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EDUC.6922: Qualitative Research Methods for Practitioner Scholars


What is ethnography?

Ethnography involves the researcher's study of human behavior in the natural settings in which people live. Specifically, ethnography refers to the description of cultural systems or an aspect of culture based on fieldwork in which the investigator is immersed in the ongoing everyday activities of the designated community for the purpose of describing the social context, relationships and processes relevant to the topic under consideration. Ethnographic inquiry focuses attention on beliefs, values, rituals, customs, and behaviors of individuals interacting within socioeconomic, religious, political and geographic environments.

Ethnographic methods and approaches

Ethnographic analysis is inductive, (draws a conclusion from observation or other evidence), and builds upon the perspectives of the people studied. Ethnography emphasizes the study of persons and communities, in both international and domestic arenas, and involves short or long-term relationships between the researcher and research participants.

Multiple methods are used in ethnographic research. These include the following:

✦ unobtrusive direct observation
✦ participant observation
✦ structured and unstructured interviewing
✦ focused discussions with individuals and community members
✦ analysis of texts
✦ audio-visual records.

Ethnographic methods can be employed in non-traditional ways in interdisciplinary projects that bridge the sciences and humanities.

The complexity and length of ethnographic research engenders an approach to ethics that is both dynamic and flexible. The process of obtaining informed consent may be continuous and incremental throughout the course of the research, and review of consent obtained may be periodic. 

American Anthropological Association, (2004, June 4). Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards


Examples of ethnographic research


Muslim women's evolving leadership roles: A case study of women leaders in an immigrant Muslim community in post-9/11 America

Wang, Yuting.Social Compass; London Vol. 64, Iss. 3,  (Sep 2017): 424-441. DOI:10.1177/0037768617713660

Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in a multi-ethnic immigrant Muslim congregation in a Midwestern city in the United States, this article scrutinizes the intricate process through which women use traditional gender roles and expectations to legitimate and operationalize women's leadership. This study found that de facto congregationalism has made it possible for Muslim women to translate their 'traditional' responsibilities for food preparation and socializing children into greater visibility and voice in both the mosque and broader society. This study provides an in-depth examination of the nuanced processes of women's empowerment in American Muslim congregations.

Deb Roy, MIT researcher, discusses his ethnographic research on his son's language acquisition in this TED talk.

OPTIONAL further reading: Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet's essay discusses the ethical controversy surrounding researcher Alice Goffman, who may have abetted a felony while engaging in ethnographic research with gang members.