Posted by: swhee1er | May 8, 2014

The unique challenge of ethnography

Ethnography occupies a somewhat unique position among social science research methodologies in that its data collection occurs in relatively uncontrolled environments in real time. While other qualitative researchers seem to have the luxury of revisiting their data sets as often as possible to glean whatever information they deem necessary,[1] ethnographers need to be able to “spontaneously decide what is and what is not important” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 139) when witnessing incidents that may not occur again during their research period. How do they make these snap judgments as to what is essential and what is trivial? Unfortunately, Lindlof and Taylor offer little direction beyond advocating the “constant practice of curiosity and reflection” (p. 139), though the six questions they propose for tactical observation could be used as a potential rubric for determining what communication phenomena to include or exclude.


Even if we accept those questions as a set of guidelines, another question still looms: do ethnographers have a fallback strategy if they discover they may have missed or ignored some critical piece of data after the fact? Do they return to the scene in the hopes of revisiting the event? Do they acknowledge the missed opportunity when discussing the issues and limitations of their research? Or is there a third option?


[1] Even focus groups, which also occur in real time, differ from ethnographic research in that they occur in a controlled environment and are generally circumscribed by institutional or organizational interests.


  1. Steven, a couple of the things I’ve encountered in our research is that ethnography is more of an approach than a single method. It can incorporate other methods such as interviews and even a form of textual analysis (visual ethnography).
    2nd, the goal seems to be more on getting credible rather than exhaustive findings. As a researcher, you don’t have to be the last word on the topic but you gotta be believable to both the community you studied and the outside culture.

    • Grace,

      I agree, but my reason for posing the question was more oriented toward efficiency than exhaustiveness (exhaustive studies, after all, are somewhat mythical animals in the post-positivist world). Certain ethnographic studies, like their counterparts in the natural sciences, take a significant amount of time and aren’t repeated as easily as analyzing a certain amount of articles or Twitter feeds. If, as Lindlof and Taylor aver, researchers may “never get a chance to notice any particular event twice” (p. 139), what pains do ethnographers take to make the most of the situation? I’d be curious to know.

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