Ethnographic research

Dr. James Spradley’s work was highly influential to my understanding of original research. And his many books, including Ethnographic Interview, were very instrumental generally in creating a methodology for understanding a culture. 

Ethnographic research is a technique used to learn about people in a specific environment. It is more in-depth than observational research or interviews alone, and requires participation within the target environment. The environment may be work related, social, or any other, such as organizations, communities, cultures, etc. Ethnography is especially valuable for learning complexities and idiosyncrasies of an environment.

A slightly simplified version of Spradley’s steps for doing ethnography include these:

  1. Identify the research question. It may help to determine a problem you want to solve. Or a problem statement that raises questions you want answered. Problems or questions can be about anything related to people within a specific environment.
  2. Determine the location(s) for research. Identify the best place to do participatory research. Pick a place that allows you to take good field notes. Journal! Record how people act, communicate, and think.
  3. Formulate the presentation method. What are the appropriate ethics of the situation? What do/should others know about your observations and journaling?
  4. Acquire permissions and access. Written or recorded permission is essential, as is being upfront about letting others know your methods and planned use of the information.
  5. Observe and participate. Some version of participation is required, making this methodology unique. You start by determining the types of things that you are looking for, and which align with the research questions. It requires objectivity and lots of journaling of ongoing descriptions.
  6. Interview. The above is augmented with interviews to fill in gaps and to get more specific information. And to test out hypotheses. Interviews are usually done at the end of an observational period. First determine who to interview, and what questions are crucial. Through the interviews you can learn more questions to ask, and more people with whom to talk.
  7. Collect archival data. Identify other resources of information that might be relevant, including data previously gathered on point by those within the environment under study, or others related to it.
  8. Code and analyze all data. This is where the “magic” happens: group data in ways that make sense for your observations and interviews. In other words, identify the themes and understand why they exist. Determine if more observations and interviews are necessary to flesh out certain frameworks. Importantly, you want to analyze and summarize data. And some incredibly useful approaches include these: coding and labeling things, sorting content for patterns, doing content (quantity) analyses, identifying outliers, comparing findings with theories and assumptions, taking note of the metadata (including hunches and reflections considered at the time you conducted the interview and recorded the data.)

I have found this methodology (and variations of it) to be helpful in business consulting, filmmaking, and in generally understanding and adapting to new situations and organizations. And importantly, I have found that it is invaluable when developing corporate character, and leading in culturally-savvy ways.