A fundamental research activity in the
IACC project involves assessing the current and future exposures and adaptive
capacities to climate conditions of rural communities in
website maintained by Mary Sue Stephenson of the University of British Columbia (UBC) listing numerous Her website also has a list of websites specifically dealing with qualitative ethnographic research. These websites provide long lists of links, sorting through which might take a long time. For the ease of the user, many of these links have been provided in the text for each of the specific stages of research. However, these lists of resources maybe helpful if you are looking for more information on a specific topic. It is also important to note that the web resources used in this guide are primarily to provide research assistants with a basic understanding of ethnography – these resources are not heavily academic in nature and serve only as an introduction to the key components and elements in the process. .
What is Ethnography?
Authors and textbooks focusing on qualitative research methods in the social sciences offer a variety of definitions of ethnography. The following is a brief overview of some of these definitions.
Ethnographies study groups and/or cultures over a period of time. The goal of this type of research is to comprehend the particular group/culture through observer immersion into the culture or group. Research is completed through various methods, which are similar to those of case studies, but since the researcher is immersed within the group for an extended period of time more detailed information is usually collected during the research.
The center further provides a detailed summary of the principles and methods of ethnography.
In Exploring Research, author Neil Salkind defines ethnography simply as “a study of a culture or subculture” (306). He elaborates by explaining that ethnographic research is often considered a holistic approach, as ethnographers tend to research a group in its entirety. Furthermore, “ethnographers take advantage of naturalistic orientation in that they actually take up residence in the culture being studied and become a participant-observer” (214). Babbie and Benaquisto (2002) note that ethnography and participant observation are often used synonymously and, like Salkind, they argue that both are rooted in the tradition of naturalism. In Fundamentals of Social Research, Babbie and Benaquisto note that “…the techniques of ethnography and participant observation are terms that refer to multi-method modes of data gathering in a natural setting (the field) and are employed by researchers with differing orientations to qualitative social scientific puzzle solving” (308). We must not only describe conditions but also to an explanation of how people define and deal with such conditions. In our case it is essential that that we develop an understanding of specific issues such as vulnerability to climate. Our research approach seeks to include methods commonly used by ethnographers but also to remain flexible and use tools captured under qualitative and participatory research methods that go beyond description of the problem and begin to offer an analysis of vulnerability.
A primer on ethnography entitled How to do Ethnography: A Simplified Guide, written by Barbara Hall provides a brief answer to the question, what is ethnography? For a visual aid to understanding the process of ethnographic research see Mary Lynn Rice-Lively’s ethnographic research cycle.
Conducting Ethnographic Research
Before looking at each stage of ethnographic research in more detail, it is important to note that given the nature of ethnographic research the steps in the research process must remain flexible. That is, the process of conducting ethnographic research will be modified to accommodate the specific project at hand. The IACC project website has a link to a paper written by Barry Smit, Johanna Wandel and Gwen Young that provides an overview of the research design for this project including steps specific to the IACC project. Please see Sections 6.1 and 6.2 found on page 20 of the following document: Vulnerability of Communities to Environmental Change. We will now look at the most important stages in more detail.
I. Guiding Questions
One of the first steps in conducting ethnographic research is the development of guiding questions. In this case, guiding questions will be developed according to the research objectives and theoretical frameworks of the IACC research project. Barbara Hall notes that “guiding questions are aimed at the basic point of ethnography: gaining the world view of a group of people” (See her website on guiding questions). These guiding questions will allow us to gather the necessary information to define our research problem. In this way ethnography will allow us to develop an understanding of which communities are vulnerable to climate related problems and the conditions under which their vulnerabilities increase or decrease.
Four main areas of research have been developed to act as guiding questions for the IACC project. Accompanying this guide to ethnography is a guide to Fieldwork for researchers and research assistants. Please see Section 1 the Fieldwork Guide for an in-depth discussion of the main research questions to be used to guide further inquiry. Furthermore, is it important to note that while these questions are meant to guide a researcher, there are a large number of ways in which data can be obtained and we must remain flexible in our approach as the research process evolves.
II. Field Site
Once we have an understanding of the research questions guiding the ethnographic research being conducted, a field site must be chosen. The selection of a field site can be based on several different rationales. For example, a field site may be selected because it is representative of the larger population or group. Alternatively, a field site may be chosen due to its uniqueness, which may be the object of investigation. When determining an appropriate field site, many factors must be examined including the size of the site, the make up of the site, location of the site, etc.
Field sites in this study are the
communities in which ethnographic research will be carried out in
For a good discussion of participant observation and access to the research setting including a discussion of the research role, roles of the observer and rapport see The Conduct of Social Research, by William Sanders and Thomas Pinhey, pages 211 to 214. For more information on gaining entry into a research setting see Bruce Berg’s book, Qualitative Research Methods: For the Social Sciences, page144.
III. Research Ethics
The ethical considerations involved in the research process require special attention by the researcher. Fundamental elements involved in research ethics include:
· Information about the research project – all participants need to be provided with information about the research project.
· Informed Consent – we need to inform participants as to what type of information we are trying to obtain and to gain oral or written consent from the participant for his/her participation in the research and the use of the data collected.
· Confidentially – we need to ensure that information gathered from participants remains confidential.
· Anonymity – every effort should be made in the reporting to avoid identifying participants
· Freedom to withdraw – before interacting with participants, they need to be informed that at any point during the research process they are free to withdraw from the process. Similarly, they need to know that they do not have to answer any questions or discuss any topics with which they are uncomfortable. They need to be aware that they can determine their level of involvement in the research process.
· Voluntary participation – participants need to know that their participation in the research process is voluntary and as mentioned above that they have the freedom to withdraw from the process or modify the process as desired (i.e. skip inquiries in a certain area seen as sensitive to the participant).
Different universities have
specific protocols and a formal process of research ethics review, therefore,
it is important that each research assistant discuss the ethical dimensions of
their research with their supervisor and follow the protocol specific to their
situation. For an example see the
Barbara Hall has written on research ethics involved in ethnographic research. For a list of websites focusing on research ethics, see Mary Sue Stephenson’s site on research ethics on the www. Barbara Hall’s website also has a section on research objectivity.
IV. Background history and research
In the process of choosing a field
site for ethnographic research, a background and history of the field site
should emerge. Gaining a grasp of the
history of each community where research will be undertaken must be the
preliminary step in the investigation. A
basic background history of the local area, the regional area, and provincial
area should be examined. The life
history of the community should also be considered. Specific local histories of the communities
in question can be researched in local libraries and relevant government
departments such as the office of municipal affairs. Many communities have historical
literature and texts such as published community histories, archives of
community newspapers, photos, information on local monuments, landmarks,
etc. Many of these documents are public.
For example, for researchers in
In a paper entitled Vulnerability of Communities to Environmental Change IACC researchers Barry Smit, Johanna Wandel and Gwen Young note:
Rapid report writing, with self-correcting notes subsequent to initial notes not only creates an essential record of the research before some details are forgotten but serves to focus researchers on processing the current information and facilitates the formulation of appropriate follow-up/clarification questions (ideally, discussed at team meetings) while still in the field (Pretty, 1995). For many researchers, writing a private diary or frequent updates to colleagues in the form of letters or emails makes rapid report writing a natural element of research (http://www.parc.ca/mcri/pdfs/Smit%20et%20al%20(2005).pdf)
If possible, it would be good to have people from within the community to be studied, those who “hang around” community gathering spots where discussions typifying people’s views on things, initiate the gathering of the data. One of my former students called this type of data-gathering, “research by hanging around.” The task is to gather widely representative information on people’s immediate responses as possible. Gaining of trust, through becoming an “insider,” is needed to get this kind of information.
During the process of participant observation and interviewing, oral histories of the community may start to emerge. Oral histories are important because they provide you with information about the past; in this particular case, how in the past the community faced climate and water related problems and the degree of success they had. In these terms, it could be an excellent idea to interview one or two older persons regarding past vulnerabilities. The following website contains some brief guidelines for oral history interviews. Similarly, the Baylor University Institute for Oral History has developed the following introduction to oral history, which also includes interviewing tips. For a brief introduction to oral history, see Joop Wahlain’s oral history interview techniques and for a more in-depth guide to oral history see Judith Moyer’s step by step guide to oral histories.
Interviews can be structured, unstructured or semi-structured. These distinctions are sometimes captured by the terms ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ or ‘standardized’ and ‘unstandardized’. A structured interview involves a set schedule of interview questions (Berg, 68), such as those used in a survey. Berg further elaborates that “standardized interviews are designed to elicit information using a set of predetermined questions that are expected to elicit the subjects’ thoughts, opinions and attitudes about study-related issues” (Berg, 69). Unlike structured interviews, unstructured interviews do not use a standard list of questions. Such interviews are often used when the researchers “do not know in advance what all the necessary questions are” (Berg, 70). In a semi-structured interview the researcher will take a list of research questions into the interview but will often probe for further detail in some areas or add or delete questions as necessary during the interview process. Lofland and Lofland define intensive interviewing as “[a] qualitative method that involves open-ended relatively unstructured questioning in which the interviewer seeks in-depth information on the interviewee’s feelings, experiences and perceptions (1984:12, cited in Shutt, 1999: 280). Most of the interviewing in the project will consist of unstructured interviews, so you should become familiar with this technique.
In an overview of semi-structured interviews Barry Smit, Johanna Wandel and Gwen Young note:
Data collection can be achieved through semi-structured interviews, participatory diagramming/mapping, work sharing and focus groups. The semi-structured interview (SSI) is guided by a series of issues/questions (as outlined above), but does not appear as a formal interview (Pretty, 1995). The interview takes the form of a free-flowing conversation which, on the surface, does not appear controlled or structured and relies on open-ended questions. The SSI, considered a central part of participatory methods (Pretty, 1995), can be one of the most challenging research techniques since it requires the flexibility to address topics as they arise, requires researchers to be well-versed in local customs/etiquette, and relies on receptive body language on the part of the researcher. The interview is enhanced by an interested facilitator/translator who helps establish rapport and validity and, during pauses for translation, allows the researcher time to process information (http://www.parc.ca/mcri/pdfs/Smit%20et%20al%20(2005).pdf).
The interview process is not easy or straightforward - it involves constant judgement on the part of the researcher. The researcher must decide with which line of thinking to begin an interview and proceed by listening and receiving cues as to how to follow up depending on the response. Interviewers may need to probe for further clarification depending on the responses received. Alternatively, after evaluation, the researcher may need to veer the discussion in a different direction. Given the uncertain nature of interviewing and the fact that many of the interviews in this project will be unstructured, a rigid guide can not be provided and researchers need to remain flexible in their approach
It is important to note that interviews could take place over a long period of time and that sometimes the interviewer needs to go back to gather more information or clarifications. Also, many times new issues will come up during interviews which you did not ask earlier respondents about, so you may want to go back and revisit some issues or bring up new issues with previous participants. Bruce Morito notes that,
Interview sessions need to be sufficiently long to establish response patterns. Some indications of pattern development are: 1) repetition of the same point; 2) respondents attempting to re-phrase or elaborate on points; 3) respondents attempting to defend their points in response to perceived or actual criticism by other respondents in group situations.
For more resources on interviewing see Barbara Hall’s section on interviewing in How to do Ethnography: A Simplified Guide. Another helpful resource is a paper written by Rita Berry entitled Collecting data by in-depth interviewing and the following website on in-depth interviewing. John Suller, of Rider University, has developed a website with a section focusing on using interviews in research that provides a clear methodological overview of structured versus unstructured interviews and steps in conducting an interview. The following website focuses on semi-structured interviews.
In Exploring Research (5th Ed) Neil Salkind has a good section on developing an interview and the ten commandments of interviewing. See pages 189 to 191 for further details.
defines a focus group as “[a] qualitative method that involves
unstructured group interviews in which the focus group leader actively
encourages discussion among participants on the topics of interest” (280). The first step in conducting a focus group is
to identify the purpose of the focus group and who you want the focus group to
represent. According to
…typically consists of six to twelve individuals who are asked to discuss topics suggested by a facilitator. The idea is for the researcher to observe the interactions among focus-group members, detecting their attitudes, opinions and solutions to problems posed by the facilitator (175).
If a researcher is planning to set up a focus group it is important to note that people with contradictory interests would probably not be best combined into a single focus group. Therefore, before focus groups can be used as a research tool it is best to be acquainted with the community to avoid such conflict. It is always a good idea to focus initially on ‘hanging out’ in the community and interviewing key informants and community members in general in order to familiarize yourself with the community dynamics. Only after this should you decide who should participate in the focus group. For example, after conducting interviews researchers will become more familiar with different interest groups and may want to conduct focus groups with particular interest groups.
Again Barry Smit, Johanna Wandel and Gwen Young expand,
Focus groups involve pre-selected participants to interact as a group, guided by questions from a facilitator. Kruger (1994) suggests seven to ten participants for a focus group, as it becomes difficult for some participants to make their voices heard in larger gatherings. The selection of a facilitator (preferably a local, fluent in the language) is critical, since the researchers should take on an observing role here. Focus groups allow for the interaction of community members from various backgrounds, which can lead to the establishment of networks, interactive problem solving and empowerment. Focus groups can also be used with representatives of only one group, and have particular relevance in situations where marginalized individuals may not otherwise feel that their voice matters but can potentially overcome this in a critical mass of people facing the same challenges (http://www.parc.ca/mcri/pdfs/Smit%20et%20al%20(2005).pdf).
Carter McNamara has a website on the basics of conducting focus groups, which provides an overview of the process. Similarly, Susan Carol Losh has a website on focus group basics. Author Bob Dick has an informative website which provides details about structured focus groups. Also see Focus Groups: As Qualitative Research written by David Morgan.
The ethnographic research undertaken in this project will take various forms including background histories, oral histories, structured and unstructured interviews and focus groups. Each form of observation will be recorded by the researcher. The result will be a large body of texts – interview transcripts, field notes and other observational records – that comprise the ‘data’ to be organized and analyzed. Qualitative data analysis consists of interpreting this body of data by organizing and drawing links between ideas and concepts emerging from the texts. Researchers then may develop more general concepts and theories that help make sense of the data, while retaining its complexity, in light of the research questions driving the project
The Nvivo software facilitates several aspects of the qualitative research process by helping record information, organize and code texts, and develop systematic links between texts and emerging theoretical concepts. The software allows the researchers to record observations directly into Nivo or to import them into the program. Once data have been imputed or imported, codes can be assigned to texts to begin to organize and manage the data. Once we have created a database consisting of texts with their associated codes, researchers’ comments, and notes, the software allows for the easy organization and retrieval of portions of texts linked by common codes or concepts. In turn, this allows the researcher to explore patterns in the data and begin to conceptualize the findings. The data can be grouped and organized using different methods that assist the researcher in drawing out key findings.
Department of Sociology and Social Studies
Phone: (306) 585 - 4151
Fax: (306) 585 - 4815
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