Sample Education Paper on Methods of Ethnographic Observation and Interviewing

Issues Related to the Methods of Ethnographic Observation and Interviewing

Ethnography is a form of research in social science that greatly depends on up-close, individual experience and participation and not simply observation. Ethnographers normally work in multidisciplinary groups and the ethnographic focus may incorporate thorough learning of foreign language and culture, rigorous study of a particular field, and a combination of chronological, observational, and interview techniques. A normal ethnographic research uses three types of data collection, which include interviews, observation, and documentation (Brewer, 2000).

Theoretical and practical issues in observation

Facts and values

Values can be described as personal statements while Facts are objective descriptions determined to be truthful through empirical research. Even though scientists apply research to help create facts, one of the issues with this is that, the difference among values and facts is not at all times straightforward. At times, statements that researchers deem factual later, because of further research, turn into being partially or even completely incorrect. By conducting a scientific experiment or a detailed investigation, a person can become persuaded that a claim is a genuine fact. Other types of facts, may be hard to find, or may even be totally incomprehensible. For instance, it might be hard to identify whether the global warming development is a natural continuing cycle or it is as a result of human activity. Observational research involves multiple activities and the decision to use field techniques in assembling facts is just the first phase in a decision procedure that engages numerous alternatives and possibilities. Making the decision to use field methods includes a commitment of getting close to the issue being observed in its normal background, to be accurate and expressive in describing what is being studied, and to discover the viewpoints of participants in the field observed (O’Reilly, 2012). Once these elemental pledges or values have been completed it is essential to make further decisions regarding which exact observational approaches suitable for the research circumstances present.

Engaged and disengaged

The most essential distinction between observational strategies relates to the degree to which investigator is also a part of the activities being researched. This is actually not an easy choice between taking part and not taking part. The issue is that, the level of participation is a scale, which varies from absolute engagement in the program as a complete participant to an absolute disengagement from the activities studied. Observation through participation is an omnibus field tactic since it concurrently merges document examination, interviewing of other participants, direct involvement, and introspection (O’Reilly, 2012). In this type of observation, the examiner shares as closely as possible in the daily life of the community in the observed area. The aim of the researcher being involved is to build up on an insider’s opinion of what is taking place. This indicates that the investigator does not just observe what is taking place but also feels how it is like to belong to that particular group.


The systematic study of people should be restricted to to collecting information regarding incident that can be dispassionately observed and categorized. One of the issues with positivism is that, observers should not be concerned with the inner meanings, reasons, sensations, and emotions of people. Given that these mental conditions exist only in the individual’s awareness, they cannot be observed and therefore they cannot be quantified in any objective manner. The other issue with positivism is that relates to its utilization of numerical data. Positivists thought that it was possible to categorize the society in an objective technique (Shank, 2006). Using these categorizations it was then feasible to calculate sets of observable societal facts and therefore generate statistics. Positivist methodology also involves looking for relationships between various social facts. A relationship is a propensity for two or more things to be discovered together, and it could denote the strength of the connection among them.


An explanation is a collection of statements constructed to express a collection of facts, which clarifies the grounds, context, and outcomes of those facts (Shank, 2006). An explanation may set up rules, and may elucidate the existing ones with regard to any objects, or incident being examined. The elements of an explanation can be inherent, and be interlinked with each another. One of the issues with explanation is that, it is regularly underpinned by an understanding that is represented by different media such as graphics and therefore it is must be discussed and interpreted. This is a way of uncovering fresh knowledge, and reporting relationships between various aspects of studied observable facts.


Interpretation is a practice gives meaning to the observed data and it is an inventive enterprise that relies on the mind’s eye of the researcher. Interpretation is not mechanical but rather involves skill, imagination and inventiveness. In an ethnographic kind of observation, the observer is the research tool and he/she is required to make decisions regarding how and what to test and concerning issues which presently call for attention. The inductive technique is all about building ideas from the information, which is then examined and interpreted further in various contexts (Shank, 2006). The main issue with interpretation is that theories, suggestions and insights, are supposed to surface from completed observations, in order that they are based on observed experience. This could involve a method of continuous focusing where the researcher begins to restructure the peripheral from the key factors implicated and directs his/her attention to observing major contexts for the very important evidence.

Going native

What dictates the participant part of this observation method is to experience the setting as an insider. The main issue here is to merge participation and observation in order to be able to understand the incident as an insider whilst reporting the incident to the outsiders. The degree to which a researcher is able to become an absolute participant in an incident will depend partially on the nature of environmental being studied (Schensul, & LeCompte, 2012).

For instance, in public service and instruction programs that serve kids, it is not feasible for the researcher to turn into being a student and hence experience the background as a kid. However, the observer can take part as an unpaid assistant, parent, or a staff in that scenery and thus develop the viewpoint of an insider in any of these adult positions. Majority of ethnographers do not consider that understanding necessitates that they become absolute members of the group being observed. They believe that the ethnographer is obliged to try to assume both outsider and insider roles while engaging with the group both academically and socially. This is owing to the fact that, what is needed is both an external and inner perspective of the group studied. Therefore it is at times emphasized that, alongside seeking to understand, ethnographer should also make an attempt of perceiving familiar backgrounds as “anthropologically unusual”, as it would have been the case with a person from different society (Schensul, & LeCompte, 2012).

First impression

Participants are people with a certain level of influence and this will unavoidably affect how they are perceived by others (Shank, 2006). The issue is for the participant to try and measure the extent to which their observations may be controlled by their first impression during participation, for example is it impossible for a participant as a tutor to get actual access to the learners’ views? Participant need to look for means of overcoming such limitations, for example, getting students to examine each other. Then, the participant will need to get others to check his/her observations and analyses, for example through triangulation.


One issue with observation is the researcher failing to create awareness with the area of study. The more the observer can make the taken-for-granted world of their own actions out of the ordinary, the better. This can be best executed through widening observer’s area of observation to look at additional incidents or through getting others to observe the work. It may appear preferable for an observer to carry out research entirely as an outsider but this is regularly more complicated than it seems since the existence of any researcher is part of the play and certainly influences behavior (Shank, 2006). The trade off lies between the benefits of shared viewpoint likely to be obtained from complete participation in the task and the drawbacks of not making problematic the taken-for-granted suppositions made by players in that particular world.

Theoretical and practical issues in Ethnographic interviewing

Ethnographic interviewing can be described as a form of qualitative study that merges observation and directed face-to-face interviews. In regards to anthropology, ethnographic observers spend years living submerged in the cultures so as to understand behaviors and societal rituals of a whole culture. Ethnographic interviewers use this method on a micro level in order to identify with the behaviors of individuals interacting with personal products (Pearson, 2011). Ethnographic interviewing was derived from cultural anthropology, therefore its emphasis on period and regularity of contact, on the mode of the connection with respondents, and on the importance of actions and experiences to respondents. Interviews, which are ethnographic, are usually carried out in unstructured, thorough format with individuals from a particular ethnicity, or who share certain experiences.

One of the issues with ethnographic interviews is unlimited utilization of new ethnographic basics, or bringing them too rapidly, which makes interviews turn into being a formal cross-examination (Pearson, 2011). Rapport will fade away, and respondents may put an end to their cooperation. Therefore, during an interview it is advisable to change the conversation to a more friendly conversation at any time.

The most significant issues with ethnographic interviews are explicit purpose, ethnographic descriptions, and ethnographic questions. When a researcher and respondent meet for an interview, they both realize that the discussion is supposed to assume a certain direction. The respondent only has a rough idea in relation to this purpose and so it is in the ethnographer’s hands to make it understandable. Every time they meet up it is essential to remind the respondent the purpose of the interview. Since ethnographic interviews integrate intention and direction, they seem to be more formal when compared to friendly chats (Pearson, 2011). Without necessarily being controlling, the ethnographer slowly takes more control of the conversation, directing it in those directions that lead to learning the cultural awareness of the informant.

On issues relating to ethnographic explanations, the ethnographer is supposed to continually provide explanations to the respondent from the first meeting until the final interview. While gaining knowledge about the informant’s background, the interviewee also learns something new. One of the ethnographic questions is descriptive questions, which enable an individual to gather a current sample of the informant’s language. These types of questions are the simplest to ask and they are generally used in almost every interview (Walsh, 2011). The other form of questions is structural questions and they allow the researcher to discover information regarding the fundamental units in the respondent’s cultural knowledge. Another type of ethnographic question is contrast questions and in this type, the ethnographer wants to discover what an informant means by the different expressions applied in his local language. These types of questions allow the researcher to discover the dimensions of meaning which interviewees use to describe the objects and incidents in their world (Walsh, 2011).

Another issue is ethnographic methods, where an observer must let go of his/her own deductions and assumptions concerning a community so as to successfully learn something about them. A researcher should not look at people the same way he/she observes them in his/her own culture. It is essential to put aside individual feelings and steering clear from making any judgment in order to avoid conflict. People tend to be intuitive and can sense the feelings of others and if a researcher disapproves a local practice, people might not be welcoming to that researcher (Silverman, 2013). If the researcher really wants to obtain something specific for the study, he/she will unsuspectingly push individuals in that particular direction. Naturally, people are fond of pleasing other people, particularly somebody who they respect. If they realize that the person needs them to talk about a certain topic, they may do so just to please that person.


Brewer, J. D. (2000) ‘The Research Process in Ethnography’ pp. 56 – 103 in J. D. Brewer Ethnography Maidenhead: Open Uni Press.

O’Reilly, K. (2012). Ethnographic methods. London: Routledge.

Pearson Byrne, B. (2011) ‘Qualitative Interviewing’ pp. 245 – 226 in C. Seale, (Ed) Researching Society and Culture London: Sage.

Schensul, J. J. & LeCompte, M. D. (2012). Essential ethnographic methods: A mixed methods approach (Vol. 3). Rowman Altamira.

Shank, G. D. (2006) ‘Participating’ pp. 56 – 75 in G. D. Shank Qualitiative Research – A Personal Skills Approach 2nd. edn. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Silverman, D. (2013). Doing qualitative research: A practical handbook. SAGE Publications Limited.

Walsh, D. (2011). ‘Doing Ethnography’ pp. 245 – 262 in C. Seale, (ed) Researching Society and Culture. London: Sage.