understand how they construct meaning, and seeing from their point of view. It is conducted over an extended period, and requires first-hand involvement with the people you are studying.
A form of social and educational research that emphasises the importance of studying at first-hand what people do and say in particular contexts. This usually involves fairly lengthy contact, through participant observation in relevant settings, and/or through relatively open-ended interviews designed to understand people’s perspectives”
(Hammersely, 2006; ‘Ethnography: Problems and Prospects’. Ethnography and Education 1(1))
The ethnographer participates, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions; in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues with which he or she is concerned.”
(Hammersley, 1983; Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London and New York: Tavistock Publications)
What is an example of ethnographic research?
An example of ethnographic research could be to look at the way a particular group constructs their identity around a particular practice – for example, how does French national identity relate to food? Are eating rituals described in terms of ‘frenchness’? This could be done for example by living (and eating!) with a family, helping with the cooking, and having ethnographic conversations or interviews with the people involved, as well as attending events where eating is a part of it. The idea would be to observe how they frame food and eating – why is it (un)important to them? How do they present the topic to you, and does that differ from what you have observed?
However, you might find that after talking with the family and eating with them, that food is more central to an international identity (they explain how they eat food from different countries and that is how they show that they are open to other cultures). You could then start to go down that route and see if others feel the same. But remember that ethnography is all about the micro, so the aim is not to generalise and conclude that ‘French people show their international identity through food and food rituals’!
What it is not
Ethnographic research is not just about sitting people down and conducting interviews, although this will certainly form part of your project. You need to show evidence of observation, through field notes which make use of thick description. Ethnographic research is also not about making broad, unsupported statements about the people you are living with. It’s about “seeing the world in a grain of sand”, so presenting in detail what you have observed during your project and relating it to wider theoretical concepts.
Ethics and ethnographic research:
It is because of the complexities of research ethics, and because there is unlikely ever to be one clear ethical solution, that a practical approach to ethics which involves asking yourself difficult questions–and pushing yourself hard to answer them–is particularly appropriate.”
(Mason J, 1996; Qualitative Researching. London: Sage)
Ethnographic research can lead to ethical ‘grey areas’, especially in terms of your dual role as a participant and as an ethnographer. It is always recommended to be as open as possible to participants, and to make the respect and consideration of participants your priority. If you are faced with an ethical dilemma, it is important to be open about it and speak with your supervisor, who will be able to advise you. Ethical problems are never solved by hiding them away and pretending they don’t exist, but by acknowledging them and being reactive in your research you can avoid them interfering with either your project or your relationships with participants.
How can I make the most of researching abroad?
Ethnography gives you the chance to write about a topic which is very local to your YA destination, make the most of it! Conducting ethnographic research will allow you to gain a real insight into the people you live with, but you need to put in the hours. Observation, writing field notes, and then typing them up all takes time – ethnography is not the kind of project which can be left until two weeks before the deadline! However, this gives you the chance to slowly build on your project as you go and reach very well-informed conclusions.
Topics previous students have studied ethnographically
- English in the French Linguistic Landscape
- Erasmus Student Network
- Portuguese Perspectives on the EU
- Local Festivals in Italy
All these texts should be accessible online through your institution. Hover over each text for description.
King, N (1994). ‘The Qualitative Research Interview’, in Qualitative methods in organizational research: A practical guide, Ed. Catherine Cassel and Gillian Symon, London: Sage Publications. [University of Southampton students – click here for pdf]