Introduction to ethnographic methods

What are ethnographic methods?

Ethnographic methods are a research approach that examines:

  • people in their cultural environment;
  • his actions as well as his words;
  • both the implicit and the explicit;
  • how they interact with each other and with their social and cultural environment;
  • what is not said as much as what is said;
  • their language, and the shared symbols, rituals and meanings that populate their world, in order to produce a narrative account of that particular culture, in a theoretical context. Examples
    “Ethnographic research allows us to consider and represent actors as creators and executors of their own meanings. The same way they tell us what they do tells the researcher a lot about what is meaningful to and in the research. It adds richness and texture to the experience of conducting research. ”
    (Stuart Hannabuss, “Being there: ethnographic research and autobiography”, Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 2)

“Generally speaking, ethnographic studies allow researchers to immerse themselves in the empirical environment of choice for long periods of time. During this time, the researcher’s experience, in terms of their participation and / or observation at the research site, is used to generate a narrative interpretation of the events that took place. ”
(Colin Dey, “Methodological issues: the use of critical ethnography as an active research methodology”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 15 No. 1).

In “Using ethnography in strategic consumer research” (Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 6 No. 4), Richard Elliott and Nick Jankel-Elliott cite an anthropologist famous for describing ethnography as “deep hanging out” and list its principles as follows:
“The first is that it involves the study of behavior in natural settings, ‘dirtying the seat of pants in the real world, not in the library’ (Fielding, 1993, p. 157). The second is that an adequate knowledge of social behavior cannot be developed without an understanding of the symbolic world of the study subjects, seeing the world through their eyes and using their shared meanings, the empathetic process of verstehen. This implies learning the language in use: dialect, slang, special uses of words, neologisms. The third principle is that it requires a prolonged presence on the ground, “Long-term immersion in context increases the likelihood of spontaneously encountering important moments in the ordinary events of daily life for consumers and experiencing revealing incidents” (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). A fourth principle is that of participation in cultural life to “walk a mile in your shoes” and develop an understanding of cultural and symbolic meanings and of “local rules” (Hochschild, 1979).

They require prolonged study and their use is generally limited to small populations in particular settings.

Organizational ethnography

Ethnography is a study of culture, and organizational ethnography looks at the culture of organizations. According to Singh and Dickson (2002), organizational culture exists within the minds of the people who make up that organization, while organizational ethnography deals with environments in which social relationships take place between actors who set particular goals. This culture evolves over time, contains dominant cultures and subcultures, and is subject to its own rules, rites, myths, and symbols.

History of ethnographic methods

Ethnography originates from social anthropology, and in particular from the work of Malinowski, whose seminal text Argonauts of the Western Pacific describes his experience of living for a long time with the South Pacific islanders, and advises the anthropologist to spend at least one year in the field, learn the language and live as one of the populations you study. It was also embraced by sociology in the 1930s, when the Chicago school studied “deviant subcultures” in urban America in the Great Depression. It also has strong links with hermeneutics, which is a way of understanding historical texts looking at them in their cultural context (as in biblical criticism).

The first ethnographies were criticized for their distanced stance, particularly by feminist anthropologists, but recent adaptations of the method use it in action research, where the study population itself is involved in requesting information and meaning.

Research parameters

Ethnographic methods are qualitative, inductive, exploratory, and longitudinal. They achieve a dense and rich description in a relatively small area.

The actual data collection process is best done iteratively, with the researcher taking on what has been described as a “reflective” role, in other words, observing, reflecting, building a theory, and then going back to the field and testing it. The testing process is essential, due to the inevitable element of subjectivity in a research method in which the researcher is the instrument.

There are a number of practical considerations with ethnographic methods (as is the case with all research methods):

Weather. Completing studies takes a long time. If you are thinking of making ethnography one of your approaches to a dissertation, will you have enough time before the end date? If it is part of a major research project, will the project cover the costs?
Place. You need to ensure that you can get the cooperation of the organization you want to observe, and decide whether you want to see the entire organization, a part of it, or a cross section.

Data collection and triangulation methods

Most ethnographic research makes considerable use of participant observation, usually triangulated with interviews, with particular “key informants”. Triangulation is particularly important since a method by itself is usually not reliable.

In addition to interviews, ordinary “informal” conversations, which are not like interviews in the sense that they have no particular purpose, although an interrogation technique can be used, can produce invaluable information. You can also get a lot of information from other sources, in particular:

Written documents, eg, emails, policy documents, meeting minutes, organizational charts, reports, procedure manuals, “official” corporate material such as intranet, brochures, press releases, advertising, web pages, annual report.
Corporate events and rituals, in particular the annual staff conference, the Christmas party, etc.
Branding – logo and how it is applied, slogan, etc. The brand is a particularly strong use of symbolism.
Site location, built environment, layout, etc.
In fact, one of the advantages of ethnography is that it allows multiple methods of data collection.

Another method used is the diary, which the participants must fill in (a diary will also be filled in as part of the observation of the participants, see data collection). This may have established categories such as structured observation, or the participant may be asked to keep a record of their experiences (eg, their reactions to a training course) or what they do.

In “Ethnography of an American main street” (Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 11), researchers used 240 hours of participant observation, including work, as data collection methods. as a retailer, shopping, and attending events (sidewalk sales, parades, and art exhibitions), which triangulated with 60 field interviews and 12 key informant interviews with retailers, as well as secondary data from local media, including reports news and video clips. Evidence was collected in the form of taped interviews, field notes, and photographs.

In “Observe, record, then beyond: facilitating participant reflection via research diaries” (Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, Vol. 2 No. 2 No. 2), Kate Lewis et al. describe how diaries were used to triangulate with interviews in a research project to learn about technological learning in small dairy farms.

In “The human resource management practice of retail branding: an ethnography within Oxfam Trading Division” (Stéphane JG Girod, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 7), a broad observation of the participants was triangulated with ten interviews one-hour semi-structured and informal interviews in the corridors, along with a scan of the company intranet.

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