A Resource Guide for Community Vulnerability Assessment

IACC Project

April 2005

            This is a short resource guide for researchers and research assistants involved in community vulnerability assessment in the context of the IACC Project.  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 Canada and Chile. In order to do this, we have decided to use an approach that requires the identification of those climate related conditions that are relevant and problematic to people in the community, the ways the community has dealt or is dealing with those conditions, and their evaluation of the role that public institutions have played in helping the community.  In order to do this we have opted for an open qualitative participatory action approach, or what has been commonly defined as an ethnographic style of research.

This guide seeks to describe the main components of ethnographic research and act as a guide to different sources containing more detailed discussion of these components.  This guide will not provide definitive directions in the field or resolve problems that researchers will encounter in the field; it should only be used as an introductory overview of research process.  Many of the decisions made during fieldwork activities will have to be taken in consultation with other researchers.  For more information about this process of consultation, see the Fieldwork Guide.  Since each community represents a particular case, researchers will not be able to apply the same procedures in each instance. Researchers will need to be flexible in adapting to the circumstances that arise in each community. What is important is to get enough information to provide good answers to the central questions or issues that will guide our work.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method that focuses on the study of groups, cultures, or subcultures.  Ethnographic research is characterized by the researcher’s immersion into the social setting, dynamics and structure of the group being studied.  In this case, researchers will live in and study communities in the South Saskatchewan River Basin in Canada (Southern Alberta and South Western Saskatchewan) and the Elqui River Basin in Chile with the objective of understanding the present and future vulnerability of these communities to climate change.

The following brief guide to ethnography draws on various web resources and texts that users are encouraged to access for more information.  The web resources included in the guide are primarily taken from a website maintained by Mary Sue Stephenson of the University of British Columbia (UBC) listing numerous research method resources on the WWW.  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.


According to the Writing Center at the Colorado State University’s glossary of key terms on line,


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 Canada and Chile.  In Chile, the research area will include the Elqui River Basin and in Canada the research area is the Saskatchewan River Basin.  A list of selected rural communities in each of these River Basins can be found on the following the project’s website. 


            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 University of Regina’s Research Ethics Board’s Guidelines for Ethical Conduct and Review of Action Research, Informed Consent Guidelines and Consent Form Checklist and Guidelines. 


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 Saskatchewan, the Prairie History Room at the Regina Public Library may be useful at this stage in the research. Barbara Hall’s research guide has a section dealing with site documents, that is, documents you will encounter or need to research once at your field site. For a good discussion on secondary analysis of qualitative data see Janet Heaton’s website.  David Koeller of the history department at North Park University in Chicago also maintains a website on using historical resources.  At this point the researcher should begin to determine who some of the key local actors might be in order to use them as early sources of information.


V. Observations

            After the ethnographer has a working knowledge of the history and context of the field site, field observations can begin.  Whether an ethnographer is observing others in the field site, interviewing an individual, or conducting a focus group, field notes are essential to the later success of data analysis and developing conclusions.  Barbara Hall has developed a brief set of web resources on field notes.  According to Jackson,


Field notes attempt to capture, with as much accuracy as possible, descriptions and interpretations of individuals, interactions and events.  The exact time and location should be recorded, along with other descriptions to help the researcher recall events (weather conditions, other significant events going on in the community or in the world that day).  Emphasis should be placed on reflecting exactly what people say, how they say it, and describing the reactions of others to what is said (Jackson, 172).


Field notes can come in a variety of forms.  While written notes are taken during the process of participant observation, these notes are often transcribed.  While in the field, researchers often can only take partial notes by hand.  These partial notes are later used to write up a more complete set of field notes (Schutt, 298).  The elaboration and completion of a more complete set of field notes should be done as soon as possible after the field notes are taken, preferably later that day.  Following a day of observation in the field, field notes can be elaborated upon and put into computer files in order to be analyzed with Nvivo.


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)


By tape recording interviews with respondents, researchers will gain a complete set of notes, which can be used in the analysis of the information.  Even though these recordings will later need to be transcribed, it is important to take notes during the interview. These notes could (a) provide information that is not being recorded, such as gestures or movements; and (b) act as a back up in case there is a problem with the recording. Besides a tape recorder and computer, researchers will also be given a camera so that images can be captured in the field to add detail and depth to the researcher’s account.  More detail can be found in Chapter 7 ‘Notes, Records and Files’ of Participant Observation: A Methodology for Human Sciences, by Danny Jorgensen.  More specifically, see pages 102 and 103 for a discussion of the use of photography for data recording in the field.  Another good source for further information on field notes is the text Analyzing Social Settings: A guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis by John and Lyn Lofland (see the section starting on page 89).The following link provides further details on for ethnographic research and the observer’s role.


Observations can take many forms including:

·              Archival research and analysing the community history

·              Identifying and interviewing informants and stakeholders

·              Immersion in the community and “hanging around community spots”

·              Obtaining oral histories through interviewing

·              Meeting with and interviewing informants and stakeholders

·              Holding meetings of stakeholders

·              Holding focus groups


See the following website for more information on observation.  In Investigating the Social World: The Process and Practice of Research (2nd Ed) author Russell Schutt includes an informative chapter entitled ‘Qualitative Methods: Observing, Participating, Listening’, which provides a good resource for field work.  See Chapter 8, starting on page 279.   For more specific information on note taking and elaborating research notes, please see The Conduct of Social Research written by William Sanders and Thomas Pinhey,  pages 215 to 218.




Identifying informants and stakeholders


   Even before researchers enter a field site, it is often helpful to key informants and meet with them to begin to get an idea of what the field site is like.  Key informants will provide information as to who the main stakeholders in the community may be, for instance farmers and business people.  It is a good idea to start ethnographic interviewing by talking to a key informant to get information on who other key informants and stakeholders are.  Key informants can include political leaders such as the mayor or reeve, the town council, church leaders and clergy, long time residents, farmers, older people in the community who can recount past experiences, school principals, community group leaders and business people.  Meeting with a key informant prior to beginning more in depth research will often give the researcher a clearer understanding of the physical and social aspects of the location under study.  Key informants can also provide lists of potential contacts once the researcher enters the field site.  A sampling snowball effect may take place where one key informant recommends you speak to another individual or group and in turn that key informant offers information about another stakeholder group that you may be interested in interviewing.


In  Methods: Doing Social Research, Jackson notes that


[a]ccess to the cultural group is usually gained through a gatekeeper, an individual with special group status who can lead the researcher to other key informants.  Key informants are the group members who are most knowledgeable about the study phenomenon.  They are representative of the culture and have potential to yield substantive data about the study phenomena (147-148).


Another good reference is Bruce Berg’s Qualitative Research Methods: For the Social Sciences.  See the section on developing relationships with inhabitants found on page 156 and locating subgroups and stars on page 157


Gathering Information by “Hanging Around”


One of the ways in which researchers will begin to gather information about the community is to “hang around” the active community spots such as a local restaurant.  Bruce Morito of the University of Athabasca, fellow collaborator on the IACC project writes, 


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.


Once the researcher begins to “hang around” centers of community activity, stakeholders and other key informants can begin to be identified.  As a participant observer, the researcher will begin to get an idea of other informants and stakeholders in the community.   


Oral History


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.




Focus Groups


Schutt 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 Jackson, a focus group


…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.


 VI. Data Recording and Data Analysis


            Once data have been recorded, whether it be data from participant observation, interview data or data from focus groups, the next step is data analysis.  Due to the nature of participant observation, much of the data analysis will be on-going as research questions and responses are constantly refined.  For more detail on data recording see the previous section on field notes. The Colorado State University Writing Center provides the following overview of reporting and analyzing data. Barbara Hall further describes the process of data analysis.  Another helpful resource may be chapter 5 in Marie Campbell and Frances Gregor’s Mapping Social Relations: A Primer in Doing Institutional Ethnography.  The chapter is entitled ‘Analyzing Data in Institutional Ethnography’ and deals with the data analysis stage of ethnographic research. 


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


            For the purposes of this project researchers will be using Nvivo computer software to aid in the data analysis phase.  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.


Nvivo is a software program developed by QSR.  For an overview of the software’s capacities, see QCR’s Nvivo website and the Nvivo product brochure.  A more useful document will be QCR’s Getting Started in Nvivo, a guide which comes with the software but that can also be accessed on line in pdf format.  The Nvivo software also comes with tutorials that can also be accessed on-line, which can help the researcher to further understand the capacities of the software.


VII. The Research Report


            Following data analysis, the researcher needs to begin synthesizing findings into one or many theses or evidence-based arguments.  For some guidance on this stage of research, see the Writing Center at Colorado State University’s brief discussion on writing the research report, or Barbara Hall’s discussion on developing a thesis and argument. A research report for each community could be produced using NVivo. This will allow (a) to share draft copies of the report; (b) integrate all the reports into a single final report; and (c) develop other related products of community ethnographic work, such as theses, conceptual papers, and others.  A brief introductory Guide to NVivo has been developed for the IACC project to complement the software developer QCR’s Getting Started in NVivo guide. 

Given the nature of the research where various researchers are conducting field research in different locations, a method for communicating between researches will need to be developed.  A mechanism which will allow those participating in the ethnographic world to share experiences, problems and solutions will be developed.  For instance, an e-mail list, a message board or a weekly chat session could be developed to aid this communication.  This will be discussed at the project meeting in Chile in April 2005.  Similarly, further information on the format of the final research report will become available after the April 2005 project meeting in Chile.  

Finally, it is important to reiterate that each community is a particular case and that researchers will not be able to apply the same procedures in each case. Researchers will need to be flexible to adapt to the circumstances that arise in each community. What is important is to get enough information to provide good answers to the central questions or issues that will guide our work.

In case you want to have access to some of the bibliographic sources unavailable on the internet please contact IACC Project Director:

Polo Diaz

Department of Sociology and Social Studies

University of Regina

Regina, Saskatchewan

S4S 0A2

Phone: (306) 585 - 4151

Fax:   (306) 585 - 4815

E-mail harry.diaz@uregina.ca

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