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Ethnography

By definition, critical readers are skeptical. They do not take the results of research as the final word on the subject, but instead look for flaws in the reasoning; or if it is an empirical study, critical readers look for flaws in the research design. As a result, when you introduce an outside source, be sure to spend a moment clarifying the source's credibility.

For example, when reading the following excerpt on the greenhouse effect, what questions do you believe a skilled reader would raise?

The greenhouse effect is likely to change rainfall patterns, raise sea levels 4 to 7 feet by the year 2100, and increase the world's mean temperature 2.7 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050 (Brown and Flavin 6, 16).

Enrich your ethnographic interpretation by accounting for community artifacts.

Archeology is the study of past civilizations based upon artifacts, physical objects that are characteristic of a particular culture. We are all familiar with the Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins. These artifacts provide a great deal of information about ancient civilizations and help to recreate a picture of what life was like for these people.

Broaden your understanding of ethnographic research tools.

The ethnographer's eyes and ears are two very important tools for collecting information, but documentation is key. Any instrument that can record, store, or sort information is of primary use to the ethnographer. Tape recorders, cameras, and note pads are some of the most commonly used tools for ethnographic research.Recording interviews with key informants is more preferable than taking notes; by listening to recordings over and over you will discover important details that you might otherwise miss if you simply take notes.

Wisely choose key informants and triangulate the informants' perspectives.

When conducting an ethnography, the researcher closely observes the key informants in a particular culture because they tend to define the qualities of their group. Every culture includes leaders and followers.

When choosing key informants, you may not necessarily want to select group leaders. Other members of the community may serve as more effective key informants because they are more accessible or more willing to share information or more observant.

Enhance your ethnographic interpretation by identifying and observing customs and rituals that members of the community routinely perform.

Unlike artifacts, rituals and customs are not physical objects that can be held in one's hands and described according to their shape and function. Rituals are activities that people perform according to a predetermined pattern. Even though rituals frequently involve the use of artifacts, the ritual itself is an activity. Because rituals and customs are behaviors, they are sometimes more difficult to describe and analyze than artifacts. However, like artifacts, rituals are very useful for understanding and interpreting a culture.

Identify a culture to study, one that you are relatively unfamiliar with.

An important aspect of ethnography involves the types of questions that a researcher tries to answer. Some ethnographers begin their research with a central question that guides their exploration. Others prefer to find their research question after they've been in the community for a while, or even after they've left the community. An ethnographic approach can be particularly appropriate for short-term projects like the ones assigned in a relatively brief college courses. Even though some professional ethnographies last for years, studies with a limited scope can be conducted in a matter of weeks.

Enhance your ability to observe and make reliable judgments about communities

Ethnography involves studying a specific culture or community. By living among the members of a culture and playing the role of participant-observer, ethnographers attempt to define the beliefs, rituals, symbols, problems, and patterns of behavior that distinguish this culture from other dominant cultures. For example, ethnographers have attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and written about the culture of alcoholics. Ethnographers have studied the community of prostitutes and drug dealers on inner-city streets and in housing projects.

Understand and value the subjective nature of ethnographic interpretation.

The ethnographic research design involves a number of unique considerations toward the end of the project. Chronologically, the first of these concerns is deciding when to stop conducting field work. Logically, the more time you are able to spend in the field, the stronger your data are likely to be and therefore the stronger your understanding and interpretation of the culture.

Enhance your interpretive skills by learning about the culture before visiting, perhaps by reading other researchers' ethnographic accounts of the culture. Ethnographers vehemently disagree about the degree to which library research must support field study. Many well-respected anthropologists have written ethnographies that contain few if any references to secondary sources. The job of entering a culture, living as an insider, and then writing to outsiders is already so demanding that they do not have the time, energy, or zeal to connect their work to the work of others. In addition, because ethnography is a fairly new methodology, many ethnographers are truly breaking new ground and other scholarly references may simply be unavailable.

Write notes in the field, seeking interpretive patterns.

While true ethnographers have the luxury of spending large chunks of time in the field and can discover their purpose after lengthy observations, you may find it necessary to focus on a more clearly defined purpose early in your research. Writing a proposal for your study and sharing it with your classmates and instructor is a good starting point. Although it is possible (although not recommended) to put off the writing until the last minute when writing a report based on library research, questionnaire, or even interviews, such a strategy is nearly impossible when writing an ethnography.

Secure access to the community without poisoning the waters.

Experts typically agree that the way you are introduced into the community plays a crucial role in the overall success of your study. If the people in charge introduce you to the community and ask participants to do what they can to help you, you may be perceived as a spy or enemy. It is, therefore, often better to enter a community less obtrusively. Because being introduced to the community by someone in power or by someone considered to be a member of an "opposing faction" can irreparably taint your results, you may have to reject the role implied by your introduction or withdraw from the community and select another site to conduct the research.