Free «Ethnography as a Way of Conducting Social Research» Essay Paper

Ethnography as a Way of Conducting Social Research


In the paradigm of qualitative research, participant observation (ethnography) is one of the most applied methodologies in the collection of data. Participant observation is used in a wide array of disciplines which include ethnology, cultural anthropology, human geography, sociology, psychology and communication studies among others (Burgess 1984). Compared with other methodologies, it offers a unique opportunity for the researchers to collect the most authentic data from a given group. This is one of the greatest reasons why ethnography is very important and widely accepted in data collection. Unlike interviews, questionnaires, surveys and other methods, the researchers collect data primarily from observation. In this way, they do not have to always ask the members of the involved group. In other methodologies, members of the studied community may choose to offer skewed information for various reasons. However, in participant observation, the researchers immerse themselves in the studied community to a point that they might be considered as one of them. Afterwards, they observe various aspects of the community according to the goal of the research (West 1996). This paper aims to expound why participant observation is the best way to conduct a sociological research. Advantages that accrue from the use of participant observation will be discussed as well as various reasons as to why it is widely accepted by researchers. On the other hand, the paper will also look into the flaws of this process as well as various reasons why some researchers think it is disadvantageous.

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Erving Goffman (June 1922–November 1982) is considered to have been the greatest and the most influential sociologist of the 20th century (Hammersley & Atkinson 1987). This happened because of the crucial impact that he made on sociology. The Times Higher Education Guide ranked Goffman the sixth author on the list of the most cited scholars in humanities. His work saw him become the 73rd president of the American Sociological Association after gaining the marked recognition owing to his in-depth study in ‘symbolic interaction.’ According to Goffman (1974), no serious research work can be done about a group without the researcher being actively engaged in the group’s life. He argued that by joining the group (the researched community), the researcher became very close to them and was able to clearly see how they lived. He was also able to see how they respond to various forces that occurred in their lives. Goffman’s statement shows how important it is for the researcher to participate in the group’s life in order to study them effectively. Various other researchers have appeared to support Goffman or dispute his remarks. Supporting the participant observation, Goffman indicates that it has several advantages over other methodologies. Firstly, the researchers gain close and friendly connection with the group involved, which could be a religious group or an isolated community. Consequently, they become intensively involved with the people and learn their cultural environment over an adequate period of time which greatly increases the quality and the accuracy of the information obtained by the researchers.

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Goals and Objectives

Despite the profuse hailing of ethnography by Goffman and various researchers, it would be hard for a person wishing to conduct a research to understand why it is advantageous. Additionally, despite many advantages that ethnography has, it has its flaws or limitations. There is a set of conditions that it requires above other methodologies; moreover, it consumes more time. However, researchers consider it sometimes worth spending more resources in terms of time and money and obtain objective results that can be utilized for further research or affirmative action.

The objective of this paper is to discover the advantages that Goffman and other researchers think that ethnography has over other methods. This is a very important consideration since more sociological researches will need to be conducted in the future for various reasons. Therefore, better methods that will help to achieve the best results need to be distinguished. This can be accomplished by means of evaluating if Goffman’s conclusion regarding the superiority of ethnography is right. On the other hand, other researchers have disputed Goffman’s conclusion. According to them, ethnography is not advantageous or significantly beneficial over other methods. This research aims to evaluate and discuss the views of both sides of the discussion in order to discover if ethnography is indeed superior.

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Revelation that ethnography is more superior over other methods will mean that Goffman’s assertion that no sociological research of any significance can be done without the researcher being involved in the group is true. On the other hand, if sociological research can adequately be conducted without the participant observation, this means that Goffman’s assertion is false. This paper will test the hypothesis that Goffman’s assertions are true and no sociological research of any significance can be done without the researcher fully participating in group’s activity (May 2011).

Literature Review

According to Brewer (2002), ethnography is primarily used to study a group of people having shared identity, interests or culture. Data is gathered in a ‘natural settings,’ that is in a scenario that has not been prepared for the intended research (Brewer 2002). Generally, it is all about the researcher getting into the particular culture or social field, which they study, and being among the subjects of the study for a particular period of time in order to acquire the first-hand experience of the phenomena that they want to explore. This type of objective observation and documentation is important because the researcher will learn how the group communicate, the specific cultural habits that they value and the reasons behind them as well as get an insight into the structure of the group’s social relationships. Ethnography has evolved over time; it is important for ethnographic researchers to go as far as possible in interpreting the lives of their subjects even though this possibility generates debate. According to Brewer (2002), although social anthropologists like using ethnographic methods, sociologists have also adopted it and have employed it in studying micro-groups that have a particular societal origin.

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Various observation methods applied by researchers include covert and overt observations. Overt participant observation is the most frequently used method with regard to the contemporary social research. The researchers inform their subjects of their interests, aims and the purpose that they want to fulfil before they start the observation. For this study to be successful, the researchers must be involved in various events and activities that their subjects engage in; however, they should still be able to keep a professional distance that will enable them to record the data adequately and objectively in a field journal.

The covert participant observation has come under criticism and has been categorized as ethically unsound even though it has helped to provide some useful insight into social fields that would normally be difficult for the researchers to access. The examples include the researches involving criminal groups. In this case, the researchers conduct the study on a group of people without their being aware about it. A good example of this kind of research is the study, which was known as ‘stigma,’ conducted in 1968 by Goffman on the mentally ill in an asylum (Goffman 1974). He acted as the Assistant Athletic Director of the asylum, and members of the hospital did not know that he was doing a research.

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According to Gilbert (2001), ethnographers are able to investigate very complex issues that may be complicated for quantitative methods, like surveys, to solve. These may be societal interactions, cultural or difficult relationships and even unpredictable situations. In situations like these, ethnographers have the ability to receive the information from the research subjects in a friendly way that does not offend the subject group. Ethnography serves to display various basics of group interactions due to the fact that ethnographers normally take detailed and structured notes during the interviews, observations and numerous others methods. Therefore, the researchers gain a deeper understanding of their research subjects with a validity described as “thick description.” Consequently, the researchers are able to get an insight into the lives and customs of the people being studied, which they would otherwise not gain by simply asking.

According to Hammersley and Atkinson (1983), ethnography provides a voice for understanding. This is in the form of giving cultures an opportunity to verbalise their views and perspectives which are normally overpowered by the dominant culture and never get a chance to be expressed. An ethnographer has the task of understanding the standpoint of a particular group in precise scenarios under study, not depending on predictable hierarchies of reliability. As a result, people outside the culture are able to have an understanding of the group and their reasons for the way that they live. It is possible to find that some people do not understand some things about their lifestyle themselves, and ethnography can bring these to their attention. Moreover, they can even learn how best to intermingle with people from outside their culture.

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The fact that the researchers, in this case, live among the group, maintain relationships with them and are involved in their community activities makes it possible for them to see and understand the culture from the group’s point of view and not force the social reality that the researchers know about that culture. Therefore, it is likely for the scholars to get the research findings that may even surprise them, especially if they had previous theoretical knowledge of the group and discovered the opposite in reality. In this way, the researchers can estimate the difference between what is said and what is done.

According to Somekh and Lewin (2011), people commonly behave differently after knowing that they are being observed; consequently, the researchers may be unable to get the factual picture. Participant observation serves to eliminate this factor significantly so that the people observed are able to relax after some time with the researchers and continue with their daily lives, therefore enabling the scholars to get an actual insight in to their lifestyle and accomplish the aim of the study. When the researchers immerse themselves in the culture being studied, they may get to know how the people think and be able to restructure or prepare questions that are more appropriate for the particular situation, including ones that are relevant in the native language. There are cases of researchers who even managed to learn the native language, and this put them at an advantage as the group could relate with them, enabling the research process to be successful. This means that participant observation can encourage the invention of new hypotheses or research questions (Somekh & Lewin 2011).

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According to Esterberg (2002), there are times when participant observation is the only method that a researcher can use to gather data for a particular group of people or culture. For example, if someone is researching a community that is closed from the rest of people and the study requires intricate details of their lives, then there is no other way than to involve oneself in that particular community.

As much as the participant observation method is praised by many researchers, there are others who believe that it has been given too much credit and its limitations have been ignored. This method of social research has been attacked by postmodern critics who argue that it is not a true representation of reality, while others claim that its application has been narrowed by globalisation.

According to Denzin (1989), ethnography is expensive, protracted and difficult due to the fact that it greatly relies on the ethnographer, making it hard to repeat and gain similar results. In addition, a lot of training is required by an ethnographer before engaging in the research process. This is done in order to teach the scholars how to take notes and alternate the methods of data collection and analysis as well as familiarize them with various qualitative methods in research sociology and even the language of the people that they are supposed to interact with. After going in to the field, people do not normally just open their hearts and invite strangers in to their world. Naturally, the process involves the building of trust that the ethnographer has to deal with, which, in turn, makes the process even more time-consuming. The next step includes getting in to the ethnographer’s role in order to gather the required data, take notes and analyze the group. Ethnographers may also experience culture shock when they involve themselves in foreign cultures, which might affect the results. They may also have to deal with awkwardness and loneliness while feeling incongruous during the research process. In extreme cases, they may encounter occasional dangers, which make them be alert and avoid various instances, some of which could even endanger their lives.

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According to Goodley, Lawthom, Clough and Moore (2004), another challenge associated with ethnography is the fact that the ethnographers are required to give ethics an extra attention in the course of their studies. The cultures studied by ethnographers are sometimes sensitive, and the scholars may be exposed to exploitation without any safeguards. Ethnographers are often guilty of starting the research process bearing their culture and prejudice with them, which may influence how they conduct the research and record data. There are cases when the researchers may not disclose their bias in their findings, and so they are taken to be true. There are other instances when the ethnographer’s presence changes the culture, which hampers the results. Therefore, it is a constant struggle to eradicate bias from ethnographic studies in order to get the correct facts on the ground.

According to Reinharz (1992), another issue is that ethnography studies small groups of people. Consequently, the findings may not represent the rest of the population. Moreover, its scope is also limited, meaning that the science can not be used for a worldwide analysis. One of the most significant shortcomings of ethnography in several cultures is that it may not cover women’s point of view: ethnographers may relate well with men, while women are busy with chores, which reduces their participation. In most cases, questions about women are answered from men’s perspective, which may neglect the women’s views (Reinharz 1992).











As the literature above asserts, ethnography as a methodology for conducting a sociological research generates mixed reactions. Some researchers find it useful and advantageous, while others think that it is more disadvantageous than other methods that could be employed for similar purpose. The latter also suggest that its usefulness is being eroded over time, adding that more and more limitations are being revealed. However, they all agree that it is useful for some types of research. In addition, it offers solutions that cannot be availed by methods such as surveys, questionnaires or any other.

It is a research methodology that can combine the largest number of data collection techniques in one research. At the same time, Esterberg (2002) concludes that there are several research situations when no other methodology can be applied. For instance, it is possible to have a group which the scholars have very little knowledge about, thus making it hard for them to set the scope of the research or even formulate hypotheses or research questions. Consequently, an ethnographer or a group of them can travel to that isolated group, start living with them, gauge the scope and the number of possible researches and run them either singly or simultaneously. Despite all the objections, ethnography remains very crucial and is considered as the methodology that can avail the data with the highest level of credibility.

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This research adopts the secondary approach to collection of data. Various researchers in the field of sociology, social sciences, humanities and human geography among others have researched and authored academic materials about ethnography. Some of them have also applied this methodology in one or several researches. These materials will form a crucial part for the analysis to investigate if ethnography is still the best methodology for conducting a sociological research. Journals and articles have also reviewed the topic. Secondary sources of data will be applied in this research because it is cheap and time-saving. It bears no resemblance to the primary methods like surveys and questionnaires among others that may take much time to design, administer, collect and analyse the responses. Additionally, the researcher needs only to get the materials and obtain the desired information.

One of the most crucial reasons why secondary sources of data are preferred is that they avail the views of various researchers and experts. Every textbook authored by each of these experts contains their viewpoints. Moreover, these people possess remarkable educational training and professional experience. Consequently, this allows the researchers to borrow and compare the points of view held by all authors and therefore make a decision based on several of them. This research will analyse various standpoints of researchers concerning ethnography. In addition, different views concerning Goffman’s assertion will be evaluated to see if they are for or against it.

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