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Application and Assessment of Ethnographic Methods

Updated on March 14, 2016

Ethnography is a social anthropological approach towards a more holistic interpretation, description, and analysis of culture through immersion and participation with the subjects of study by means of intensive field work. Exhaustive field work is necessary because ethnography does not only focus on the overt part of the culture, but probes deeper to understand the complexity of the object of study to include the intangible and symbolic aspect that otherwise could have easily been overlooked towards representing a whole way of life. In terms of media-oriented cultural studies, and with the onslaught of various media brought about by globalization, ethnography has developed several methods that have departed itself from the traditional concept of qualitative research to a more reflexive approach that is more dependent in terms of interpretations, analysis, and assumptions of the researcher (Barker, p. 32-33).


Participant Observation

A classic ethnographic method that has undergone a postmodern approach is participant observation. Traditionally, participant observation involves empirical field work through participation in the day-to-day activities of the object of study with informal interviews towards better understanding of the meaning and reasoning behind the activities being performed. The time frame of study varies but has steadily declined over the years due to the cost and complexity of the method (as cited in Pickering, p. 107-108).

With the proliferation of mass media such as television and internet, participant observations have become part of a pop cultural phenomenon not only dedicated in educating people about cultures of remote ethnic groups but creating a spectacle out of it. Take for instance National Geographic Channel’s Meet the Natives UK (2007) and Discovery Channel’s Adventures of Mark and Olly: Living with the Kombai (2007). Both television programs are aimed at documenting culture through the eyes of the observers—through their own interpretation of the culture. In Meet the Natives UK (2007), five tribesmen from Tanna in the South Pacific made the journey to Britain to observe and participate on various aspects of the English’ culture. With it, the tribesmen would constantly analyze and compare Britain’s culture [and technology] with their own thus providing viewers with a perspective on contemporary cultural phenomenon and social dilemmas from the perspective of men who are unaffected of globalization. On the other hand, Adventures of Mark and Olly: Living with the Kombai (2007) documents how Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds live with an isolated ethnic group of Indonesia—the Kombai (and Mek). It shows how the two British men faired on living with the bare essentials and without the comforts of modern life. Their views and reactions regarding the Kombai’s culture are interpreted based on a ‘modern’ mindset.

The use of mass media—television in conducting participant observation allowed for a wider audience towards educating people on isolated tribes and culture that remained unaffected by technology and post modernity. It also provided clear and vivid pictures via recorded video of the interaction of the two cultures that could never be achieved by the written word. Also, it allowed audience to be part of the ‘research’ because they could form their own conclusion or interpretation based on what they watched. On the other hand though, the presentations of cultures are dependent on its entertainment value. The main priority was not to document/ study culture but to entertain people. Thus, it was up to the discretion of the producers as to what parts of culture is ‘interesting’ to watch i.e. tribal war, witchcraft, food gathering, that goes against the objective of ethnography: to present a holistic research.



Another ethnographic method that is commonly used in television shows, news, and research is interview.Interviews are not undertaken by simply asking questions to the participant. Rather, researchers must be well prepared prior to the interview session. The researcher must have done a background research on the topic to be discussed; informed consent—knowledge about the participant and why are they chosen as participants, provide the objective of the research; must be organized and well-prepared in ensuring that the interview session remains within the walls of the topic of discussion (Alasuutari, p. 59-60 & Pickering, p. 63-65).

In-depth journalism allows newsmaker to probe deeper on particular subjects or topics. For instance, news program such as Larry King Live and talk shows such as Oprah allowed the hosts to talk to key informants or participants that are involved in the topic or issues being discussed. The quality of the interview would be based on the preparedness on the interviewer and how well he/she is able to adapt in terms of adjusting and modifying the questions to fit the level (i.e. educational attainment, social status, economic status, etc.) of the participants to be able to probe deeper into the subject. In an episode of Oprah titled “What Pedophiles Don’t Want You to Know” (2006), Winfrey interviewed sexual predators to provide insights and warning on how pedophiles are able to lure children and why they do it. The interview was very disturbing yet educational because it was able to probe on the mind of these sexual offenders and how parents could better protect their children. In terms of the interview session, Winfrey did a good job as an interviewer and moderator because she acted professionally, she was well-prepared in terms of doing background research on the topic, and tried her best to understand and not press judgment on every statement that the participants were saying.

One of the strengths of conducting interviews is that it is cost-efficient in terms of data gathering and operation. Also, it allows the researcher the flexibility to be able to place together in one session various stakeholders or a one-on-one interview with key informants regarding the topic to be researched. Thus, differences in views and perspective only add to the wealth of information that could be gathered. The downside of interview as an ethnographic method is: it is dependent on the ability, personality, and other social aspects of the interviewer. For instance, inability to establish rapport (i.e. Personality of the researcher comes out to be too domineering, too assertive, too timid, etc.) or to effectively manage or lead the discussion during an interview would reflect the quality of information that could be culled out. Gender and race could also play a role or influence the course of the interview, thus training and experience in handling interview session are also crucial.



Empirical researchers make use of questionnaires as a structured data collection method. Survey is one common example. Product-testing and customer preferences are some examples of how questionnaires are used in corporate research. Because of the high demand for product testing to outperform competition and maintain/gain market shares, companies such as Decision Analyst Inc. <> provides product testing services to companies who wish to improve their product quality. The process includes an exhaustive questionnaire to explore the overall rating of the product; ways to improve the product; and value rating among others.

The efficacy of questionnaires as an ethnographic method is dependent on the formation and relevance of the questions being asked. Alone, it provides empirical and quantitative data that could be statistically interpreted. Thus, it is very useful and cost-effective in terms of variables that could easily be quantified. However, it is limiting in the sense that the information only ‘scratches the surface’ so to speak, particularly if the topic of the research involves unquantifiable or unpredictable subjects such as human interaction, thought, decision-making, etc. Despite its limitations, questionnaires’ could easily work with other research methods to supplement or probe deeper in terms of data-gathering methodology.

Diaries, Recordings

Diaries and recordings are ethnographic methods which allow the researcher to record structured or semi-structured reports of particular activities or emotions in a chronological manner. It also contains logs of activities and events that have transpired throughout the research period. Usually, it is in written form and “is created specifically for the purpose of research and focuses on a particular topic of interest to the researcher” (Bloor & Wood p. 50-52).

Cultural anthropologist who study remote ethnic groups and primatologists who study primates’ behavior in the wild are examples of researches that make use of diaries and recordings. Logbooks and journals are often use to record entries, personal observation, significant events, or emotions felt during a particular day that might not seem to be of important or significant on that particular time. However, these minute details and observations could prove vital when piecing together the various observations that have been documented.

One of the many advantages of diaries is that it allows for the participants to be part of the research not only as subject of study but as ethnographers because diaries would allow them to continually record personal accounts and experiences after the field researcher is long gone. Secondly, it is able to document seemingly unimportant observation that could prove vital in retrospect. Lastly, it allows detailed record keeping not only through written observations but through pictures, voice recordings, and video diaries that provides an impartial presentation of the subject. The pitfalls of diaries and recordings are that it is very selective in the sense that depending on the ethnographer, the results would either be from an emic or etic perspective. Another is that the research could be dependent on the physical and emotional state of the researcher during the time of documentation. Lastly, diaries alone, though vital, would not supplement to provide a holistic picture of the subject under study—this is particularly true when studying culture and human interactions.


Virtual Ethnography

According to Hine (2000), Virtual ethnography not only is ‘virtual’ in the sense that there is spatial dislocation but that it “involves intensive engagement with mediated interaction” with the use of a new medium and technology as a source of insight not traditionally used in ethnographic research—internet. It allows another avenue between informants and ethnographers’ new ways of interacting through cyberspace which could easily transcends space, culture, and time (p. 63-66).

A great example of virtual ethnography could be found on social networking sites such as <>; <>; <>; and <> to name a few that uses discussion boards, groups, and messaging system that allows interaction within a network of individuals. <> for instance allows its users to join and form groups on things that interests them—i.e. fashion, business, music, sports etc.; it has discussion boards or ‘walls’ where networks of users could freely express their opinions regarding specific topics; it has a messaging system feature that allows communication within controlled segments of users; and it also have a chat and video chat features that allow real-time correspondence between two or multiple users.

One of the strengths of virtual ethnography is that it is very accessible to both researcher and participants. Secondly, virtual space or cyberspace allows for a more diverse group of subject in terms of race, culture, religion, demographics, etc. Lastly, it is cost-efficient. Almost everyone have access to the internet and consequently, websites that allows for group or public interaction among its users. Lastly, it let researchers to utilize and make the most of our technological advances in pursuit of research. On the other hand, the use of technology is also its weakness as those who have access to the internet are the only ones who could participate, thus delineating other segments of the populace that could not be well-presented on the research. Another weakness is that it ironically goes against ethnographic practice of face-to-face interaction. Moreover, it does not provide for validation in terms of the arguments, ideas, and opinions presented by the subject.


Ethnographic methods allow for researchers to present a more qualitative approach towards understanding a particular topic. By supplementing one ethnographic method with another; i.e. a combination of interview, participant observation, and diaries and recordings, an ethnographer could provide a more vivid detail and a more holistic approach to research as compared to just using one method. This way, the weaknesses or limitations of each method are minimized. Moreover, ethnographic methods could further be enhanced by synthesizing quantitative aspects such as statistics to present the quantifiable aspects of the research. Lastly, ethnographers have to be vigilant in staying focus and objective, as much as possible, when conducting research to minimize influencing the results of their research.


Alasuutari, Pertti. Researching Culture. Qualitative Method and Cultural Studies. London: Sage Publications, 1995. Print.

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd Ed. London: Sage Publications, 2008. Print.

Bloor, Michael and Fiona Wood. Keywords in Qualitative Methods: A Vocabulary of Research Concepts. London: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

Decision Analyst Product Testing. Decision Analyst Inc., 2010. Web. 22 August 2010.

Hine, Christine. Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage Publications, 2000. Print.

“Living with the Kombai.” Adventures of Mark and Olly. Discovery Channel, 2007. Video.

Meet the Natives UK. National Geographic Channel, 2007. Video.

Pickering, Michael, ed. Research Methods for Cultural Studies. Great Britain: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Print.

“What Pedophiles Don’t Want You to Know” The Oprah Winfrey Show. Harpo Productions, 2006. Video.


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