Assignment Showcase: Ethnography (Kim Pyne)

Mar 14 2007

Assignment Showcase: Ethnography (Kim Pyne)

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or, What is the culture of this group of people?

Field research—as distinct from library or secondary source research—has two predominant modes: quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative research involves numbers, statistics, and fixed experimental designs.  It investigates large, random samples and attempts to learn the what, where, and when of a topic. It tests theories or hypotheses in order to make statements that can be generalized across populations and situations. It is all about measurement, mathematical models, and the manipulation of variables. Classic experimental research tends to be quantitative. For example: rats in a maze; medical testing of aspirin users vs. non-aspirin users; or examining samples of atmospheric pollution in major American cities.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, involves an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that may govern that behavior. It investigates small, carefully chosen, focused populations and attempts to learn the why and how of a topic.  It concentrates on what people do in face-to-face interaction and depends heavily on participation, observation, and interviewing. This methodology is grounded in the same principles behind experiential learning—that we can understand the world by participating and engaging with other people. For example: while achievement tests can tell us which students succeeded on a particular question, they cannot tell us why certain students did better than others. Qualitative research, however, can.

One of many forms of qualitative research, ethnography is a method of studying the social and cultural dimensions of human interaction. It is a staple in social sciences research (sociology, anthropology, history, etc.) and the primary method for anthropologists. Its goal is to understand communities and cultures from an insider’s perspective, and then translate that understanding to outsiders. It assumes that any human group interacting together for a period of time will evolve a culture—a collection of shared behavior patterns, beliefs, and values—and is interested in understanding groups of people with a shared sense of identity. Unlike similar forms of field research, ethnography does not focus on individuals.  (After all, “Ethnos” is the Greek word for “a people” or cultural group.)

In the past, ethnographers often studied exotic cultures in far-away places. Contemporary ethnography, however, also turns its attention to cultures that are closer to home, revealing previously undiscovered aspects of local communities. Good ethnographers, whether focused on the exotic or the everyday, teach us to view cultural communities in new and unexpected ways. Such insights can be applied to assessing and helping people address problems and needs within organizations, communities, or larger social contexts.


Design and enact an ethnographic project that will help you to answer an interesting or important question about a particular community or social group. Conduct your research, and then write a research report that presents and analyzes your findings. Your research methods should include interviews with members of the group, observations of key aspects and/or events, and relevant secondary source research in the library.  You may also include questionnaires or surveys, but they should not be your dominant form of data collection.


1)      Invent (brainstorm, etc.) a list of communities or groups that you would like to investigate. You might even choose a group to which you already belong. If so, realize that you will have to concentrate on “seeing” the group as both an insider and an outsider. Be careful to limit your group to something very specific. (Ex: not Native Americans, but Elon students who are Native American. Not athletes, but senior players on the varsity football team. Not compulsive internet junkies, but the regular long-term visitors at a particular internet café in Raleigh.)

2)      Conduct some preliminary secondary source research. Gather data about your group or about similar groups from various library resources, including books, journals, and other print or video media.  You might need to supplement this with further secondary source research as you go.

3) Focus your initial research.  What would you like to understand better about this group? What particular aspect of the group do you expect to focus on? This will drive your initial data collection—the questions you ask in interviews, the specific information you seek during observations, etc. Know that most ethnographers change their focus during the research as new, more compelling, or more significant discoveries and understandings arise.

4)      Determine how you will gain access to your group. How will you select participants to interview? How many responses will you solicit? What do you hope to observe and will you be just a background figure or actually participate in the events?

5)      Think Ethics! What will you tell participants about the purpose of your research? Remember to let them know that this is research for a College Writing course only and that members of the class and the professor will have access to some materials. You should use pseudonyms in place of all names and keep any identifiable descriptions or contact information private, and should assure participants of that level of confidentiality.

6)      Conduct your field research. Keep your eyes open for significant and unexpected details. Take careful notes on what you see and hear. Take thorough notes during interviews (even if you choose to tape and transcribe the interviews).  After you collect your data, you should have a large amount of information from which to develop a final focus. Narrow this down to a single point of significance about the culture of your group.

7)      Select your audience carefully (one which would not be already very familiar with your group), but also be aware that members of the group you are studying may read this report. One possible audience could be a professor in an introductory sociology or psychology class.

8)       Write a short, tightly focused ethnography. Because you only have 5-7 pages, you cannot paint a broad portrait of this group. Instead, you will need to make a specific claim, promote a new understanding about a particular aspect of the group. You will need to synthesize secondary sources along with offering specific descriptions and analysis of your group.

9)      Your report should include these four parts (and maybe use these subheadings):

a)      Introduction: This should clearly offer the rationale for selecting your group, including a discussion of what you hoped to learn through field research, why such study is important, and at least a hint of your key finding(s).

b)      Methodology: A brief description of how you designed and conducted your research. This should also include a discussion of your role within the group or setting.

c)      Data: Description and analysis of your data (library sources, interviews, observations, etc.). If you researched in a particular setting, be sure to include a description of the place as well as the key people.

d)     Discussion: Explains the significance of your findings and draws conclusions about your group.

10)  Save all of your research notes and include them in your folder when you submit this paper. Your final paper should be 5-7 pages. Be sure to cite any secondary sources, using either APA or MLA method of documentation. (APA is preferred for this kind of research, but I’ll take either as long as you are consistent.)


Due: Thursday, October 12

1. Identify the community you plan to explore. What aspect(s) of this community do you expect focus your research on?

2. Briefly note the following:

  • What you currently know about the community
  • What you currently assume about the community
  • What you expect to find, knowing you may be wrong and/or that there may be a better focus that will emerge as you research

3. Identify your purpose and audience. (Note: Your audience should be generally unfamiliar with your group. But know that members of the community may also read this particular work.)

4. Identify by name (with contact information such as phone number and/or email) the person/people you plan to interview. For each person, include at least five open-ended interview questions. If the nature of your community prohibits knowing in advance who you will talk to, explain this and explain how you will identify people to speak with when the time comes.  What interview questions do you plan to use with them? (Please read the material on interview methodology before writing questions!)

5. Identify what you plan to observe (a community member working in their trade, a particular event or set of activities, interaction between members of the group in a certain location, etc.) Scheduling more than one limited observation is best for most cases.

6. Identify the secondary sources you plan to consult in order to complete your paper (specific sources found in library, online, and so on).

7.  Briefly discuss any significant issues that might arise concerning a) gaining access to your chosen community and b) confidentiality for participants. How do you plan to deal with these.  [If any of these seem serious or if any arise later in your research, contact me immediately to discuss options.]


____________            Do you address a community or group rather than simply profile an individual? (10 pts)

____________            Have you integrated observation, interviews, and secondary source research to address a clear and specific focus? Or do the parts of your research seem disjointed, arbitrary, and unconnected? (20 pts)

____________            Does your writing effectively and appropriately address your intended audience? Have you chosen an appropriate tone and style? Have you structured the piece with your audience in mind? (i.e. Have you thought what your audience is going to want to know first? What they will be drawn by?) Have you also thoughtfully allowed for readers from the community you studied? (10 pts)

____________            Is it clear that your observations and interviews have helped you move beyond a general and superficial understanding of the group and into something that you and your audience may not have realized? May even be surprised by? (15 pts)

____________            Are your observations vivid? Are they detailed in significant ways? Do you use strong verbs and adjectives to describe your community/group? (10 pts)

____________            Do you utilize your interview data well, including carefully selected quotes from members of the community that portray them clearly, fairly, and vividly? (10 pts)

____________            Is your purpose clear? Are you effective in eliciting the proper

response from your audience? Are you convincing? (10 pts)

____________            Have you avoided grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors? (10 pts)

____________            Have you correctly cited your sources (written and human) in MLA or APA style? (5 pts)

____________            TOTAL (100 points)

Sources: Chiseri-Strater’s Field Working, Axelrod & Cooper Reading Critically, Writing Well, Dr. Prudence Layne, Dr. Jessie Kapper, and other English 110 members.

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