8 Examples of Ethnography in Action (With Definitions)
Updated September 30, 2022
Ethnography is a type of social research that studies the actions of a group of people. This study method is effective because it lets scientists make in-person observations and collect unbiased information. Learning about ethnography can help you understand more about its many uses. In this article, we discuss what ethnography is, explore eight examples of ethnography in action, and see some factors to consider when crafting an ethnographic study.
What is ethnography?
Ethnography involves observing the characteristics and behaviours of a specific demographic, community, group, or organization in real time. The term refers to both a method of research and the documentation or research report that an ethnographer prepares when an ethnographic observation is over. Ethnography is qualitative, meaning that it focuses on obtaining high-quality information directly from the source. Researchers record the actions of individuals and the entire group while describing the settings where these things happen.
Examples of ethnography
In addition to academic research, people often use examples of ethnography to conduct market research and find out which products people desire most. Many documentaries use ethnography as well. Ethnographers often work with anthropologists, statisticians, and other professionals to combine qualitative and quantitative data into the most accurate possible description of a group. Some researchers travel long distances to study their subjects, while others may focus on observing people who live closer to them. Here are some examples of ethnography in several different fields:
A group of children at school
A researcher may observe a group of elementary school children in the classroom and on the playground to learn about their habits, personalities, and social dynamics. In this setting, the researcher might focus on one child a week over two months and note their preferences for toys and playground equipment.
Then, the ethnographer could observe the interactions of the whole group, noting any recurring behaviour patterns, who each child plays with most, and which games are most popular. They could also study student-teacher interactions, look at lesson plans, and interview teachers, students, and administrators.
Employees in a warehouse
A researcher may study a group of employees at a warehouse to learn about work culture and how often people follow safety regulations. This research could help the company streamline procedures and improve training and teamwork, reducing injuries and lost or misplaced inventory. The ethnographer may take an active approach by participating in some social gatherings with the subjects outside of work, or they might use security cameras and other technologies to observe people from a distance.
Medical personnel in a high-volume hospital
Ethnographers often observe people working in hospitals to understand how employees handle stress. This research can offer insights on ways to prevent burnout and help staff members avoid potentially dangerous errors. For instance, a researcher might study a hospital for four months, reviewing a different department each week. They may also observe people during their time away from work to learn more about how they relax. The ethnographer may observe passively to avoid disrupting the work of surgeons, emergency physicians, nurses, and other professionals.
A series of grocery store locations
Looking at many locations in a grocery store chain could help a researcher learn more about the preferences and behaviours of customers and employees. Customer preference for foods and products may vary according to the neighbourhood. Traffic may also be heavier at different times. A researcher can observe these changes and note them in an ethnographer's report. After the business gets the ethnographer's report, it can change the placements of products on shelves, optimize staffing levels, and make other changes to increase sales while lowering operating costs.
While some holidays are common in most of the world, other holidays are region-specific. An ethnographer could study Mardi Gras or other holidays to learn more about the culture and traditions of the region. They can use passive observation or participate more actively by talking to people, taking part in events like parades, or helping to cook or decorate. Companies can use the information ethnographers gain to improve their marketing strategies and create products for many different holidays.
A group of motorcycle riders
An ethnographer may study a group of motorcycle riders for five months to understand and describe their social customs. The ethnographer may explain that they're interested in motorcycles and want to know what it's like to be a part of this social group. Their approach to conducting research can be overt or more covert. During the observation, the ethnographer can study the group's social dynamics and the places where they frequently meet. The researcher can also learn how to ride a motorcycle from group members and participate in other common activities.
University students with a range of majors
Observing the daily lives of college or university students can help ethnographers learn about their social relationships, how they study, whether they work, and which classes they enjoy most. This information can help people decide which major they wish to pursue. It can also help marketers determine which products students may desire most.
Astronauts in training
Before going on a mission, astronauts typically spend time training with their team members. As these professionals spend long periods in small spaces with only each other for company, knowing how they interact with each other is important. Ethnographers may study how future astronauts work together and deal with isolation from others. They can also use the information they gain to help scientists in Antarctica and other groups in isolated settings.
Considerations for ethnographic studies
An ethnographic study lets people explore the social dynamics and culture of a group. Researchers can gather detailed information about the sociology of a group and accurately present those experiences to others. When crafting an ethnographic study, researchers may choose between different types of settings, study methods, and involvement levels.
Open settings vs. closed settings
The setting of ethnographic research is the environment where ethnographers work. An open setting is public and has no restrictions on anyone wishing to access the setting. This allows an ethnographer to easily observe people's behaviour. A closed setting has strict boundaries and may require the researcher to take specific steps to gain access to the subject group. For example, gaining access to an office to study employees' interactions and productivity levels throughout the day usually requires permission from the employer.
Closed or more private settings may help the subjects feel more comfortable revealing personal information than in open settings, like an outdoor market or a city street. Researchers may also learn more about the cultural and social norms of a group when its members mostly interact with each other in private settings.
Overt vs. covert study methods
Most ethnographic studies are overt, meaning that ethnographers explain to potential subjects that they want to conduct research in the setting. Many scientists think of overt studies as more ethical than covert studies since subjects get the opportunity to learn about the study, ask questions, and agree to participate.
In a covert ethnographic study, the ethnographer doesn't reveal that they're studying the group. The researcher may provide a different explanation for their presence. This can help reduce the chances of participants changing their behaviour because they know a researcher is nearby. A covert approach may allow ethnographers to get more realistic impressions of the group they observe.
Active vs. passive observation
The way that an ethnographer interacts with a group can influence how community members behave and impact the results of the study. A researcher's level of involvement often depends on the context of the group. When the observation is more active, the group may encourage the researcher to participate in some of its activities. The researcher may also help the group feel more relaxed by making conversation.
An ethnographer who opts for a more passive role typically stands out of the way and observes without participating in most activities. This keeps the group from becoming distracted by the researcher and changing their behaviour. The ethnographer also has more time to take thorough notes about everything that happens around them. For instance, with a passive, overt digital study, the ethnographer places cameras and microphones in the setting after getting permission from participants. This lets them observe while minimizing their potential influence on people. All covert studies are passive because the researchers don't interact with the subjects.
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