Ethnography is the study of human actions in ordinary surroundings. Generally the ethnographic researcher is interested in explaining a social or cultural phenomena in which humans interact. To unravel these in an ethnographic manner he or she would study a certain type of people in a certain environment, recording their behaviour. By doing so, an ethnographer is able to reveal deep cultural observations as he or she blends into that environment for a period of time representing graphically or in writing the culture of a group of people. Schuler and Namioka (1993) describe how researchers try to immerse themselves in that environment for deep culture observation, conducting interviews and joining the people in their cultural activities. This process can take a long period of time due to the need to capture all the information about the culture, and in some cases blending in that environment can take a while to get used to by the researcher and the people. According to Munhall (2011) traditional ethnography began when researchers wanted to explore unknown cultures by studying and learning their culture, interaction, and behaviour. In recent years however, ethnography has become more equated with a research project of a qualitative type rather than its original meaning of cultural anthropology. This is perhaps evident from the use of ethnography in other disciplines such as engineering, medicine and Ergonomics. For example Human factors engineering has widely adopted ethnographic research methods for the design and development of concepts, products or services (Alamoud and Ganapathy, 2013). Designers use ethnographic research methods to study and analyse a group of people so as to allow them to be able to design a product, which can help fulfil a particular need for these people. Thus it may be said that ethnographic research within the social science sphere is not solely purely attributed to its anthropological cultural roots. It serves other purposes by being both a qualitative method of research and also an outcome of the research method which generally attempts to interpret cultural findings. Thus, the role of the ethnographer has evolved to not solely reporting findings but also attempting to interpret and explain the meaning of such events and observations. The ethnographer generally relies on a number of tools and techniques to gather findings.
These include observation, interviews, fieldwork, cultural probes and document analysis. More information on each of the foregoing tools is available on the links hereunder.
Ethnography Through Observation
This is potentially the most commonly used method and involves the observation of people in their own cultural environment. This may take up a significant amount of time for the ethnographer depending on the research goals. According to Cohen and Crabtree (2006) this general includes learning and becoming familiar with the culture’s language and major of even mundane daily events and activities, recalling and recording such activities and observations, being objective and not having preconceived ideas about the culture being studied as well as effectively communicating findings. Some may think that observation is a straightforward technique but as Baker (2006) posits it is a complex activity requiring the researcher to play a number of roles and use a number of techniques such as the use of the five senses to collect data.
Interviews As Ethnographic Tools
Interviews for the ethnographic researcher is generally an informal activity taking up the form of a conversation. There is scope of course in ethnographic research of a formal interview where the subjects are asked questions by the observer regarding his or her activities. This however is generally the exception rather than the norm. In fact Spradley (1979) suggests that the interviewer must be well skilled to be in a position to hold friendly conversations with subjects without them knowing that he or she is interviewing them and in so doing the ethnographic researcher would be attempting to answer some of his or her research questions. This makes interviews an effective tool in research as it is a precise technique that offers the researcher the possibility to ask questions related to the study’s research objectives.
This technique is similar to observation, but whilst observation may be of a non-participatory nature, by conducting field work the ethnographic researcher is an active participant immersing him or herself in the environment and culture that the people being studied live in. The researcher generally interacts with the people for an undefined period of time which could be quite long given the fact that the researcher must become familiar with the culture’s norms, language and day to day activities and rituals.
Cultural probes are packages that contain instruments and materials that are left by researchers to people being investigated to capture their thoughts, responses, or any information inquired by the researcher to record (Prabhala and Ganapathy, 2013).Khoo, Rozaklis, & Hall (2012) identified this method as an ethnographic research method and according to Buhre and colleagues (2012) cultural probes were first used in a research conducted by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti in 1999 whereby it was established that such probe packages generally contain objects that can document or capture information for example cameras, maps, post cards, and/or diaries.
Ethnographic researchers also make use of books, videos, photos, audio recordings and films. They may also consult less popular research documents such as newspapers, advertisements and magazines. These documents enrich the study of the researcher and potentially give more in depth analysis of findings. Stage and Manning (2003) suggest that at times the information retrieved from such documents cannot be extracted from participants and thus it is a useful technique to utilise.
The idea of remote interaction has also stretched into ethnographic methods. Some fieldwork research activities are now being designed with technology mediated interactions. They are in a sense also informing design of interfaces as ethnographic methods have been successful and effective in the human factors field. The future of ethnography is also transforming in not solely informing how human interactions occur but also the biological reasons towards those interactions. Parasuraman (2008) suggests that through the field of Neuroergonomics researchers attempt to understand human reasoning and applying that towards human performance and interaction.