Challenges and Contestations Involved in Ethnographic Research

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In time, different research methods have been explored extensively by researchers to solve universal problems, mysteries and to understand other worlds and their environments, as a result, each of these research methods has shown its strengths and limitations. Among all explored research methods, Ethnographic research is the most popular but similarly criticized by most scholars. This essay is intended to comment on the challenges and contestations involved in ethnographic research, to also make suggestions that can be implemented to confront these criticisms and how they could be used in spaces like museums.

Ethnographic research seems to be a multifaced approach of which different scholars define using many definitions, some define it according to its methodological approaches while some call it a study or a system. However, Steward. (1998:5) argues that there is no universally adopted definition that can be appropriated due to ethnographic research in many forms. On the other hand, Spradley (1979:9) has defined ethnographic research using two definitions, the first one is defined as “A culture-studying culture” while the second one is said to be “the service of humankind, It yields empirical data about the lives of people in specific situations”.

In the description of the term ethnography, Travers (2001) in Hammersley (1998: 24) says “the term ethnography overlaps with that of several others such as ‘qualitative method’ ‘interpretive research’, ‘case study’ ‘participant observation’ and ‘life history method’”. He continues to indicate that the listed terms are also not used very precisely defined ways. Meanwhile Morgan-Trimmer, and Wood (2016) define ethnographic research as “The investigation of a culture through an in-depth study of the members of the culture; it involves the systematic collection, description, and analysis of data for the development of theories of cultural behavior”.

Due to ethnographic research’s provision of the rich, detailed description of the unknown and the little known, it is highly favored for the investigation of sensitive issues. (Li, 2008: 101). Furthermore, it is said to be the most in-depth research method possible because of a long time spent by researchers at their research site. (Mayers, 1999: 4). Although the time spent at the research site is seen as a strength for ethnography, the same factor is criticized for exhausting a lot of resources which could be used for other researches. In museums spaces, such in-depth research is needed for understanding and representation. The time spent on a certain culture could work favorably because the objects collected from the same researched culture would be well represented and articulated.

Lewis (1985) in Mayers (1999) indicates that ethnographic research is about immersion, as researchers immerse themselves in the life of people they study. This notion is arguably said it has a potential of jeopardizing the research data as researchers may become too attached to their subjects and fail to see what the patterns are and sometimes drop the questioning stance. (Doddert, 1982:105). Ethnographic research is also prided by providing a sense of lived experiences of culture members, grounded analysis of their structure, how it functions and how it is comparable with other cultures. (ed Kozinets, 2010:55). On the other hand, Dobbert (1982:105) says the same lived experiences drive researchers to suffer from the disadvantage of being at the mercy of their data which usually is in haphazard due to the slow and frequent way is obtained. In addition, ethnographic research is criticized for being inaccurate because it lacks quantification and in its data analysis words like “often” and “frequently” are commonly used. (Hammersley, 1998:23). For museum curators, immersion is needed for it is their job demand to thoroughly know and understand the history of each of their objects collection. What can be done to avoid haphazard information is to create a systematic daily recording style that will include all the dates the researcher is expected to be at the research site. This will force the researcher to follow the system as a result accurate data will be collected.

The system suggested in the previous paragraph can also be used for structuring data analysis system because there is a concern that ethnographic approaches produce voluminous unstructured data from a range of sources like diary entries, memos, interview transcripts, and fieldwork notes. This volume of data is normally very challenging to analyze and has the potential of being inaccurate. (Jones and Smith 2017: 96). Some scholars argue that ethnographic research produces findings of little value because of their small sampling and that its findings are not replicable therefore it is difficult for other researchers to check and use them. (Hammersley, 1998: 28).

Since ethnography studies people and entails to enter their personal space for truthful results, ethics pervade every stage of ethnographic work, it is a must for ethnographers to formally or informally seek consent to conduct their work. (Williams 1967: 29). Due to its character, ethnography put greater demands on the people being studied, consequently making it difficult for undergraduate researchers to pursue it. (Travers, 2001:22).

Descartes, (2007:23) states that ethnographers normally explore new topics, clarify what is going on in given situations, as such researchers are bound to be covert in their study to produce detailed results because if informants are aware they are being studied, study subjects will revert to acting. The choice of leaving researched people unaware that they are being studied is adamantly contested by some scholars as they argue that it infringes research subjects’ privacy. (Li,2008:103). However, for Museums better documentation of each culture and history relating to museums objects, acting can be damaging to museums representation of objects, therefore, research relating to museum objects needs research subjects in their normal behavior to avoid any discrepancy. Li (2008: 103) continues to state that only highly experienced researchers should carry out ethnographic research, as researchers are normally subjected to psychological pressure and inner conflicts. Inexperienced researchers may jeopardize the research findings and the credibility of ethnographic research can be questioned. (Li, 2008:103).

William (1967:28) argues that in ethnographic research a similar question is asked to different people, then at the end, their answers are compared to find a definite answer, he continues to say that this repetitive method helps researchers to identify key informants. This method is ideal for museum practitioners for future references for their exhibitions if they already have identified key informants for their collections. (Hammersley, 1983: 29)

In conclusion, ethnographic research seems to be a highly detailed research approach to be used for solving social, economic, political and scientific mysteries, as a result extremely suitable for museums reliability for adequate representation of objects collected from different cultural settings. Museums practitioners are already familiar with frequent documentation and recording of objects they continually collect. It will be easier for them to formulate a well-structured periodical form which could be used during ethnographical research to avoid data discrepancies. In a similar way, their data analysis will be simplified.


  1. Grills, S. 1998. Doing Ethnographic research: Fieldwork Settings. London: SAGE Publications.
  2. Hammersley, M. 1998. Reading Ethnographic Research: A Critical Guide. 2nd ed. London: Longman.
  3. Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. 1993. Ethnography: Principle and Practice. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
  4. Jones, J. & Smith, J., 2017. ‘Ethnography: Challenges and Opportunities’. BMJ. 20(4): 98-100.
  5. Kozinets, R. V., (ed). 2010. Doing Ethnography Research Online. London: SAGE.
  6. Li, T., 2008. ‘Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork’. The Qualitative Report. 13(1): 101-120.
  7. Mayers, M. D. 1999. Investigating Information systems with Ethnographic Research: Communication for information Systems. London: SAGE.
  8. Morgan-Trimmer, S. & Wood, F. 2016. Ethnographic Methods for process Evaluation of Complex Health Behavior Interventions, Journal of Translational Medicine. 17(1): 1-11.
  9. Rashid, M., Caine, V. & Goez, H. 2015. ‘The Encounters and challenges of Ethnography as a methodology in Health research’. International Journal of Qualitative method. 14(5): 1-16.
  10. Spradley, P. S. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  11. Stewart, A. 1998. The Ethnographer’s Method. London: SAGE Publications.
  12. William, T. R. 1967. Field Methods in the Study of Culture. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.


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Challenges and Contestations Involved in Ethnographic Research. (2021, Jan 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/challenges-and-contestations-involved-in-ethnographic-research/



What are the 8 important things to consider in doing ethnographic research?
The 8 important things to consider in doing ethnographic research are: identifying the research question, selecting the research site, building rapport with participants, using multiple data collection methods, conducting data analysis, maintaining reflexivity, considering ethical implications, and disseminating findings to relevant stakeholders. These considerations allow for a thorough and ethical approach to understanding a particular cultural group or phenomenon.
What are the challenges of ethnographic research?
1. One challenge of ethnographic research is that it can be difficult to gain the trust of the people being studied. 2. Another challenge of ethnographic research is that it can be time-consuming to build relationships with the people being studied.
What are the three disadvantages of ethnography research?
The three disadvantages of ethnography research are that it is time-consuming, expensive, and can be intrusive.
What is one of the main disadvantages ethnography?
Question 2. What is a key disadvantage of using the covert role in ethnography? a) It is usually too time consuming and expensive to be a realistic option .
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