Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative research methods in ethnographical studies are carried out by examining various aspects of a society from within. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the most common qualitative research methods used in ethnography.


The primary task of an ethnographer is to understand and clearly outline the main features of a civilization and their culture. This is done through getting all the relevant information about the various aspects of an event or a process that happens within the society. This includes obtaining first-hand information from people through interviews, surveys, and personal observations as well as informal interaction.

An ethnographer can also deduce the mechanics of various events in a society by studying or researching about the local laws, Government and statutory policies along with historical trends and records. By understanding each and every aspect of a community, it is possible for an ethnographer or a researcher to fine tune their findings and create a precise report on the distinctive differences in opinions and decision making processes that happens within the society.

Most of the time during ethnographical research, an ethnographer is expected to live within the society and co-exist with the subjects or population who are being researched. Hence, contrary to Cultural Anthropology, a lot of field work is involved, and actual personal interaction with people is vital in creating an effective model of the society and its culture. The social status of an ethnographer is irrelevant, as they are required to live among the general populace like an ordinary individual to keep the research real and objective.

Having a good rapport with informants and knowledgeable people within the society is imperative from the researcher’s perspective, as this can ensure a constant stream of good quality information and data throughout the duration of the research. It is customary for ethnographers to be involved in the field work for an extended duration, and at times, spending more than a year or two for comprehensive research is quite possible and essential.

An ethnographer arrives at a conclusive data only after analyzing and researching through several different resources. An ethnographer can choose to use existing data to build up their facts, but their current research materials will function as a base for creating a cultural frame of analysis.

The field work in ethnography is the most important aspect of the research. There is usually a collection of information gathering techniques that can help the researcher understand and record the meaning and intention of social activities and their decisions in the community that naturally occur from the people of the community. This collection of techniques is usually known as the ‘Field’ in ethnography. The ultimate aim of such kind of a research is to present an unbiased opinion of the society without any input from the researcher on their personal point of view.

An ethnographer should be willing to use several information gathering techniques and strategies to nurture successful relationships with the people of a community to achieve detailed characterization of the society and its people. The methods of data collection vary from interviews, surveys, in-depth informant observation and experiencing the culture through first-hand experience. The interview process is supposed to be seamless, and is often taped to be transcribed at a later date.

By recording an interview, it is usually easier for the researcher to keep the flow of information exchange intact without having to break the conversation to take down notes. Interview tapes can also be used for further analysis, reference as well as future research purposes. As part of the overall research process, an ethnographer can also go through various documents and other research materials to validate their research and to gain valuable insights into topics that were left out during their current studies.

Participant observation is the process of settling down at the locality of research on a long term basis for finding out about the society. In ethnographical research, participant observation relates to observing and analyzing the different aspects of a society for a considerable amount of time, and this data forms the basis for further studies and research.

Participant observation is a highly imperative aspect for an ethnographer. To be able to successfully understand the lifestyle or culture of a society, an ethnographer should be able to understand what it is like to live in the setting without any personal attachments. In brief, an ethnographer should experience the life within a society without contributing to it and should be detached from any personal feelings to offer unbiased information on the experience.

An ethnographer is just an observer of life, and will not, under any circumstances, try to change the outcome of the research through personal involvement. However, during the course of research, it is commonplace for ethnographers to form emotional attachment with their subjects, and can be an advocate to the citizens of the community. This is often the result of spending large amounts of time by living amongst the subjects and going through different experiences. But ethnographers are bound to (and should) keep such emotional bonds private and out of the scope of ethnography.

Due to the historical significance and disciplinary aspects of cultures, ethnographers from the early days used to concentrate on different regions outside their nations to practice ethnography. This resulted in ethnographers relatively ignoring the huge possibilities of ethnographical research and studies within their home and locality.

The end result is that the ethnographical research data and information currently available for United States is done by different nationalities. But these days, numerous Cultural Anthropologists and ethnographers are increasingly getting immersed in researching their own society and there are more people are inclined to do fieldwork at their own places of residence or work.

Conducting interviews in person is one of the most basic and effective ways of receiving clear-cut and targeted information by asking flexible questions. As with all other avenues, ethnography also possesses a range of varying interview concepts. But it is up to the ethnographer to choose the interview style that best suits the circumstances.

Qualitative research is entirely different to quantitative research. Quantitative research deals in getting answers from a set of predetermined choices from the most amounts of people in a demographic. This often tends to be representative of the instantaneous choice of the subjects, rather than thoughtful and qualitative information. In a qualitative research, however, the importance is given to the quality of the information, rather than the quantity.

This allows subjects to respond freely and voice their opinion on questions, rather than limiting them to pre-defined choices. Ethnographic interviews tend to be largely similar to a normal everyday conversation, but there are differences that one can spot quite easily. Interviews can be impulsive, casual and instantaneous, as the questions are targeted, and no one can prepare a set of pre-determined questions to understand the specific details of a society.

Various research projects require different sources and types of data, which initiates researchers to find alternate sources for information. In most cases, this information is found through existing research reports, Government documents, magazines and even newspaper articles. These commodities are often representative of the actual happenings and news within a society. It is not essential to consider these artifacts and literature as a primary source for data, but they can be used as a secondary reference when specific research and studies require extensive and relevant information.

The main aspect of ethnography is field work. Gathering data is done through personal interaction, which necessitates the ethnographer to obtain information through various direct approaches. An ethnographer will have to relocate to different localities, and might be required to shift their base to a different country or a community to interact with their research subjects.

Such an interaction and keen observation can help ethnographers gain valuable information on the effects of Government policies and local laws on people’s lives. An ethnographer should obtain data from different sources, and must consider the larger picture, instead of focusing on a single individual. By adopting a holistic approach, the conclusive report can be representative of the entire community, rather than focusing attention on singular examples.

The final report is created after the fieldwork is completed. This is an opportunity for the ethnographer to convey their studies and experiences in a pre-defined format. These reports usually contain a journal of their daily life experiences, lifestyles, social rituals, cultural phenomenon, and details of other activities that form the basis of the society under research.

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