Ethnographic Research methods

Observing People

Ethnography is at the heart of cultural and social anthropology. It is used to study cultural diversity by providing in-depth accounts of the behaviour and interactions of a particular culture, society or community of individuals. Understanding of the behaviour of that society is gained through taking part in the local events and establishing an active role in the society. Ethnographers are therefore ‘participant observers’.

Many academic disciplines employ ethnographic research methods, as does business, which uses rapid versions of ethnographic methods to better understand the relationship between the goods and services they provide and the consumers or users that engage with them. In other words, they use ethnography as an aid to understanding consumption.

Research Methods


Questionnaires (eg Market Surveys)
Statistical Evidence (eg Sales Figures)
Experimental Evidence (Testing of cause and effect)
Large sample Sizes
Fixed, repeatable, reliable but inflexible
Comparable and objective presentation of facts, but doesn’t uncover meaning


Focus Groups
Small sample sizes
Fluid, enables researcher to react to changes
Data analysis difficult and can be subjective, but can expose meaning


A holistic research method premised on the belief that a system as complex as a human society cannot be understood by studying any particular aspect in isolation

Used widely across a number of disciplines:

Social Geography
Social History
Cultural Studies
Performance Studies

Ethnography applied to Design

Businesses use ethnography in order to

Better understand the customer/user
Better understand cultural practices

Participant Observation

An anthropological method of gaining familiarity with a group of people through participating in their everyday lives.

Mainly qualitative, but can include elements of quantitative research.

In Participant Observation, the observer seeks to become a participating member of the situation being studied.


spending extended periods of time in the place and among the people being studied
sharing their day-to-day life experiences
establishing a role (other than observer) within the group
entry into the social and symbolic world of the group
use of language, social conventions and ways of living


Direct observation
Participation in everyday events
Oral histories

Data produced:

Tape or video recordings

Data Collection processes:

First Phase — Descriptive Observation
Second Phase — Focused Observation

Descriptive Observation Process:

Describe the situation under study
Develop a narrative/story
Look for theory and explanation

Dimensions of Descriptive Observation

Space — Layout of the physical setting
Actors — Names and details of people observed
Activities — The various activities/tasks of the actors
Objects — Physical elements employed by actors
Acts — Specific individual actions during activities
Events — Particular occasions/ meetings etc
Time — The sequence of events
Goals — What the actors are trying to achieve
Feelings — Emotions in particular contexts

Focused Observation Process:

Refine the research question in light of first phase
Develop focused questions
Possibly lead to more detailed study of a particular dimension or a theme which might cover different dimensions
Possibly lead the study to a different setting

Focused Observation = Analytic Induction:

Formulate a rough definition of the phenomenon of interest
Put forward an initial hypothesis of explanation
Test the hypothesis to see if it fits
If not, either reformulate the hypothesis, or redefine the phenomenon
Repeat with a second phenomenon

Recording Data:

Taking notes during observation can be difficult
Limit to ‘memory joggers’
▪Unusual details
▪Interesting comments
▪Things not understood
These form the ‘ethnographic record’
Follow up immediately with a ‘full record’

Video and Audio Records

Saves note taking
Good for ensuring that an accurate record is kept
Much more obtrusive than note taking and can affect responses
Issues of confidentiality
Lengthy process in transcription
If used, should be used in conjunction with note taking, not instead of notes

Materials for the Full Record

Descriptions, word for word (verbatim) accounts and factual material — no inferences
Forgotten material — items recalled which were not recorded at the time
Interpretation — notes on analysis of inference rather than fact (kept separate from description)
Personal feelings — your own subjective reaction to the situation
Reminders — items which need to be checked at a following session or later stage

Observational Bias:

Selective Attention
Selective Encoding
Selective Memory
Interpersonal Factors