Ethnographic Research in Education

Ethnographic research is a naturalistic, observational method that produces real descriptions of context and culture. It alternates between a narrow and a broad focus. Ethnographers study a wide range of subjects, including, individual behavior, environmental conditions, and shared, taken-for-granted patterns of belief. In ethnography, researchers engage systematically with those they are studying by participating in their lives and methodically asking questions about the information they are acquiring.

A number of authors have differentiated using ethnographic methods from the goal of writing an ethnography. An ethnography involves much more than using ethnographic methods such as participant observation, taking field notes, or conducting interviews. A true ethnography is a long-term project, involves participant observation as well as other methods, and aims to describe the participants’ perspectives ( Kelly & Lesh 2000). Ethnography is a methodology that is intricately related to the theoretical principles of anthropology, such as the centrality of the concept of culture. In the words of these two educational anthropologists: “Many people, who are quite innocent of anthropology as a discipline and who have only vague notions of cultural process, claim to be doing ethnography. We have nothing against anyone doing qualitative, field site evaluation, participant or non-participant observation, descriptive journalism, or anything else if it is well done. It will produce some tangible result and may be useful, but it should not be called ethnography unless it is, and it is not ethnography unless it uses some model of cultural process in both the gathering and interpretation of data. (p.151)
Although not every naturalistic study is an ethnography, ethnographic methods can be integrated into a research study that may not be a full ethnography. One of the central goals of using ethnographic methods is to identify the issues for the participants. However, ethnographic methods also help the researcher to raise issues that the participants may not have been aware of themselves. For example, in uncovering the breakdown of minorities that drop out of high school, one main goal was to describe events from the point of view of the participants. However, another aim was to describe the environmental principles underlying the negative activities, even if the participants themselves might not identify these principles.

In using ethnographic methods to study learning in classrooms, it is important to keep in mind that you are conducting observations not only across cultures, but also across ages and educational experiences. One criterion in anthropology for how well one understands the participants in a study is being able to act like them. When one is observing students who are younger and have less schooling, it is perhaps less important to be able to act like them and more important to remain aware of how one’s experience can affect the research. Eckert (1989) provided a number of observations that are pertinent to mathematics and science education researchers, based on her ethnographic research in a high school:
“Doing ethnography in one’s own culture brings obvious problems and an American doing ethnography in an American high school certainly stretches the limits of the ethnographic method. My challenge in doing this work was not to pretend to be a complete outsider to the community, but to assess the real nature of my status”. (p.26).

There is no special way to deal with the potential interference of personal experience. The responsibility as an ethnographer is not to forget your own story, but to know it well and to refer to it constantly to make sure that it was not blinding you to what you saw or focusing, your attention on only some of what you saw. Careful articulation of your previous beliefs about school and adolescence was interleaved with a constant questioning of every observation and every interpretation.

When using ethnographic methods, researchers need to be aware of the difference between conducting short-term (a few weeks) and long-term observations (a few months). In ethnographic work, it takes time to be admitted into a community. In the end, the challenges and responsibilities of doing participant observation in an American high school are not very different than those facing an ethnographer working in any other culture or age group. As a researcher, you are an outsider trying to get to know and understand a community. You need to gain the confidence and trust of the members of the community so that they would allow you access to their activities and knowledge, and you need to become sufficiently part of the local atmosphere to be able to observe activities without producing a distraction.

In writing methodological memos the researcher might consider what to do next and how to do it. And, last, in writing personal memos the researcher records feelings, impressions, and reactions that may or may not become a part of the research analysis. However, these personal memos can become part of the audit trail that helps to establish the overall quality of a study.

In today’s ever moving use of video surveillance, it is important to make the connection between using ethnographic methods and collecting video data. Video data can be collected concurrently with ethnographic observations or without any ethnographic observations. Conducting observations while being present physically provides a researcher with multiple impressions that may not be reproduced by reading someone else’s field notes or watching a tape of activities in a classroom the researcher has not visited. Researchers only analyze tapes of activities in classrooms where they have conducted observations personally. Researchers also need to consider and describe the methods used to collect and analyze their data, including whether observations and field notes were collected while videotapes were made and whether the researcher or another person conducted the videotaping or observations. In this way, you can specify and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each situation.

The last aspect of ethnographic methods that should be addressed is transcription. Transcripts and tapes are not equivalent, nor are all transcripts alike. The act of transcribing is an interpretive act. The choice of a system of transcription conventions reflects the researcher’s theoretical stance, analytical focus, and relationship to the participants. When transcribing tapes it is important to be explicit about how and why certain aspects of the data were not included in the transcripts and why others were. For example, gestures, expressions, and tone of voice usually help the researcher interpret utterances on videotape in a way that needs to be communicated in a transcript.

The other principal technique for ethnographic data collection is that of the interview. Most often interviews are used to supplement the information taken from observations. Malone (1998) supports the use of ethnographic interviews to complement the data collected through observation. Such data can be used to increase the understanding of the phenomenon under investigation, to incorporate different perspectives, and to make effective use of time. The two major forms of interviews available are the unstructured and informal interview, or the more formal and structured interview. These techniques provide a useful mechanism through which it is possible to ascertain teachers’ views about issues arising out of the research and to address issues of validity. Taking the role of participant observer allows the researcher to ask informal and unstructured questions as they arise. Such questions can be asked in the context of the classroom, while teachers and students are involved in the lesson, or in the informal discussions that arise after lessons. Typically, the questions arise spontaneously from the environment and may be focused on the educational content that is being addressed, the processes that are being used, the rationale behind some actions, and so forth.

The more formal interviews may be conducted at various points in the research process. The questions may be used to clarify points that are emerging from the research in order to develop a more complete picture. In most instances the more formal interviews will be conducted away from the research site either in a geographical sense, when the participants are interviewed away from the classroom, or in a temporal sense, when the interview is conducted outside of class time.
The use of data collected from interviews allows different perspectives to be brought to the research process. It is expected that students will have different perspectives from teachers and researchers, so the role of interviews is to bring forward these different perspectives in order to develop a better understanding of the classroom. The students’ perspective as to why the teacher adopts a specific method for teaching, rather than what could be described broadly as an constructivist approach, is often quite different from that of the teacher or even the researcher. Similarly, a broad question such as “What is education?” would yield substantially different responses from different cohorts of participants. Yet it is important that such differences (or similarities) be made known through the research process if a deep understanding of the culture of classrooms is to be achieved.

In developing an ethnography of a classroom, it is possible that the questions asked of the various participants will be different. In interviewing students, it may be necessary to access information through a variety of questions, because students will not have well-formed or articulated concepts related to the focus of the research. Hence, to access what students experience as the culture of education, questions which ask them to describe a typical lesson will be needed: what students see as the reason for getting a high school diploma; how long they expect to go to school or be a student; and so on. By contrast, other participants may have more articulate responses and hence more direct questions can be posed.

Interviews can be used to supplement, clarify, or validate the data gained from other sources. Accordingly, they can be employed to gain access to teachers’ and students’ impressions, beliefs, assumptions, and justifications of observed events. For example, the use of “reward systems” in early childhood classrooms is a relatively common phenomenon, but less common in junior secondary schools. The researcher may observe this “fact,” but needs to ascertain why teachers adopt this practice, or why they think that this is an appropriate action (or inappropriate, as the case may be). Similarly, teachers may adopt practices that are teacher-directed pedagogies. By asking questions regarding the rationale for such actions, access to information about teaching, learning, knowledge, history, and so on can be accessed. Having conducted such interviews, it is then possible to represent participants in a way that will be seen as fair and true.

Ethnographic research represents a distinct break from the more traditional forms of research found in educational research. The role of the researcher is to write about a way of life, which involves the researcher in describing the say of life of a group of people. Various researchers have adapted the methodology, to suit their particular needs and there are a number of principles that define what is characteristic of the ethnographic tradition. The role of the researcher is to possess an interest in socio-cultural patterns of human behavior, rather than the quantification of human events. Additionally, the researcher must understand cultural events and categorize the terms of the human events. Lastly, the researcher must focus on on-going settings in socio-cultural contexts, which include communities, schools, and classrooms. The purpose of an ethnographic study is to describe the culture of the people under study in a manner that is acceptable to them as a true representation of their way of life. Essentially it is a phenomenological approach to research in which the researcher acts as “a fly on the wall”, absorbing everything and presenting the data in an objective form. The task of the researcher is to get inside the heads of the participants until it is possible to see the world from their perspective. Ethnographic study permits the observation of daily life in classroom, the collection of data on classroom life, and interviews to inform further the data that have been collected. The knowledge gained from ethnographic studies can complement the enormous amount of research already conducted to provide a richer and more complete understanding of the teaching and learning in inner city environments.

Atweh, Bill & Malone, John. “Research and Supervision in Education”. Erlbaum
Associates. (1998).
Burton, Linda. Principal Investigator. “Welfare, Children &
Families: A Three City Study”. May 1, 2000.
Eckert P. “Jocks and burnouts: Social categories and identity in the high
School” . New York: Teachers College Press. (1989)
Kelly, Anthony & Lesh, Richard “Handbook of Research Design in Education”.
Erlbaum Associates. (2000).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 × five =