Thursday, June 30, 2011

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is a research methodology and not a specific technique to collect data (unlike participant observation, or interviews). In fact, it is a multiple technique approach: an ethnographer uses a mixture of techniques appropriate to her/ his situation; and adapts each technique to her/ his situation. Ethnography tries to integrate the different methods into one holistic study.

Ethnographers frequently use participant observation to gather data. As a participant observer, an ethnographer participates in the society or culture being studied by living amongst those people. Yet, through reflection and analysis, the ethnographer retains an analytical or observational position so that s/he can describe and interpret the subject of the study. Through immersion in the field (the project and the context in which the project is working), the ethnographer accumulates local knowledge. Research takes the form of diverse relationships and ‘conversations.’ Even when it includes apparently impersonal methods like surveys they are treated as part of an ongoing conversation or relationship with a place and with people. Every experience, conversation and encounter can be treated as ‘data’ alongside more formal research activities such as interviews.

A research approach such as this does not require interviews and conversations to be completely structured. While the researcher is broadly aware of the issues to be addressed, the precise questions, and their sequence, emerge only as conversations/ interviews progress. Thus, data is collected through ‘chains of conversations’. Similarly, the researcher begins by identifying key informants. The reliability and veracity of those chosen as key informants is crucial for the ethnographer. To ensure reliable information, ethnographic researchers triangulate anything learnt from key informants with others. Talking to the key informants points the researcher to people who may provide further information. Thus, the collection of data progresses through chains of conversations and informants, and the emphasis on sampling is not adequacy in a statistical or numerical sense but in identifying events/ people that contribute to the narrative. Nevertheless, this narrative is scientific i.e. its acceptance/ rejection is subject to testing.

To reduce the influence of personal bias or ideology, ethnographers are trained to be constantly self critical and reflexive, especially on the field.

Balaji, Parthasarathy, Aswin Punathambekar, G. R. Kiran, Dileep Kumar Guntuku, Janaki Srinivasan, and Richa Kumar. (2005) "Information and Communications Technologies for Development: A Comparative Analysis of Impacts and Costs from India" Project Report, Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Government of India.

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