|| Introduction || Participant Observation || Ethnographic Interview || Document and Artifact Collection || Course Overall Map || References ||

Source: Documentary Educational Resources, Inc. (http://der.org/docued/)


Ethnographic research, or ethnography, is both a study of interactive strategies in human life and an analytical descriptions of social scenes, individuals, and groups that recreate their shared feelings, beliefs, practices, artifacts, folk knowledge, and actions. In other words, it is both a process and product of describing and interpreting cultural behaviors. Ethnography methodology was born in anthropology. It unites both fieldwork and artifact such as written text. Fieldwork, undertaken as participant observation and ethnographic interview, is the process by which the ethnographer comes to know a culture; the collection of artifact is how culture is portrayed. There is general agreement that culture itself is not visible or tangible but is co-constructed and reconstructed by the act of ethnographic writing.

Ethnography is interactive research, it requires relatively extensive time in a site or systematically observe, interview, and record processes as they occur naturally at the selected location. Ethnography has been called educational anthropology, participant observation, field research, and naturalistic inquiry. Despite considerable variation among ethnographic studies, common methodological strategies distinguish this style of inquiry: participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and artifact collection and analysis. Most ethnographic studies are exploratory or discovery-oriented research to understand peoples' views of their world and to develop new concepts.

The Bubblio's living room is a good resource site on ethnography.

Participant Observation

Researcher's Role in Participant Observation

Possible Research Roles
ObserverResearcher is physically and psychological absentInappropriate for ethnographic study; may be used for other forms of qualitative research
ParticipantResearcher lives through an experience and recollects personal insightInappropriate for ethnographic research
Participant-observerResearcher creates role for purpose of studyTypical role in ethnographic study
Insider-observerResearcher has a formal position in organizationUsed in special circumstances
InterviewerEstablishes role with each person interviewedPrimarily used in ethnographic interview studies
Source: McMillan and Schumacher (1997)

Requirements of Participant Observation

Participant observation must meet the following requirements:

  1. On-site observation
  2. Prolonged data collection
  3. Participants' constructed realities that can be verbal, nonverbal, and tacit
  4. Corroboration of field observations through multiple methods, multiple participants, and multiple situations
  5. Salient observations about who, what, where, when, how, and why?
  6. Recording observations

Stages of Participant Observation

The process of participant observation is like a funnel, progressively narrowing and directing researchers' attention deeper into the elements of the setting that has emerged as theoretically and/or empirically essential. Participant observation usually follows the following stages:


Ethnographic Interviews

Ethnographic interviews are open-response questions to obtain data of participant meanings--how individuals conceive of their world and how they explain or "make sense" of the important events in their lives. There are three types of interviews: informal conversation interview, interview guide approach interview, and standardized open-ended interview.

Sequence of Interview

Effective interviews depend on following a number of guidelines:

  1. Accessing the setting
  2. Understanding the language and culture of the respondents
  3. Deciding on how to present oneself
  4. Locating an informant
  5. Field testing and refine questions, probes, intensity of pause
  6. Statements of the researcher's purpose and focus
  7. Establishing rapport and gaining trust
  8. Ordering questions appropriately
  9. Audio taping and maintaining interview records
  10. Collecting relevant materials
Tao Kwan-Gett's Tips on Ethnographic Interview

Document and Artifact Collection

Artifact collection is a noninteractive strategy for obtaining ethnographic data with little or no reciprocity between the researcher and the participant. Artifact collections are tangible manifestations of the beliefs and behaviors that form a culture, and they describe peoples' experience, knowledge, actions, and values. Analysis of documents and artifact are usually supplementary to participant observations and ethnographic interviews.

Types of Artifacts

  1. Personal documents
  2. Official documents
  3. Objects
  4. Erosion measures
Dr. J. H. Gillis Regional High School


  1. McMillan, J. H., & Schumacher, S. S. (1997). Research in education: A conceptual introduction. New York: Longman.