Notes on Ethnography as part of a mixed methods research process

This post is a short wrap-up on ponderings on combining ethnography in a more focused form as part of an assemblage of other methods

I’ve been reflecting the last couple of days on what makes ethnography distinctive in practical terms as a method. How does it differ from its other sister methods in their family of qualitative methods. For me the core of what makes ethnography different from other qualitative approaches is that you engage in firsthand research employing yourself (yes yourself!) as the primary research instrument. Your own and direct experiences with the object/phenomenon you are studying becomes the lens through which data is gathered and interpreted. That is why I find ethnography a bit intimidating, as you can imagine, this comes a with a lot of ethical responsibilities (okay all research methods do, but with ethnography you have to be more aware of how you write your subjects into texts).

When thinking about traditional ethnographic texts the first ones that come to mind are monographs in the style of Levi Strauss’ ‘Savage Mind’, or, to name a more contemporary example, ‘Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets’ by Sudhir Venkatesh. And when thinking about these examples I can’t help by getting a bit intimidated by their ‘thickness’ (Glifford, 1973) in description and the self-assurance that splashes from their writing. The authors are truly ethnographic craftsmen; They sketch the setting with such descriptive intensity and skilled nuance by delving into the complexities of their object of study without fear. They do this in such a sincere way, justifying the interpretation of the data carrying the flow of experience that was caught by their agile senses which were constantly aiming at unobtrusively letting the subjects be, at keeping their voices intact. And all this in a methodological accountable manner: while describing how they as ethnographers systematically and carefully went about the detangling of complexity and how they have arrived at their interpretations.

As a sociologist (with a quantitative upbringing), I’ve been trained to always start with the research questions and let these be your guide when approaching empirical instances. But I have been lingering for the last couple of years too long in the realm of pure data, (data-driven) and have somehow let loose of questions, to purely marvel at what data -in my case social media data- is available. And from here let the data speak, (or scream, sing, cry to me) and listen…and see…and in this intimate interaction with the data, trust the process in which the questions and themes will emerge (organically) in a ‘grounded theory’ kind of way (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Chamaz, 2014). In other words, I have been re-educated and now I can’t even think of a research design whereby I’m not combining the strengths both an quantitative as qualitative research. This is my attempt at shedding some light on how to approach ethnography in a context of combined methods.

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ponderings…


 

So what do I want out of ethnography?

Instead of wanting to address ethnography in its pure (time-consuming) form as a separate method standing on its own as Levi Strauss or Geertz Clifford did-, I just need ethnography as a starting point, as a way of making sense of the data available, for the familiarization with the setting and its particularities. As a researcher I develop a sensitivity for the uniqueness of my data. Resulting from this, is the arrival at a set of ‘sensitizing concepts’ (Blumer, 1954; Charmaz, 2014) that can further act as conceptual points of reference that can help me further combine the right methods with each other in order to continue the (mixed methods) research process.

Even if ethnography is just the starting point, it is an integral part, it has an important responsibility in the total research design and a core job to do: ‘getting real close to the data’ with a sense of openness that is also somehow slightly focused (let’s say: focussed in an open way). This focused part brings me to the first point I think is important, when conducting ethnography in such a way; To clearly state the objectives of why you have decided to conduct an ethnographic study (in such a way), and how this relates to your overall research design: what is its contribution, weight and priority (Creswell, 2003) of this part of the study in relation to the overall mixed methods design (Assuming here that we are talking about a mixed method design)

Articulating the objectives of the ethnographic part of your research process clearly
So even if ethnography is just a starting point, it can be an immensely important one, to a research process that will be also conducted through the different lenses of other methods. In other words, ethnography here is the prelude to your mix methods and contributes to your study of the phenomenon at least in the following important two ways:

in relation to other methods in a research design mix:

  • Its findings (preliminary but still ‘thick’ enough in format) will inform the rationales for the next steps you will take methodologically and help justify the further construction of a particular research design for the whole study. (In my case specific, a mixed methods approach). You consider the data that is available, the challenges and opportunities of this data, in order to strategize and choose from your methodology toolbox (e.g. by combining  ethnography with social network analysis, surveys and content analysis, just to name a few other possibilities methodological wise). The choice for starting with a brief ethnographic description is precisely because the objects/setting/actors (etc.) of study are complex, variable, and contested.

in relation to an emerging conceptual formation

  • In addition to that, conducting a brief ethnographic analysis of the phenomenon under study, helps awaken and further cultivate a theoretical sensitivity you need to further advance the study in a later more conceptually articulated way. With emphasis on sensitivity instead of a premature and harming theoretical contamination before the data had the chance to speak to you loud enough. Here ethnography is kind of your first ‘speed date’, but ‘thick’ and ‘slow’ enough to handle the data afterwards with much more strategic care and love. Or, in the language of Grounded Theory, ethnography as method  is conceptualized here as an ‘open coding’ kind of exercise.

In this sense, the ethnographic prelude as I’m conceptualizing it here matches what Knoblauch (2005) calls focused ethnography, these are:

(…) ethnographies that deliberately chose an approach which can be called focussed. As a peculiar form of ethnography, it is characterized by relatively short­ term field visits (i.e. settings that are “part­ time” rather than permanent). The short duration of field visits is typically compensated for by the intensive use of audiovisual technologies of data collection and data­ analysis. Length (extension) of data ­collection as it is common in conventional ethnographies is substituted for by the intensity of data ­collection. In addition, the lack of intensity of subjective experience in conventional ethnography is compensated for by the large amount of data and the intensity and scrutiny of data analysis. Writing is increasingly complemented by recording, solitary data collection by collective data collection and subsequent data analysis in collective data sessions. Instead of social groups or fields, studies focus on communicative activities, experiences by communication  (2005, p.3)

 

If you think of it, the benefits ethnography brings to the mixed method research design (Creswell, 2003) and mixed methods process are incredibly valuable and unique, it is your powerful ‘slow method’ or the ‘close reading’ swiss knife in your toolbox of methods. Because of this, you could also (in addition to conducting it at the beginning of the research phase or instead of starting with ethnography) close the research process circle with an ethnographic prologue and reflect on your findings with a real reflective ‘close reading’ (to borrow the term from literary criticism) of the data.

Bottom line is, be as precise as possible in articulating the added value -in terms of the focus- it brings to the research process.

 

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