Why ethnography?

NCRM news
Dr Alice Stefanelli, Durham University
A human crowd forming a world mapA human crowd forming a world map

Ethnography, or participant observation, is a field-based practice based on sharing in our interlocutors’ everyday life with the aim of understanding the world from their perspective. While it was originally developed by socio-cultural anthropologists and urban sociologists, its use today has become widespread, as social scientists and qualitative researchers across disciplinary boundaries employ it in their work. A recent interdisciplinary dialogue on ethnography by the Durham Research Methods Centre was attended by colleagues working across and beyond the departments of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences. Similarly, I regularly teach ethnographic research methods at postgraduate research level, at Durham University and now NCRM, and my classes are always made up of an interesting mix of anthropologists, geographers, political scientists and researchers from education, comparative literatures, sports science and more.

But what attracts researchers to use participant observation?

One of the most recurrent reasons is the desire to engage with and understand interlocutors’ point of view in a more profound way. While interviews can go a long way to capture opinions and perspectives, ethnography allows the researcher to spend longer periods of time with participants as they go about their everyday life, giving both an opportunity to prolong the conversation and deepen their mutual understanding. In engaging with interlocutors at a more intimate level, participant observation allows us to comprehend the complexity of everyday life and explore how people make meaning for themselves. This kind of long-term interaction with different ideas, beliefs, and perspectives takes the experience of being human seriously, and also pushes us to reconsider our own assumptions, question accepted categories of analysis, and generate new understandings – theories – of the world we live in. As Alpa Shah has argued, participant observation is a potentially revolutionary praxis.

While many socio-cultural anthropologists continue to privilege long-term fieldwork, the sensibility and critical spirit of ethnography can be fruitfully applied to a diverse set of qualitative studies that may employ ethnography alongside other methods.

NCRM’s course Conducting Ethnographic Research is designed to introduce ethnography to researchers with some training in qualitative methods (interviews, focus groups, etc.) but little to no prior experience of participant observation. The course mixes plenaries with group work, moments of reflection and practical exercises, with the aim of examining both the epistemological premises and practicalities of ethnographic fieldwork. There will also be plenty of opportunities to ask questions and clarify doubts and think concretely about individual projects.

In day one, we begin by introducing the basic principles of ethnographic practice, explaining what participant observation is and isn’t, and what kind of data and theory we can produce through it. Then we focus on the articulation between qualitative research methods and ethnography: how do they fit together, and how can we bring an ethnographic ethos to our interviewing practice specifically? In day two, we discuss the all-important issue of research ethics, during and after data collection, including matters of access and power in the field. Later we continue with a session on writing ethnographically followed by a research design exercise. The course closes with a moment of collective reflection and a last Q&A.

Find out more about the online course Conducting Ethnographic Research