Key Features of Ethnography

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Angrosino (2007:15) propounded that ethnography is conducted on-site and the ethnographer is a subjective participant in the lives of people under study while being an objective observer. Hammersley and Atkinson (2007:2) identified five key features of ethnography. Firstly, people’s actions and accounts are studied in everyday (natural) contexts (like Brownslaw Malinowski among the Trobiands). Second, data are gathered from multifarious sources such as documentaries, but participant observation and/or relatively informal conversation are usually the main ones.

Third, data collection is for the most part, relatively ‘unstructured’. Forth, the focus is usually on a few cases generally fairly small scale, perhaps a single setting or group of people so as to facilitate in-depth studying. Finally, the analysis of data involves the interpretation of meanings, functions and consequences of human actions, institutional practices and how these are implicated in local and perhaps in wider contexts. What are produced for the most part are verbal descriptions, explanations and theories, quantification and statistical analysis play a subordinate role at most.

As this list of features make clear as regards what is referred to as methodological texts as ‘research design’, ethnographers typically employ a relatively open-minded approach (Maxwell, 2004). They begin with an interest in some particular area of social life. While they will have in mind what Malinowsk called ‘foreshadowed problem’, their orientation is exploratory in the strictest sense. The initial questions and interest that motivated the researcher will be refined and perhaps even transformed over the course of the research. Eventually, through this process, the inquiry will become progressively more clearly focused on specific set of research questions and this allows for the strategic collection of data to pursue answers to those questions more effectively, and to test against evidence.

Where participant observation is required, the researcher must assume a role in the field being studied. This must be done through implicit and probably through explicit negotiation with the people in the field. Access may need to be sought through gate keepers, but it will also have to be negotiated and renegotiated with the people being studied so as to develop rapport. In the case of interviewing too, access cannot be assumed to be automatic, relations will have to be established and identities constructed.

The initial exploratory character of ethnographic research means that it will often not be clear, where within a setting, observation should begin, which actors need to be shadowed. Sampling strategies will have to be worked out and changed as the research progresses. Much the same is the use of interviews. Here decisions about whom to interview, when and where will have to be developed over time and the interviewing will normally have to take a relatively unstructured form, though more structured and strategic questioning may be used towards the end of the fieldwork. Data is usually collected in an unstructured form by means of field notes written in concretely descriptive terms and also through audio or video recordings, plus the collection of documents.


Ethnography falls under naturalistic studies. Ethnography and many kinds of qualitative research do not match positivist canons (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). As a result, during the middle of the 20th century, they became under serious criticism for lack of scientific rigor. Ethnography was sometimes dismissed as quite inappropriate to social science on the grounds that the data it produces are ‘subjective’ mere idiosyncratic impressions of one/two cases that cannot provide a solid foundation for rigorous scientific analysis.

In reaction to this, ethnographers developed an alternative view of the proper nature of social research which they often termed ‘Naturalism’ (Lofland, 1967) in Hammersley and Atkinson (2007:5). Naturalism proposes that as far as possible, the social world should be studied in its ‘natural’ state, undisturbed by the researcher unlike experiments. The research must be carried out in ways that are sensitive to the setting and that of the phenomena being studied. A key element of naturalism is the demand that the social researcher should adopt an attitude of ‘respect’ or ‘appreciation’ towards the social world. Matza (1969:5) argues that naturalism is the philosophical view that remains true to the nature of the phenomena under study.

Naturalists regard social phenomena as quite distinct in character from the physical phenomena. Naturalists draw from multifarious philosophical and sociological ideas but especially on symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and hermeneutics. These traditions all argue that the social world cannot be understood in terms of simple causal relationships or by subscription of social events under universal laws. This is so because human actors are infused by cultural meanings that are by intentions motives, beliefs, rules and discourses and values.

For example, at the heart of symbolic interaction is the rejection of the stimulus response model of behaviour, which is built into the methodological arguments of positivism. In the view of interractionists, people interpret stimulus and these interpretations, continually under revision as events unfold shape their actions. As a result, the same stimuli may mean different things to different people and indeed to the same people. For example the flying elephant by Mehan in Hammersley and Atkinson (2007). Human behaviour is constructed and reconstructed on the basis of people’s interpretation of situations they occur in.

According to naturalists, in order for us to understand people’s behaviour we must use an approach that gives us access to the meaning that guides this behaviour. Social scientists have that capacity and methods. For example through participant observation, researchers can learn the culture and subcultures of the people being studied. According to naturalists, the value of ethnography is founded upon the existence of such variations in cultural patterns across and within societies and their significance of for understanding social processes.

Organising Assumptions

It rests upon the premise that human action transpire always in a situation that confronts the actor and the actor acts on the basis of defining that which confronts him (Blumer, 1969:4). There is the idea of idealism which stresses the importance of consciousness as an ongoing process in history, society and psychology. It is evident that any research grounded in symbolic interactionism will be tentative, empirical and responsive to meaning.

The social world is taken as a place where little can be take for granted, a place not of statistics but of process where objects and people’s identities and behaviour may not be revealed at the onset. It does not presume too much in advance. Knowledge is held not in the library but the field and it is for that reason that ethnographers conduct field research. The practice of interractionist ethnography flows directly from the organising assumptions of symbolic interractionism itself (Blumer, 1969:6).

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Key Features of Ethnography. (2020, Dec 12). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/key-features-of-ethnography/

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