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Ethnographic Research – Complete Guide with Examples

Published by Carmen Troy at August 14th, 2021 , Revised On August 29, 2023

What is Ethnographic Research?

Ethnography is a  type of research where a researcher observes people in their natural environment.

Ethnographers spend time studying people and their day-to-day lives and cultural activities carefully. It takes a long-term commitment and exciting methods of data collection .

It has two unique features

  • The researcher carries out ethnographic research in a natural environment.
  • A researcher acts as a participant and researcher at the same time.

History of Ethnographic Research

During the period of colonialism, anthropology emerged as a formal and notable discipline. Anthropologists started to study traditional people and their cultures. There are many types of ethnographic studies used for various purposes.

Uses of Ethnographic Research    

Ethnographic research has the following uses;

  • Documentation of endangered cultures
  • Studying distant or new cultures.
  • Studying and observing people’s behaviour in a specific society or community over a more extended period with changing circumstances.

Example: Malinowski’s six years of research on the people of Trobriand islands in Melanesia.

Today ethnographic research is also used in social sciences.

Examples:                                                                                                                                  Investigations done by detectives, police officers to solve any criminal mystery.        Investigations are carried out to learn the history and details of culture, community, religion, or games. The research was performed to understand the social interactions of the people.                Research to understand the roles of families and organisations.

Advantages of Conducting Ethnographic Research

There are various  methods of research  based on the requirements and aim of the investigation. Here is the list of the key features of  ethnographic research

  • You can conduct ethnographic research alone.
  • It allows you to observe the changes in people’s behaviour and culture over time and record it.
  • You can conduct it in any place.
  • It allows you to be a part of the community as a participant and take a close look at their lifestyle.
  • You can gather a piece of detailed information with abundant experience, which helps you in further research.
  • It provides the opportunity and pleasure of adventure as well as research.
  • You don’t need to spend anything on the setup and equipment.
  • You can learn to use any language of your choice during the research.
  • You can find out about historical  changes and events.
  • You can use and enhance your skills and knowledge.
  • You are solely responsible for experimenting.
  • You get the opportunity to get to know the underlying realities and opinions of the people.
  • You get the chance to focus on the verbal and non-verbal behavior of the people.

Disadvantages of Ethnographic Research

  • It requires a lot of time.
  • It is challenging to conclude the results.
  • The researcher needs to work alone.
  • It requires patience, skills to interact with people, and staying within the community as a community member.
  • Personal safety and privacy would be at risk.

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What to do Before Starting your Ethnographic Research?

You need to identify your  research question(s)  and decide the mode of data collection. It’s better to choose a small group of people and aim to complete your studies within a short period. 

It would help if you asked a few questions to yourself.

  • Who will be your target participants?
  • Do you have enough time to conduct the research?
  • What’s the purpose of your study?
  • What kinds of resources do you have?
  • Do you have enough funds to conduct your research?
  • Do you have access to the community you want to study?

Types of Ethnographic Research

Realistic ethnographic research.

It is unbiased documentation written in the third person. You can use the collected notes for interpretations. 

A  case study is a documented history and detailed analysis of a situation concerning organisations, industries, and markets. It aims at discovering new facts of the condition under observation. 

It includes data collection from multiple sources over time.

Critical Ethnographic Research

It focuses on the marginalised community to study inequality and dominance.

How to Conduct Ethnographic Research?

Step 1: problem formulation.

Before conducting any research, the essential step is selecting the problem  you want to carry out your study.

Step 2: Select a Research Setting

After Selecting a research problem, you need to select the location of your research. It will help if you prefer a familiar place and community in which you can fit comfortably.

Step 3: Get Access to the Community

You need to get access to the community you want to study. How do you reach the community you want to study? 

You need to get official permission to conduct your research on a specific group of people. You can also join the community as a volunteer instead of a researcher.

There are two types of access, such as:

Open access: You don’t need to seek permission to conduct your research and  collect data in this type of access. You can observe the population. You need to get accepted by the group to proceed with your research.

Example: Public in market places, parties, concerts, etc., are regarded as open-access groups.

Closed-access:  In this type of access, you need to get permission from the gatekeeper of the community you want to study. 

Example:  Schools, colleges, corporations, etc.

Step 4: Represent yourself to the Group

It would help if you asked yourself a few questions before introducing yourself to the group members.

  • How will you introduce yourself to the community you want to study?
  • What would be your role in the group?
  • How actively do you want to participate in the group’s day-to-day activities?
  • Will the group accept you as a researcher and allow you to conduct your research?

You can either inform the participants about the experiment, and it’s called the overt approach. You can hide the research and oversee people’s behaviour. It’s called a covert approach.

You can also act as a participant of the community performing the activities like the group, called active observation. It allows the community to feel more comfortable with the researcher.

Similarly, you can keep yourself away from the group without performing any activities like them and observe them as a researcher. It is called passive observation.

It would help if you tried various approaches until you find a suitable method to proceed with your research.

Step 5: Collecting and Recording the Information

You can collect the data by the following methods;

Observation: You can participate in the group activities or observe the group’s behavior, either informing them about the experiment or keeping them unaware of the investigation.

Interviewing:  You can carry out direct conversations with all group members or obtain information from a specific member of the group. It’s better not to rely on the informants as they may interpret the data according to their perception rather than delivering in its actual context. 

Archival Research:  You can also use existing information stored in the previous researchers’ records to proceed with your research.

It becomes difficult to gather and record the information at the same time. 

What should you do in this situation?

You can maintain a notepad to record your observation immediately or sometimes wait until you leave the setting to record your observation. It’s better to note down your observations as soon as possible before you forget them and struggle to recall them. You can write down your field notes or record the people’s audios or videos while talking to them.

Your notes should include the following features:

Running/Field Notes:  these are the observations that you note down daily. The idea is to record your observation immediately after observing it. It would help if you observed the individual activities of the group members and perspectives.

How to describe Ethnographic Research?

Ethnographic research involves immersing in a community or culture to understand its nuances. Researchers observe, participate, and interview to grasp social practices, beliefs, and behaviors. It provides rich insights into how people experience and interpret their world.

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  • What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples

What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples

Published on March 13, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word “ethnography” also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

Table of contents

What is ethnography used for, different approaches to ethnographic research, gaining access to a community, working with informants, observing the group and taking field notes, writing up an ethnography, other interesting articles.

Ethnographic research originated in the field of anthropology, and it often involved an anthropologist living with an isolated tribal community for an extended period of time in order to understand their culture.

This type of research could sometimes last for years. For example, Colin M. Turnbull lived with the Mbuti people for three years in order to write the classic ethnography The Forest People .

Today, ethnography is a common approach in various social science fields, not just anthropology. It is used not only to study distant or unfamiliar cultures, but also to study specific communities within the researcher’s own society.

For example, ethnographic research (sometimes called participant observation ) has been used to investigate  football fans , call center workers , and police officers .

Advantages of ethnography

The main advantage of ethnography is that it gives the researcher direct access to the culture and practices of a group. It is a useful approach for learning first-hand about the behavior and interactions of people within a particular context.

By becoming immersed in a social environment, you may have access to more authentic information and spontaneously observe dynamics that you could not have found out about simply by asking.

Ethnography is also an open and flexible method. Rather than aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis , it aims to offer a rich narrative account of a specific culture, allowing you to explore many different aspects of the group and setting.

Disadvantages of ethnography

Ethnography is a time-consuming method. In order to embed yourself in the setting and gather enough observations to build up a representative picture, you can expect to spend at least a few weeks, but more likely several months. This long-term immersion can be challenging, and requires careful planning.

Ethnographic research can run the risk of observer bias . Writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, and it can be difficult to maintain the necessary distance to analyze a group that you are embedded in.

There are often also ethical considerations to take into account: for example, about how your role is disclosed to members of the group, or about observing and reporting sensitive information.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

If you’re a student who wants to use ethnographic research in your thesis or dissertation , it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s the right approach:

  • Could the information you need be collected in another way (e.g. a survey , interviews)?
  • How difficult will it be to gain access to the community you want to study?
  • How exactly will you conduct your research, and over what timespan?
  • What ethical issues might arise?

If you do decide to do ethnography, it’s generally best to choose a relatively small and easily accessible group, to ensure that the research is feasible within a limited timeframe.

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ethnographic research paper outline

There are a few key distinctions in ethnography which help to inform the researcher’s approach: open vs. closed settings, overt vs. covert ethnography, and active vs. passive observation. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Open vs. closed settings

The setting of your ethnography—the environment in which you will observe your chosen community in action—may be open or closed.

An open or public setting is one with no formal barriers to entry. For example, you might consider a community of people living in a certain neighborhood, or the fans of a particular baseball team.

  • Gaining initial access to open groups is not too difficult…
  • …but it may be harder to become immersed in a less clearly defined group.

A closed or private setting is harder to access. This may be for example a business, a school, or a cult.

  • A closed group’s boundaries are clearly defined and the ethnographer can become fully immersed in the setting…
  • …but gaining access is tougher; the ethnographer may have to negotiate their way in or acquire some role in the organization.

Overt vs. covert ethnography

Most ethnography is overt . In an overt approach, the ethnographer openly states their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the members of the group being studied.

  • Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent…
  • …but people may behave differently with the awareness that they are being studied.

Sometimes ethnography can be covert . This means that the researcher does not tell participants about their research, and comes up with some other pretense for being there.

  • Covert ethnography allows access to environments where the group would not welcome a researcher…
  • …but hiding the researcher’s role can be considered deceptive and thus unethical.

Active vs. passive observation

Different levels of immersion in the community may be appropriate in different contexts. The ethnographer may be a more active or passive participant depending on the demands of their research and the nature of the setting.

An active role involves trying to fully integrate, carrying out tasks and participating in activities like any other member of the community.

  • Active participation may encourage the group to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence…
  • …but runs the risk of disrupting the regular functioning of the community.

A passive role is one in which the ethnographer stands back from the activities of others, behaving as a more distant observer and not involving themselves in the community’s activities.

  • Passive observation allows more space for careful observation and note-taking…
  • …but group members may behave unnaturally due to feeling they are being observed by an outsider.

While ethnographers usually have a preference, they also have to be flexible about their level of participation. For example, access to the community might depend upon engaging in certain activities, or there might be certain practices in which outsiders cannot participate.

An important consideration for ethnographers is the question of access. The difficulty of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To gain access to the fans of a particular sports team, you might start by simply attending the team’s games and speaking with the fans.
  • To access the employees of a particular business, you might contact the management and ask for permission to perform a study there.
  • Alternatively, you might perform a covert ethnography of a community or organization you are already personally involved in or employed by.

Flexibility is important here too: where it’s impossible to access the desired setting, the ethnographer must consider alternatives that could provide comparable information.

For example, if you had the idea of observing the staff within a particular finance company but could not get permission, you might look into other companies of the same kind as alternatives. Ethnography is a sensitive research method, and it may take multiple attempts to find a feasible approach.

All ethnographies involve the use of informants . These are people involved in the group in question who function as the researcher’s primary points of contact, facilitating access and assisting their understanding of the group.

This might be someone in a high position at an organization allowing you access to their employees, or a member of a community sponsoring your entry into that community and giving advice on how to fit in.

However,  i f you come to rely too much on a single informant, you may be influenced by their perspective on the community, which might be unrepresentative of the group as a whole.

In addition, an informant may not provide the kind of spontaneous information which is most useful to ethnographers, instead trying to show what they believe you want to see. For this reason, it’s good to have a variety of contacts within the group.

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The core of ethnography is observation of the group from the inside. Field notes are taken to record these observations while immersed in the setting; they form the basis of the final written ethnography. They are usually written by hand, but other solutions such as voice recordings can be useful alternatives.

Field notes record any and all important data: phenomena observed, conversations had, preliminary analysis. For example, if you’re researching how service staff interact with customers, you should write down anything you notice about these interactions—body language, phrases used repeatedly, differences and similarities between staff, customer reactions.

Don’t be afraid to also note down things you notice that fall outside the pre-formulated scope of your research; anything may prove relevant, and it’s better to have extra notes you might discard later than to end up with missing data.

Field notes should be as detailed and clear as possible. It’s important to take time to go over your notes, expand on them with further detail, and keep them organized (including information such as dates and locations).

After observations are concluded, there’s still the task of writing them up into an ethnography. This entails going through the field notes and formulating a convincing account of the behaviors and dynamics observed.

The structure of an ethnography

An ethnography can take many different forms: It may be an article, a thesis, or an entire book, for example.

Ethnographies often do not follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, though like most academic texts, they should have an introduction and conclusion. For example, this paper begins by describing the historical background of the research, then focuses on various themes in turn before concluding.

An ethnography may still use a more traditional structure, however, especially when used in combination with other research methods. For example, this paper follows the standard structure for empirical research: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

The content of an ethnography

The goal of a written ethnography is to provide a rich, authoritative account of the social setting in which you were embedded—to convince the reader that your observations and interpretations are representative of reality.

Ethnography tends to take a less impersonal approach than other research methods. Due to the embedded nature of the work, an ethnography often necessarily involves discussion of your personal experiences and feelings during the research.

Ethnography is not limited to making observations; it also attempts to explain the phenomena observed in a structured, narrative way. For this, you may draw on theory, but also on your direct experience and intuitions, which may well contradict the assumptions that you brought into the research.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

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Conducting Ethnographic Research

The resources below are organized to help you develop your ethnographic methodology. whether you want more direction as to how your theoretical framework supports your methodology or need to access additional research exemplars, the information below is organized according to respective subtopics within the field of ethnography., ethnographic research and design, click here to view the ppt slides that will review ethnographic methodology, types of ethnographic research, and how to translate theory to practice within the field., ethnographic research design in action, this video series demonstrates how to do the following: write a research question, make observations within the field, video design studies to your topic and resources..

[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/3Jydtrbk55U”]

Ethnographic Methodology Examples:

If you are looking for topic specific ethnographic examples, the list below is a good place to start. please note that many of these links host ethnographic research examples by topic., american indian film gallery : gallery of vintage motion pictures on the american indian experience, free of charge for viewing and downloading for educational purposes., bullfrog films : a source of educational dvds & videos, with a collection of over 700 titles in these main subject areas: environment, globalization, sustainability, climate change, social justice, developing world, indigenous peoples, earth science, life science, political science, performing arts, women’s studies, and children’s films., california news reel : resource for films and videos on african cinema, race , and diversity and media for educational use., docu seek : several film distributors’ complete collections, films, and videos available., ethnoscope : multicultural films & videos., ethnovisions : ethnographic documentaries for educational use produced by wilton martinez in collaboration with anthropologists, indigenous organizations and ngos, for use in classrooms., images of anthropology : provides a varied selection of photographs suitable for publication in texts, books, manuscripts, related to different fields of anthropology-archaeology., new day films : democratically run by more than 100 filmmaker members, new day films deliver over 300 titles that illuminate, challenge, and inspire communities., peoples of the world : education for and about indigenous peoples., tribal photography & resources : photographic resource supporting tribal survival, the defense of human rights and cultural autonomy of indigenous people., women make movies : established to address the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry, women make movies is a multicultural, multiracial, non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women., download additional resources here, these resources can help you develop your ethnographic skills, gain access, collect data, and conduct analysis.  you can utilize the summaries to understand the purpose of each study and click on the links to access the studies.  , students as ethnographers, in this article, the authors present an ethnographic guide that educators can use to provide their students a framework to to conduct inquiry into the unfamiliar worlds. in doing so, students learn to interpret meanings of social practices that are operated outside of what students designated as their own world, in the process of interpreting different social practices, students learn how individuals or communities construct meaning to social practices. this article is helpful because it allows students to conduct research earlier on in their academic pursuits and demystify the research process., beach, r. & finders, m.j. (1999). students as ethnographers: guiding alternative research projects. the english journal, 89(1), 82­90., the craft of research, in this article, the author presents a framework for emerging researchers and students.  the framework can be used to organize the data collected and to support the development of the first research draft. the chapters in this section demonstrate how one can organize their paper, state their claims, and support their claims utilizing evidence from their data. this reading is helpful because it breaks down the four key aspects of to developing a research study., booth, w.c., colomb, g.g. & williams, j.m. (1995). making a claim and supporting it. in the craft of research (85­148). chicago, il: university of chicago press., field research chapter on ethnography, in this chapter, the author demystifies the ethnographic approach. in doing so, he goes over the popular perception of ethnography, prevalent thinking in ethnography, and a brief history of ethnography. the author argues that ethnography must be more than data collection and analysis, as it should also be utilized as a technique, a method, and a theory. this chapter is helpful in breaking down the components of ethnography, and in doing so it helps eliminates biases of researchers and expands the ways in which researchers can utilize ethnography., frake, c.o. (1983). ethnography. in r.m. emerson (ed.) contemporary field research: a collection of readings (pp. 60­67). long grove, il: waveland press, inc., introducing to writing field notes, in this chapter, the authors demonstrates the importance of participant observation in conducting ethnographic research, the role of the researcher when conducting field notes, and the different ways in which one can write fieldnotes. participant observation is the action whereby researcher to immerses themselves within the community when they are researching in order to observe and understand the community. in doing so, reaserchers understand that field-notes are accounts describing experiences and observations the researcher has made while being immersed within the community. however, the ultimate goal of researchers is to write field-notes that capture and preserve the original meanings of the cultural practices. writing field-notes is useful in ethnography because it details the social, cultural, and interactional processes of the community.  field-notes also help outline foundation for more comprehensible accounts about the community’s lives and concerns., emerson, r.m., fretz, r.i. & shaw, l.l. (2011). fieldnotes in ethnographic research. in writing ethnographic fieldnotes (pp. 1­16). chicalgo, il: the university of chicago press., toolkit: documenting our lives, in this article, the authors provides a four stage guide for community organizations and low ­income communities of color to conduct research. in doing so, communities reclaim research, promote dialogue of community conditions/issues, encourage change, and inform policy. this article is helpful for communities who need a framework to research the problems and issues plaguing their community, and will support communities to articulate their needs to policy makers and to their community members. this guide is useful in ethnography because it demonstrates the research process and allows the communities to affirm themselves as researchers., kim, m. & waheed, s. documenting our lives: a guide to designing your research, oakland, ca: data center., becoming a participant observer, in this chapter, the author demonstrates the process of becoming a participant observer in a community by describing her experience as a participant observer to the homeless community in anchorage, alaska. in doing so, she documents the struggles of being a participant observer in a community. this personal anecdote is helpful because it details what a researcher might encounter when  working with a community and feelings that may emerge during the research process., tierney, g. (2013). becoming a participant observer. in m.v. angrosino (ed.), doing cultural anthropology: projects for ethnographic data collection (pp. 9­18). long grove, il: waveland press, inc., research exemplar: voices from the sidewalk, in this article, the author interviews mitchell duneier, the writer of the ethnography, sidewalk , a story of homeless book vendors who make a living by selling books. in doing so, the author highlights the relationship between the ethnographer and individuals who he is writing about, but also how duneier has given these individuals the platform to tell their stories themselves. the article is useful because it illustrates how the ethnographer and their participants can work collaboratively together to write sidewalk, and how the ethnographer can establish a relationship with a marginalized community., les, b. (2006). voices from the sidewalk: ethnography and writing race. ethnic and racial studies, 29(3), 543­565..

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Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography

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  • Scott Reeves , associate professor 1 ,
  • Ayelet Kuper , assistant professor 2 ,
  • Brian David Hodges , associate professor and vice chair (education) 3
  • 1 Department of Psychiatry, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Centre for Faculty Development, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, 200 Elizabeth Street, Eaton South 1-565, Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2C4
  • 2 Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M4N 3M5
  • 3 Department of Psychiatry, Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2C4
  • Correspondence to: S Reeves scott.reeves{at}utoronto.ca

The previous articles (there were 2 before this 1) in this series discussed several methodological approaches commonly used by qualitative researchers in the health professions. This article focuses on another important qualitative methodology: ethnography. It provides background for those who will encounter this methodology in their reading rather than instructions for carrying out such research.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities. Its roots can be traced back to anthropological studies of small, rural (and often remote) societies that were undertaken in the early 1900s, when researchers such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown participated in these societies over long periods and documented their social arrangements and belief systems. This approach was later adopted by members of the Chicago School of Sociology (for example, Everett Hughes, Robert Park, Louis Wirth) and applied to a variety of urban settings in their studies of social life.

The central aim of ethnography is to provide rich, holistic insights into people’s views and actions, as well as the nature (that is, sights, sounds) of the location they inhabit, through the collection of detailed observations and interviews. As Hammersley states, “The task [of ethnographers] is to document the culture, the perspectives and practices, of the people in these settings. The aim is to ‘get inside’ the way each group of people sees the world.” 1 Box 1 outlines the key features of ethnographic research.

Box 1 Key features of ethnographic research 2

A strong emphasis on exploring the nature of a particular social phenomenon, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about it

A tendency to work primarily with “unstructured data” —that is, data that have not been coded at the point of data collection as a closed set of analytical categories

Investigation of a small number of cases (perhaps even just one case) in detail

Analysis of data that involves explicit interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions; the product of this analysis primarily takes the form of verbal descriptions and explanations

Examples of ethnographic research within the health services literature include Strauss’s study of achieving and maintaining order between managers, clinicians, and patients within psychiatric hospital settings; Taxis and Barber’s exploration of intravenous medication errors in acute care hospitals; Costello’s examination of death and dying in elderly care wards; and Østerlund’s work on doctors’ and nurses’ use of traditional and digital information systems in their clinical communications. 3 4 5 6 Becker and colleagues’ Boys in White , an ethnographic study of medical education in the late 1950s, remains a classic in this field. 7

Newer developments in ethnographic inquiry include auto-ethnography, in which researchers’ own thoughts and perspectives from their social interactions form the central element of a study 8 ; meta-ethnography, in which qualitative research texts are analysed and synthesised to empirically create new insights and knowledge 9 ; and online (or virtual) ethnography, which extends traditional notions of ethnographic study from situated observation and face to face researcher-participant interaction to technologically mediated interactions in online networks and communities. 10

What should I be looking for in an ethnographic study?

Ethnographers typically gather participant observations, necessitating direct engagement and involvement with the world they are studying. Owing to the complex nature of social life, ethnographers need to record a variety of elements in their field notes (box 2).

Box 2 Nine observational dimensions and their descriptions 11

Space—Physical layout of the place(s)

Actor—Range of people involved

Activity—A set of related activities that occur

Object—The physical things that are present

Act—Single actions people undertake

Event—Activities that people carry out

Time—The sequencing of events that occur

Goal—Things that people are trying to accomplish

Feeling—Emotions felt and expressed

During their observations, ethnographers routinely use informal or conversational interviews, which allow them to discuss, probe emerging issues, or ask questions about unusual events in a naturalistic manner. Because of the “casual” nature of this type of interview technique it can be useful in eliciting highly candid accounts from individuals. Ethnographers also gather formal in-depth interviews and documentary data such as minutes of meetings, diaries, and photographs.

Participants or situations are sampled on an opportunistic or purposive basis. It is also usual for ethnographers to focus upon specific features (for example, medical ward rounds) that occur within a research setting.

Analysis of ethnographic data tends to be undertaken in an inductive thematic manner: data are examined to identify and to categorise themes and key issues that “emerge” from the data. Through a careful analysis of their data, using this inductive process, ethnographers generate tentative theoretical explanations from their empirical work.

Reflexivity (that is, the relationship a researcher shares with the world he or she is investigating) is a central element of ethnographic work, owing to the relationship the ethnographer shares with participants and the ethical issues that flow from this close relationship. Within research reports, reflexivity is presented in the form of a description of the ethnographer’s ideas and experiences, which can be used by readers to judge the possible impact of these influences on a study.

To enhance the quality of their work, ethnographers will often provide a detailed or “thick description” of the research setting and its participants, which will typically be based on many hours of direct observation and interviews with several key informants. 12

In addition, ethnographic work commonly uses methodological triangulation—a technique designed to compare and contrast different types of methods to help provide more comprehensive insights into the phenomenon under study. This type of triangulation can be very useful, as sometimes what people say about their actions can contrast with their actual behaviour. 13 Box 3 provides further information about triangulation and the different types that can be employed within ethnographic research.

Box 3 Triangulation in ethnography

Triangulation is a term linked to navigation or surveying: people discover their position on a map by taking bearings on landmarks, and where the lines intersect is where they are positioned. As well as methodological triangulation, Denzin 14 outlines three other types:

Data triangulation, which uses different sources of data to examine a phenomenon in several different settings and different points in time or space

Investigator triangulation, which uses multiple researchers to generate a complex range of perspectives on the data

Theory triangulation, in which researchers approach data with different concepts and theories to see how each helps to understand the data

Ethnographers often draw upon social sciences theory (for example, interactionism, feminism, and postmodernism) to strengthen their research focus and analyses. (The use of theory within qualitative research is examined in more depth in another paper in this series). See box 3 for an example of an ethnographic study.

Box 4 An ethnographic study of professional relationships

This ethnographic study took place in a large general hospital in the United Kingdom. 15 It aimed to understand, in depth, the nature of hospital based nurse-doctor relationships in the wake of changes to health policy and to the delivery of professional education.

The author, a nurse, undertook participant observations for 10 months, during which she worked as a nurse (on an unpaid basis) with doctors, nurses, managers, and auxiliary staff on both a surgical and a medical ward. To gain a candid insight into these professionals’ views, she undertook informal interviews with staff while they worked together. She also collected 57 tape recorded interviews, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes, with nurses, doctors, auxiliaries, and managers. These explored in more depth participants’ views of their interprofessional relationships. Documentary data were also generated through analysis of organisational documents and through attendance at professional and managerial meetings.

The author undertook an inductive approach to data analysis, in which meanings emerged from the data through exploration of all data sets. In addition, she used data from different sources (observations, interviews, documentary data) to generate a more comprehensive understanding in the emerging analysis. The author drew upon negotiated order perspective—a sociological theory developed by Strauss to frame and illuminate the findings from her analysis. She also discussed her reflexive role in the study, and as a nurse, how that helped her secure access into this clinical setting, and how it helped her attain richer insights into the nature of nurse-doctor relationships in relation to how they negotiate professional boundaries in their clinical work.

Why choose ethnography?

Ethnographic research offers several advantages. For example, the use of participant observation enables ethnographers to “immerse” themselves in a setting, thereby generating a rich understanding of social action and its subtleties in different contexts.

Participant observation also gives ethnographers opportunities to gather empirical insights into social practices that are normally “hidden” from the public gaze. Additionally, since it aims to generate holistic social accounts, ethnographic research can identify, explore, and link social phenomena which, on the surface, have little connection with each other.

Ethnographic research can be problematic. Owing to the relatively long periods of time ethnographers spend talking to participants and observing actions, it can be difficult to secure repeated access, especially if institutional gatekeepers are concerned that the research may cast their organisation in a poor light. Obtaining formal approval from research ethics committees can be complicated. The direct interaction that occurs between ethnographers and patients or clinicians during fieldwork can be regarded with suspicion, as traditional notions of health services research rest on researchers’ detachment rather than involvement. Comprehensively recording the multifaceted nature of social action that occurs within a clinic or ward is a difficult task, as a range of temporal, spatial, and behavioural elements need to be documented (see box 1). In addition, the unpredictability of social (and clinical) life often means that ethnographers have to be flexible, patient, and persistent in their work, as data collection activities can be disrupted or access withdrawn as local circumstances and politics change.

Ethnography is a highly useful methodology for addressing a range of research questions within the health professions. In particular, it can generate rich and detailed accounts of clinicians’ professional and interprofessional relationships, their interactions with patients, and their approaches to delivering care, as well as in-depth accounts of patients’ care experiences. Understanding the foundations of ethnography and its key elements will help readers when they come across reports that use this methodology. A later article in this series will provide readers with a more formal framework to use when critically appraising qualitative research papers, including ethnographies. Readers interested in undertaking such research should refer to the works listed in box 4.

Box 4 Further reading

Atkinson P, Coffey A, Delamont S, Lofland J, Lofland L, eds. Handbook of ethnography . London: Sage, 2001.

Fetterman D. Ethnography: step by step . 2nd ed. London: Sage, 1988.

Fielding N. Ethnography. In: Researching social life . London: Sage, 1993:155-71.

Hammersley M, Atkinson P. Ethnography: principles in practice . 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.

Spradley J. The ethnographic interview . New York: Holt, 1979.

Journal articles

Atkinson P, Pugsley L. Making sense of ethnographic research in medical education. Med Educ 2005;39:228-34.

Charmaz K, Oleson V. Ethnographic research in medical sociology: its foci and distinctive contributions. Sociol Methods Res 1997;25:452-94.

Fine G. Ten lies of ethnography. J Contemp Ethnogr 1993;22:267-94.

Jeffrey B, Troman G. Time for ethnography. Br Educ Res J 30:535-48

Savage J. Ethnography and health care. BMJ 2000;321:1400-2.

Summary points

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within teams, organisations, and communities.

Ethnographic studies typically gather participant observations and interviews; through using these methods ethnographers can immerse themselves in settings and can generate rich understanding of the social action that occurs

Owing to the relationship the ethnographer shares with research participants, reflexivity (whereby ethnographers describe the relationship they shares with the people and world they are studying) occupies a central element of this type of research

Ethnographers commonly triangulate (that is, compare and contrast) interview and observation methods to enhance the quality of their work; this technique is important as what people say about their behaviour can contrast with their actual actions

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1020

  • Related to doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a288
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.39602.690162.47
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a879
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a949
  • doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1035

This is the third in a series of six articles that aim to help readers to critically appraise the increasing number of qualitative research articles in clinical journals. The series editors are Ayelet Kuper and Scott Reeves.

For a definition of general terms relating to qualitative research, see the first article in this series

Funding: None.

Competing interests: None declared.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • ↵ Hammersley M. What’s wrong with ethnography? Methodological explorations. London: Routledge, 1992 .
  • ↵ Hammersley M, Atkinson P. Ethnography: principles in practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995
  • ↵ Strauss A, Schatzman D, Ehrlich R, Bucher M, Sabshin C. The hospital and its negotiated order. In: Freidson E, ed. The hospital in modern society . New York: Free Press, 1963 :147-69.
  • ↵ Taxis K, Barber N. Causes of intravenous medication errors: an ethnographic study. Qual Saf Health Care 2003 ; 12 : 343 -7. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Costello J. Nursing older dying patients: findings from an ethnographic study of death and dying in elderly care wards. J Adv Nurs 2001 ; 35 : 59 -68. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Østerlund C. Genre combinations: a window into dynamic communication practices. J Manage Inf Syst 2007 ; 23 : 81 -108. OpenUrl
  • ↵ Becker H, Geer B, Hughes E, Strauss A. Boys in white: student culture in medical school . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 .
  • ↵ Reed-Danahay D. Auto-ethnography: rewriting the self and the social . London: Berg, 1997 .
  • ↵ Britten N, Campbell R, Pope C, Donovan J, Morgan M, Pill R. Using meta-ethnography to synthesise qualitative research: a worked example. J Health Serv Res Policy 2002 ; 7 : 209 -15. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Hine C. Virtual ethnography . London: Sage, 2000 .
  • ↵ Spradley J. Participant observation. New York: Holt, 1980
  • ↵ Geertz C. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays . New York: Basic Books, 1973 .
  • ↵ Strong P. The ceremonial order of the clinic . London: Routledge, 1977 .
  • ↵ Denzin N. The research act in sociology . London:Butterworth, 1970 .
  • ↵ Allen D. The nursing-medical boundary: a negotiated order? Sociol Health Illn 1997 ; 19 : 498 -520. OpenUrl CrossRef Web of Science

ethnographic research paper outline

Digital Ethnography: An Introduction to Theory and Practice

The rise of the internet age and digital spaces has created a whole new world for ethnographic investigation.

Global connectivity, illustration.

Anthropology has long been a discipline based on physical presence—archaeologists travel to ruins, biological anthropologists analyze physical remains, and sociocultural anthropologists travel to communities to interview, participate, and observe. However, especially in the latter subfield, the rise of the internet age and digital spaces has created a whole new world for ethnographic investigation, a methodology that usually relies on personal experience and face-to-face interactions. Nearly all of us engage in some form of online community, or at the very least, digital communication. From niche subreddits to your family’s Facebook posts to self-help webinars, the human experience exists in a blending duality: while still physical, increasingly digital. This reality became even more prescient with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and ubiquitous virtual contact. Thus, this guide provides you with both an introductory look into the background and theoretical grounding of digital ethnography while also exploring a few useful examples of this type of scholarship available in the JSTOR library .

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Background & Theory

E. gabriella coleman, “ ethnographic approaches to digital media ,”  annual review of anthropology  39 (2010): 487–505..

In this widely useful introduction to digital ethnography, Coleman contends that while the variety and profundity of digital media makes this methodology difficult to approach, digital media is a critical object of anthropological inquiry. Admittedly, the elements of the cyberworld are incredibly difficult to distill into distinct categories, but Coleman critically provides three broad categories of media for investigation. First, they investigate the cultural politics of media—how digital spaces are tied to the creation, recreation, and subversion of cultural identities, representations, and thought. Second, they look toward the vernacular cultures of digital media to understand modes of communication, practices, and sociocultural groups dependent on the digital world. Third, they explore how digital media continues to shape other types of social practices from economic exchange to religious worship. While this piece is now more than a decade old, the insights of these categories are important for scholars investigating how digital spaces increasingly tie into cultural representations, group formation, and a myriad of social practices.

Keith N. Hampton, “ Studying the Digital: Directions and Challenges for Digital Methods ,”  Annual Review of Sociology  43, (2017): 167–188.

Hampton explores how the methods for studying digital technology both rely on well-established methods in the social sciences but also require innovations for scholarly study. While this article explores both the quantitative and qualitative applications of digital studies, their insight into digitally centered interviews, ethnography, and participant observation is the most part useful in this discussion. Hampton importantly clarifies that early digital ethnographic work sought to clarify between online and offline personas, whereas the methodology as currently used goes beyond these distinctions to immerse social science work in digital worlds that can span both time and place. For example, while traditional ethnography is limited to the present moment of the ethnographer’s experience, trace ethnography of existing internet logs, text data, and social media posts can also provide fruitful objects of study. Furthermore, digital social science work can remove cost as a barrier: it can make the practice of anthropology more accessible—even if there’s debate in the field over the quality of virtual interviews and observation. Finally, this text also provides many useful reviews, citations, and points of further exploration for those just dipping their toes into the waters of cyberethnographic work.

Jeffrey A. Tolbert and Eric D. M. Johnson. “ Digital Folkloristics: Text, Ethnography, and Interdisciplinarity ,”  Western Folklore  78, no. 4 (2019): 327–356.

Tolbert and Johnson outline and advocate for a “digital folkloristics” that combines the textual approaches of the digital humanities with the tools of digital ethnography. In doing so, they demonstrate that digital scholarship and ethnography have applications across disciplines beyond just rote anthropology. The paper moves beyond a call for studies of digital folklore  and instead endeavors to outline existing forms and methods of digital scholarship to inform its broad usage in the study of folklore. Even for those outside of the folklore space, Tolbert and Johnson’s work is useful in its broad exploration of concepts such as digital scholarship and the digital humanities while also pushing back on the at-times arbitrary and exclusionary divisions drawn between digital social science and non-digital social science. Additionally, the authors demonstrate the inherent and valuable interdisciplinarity of methods in digital scholarship—highlighting how digital ethnography can complement other forms of research including but not limited to folkloristics.

Anne Beaulieu, “ From Co-location to Co-presence: Shifts in the Use of Ethnography for the Study of Knowledge ,”  Social Studies of Science  40, no. 3 (2010): 453–470.

Approaching digital ethnography from the lens of science and technology studies (STS), Beaulieu explains how the shift from co-location (sharing a physical space) to co-presence (sharing interaction more broadly) allows for new studies of lab environments including e-research and e-science. Crucially, this piece questions the definition of the “field” as the object of ethnography and what types of fieldwork can provide insights into studies of knowledge production. While ethnographic studies of labs were critical for many of STS’s insights, including the epistemological and ontological diversity present in science, this type of research becomes more difficult in knowledge production spaces where research is less controlled and less centralized. Beaulieu’s example perfectly encapsulates this point: an ethnography of a life sciences lab is far different than an ethnography of a group of women’s studies scholars. The adoption of co-presence through digital ethnography that foregrounds the relationship between the ethnographer and the interlocutors and, critically, their bidirectional relationships, can provide for insightful accounts of anthropological subjects of study.

Daniela Paredes Grijalva, “ Paper, Pen and Today’s Communication Platforms: Remote Disaster Research during a Pandemic ,”  Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia  36, no. 2 (2021): 376–385.

The restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic upended many ethnographers’ attempts at fieldwork, including Grijalva’s. However, digital and remote ethnography have provided a salve for scholars who—for a multitude of reasons—are unable to physically visit their field site. While in-person fieldwork will remain central to the practice of anthropology, this scholarly note demonstrates how virtual ethnographic practices can still inform critical research. This article explores one route for remote ethnography, including starting with virtual contacts through e-mail, WhatsApp, and social media like Facebook Messenger. Grijalva reflected on these conversations through a more traditional practice: a diary of fieldnotes. They also document how the act of engaging in a localized or regional social media space can provide insight into social science questions. Of course, while remote methods can prove useful, they’re not without their faults—none more obvious than the difficulty in observing the particularities of everyday human interactions in a field site. Thus, Grijalva also takes the time to reflect on the implications of remote ethnography and how these methods may impact and limit anthropological scholarship when used.

Nicolle Lamerichs, “ Fan Membership: Traditional and Digital Fieldwork ,” in Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 47–58.

Lamerichs approaches ethnography through studies of participatory cultures—of fans and audiences. In doing so, they’re a part of the growth of qualitative methods in the realm of cultural studies. The analysis finds that online platforms and the results of digital ethnography are best placed within the context of offline spaces. This methodological hybridity allows for the treatment of many contexts as what Lamerichs refers to as “rich and social space[s] of production.” However, this article also cautions researchers looking to jump into digital ethnography. It explores some of the most critical challenges: determining the ethnographer’s level of involvement, selecting the proper method of record-keeping, and grappling with the ethics of the less-obvious researcher presence in online settings.

Digital Ethnography in Practice

Jowan mahmod, “ new online communities and new identity making: the curious case of the kurdish diaspora ,”  journal of ethnic and cultural studies 6, no. 2 (2019): 34–43..

Mahmod uses both online and offline methodologies to explore the creation of new forms of Kurdish identity through the related processes of diaspora, transnationalism, and digital forms of communication. To illuminate this complex subject, this article combines in-depth interviews with an ethnographic exploration of the online Kurdish community. It explores several critical topics of identity creation from online anonymity as a tool in the fight against gender inequality, the use of insults as identity markers, and the progression from victimhood to senses of entitlement post-diaspora in Europe. Overall, Mahmod finds that the view of diasporic communities (especially the Kurdish one) as a static and unified entity fails to understand their evolving nature and marked differences across generation—while also demonstrating the methodological value of combining in-person interviews with digital insights.

Kiri Miller, “ Grove Street Grimm: ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and Digital Folklore ,”  The Journal of American Folklore  121, no. 481 (2008): 255–285.

Miller takes a different approach to the digital social sciences through their academic treatment of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas —treating this popular entry as an anthology of stories, a record of vernacular culture, a frame for performance, and a cultural artifact in its own right. Miller reimagines GTA as an entry into Grimm Brothers style folklore, engaging both in literary analysis and traditional ethnographic methods including interviews, survey work, and “visits” to the field site of the game world of San Andreas. Through this unique work, Miller argues that videogames and digital spaces are capable of folkloric qualities while also establishing new cultural traditions. They further contend that digital media genres including video games impact values and beliefs through the interpretation of the protagonist CJ in the game’s “episodic travails.” This treatment of both the digital game and space opens new opportunities and pathways for ethnography in cyber realms while inviting folklorists to approach a new medium.

Sheila Bock, “ Ku Klux Kasserole and Strange Fruit Pies: A Shouting Match at the Border in Cyberspace ,”  The Journal of American Folklore  130, no. 516 (2017): 142–165.

Bock utilizes digital ethnography to explore the collective social media performance of #PaulasBestDishes that mocked celebrity chef Paula Deen after she admitted to using the “N-word” and discussed a plantation theme for her child’s wedding. Specifically, Bock explores how the wordplay and vernacular expression of these tweets can illuminate parts of the complex racial dynamics and discourse at work in the United States. While this article relies heavily on cultural studies, historical exploration, and performance studies, it also interacts with ethnographic theory to draw key cultural insights from the realm of Twitter. This piece demonstrates how digital ethnographic investigations can operate much differently than traditional ones, even limiting themselves to the exploration of a single hashtag, while still providing valuable academic insight.

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Gordon L. Ulmer and Jeffrey H. Cohen, “ Ethnographic Inquiry in the ‘Digitized’ Fields of Madre de Dios, Peru and Oaxaca, Mexico: Methodological and Ethical Issues ,”  Anthropological Quarterly  16, no. 2 (2016): 539–560.

Ulmer and Cohen seek to detail the relationship between digital and physical methods of ethnography while also discussing both the privacy and ethical considerations of digital ethnographic inquiry using case studies from both authors’ work. Ulmer describes their hybrid fieldwork in Madre de Dios regarding conservation labor and Cohen reflects on their work in the 1990s and 2000s with craft producers in Oaxaca. In Ulmer’s case, digital media became a critical tool during conflicts between gold miners and government actors—and they continued to use the tool in their remaining fieldwork. Cohen’s fieldwork took place during the rise of Web 2.0, e-mail communication, and linkages between the digital and physical realms. They demonstrate that while digital ethnography can help inform research, limitations including slow internet speeds, netspeak, differential adoption of digital technologies by informant groups, and the third-party-present effect must be taken into consideration. Even more critically, scholars in the digital ethnography space must ensure for the protection of informant data—especially given the growing commercialization of private data, prevalence of data breaches, and widespread surveillance. This is even more poignant in cases where ethnographic topics could put “vulnerable” or disenfranchised populations at risk.

James Leibold, “ Blogging Alone: China, the Internet, and the Democratic Illusion? ”  The Journal of Asian Studies  70, no. 4 (2011): 1023–1041.

This study of the Chinese blogosphere employs digital ethnography alongside survey data and comparative analysis to illuminate the behavioral trends of what Leibold defines as the largest cyber-community. Digital ethnography works to cut against the bifurcated narrative that had surrounded academic treatments of the internet in China—a debate Leibold argues was stuck between digital-activism and cyber-censorship. Through direct engagement with many less-studied corners of China’s digital community, this article employs digital ethnography that provides a more nuanced understanding of the blogosphere and its impacts on the netizens who use it. This includes Leibold’s exploration of Han supremacist communities, the partial anonymity of certain online forums, and online vigilantism. These are aspects of Chinese culture and politics that would be inaccessible to traditional forms of ethnography and demonstrate how digital ethnography is a critical contribution as the digital space continues to expand.

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1 Introduction to Ethnography

  • Published: May 2018
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This introductory chapter introduces ethnography as a distinct research and writing tradition. The author begins by historically contextualizing ethnography’s professionalization within the fields of anthropology and sociology. While highlighting the formidable influences of, for example, Bronislaw Malinowski and the Chicago school, the author complicates existing understandings by bringing significant, but less-recognized, influences and contributions to light. The chapter next outlines three principal research methods that most ethnographers utilize—namely, participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic interviewing. The discussion then shifts from method to methodology to explain the primary qualities that separate ethnography from other forms of participant-observation-oriented research. This includes introducing a research disposition called ethnographic comportment , which serves as a standard for gauging ethnography throughout the remainder of the book. The author presents ethnographic comportment as reflecting both ethnographers’ awarenesses of and their accountabilities to the research tradition in which they participate.

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Ethnography Made Easy OER

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Ethnography Made Easy OER

Analyzing Ethnographic Data

April burns, introduction.

In this chapter, I will outline some principles of data analysis that will guide you in analyzing, interpreting, and writing up your ethnographic research projects. Skilled ethnographers are not unlike creative professionals, such as designers or chefs, in that their work products come together as a result of creativity, sustained effort and giving up some control over the final product. While cooks tend to follow recipes, chefs follow culinary principles, foundational truths about the types of flavors that work well together, and the practices that create delicious dishes. When you follow a recipe, you are limited to a specific dish, you follow someone else’s plan based on their priorities and tastes. This can be useful as you learn the fundamentals of cooking. However, it is more liberating and useful to become fluent in the ideas that make cooking a range of dishes (or analyzing a range of social settings) possible. Similarly, these principles and practices of data analysis will open the doors to the meaningful interpretation of all sorts of ethnographic data. Though there may be some recipe-like directions in this chapter, my goal is to instead emphasize the most critical principles of data analysis.

What is ‘analysis’ and why do we do it?

You’ve collected data and begun to put together many of the pieces of a social cultural puzzle, but the pieces by themselves don’t yet tell a story. Data analysis is the stage in which you work to put the pieces together to present a picture of the social context that you set out to study. It is the process by which we make sense of all the data that we have collected over the course of a project (Bailey, 2018, p. 159) specifically in order to make some assertions about a particular social and cultural space. These assertions should be based on the various data that you have collected including the observations you conducted, the experiences and the interactions you engaged in, and the fieldnotes you wrote documenting such observations, experiences and interactions. Data also include the interviews you conducted and transcribed, the artifacts and official documents you have collected, any photos you have taken and any maps you may have drawn. Brewer (2000) defines analysis as “the process of bringing order to the data, organizing what is there into patterns, categories and descriptive units, and looking for relationships between them” (p. 105). This analysis stage is made possible by our previous data organizing (sometimes called data reduction ) and engaging in the coding process, both of which facilitate an intimate familiarity with our data. From there, data analysis should move toward ‘interpretation,’ which “involves attaching meaning and significance to the analysis, explaining the patterns, categories and relationships” (Brewer, 2000, p. 105).

Data analysis, like much creative work, is often improvisational and therefore, a “messy” process (Murchison, 2010, p. 181). A successful outcome will likely require you to ‘lean into’ what can feel like a chaotic endeavor. Accepting such ambiguities and uncertainties is part of the process of becoming an ethnographer, indeed a researcher of any sort. While coding and analysis can be a “messy” and thus challenging process (Bailey, 2018, p. 160), keep in mind that we do versions of this a lot in our lives. Consider for example, how we go about cleaning a messy room, desk or closet. We first organize the contents of the room, desk or closet into categories that make sense to us, our purposes, and our lives (e.g., Clean clothes, books). This is like the coding process and the contents of the space are the separate pieces of data we have collected. Think about undertaking such a process for someone else, tidying their closet for them. After organizing/categorizing their stuff, you will likely learn a lot about them and additional questions will have emerged. Why do they have so many pairs of shin guards? What occasions do they wear their formal clothes to? Why are three boxes of letters important enough for them to have kept and organized by month and year? The answers to such hypothetical questions will tell you even more about the lives and experiences of the closet owners. The process by which you become familiar enough with the closet contents to ask questions and work to answer them, and then craft an explanation of the meaning to the closet owner, constitutes the analysis stage.

Keep in Mind:

Your unique and informed perspective is valuable and could potentially reveal aspects of a social context that previous researchers hadn’t considered. As the creative and intellectual force leading this process, you are free to innovate in how you apply these principles to your research and assignments, when and where it makes good sense to do so – as long as you document and explain your reasoning behind such revisions.

Stages of Analysis:

Coding è analysis begins thru evolving coding è coding moves to identification of key themes è analysis develops thru memo-ing è analysis continues toward interpretation è leading to assertions/theory è written ethnography.

Ethnographers typically move from observing and recording the concrete actions and interactions of people and groups, to organizing this recorded data, to generating ideas conceptualizing and interpreting these practices, to making assertions that relate to larger social and cultural phenomena. This process is described below.

Analysis begins with coding

Ethnographers Scott-Jones & Watt (2010) have described ethnographic analysis as a two-stage process first involving the organizing and ordering of your data, and then the analysis proper (Scott-Jones & Watt, 2010, p. 159). In their framing, coding heralds the transition between these two stages. Similarly, O’Reilly (2012) distinguishes between the “writing down” (i.e., collecting/recording of data) and “writing up” (i.e., presentation) phases of ethnographic research, locating analysis as the stage in between in between these two phases, although aspects of analysis are present in both stages.

Despite some variation in the number of processes or stages that data analysis is broken down into, the analysis of data generally begins with the “coding cycle” that you read about in the chapter by Torres-Rivera (2019) [add link]. Torres-Rivera describes the coding process as a “repeating cycle of three phases: the coding phase, writing memos phase, and reviewing/revising/refining codes phase” (pg #). In this text, we decouple coding from analysis but really, coding is the first stage of analysis, and the line between coding and analysis is somewhat subjective. While I won’t be rehashing the material in the coding chapter, there are some important aspects of coding, particularly the iterative as well as inductive aspects outlined by Torres-Rivera, that are worth repeating here as they are also aspects of data analysis overall.

O’Reilly (2012) similarly describes ethnographic research as “ iterative-inductive ,” that is, a “practice of doing research, informed by a sophisticated inductivism, in which data collection, analysis and writing up are not discrete phases, but inextricably linked” (p. 180). The ‘iterative’ aspect means that analysis is ongoing, resembling a spiral process rather than a circular or linear process (O’Reilly, 2012, p. 181), while the ‘inductive’ aspect means that researchers work to make general assertions from the specifics of their data. This combined “iterative-inductive” concept highlights that a researcher’s analytic choices are ongoing, informed by what they learn as they progress through the stages of the research process, from the early decision to pursue a particular research question and choice of a research design, to the identification of certain field sites and coding scheme used to organize data.

Thematic Analysis:

Codes often begin as descriptive markers of things people say (e.g., in vivo coding) or do (e.g., process coding) (Bailey, 2018, p. 161; Brewer, 2000, p. 110). To transform our coding efforts into analysis, requires that we refine our coded categories, typically through multiple rounds of the coding cycle (Madden, 2017, p. 142), leading to the identification of key themes within your data (Brewer, 2000, p. 109; Madden, 2017; Saldaña, 2011, p. 108; Scott-Jones & Watt, 2010, p. 162). While codes can develop into themes, you can also directly code your data for themes, as thematic analysis is a common method of data analysis for ethnographers and other qualitative field researchers (Bailey, 2018). Themes differ from codes in that themes are generally longer phrases that attempt to convey the manifest (or apparent) meaning of data as well as the latent (or underlying) meanings of data (Saldaña, 2011, p. 108).

According to Madden (2017), a theme “could be a large sociological category, a group behavior, an individual behavior, an aspect of the physical setting or an observation of a mood or feeling (..)” (143). Bailey (2018) breaks down the broad category of themes into two main types: “topical” themes and “overarching” themes.  This distinction is useful because it leads us into an important task of analysis, which is conceptualization , which entails moving codes from particular and concrete actions, to a more abstract level of concepts and ideas (Bailey, 2018, p. 165). Conceptualization allows us to later build connections to theory, which in EOW, are typically theories of work and economy. Overarching themes require us to zoom out from the specifics of what people say and do (as captured in codes and topical themes), to highlight those ideas or concepts that these words and actions suggest or represent in overarching themes.

Themes exist in every film you’ve ever seen and in every book you’ve ever read. You enjoy specific scenes, characters, plot twists and dialogue, but those specific things are not what the movie is about. When describing a film, we do so in terms of what it means and the messages it conveys: a ‘coming of age story,’ a story of ‘love and loss,’ a story of ‘redemption,’ of ‘moral reckoning,’ of ‘cultural annihilation.’ These broad concepts are versions of overarching themes. We can assign overarching themes to our data as well, though it is rarely a straightforward process and often more than one theme could be assigned. To uncover the overarching themes in a specific piece of data, such as an interview or set of field notes, imagine tweeting or texting its meaning to your social network. How would you summarize the underlying message or meaning of that form of data, in a just sentence or two? To do that, you would have to follow the process below.

How we identify themes:

While “there is no universal template” for the process of identifying themes (Madden, 2017, p. 145), there are a number of commonly accepted strategies for identifying key themes in your data, including by taking note of how often certain codes or themes show up in the various forms of your data (Bailey, 2018, p. 188; Murchison, 2010, p. 116). Those that show up more frequently warrant consideration because the more that something is observed or spoken about, the greater its potential relevance and impact on the lives you are studying. More than two occurrences in the data also presents a pattern open for interpretation, potentially giving us more information about our research question. This does not mean that every phenomenon that happens more than once represents a pattern, or a useful pattern relevant to our research question – a reoccurrence may simply be a coincidence or due to random chance. Still, frequency is an important flag for potential themes.

A fieldwork activity that I assign in my Ethnographies of Work course illustrates this process. Students briefly interviewed seasonal workers at a large holiday market. After collecting student responses to this assignment over the course of a few semesters, I identified the following recurring themes.

“One thing you learned about seasonal workers at a holiday market?”

  • Seasonal workers : work long hours and most days

Seasonal work is: fast paced & high volume

Seasonal work is: Short-term/temporary

Seasonal workers: enjoy interacting with diverse & international customers

Seasonal workers: enjoy the bustling park environment

Seasonal workers: enjoy their jobs and work

Seasonal work: Is often a ‘side’ job rather than a main/only source of income

  • Seasonal workers: sometimes relied on personal contacts to get the job

Organizing your themes

Because these themes remain at the material level of what workers said and/or do, these are considered “topical” themes representing the apparent meaning, rather than representing overarching (i.e., more conceptual) themes (Bailey, 2018) addressing the latent meaning (Saldaña, 2011). To move topical themes to the conceptual level of overarching themes, we will need to interpret the underlying meaning that these themes embody. There is no easy recipe for such conceptualizing. However, at this point, you may notice that some coded categories cluster together because they are related in some way.

Revised themes: “One thing you learned about seasonal workers at a holiday market?”



  • Seasonal work: Is often a ‘side’ job rather than a main income source


Intentionally organizing related categories into an outline format of superordinate and subordinate categories, or into hierarchies of significance based on the relative importance of the concept, is a useful way to more finely understand specific phenomena, behavior, or experiences (Saldaña, 2011, p. 108). Creating a “hierarchy of significance” (Scott-Jones & Watt, 2010, p. 162) will allow us to consider how such coded categories are related and how they possibly interact (Saldaña, 2011, p. 98). I have thus grouped the topical themes (above) into four categories, with the first two being primary categories based on their prominence in the data, and that make the most immediate sense to me: job qualities and feelings about the job . The last two themes in my list, addressing how some workers got their job and the role that the job plays in their overall employment, appeared less frequently than the first two sets of themes, and were thus placed lower down the list. But I also wasn’t yet sure how to organize these last two in relation to the other theme categories, so they remained individual topical themes for now.

This basic interpretive framework applied to the student data on seasonal workers allows us to consider each group of themes as its own thematic category, and to further organize these categories in a way that makes clearer conceptual sense and helps us to understand this specific context of work. Looking at the job qualities themes, I noticed that 2 out of 3 themes center around the intense demands of this type of work, so I renamed (below) this category “ demanding work .” The short-term aspect of this type of seasonal employment doesn’t seem to fit as well in this newly named category, which required me to re-read the data, write notes, and revise my framework. Looking at the second set of themes lead me to rename this category, “ job satisfaction .” Remember that I wasn’t sure how to arrange the last two themes in the list, so I labeled them as individual and separate themes: “ networking” and “ side job .” However, after reevaluation, the short-term/temporary theme that I first put under “demanding work,” seems to fit better in the “ side job” category, given that it also references a secondary and contingent aspect of this type of employment.


Seasonal workers : work long hours


Seasonal work is: not typically the main income source

Seasonal workers: some got the job through a personal contact

This revised version makes better conceptual sense and allows me see patterns in the data, and to ask questions about the relationship and interaction between these themes, and the degree to which they exist in tension or harmony. In the example above, there seems to be an apparent contradiction between the demands of the job (which are high) and job satisfaction (also high) that workers themselves did not attribute to high (or low) wages. Such contradictions can flag important concepts and dynamics in action. In other words, why might workers enjoy a job they that they also describe as demanding? Encountering such contradictions within your data offers an interesting analytical opportunity (Murchison, 2010, p. 181), as they require an explanation, thus advancing your analysis to the interpretation level (Madden, 2017, p. 151).

Considering the other key themes specifically in relationship to one another (Saldaña, 2011, p. 92) can help explain this contradiction. Perhaps the fact that this job is short term and a source of extra income (the side job theme) mitigates the demanding aspects of the work because workers understand that the work has a finite and foreseeable end. Another explanation may be the fact that many workers reported landing their job through personal connections, putting the demanding nature of the job in the context of existing relationships that workers likely hope to maintain. Thinking – and writing — about these patterns and relationships also allows me to make some assertions explaining this sociocultural experience.

Additional ways to identify themes:

It’s also important to consider aspects that are absent or not present in your data. While studying what’s not there may seem counter-intuitive, considering this aspect can lead to some important insights. For example, if you were researching the experiences of new and first-time parents, and you never heard any talk about the difficulties adjusting to the new demands, but witnessed what looked like challenging experiences – this may lead you to ask questions about why people haven’t discussed such expected experiences. Or consider the experience of working in a fast paced and high-pressure occupational field, such as the seasonal holiday market, while none of your participants specifically mentioned stress management, might lead you to questions about why such expected issues haven’t surfaced.

Another way that a theme can be identified lies not in how often it comes up in the data, but instead stands out because something you observed people say or do seems to hold particular meaning for the people you are studying. This may include a critical incident, a vivid case, or a strong emotional response observed.

Let’s not forget the importance of your research question, which acts as a north star for researchers, guiding your coding and analysis, and centering the final written product. It may be that the question you are interested in answering doesn’t frequently emerge in your data, so it is important that you intentionally evaluate your data for themes related to your research question. Your research question is a guide but a flexible one, one that you should be open to revising and refining to reflect the insights you are gaining from the analytic process. Your data and analysis may suggest that you haven’t got the right question and you may choose to revise the research question that you started out with (Murchison, 2010, p. 120). Your final ethnographic paper should center around addressing your revised research question.

Analytic Memos: “one of the most useful and powerful sense-making tools at hand” (Miles, et al, 2019, p. 89).

A strong analysis depends on the quality and quantity of the data that you have collected, but it also depends on the level of effort you put into the analytic practice of coding and memo-ing. Analytic memos , described as a, “brief or extended narrative that documents the researcher’s reflections and thinking processes about the data” (Miles, et al, 2019, p. 88), is an integral aspect of data analysis. Writing isn’t just for the final presentation of your work, it is also a means of developing your work. Writing is thinking, and as a “sense-making tool,” memo writing encourages “little conceptual epiphanies” (Miles et al, 2019, p. 89).

Analytic memos are informal and open-ended written explorations of what you are learning from your data and what you still need to learn (Saldana, 2011, p. 98). Consequently, there is no need to worry about grammar, spelling or even full sentences at first as you are the primary audience for these memos. The priority is to document and process the insights that you are gaining. Memos can and should later be revised, extended, combined and edited as they may ultimately make their way into your final public writing.

Memo early and often.

As soon as you begin going into the field and collecting data, you should also begin writing analytic memos (Murchison, 2010). In your ongoing memo writing, it is recommended that you keep a running list of the all the things you have learned about your research setting and question, the things you still want to learn (i.e., emerging questions) and the things that you still need to do (Murchison, 2010). Any of these lists can productively be organized into a hierarchy of significance, from most to least important, leading to increasingly deeper levels of analysis, a more focused research question, and ultimately to a refined understanding of an area of inquiry.

Your early analytic memos will likely be descriptive in nature, which is a fine place to begin your analysis. According to O’Reilly (2012), describing your ethnographic findings “is a crucial phase of the analysis of your data, that often does not reveal itself to you until you start to write things up” (p. 193-194). Writing detailed descriptions of key settings, events, people, and/or exemplary cases are useful and easy entry points into your analysis (Brewer, 2000, p. 111-114; O’Reilly, 2012, p. 193). Jamie Woodcock’s (2017) research in an urban call center in the UK is a good example of the way many ethnographers use detailed descriptions to invite readers into their analysis.

In a chronological narrative, Woodcock (2017) tells the story of his entry into the world of telemarketing, describing his process of getting work at a British call center and detailing what his training was like. He presents three especially difficult customer calls to illustrate the emotionally challenging nature of the call center work. His ‘thick description’ lays the conceptual groundwork for the rest of his ethnography, including his theoretical framing, which includes a discussion of Taylorism/scientific management and emotional labor demands.

Memos should always be dated so you know where in your analytic process each memo is situated. Memos should also be titled and subtitled – this is important because titles (especially the main memo title) summarize the content and/or purpose of the memo, while a more descriptive subtitle narrows your focus to a small area of analysis. Dating and titling will also help you locate and organize your collection of analytic memos later on. A rich collection of memos allows you to look for relationships and patterns across different types of data, such as field notes and interview transcripts as well as within a specific piece of data, such as a long interview or set of field notes. It is especially important to memo after each round of coding, as doing so is an essential part of the iterative coding/analysis process described earlier in the chapter, a process that is hindered if you don’t consistently put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) (Saldana, 2011, p. 102). Fully engaging this iterative process requires that you describe and reflect on what you are gleaning from the data and how such insights shape your coding, and in turn, document additional insights gained from your more complex coding.


While descriptive writing is a fine way to start a memo, it shouldn’t be the end point of your memoing practice. Instead, memos are a means of moving you toward the interpretation stage of the analytic process by (Bailey, 2018; Madden, 2017, p. 152). Researchers aim to use their acquired insider perspective, in interaction with their outsider status and information gathering efforts, to offer useful interpretations of the data they’ve collected and constructed. Madden (2017) describes interpretation as “moving from idea to explanation, from data to story, and in many cases from confusion to meaning” (p. 149). Bailey (2018, p. 200), referring to priorities set by Braun and Clark (2006), reminds us that interpretation requires ethnographers to go beyond description to explain the meaning of our identified themes, to point out the beliefs and assumptions that are embedded in identified themes and why it matters, and lastly, to suggest what conditions are associated with the emergence of this theme/concept. This is an opportunity for you to discuss the meaning(s) that you give to your research data, and to explain why you think people behave and think in specific ways (Madden, 2017, p. 151).

Assertion Development

Writing memos allow you to converse with your research literature, data, and the insights you documented and developed in earlier memos, and consequently well positions you to make some assertions about the specific sociocultural setting that you are studying. Making an assertion means declaring or asserting something as truth. You are offering a plausible explanation of the cultural phenomena and/or group experience you have studied that defending this argument with evidence. It is important to acknowledge the many possible, and perhaps competing, perspectives that explain a situation (Brewer, 2000). But as Brewer (2000) points out “some things are less true than others” (p. 122), and some interpretations are more credible and convincing, and thus carry more weight. You’re aim is not to prove your point, but to show how your explanation makes good sense (Saldaña, 2011, p. 125).

Negative Cases/Outliers

Data that are distinct from the majority of responses are called outliers , while data that doesn’t conform to the boundaries of your assertions are known as “negative cases.” These examples have interpretive value and should also be considered in your analysis. Negative cases/outliers can show variation and diversity within a social cultural setting and keep us from essentializing the experience of one person or a group of persons (Brewer, 2000, p. 109; Saldaña, 2001, p. 101).

When you feel stuck

To be successful in almost any endeavor, you must be willing to be uncomfortable – and analyzing data is uncomfortable. Moving into the data analysis stage can be overwhelming, and you may feel like you don’t know where to start or stop. You may wonder whether you have crafted the most relevant or useful codes, worry that you aren’t addressing your research question, or even whether your research question is even any good. You may question your fieldwork and data collection practices (e.g., not enough data, too much data, the quality of the data). These self-questions, while uncomfortable, are actually good signs that you are in the middle of data analysis. The ethnographic researcher’s challenge is to not let such anxieties stop you from doing the analytic work required for a meaningful product. So accept the discomfort, know that it is temporary and is just part of the process that will move you to insights later.

Chapter Summary:

  • Data analysis is the process by which we make sense of all the data that we have collected over the course of a project, allowing the researcher to make some assertions about a particular social and cultural space.
  • Data analysis is an iterative-inductive process. The ‘iterative’ aspect means that analysis is ongoing, while the ‘inductive’ aspect means that researchers work to make general assertions from the specifics of their data.
  • The analysis of data generally begins with the coding process and ends with interpretive assertions, and sometimes theory development, within ethnographic writing.
  • Thematic analysis is a common method of data analysis for ethnographers and other qualitative field researchers.
  • Themes can be separated into “topical” and “overarching” themes or organized into an outline format of superordinate and subordinate categories, or hierarchies of significance, based on the relative importance of the concept.
  • The practice of writing analytic memos after each round of coding, documenting the researcher’s reflections and thinking processes about the data, is an essential part of the data analysis process.
  • What are some ways to identify key themes in your ethnographic record?
  • Explain the difference between a topical theme and an overarching theme?
  • What is the value of writing analytic memos in the data analysis process?
  • How might you use this memo writing practice in your other coursework? In the workplace or professional setting?
  • What is the value of considering negative cases and contradictions in the data?
  • How can a researcher bring their own values and priorities into an ethnographic analysis?

Analytic Memos


Hierarchies of significance


Overarching theme

Stages of analysis

Thematic analysis

Bailey, C. A. (2018). A Guide to Qualitative Field Research (3rd ed.). United States: SAGE Publications.

Brewer, J. (2000). Ethnography . United Kingdom: McGraw-Hill Companies, Incorporated.

Madden, R. (2017). Being Ethnographic: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography . United Kingdom: SAGE Publications.

Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2019). Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook (4th ed.). India: Sage Publications.

Murchison, J. (2010). Ethnography Essentials: Designing, Conducting, and Presenting Your Research . Germany: Wiley.

O’Reilly, K. (2012). Ethnographic Methods. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Saldaña, J. (2011). Fundamentals of Qualitative Research . United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Scott-Jones, J., & Watt, S. (2010). Ethnography in Social Science Practice. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Torres- Rivera, C. (2019). Coding Qualitative Data.

Woodcock, J. (2017). Working the Phones: Control and Resista nce in Call Centres. United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

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Ethnographic Essay: how to write an ethnography paper/report + Examples (2024)

Ethnographic writing may include writing ethnography assignments, ethnographic essays, or ethnographic research papers. In this article we will guide you how to write an ethnography paper – all types for college and graduate level students. We will also discuss how to conduct an ethnographic research study.

Ethnographic research is one of the most important branches of anthropology . It is a type of research that focuses on understanding how society functions by studying its members within their natural environment. Most often it is carried out in natural settings rather than laboratories for obvious reasons: researchers are able to observe human behaviors more closely when they are not artificially confined to a certain space or time.

Let first define ethnography and related terms.

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What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a research method that can be used to explore people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings about the world around them. Ethnographers look closely at their subjects’ behaviors and interactions with one another. They might observe how people communicate or examine how they work together, share tasks, resolve conflicts, etc. The ethnographer also listens carefully to the people they are studying so that they can describe their perception of what is happening. They might ask questions, take notes, and/or use recording devices to document specific incidents or longer interactions.

Ethnographers work with either a participant observer focus (participants are active participants in the research) or an outsider perspective (researchers are simply observers of the group). In either case, ethnographers try to build a solid rapport with those they are studying. It is important that participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with the researcher.

Ethnography as a method has been around for many years. Anthropologists have used ethnography to study people’s beliefs and customs in far-flung places. Marketers, political scientists, leaders in education and healthcare, journalists, sociologists, and many others have used ethnography to study human behavior – both their own behaviors as well as those of people they are interested in learning more about (e.g., the customers who use their product or service, children who attend school, patients, etc.).

The purposes of ethnography.

There are many potential reasons for conducting an ethnographic study including:

  • To explain how events and/or people may be connected to certain outcomes
  • To understand the dynamics within a group or culture
  • To promote understanding about one’s own cultural practices or those of others from different cultures
  • To assess the impact that a program or policy might have on a particular community (e.g., could it negatively impact self-esteem?).

Ethnography can help us better understand why we think and behave the way we do. It also helps us become more culturally aware so we can work together more effectively. Ethnography has proven to be particularly when studying groups such as children, people from diverse cultures, and those impacted by a program or policy.

Writing Ethnography: Tips for an Effective Ethnography Paper

When preparing to write your ethnographic research paper, consider the following tips: See Also Your Name Without Space Between Letters And Words : How To Add Spaces In Instagram Captions And Bios Shane Barker - Or, you can change the vertical space between paragraphs in your document by setting the spacing before or spacing after paragraphs. How to prevent users from changing profile photos in Microsoft 365 Free Construction Progress Report Template [XLS] South Korea Customs Regulations & Import Restrictions (Items restricted)

  • Conduct research of existing studies on the topic you plan to explore. This will allow you understand what has already been done in this area of inquiry and identify any new knowledge that needs to be added., As well, knowing what others have contributed can help you avoid duplication of efforts and lift some of the “fear” about conducting this type of study which is often accompanied by information overload. It also gives you an idea about the field – what questions are still unanswered and what gaps exist.
  • Conduct your own pilot study or focus group to test out your hypotheses, answer some of your research questions (e.g., about the kinds of questions you want to ask), and/or try out a few methods for collecting data (e.g., asking open-ended questions, recording observations in real time, etc.). You may also learn more about ethics as well as discover whether those you are studying might feel exploited by the researcher (and how such issues might be addressed). The pilot study can help you refine your topic and become familiar with its context as well as give you insight into any potential obstacles that may have been overlooked.
  • Write a detailed research proposal so others will know exactly what you plan to do and how you plan to go about it. Doing so will help you get the green light for your study, ensure that you have sufficient resources to conduct your research, and may give you an opportunity to secure funding or other material assistance (e.g., access to equipment or software, recruited participants).
  • Use both primary and secondary data when conducting your ethnographic research. Primary data are those collected by the researcher through observations in real time, interviews, focus groups , etc. These types of data are considered “first-hand” information because they were collected firsthand by the researcher rather than gathered from a third party (which is referred to as secondary data ). Secondary sources might include published studies/articles which can give us an idea of how others have conducted their ethnographic research.
  • Conduct your study using either a retrospective or prospective design . A retrospective design is one in which the researcher looks back on the past (e.g., what influenced you to buy that particular brand of cereal) whereas a prospective design is where the researcher collects data about an ongoing event (e.g., what influences children’s food choices at school). The choice between these two will depend upon whether you are looking for people’s memories of how things transpired (retrospective) or want to find out how something is actually happening (prospective).
  • Consider adopting multiple sites and perspectives throughout your paper by using embedded case studies and/or vettes (i.e., short, focused ethnographic accounts). Doing so will allow you to develop a more contextualized understanding of your research topic. It can also help you answer questions about how different aspects of the phenomenon being studied are shaped by context.
  • Take participant notes during each phase of your ethnographic study, which will assist in clarifying observations, looking for patterns in data , and providing an audit trail for your research. Participant notes are particularly helpful when writing fieldnotes because they provide a kind of “diary” that is reflective in nature – allowing you to record what was observed at the time it occurred (i.e., in real time) rather than trying to remember after the fact . This way, what initially appears random may later be interpreted as emerging patterns when systematically reviewed by the researcher. Participant notes also help you to avoid preconceived notions (which can become evident when re-reading fieldnotes) and capture relevant thoughts, feelings , etc., which may be important for your analysis .
  • Conducting participant observation is one of the most common research methods used in ethnographic studies. Participant observers are expected to remain unbiased, invisible , and silent during data collection rather than disrupting their surroundings or relationship with participants through either overt attention or self-disclosure. There are several ways that the researcher can ensure that he/she is remaining neutral : taking copious but impersonal notes ; never initiating interaction with others; making sure not to give off any clues about his/her personal or professional life; and observing from a distance. In addition, there are some practical things to keep in mind when conducting participant observation: you will need to establish rapport with participants so that they feel comfortable opening up to you; you shouldn’t disappear right before your study begins or immediately after it ends because people might wonder where you went and/or be offended about the sudden departure; and if in doubt , do not hesitate to contact your advisor .
  • When writing an ethnography paper, include a section that summarizes the approach taken in order for readers to get a sense of how your research question was investigated (i.e., the journey ). This section is typically titled “From X To Y” where X refers to what exists at the beginning of your study, and Y refers to what exists at the end. For example, “From Hard Power To Soft Power” or “From Public To Private.”
  • You should begin writing an ethnography paper by first identifying one or more research questions . Your choice of research question(s) should be driven by your interests as well as any hypotheses you have regarding the phenomenon being studied. For instance, if you are interested in understanding how people negotiate via technology (e.g., text messaging), then you may initially want to examine how gender differences play out during online chat sessions. However, if this initial topic doesn’t provide you with enough information about negotiation practices (e.g., because participants don’t mention gender-related issues or because you are more interested in how people communicate online vs. the negotiation process itself), then you will need to revise your research question(s) accordingly (e.g., “How do people negotiate via text messaging?”).
  • When writing an ethnography paper, it is best if you include concrete details throughout your analysis . You can do this by either directly quoting or paraphrasing participants’ words, including full sentences from fieldnotes/transcripts , and/or giving specific examples that illustrate a particular aspect of the phenomenon being studied. This will help readers get a sense of what your everyday reality was like during data collection, which may be particularly important for them to understand considering that they were not present while you did the work.
  • It is important for ethnography papers to make a connection between the participants and larger issues . In order to do this effectively, you will need to think about how your specific research site connects with other sites/contexts. For instance, let’s say that you conducted an ethnography on parenting practices in New York City. If you find that a lot of parents enroll their kids into sports activities then you could explore how this practice may reflect broader changes that have taken place with regards to work and family life during the past few decades.

Main Parts of an Ethnography Paper

An ethnography is a research study that tries to understand the way that people think and behave in their everyday lives. In order to do this, researchers typically spend time with a group of people in order to get a sense of how they live and what they’re interested in.

There are several parts of an ethnography paper which are:

  • Introduction – Background information, Thesis statement .
  • Literature review – review of the existing literature.
  • Methodology – Data collection methods.
  • Data analysis
  • Conclusions and suggestions.

Ethnography Introduction

The introduction provides background information on the issue being written about. This section should be written clearly and directly, with no jargon. It is the first section that the reader will encounter, so it must immediately engage them. Also, consider writing about what would interest people not working in your specific subfield.

A good ethnography introduction includes two main elements:

  • A thesis statement that presents an argument; and
  • An explanation of why this topic is important to investigate.

If you are able to state your argument as a question, then so much the better (e.g., “What do young children learn from playing video games?” or “How have digital technologies influenced how people negotiate?”).

Here’s an example of a thesis statement for an ethnography paper :

“This paper explores what happens when people with mobility-related disabilities use smart technologies when they search for accessible transportation options in their daily lives.”

Here’s another example of a thesis statement for an ethnography paper :

“My study examines how families use social media to share selfies with each other and what effect, if any, this has on parent-child relationships.”

Ethnography – Background Information

The next part of an ethnography paper is the background section. This provides the reader with information that will give them context about exactly what your research project investigates. To write this section effectively, you need to provide information that is relevant to your specific argument or hypothesis. In doing this, it helps to consider these questions: “What prior theories/research does my study build on?” and “What are the limitations of prior research/theories that I am exploring in my study?”

Also, consider providing information about the geographical location where your research took place. This is especially important if there are cultural norms or practices described in your writing that could be unfamiliar to some readers.

The literature review part of an ethnography paper provides a summary of what has been written previously about the topic you’re investigating. It also allows you to explain how your own research contributes to our understanding of this issue. To write this section effectively, consider these questions: “Who are the researchers who have written about my topic before?” and “What arguments do they make?”

Ethnography Methodology

The next two parts of an ethnography paper are the research methodology and findings. The methodology includes information on how the ethnographer gathered data, including the limitations and biases in this process. Data collection is where you describe how and what research data you collected during your ethnography (i.e., what did you actually observe and what did people say to you/write down?).

Ethnography – Research Findings

The final section of an ethnography paper is the presentation of your actual data (key words, quotes, illustrations, etc.). This can take many forms including tables, charts, photographs or diagrams. When writing this section remember to keep it as clear and concise as possible. You should not present large amounts of unnecessary data that does not relate directly to your argument. It’s helpful to consider how you might explain what you’ve found through a presentation at a conference for non-specialists in your sub-field.

An Ethnography Conclusion

A good conclusion for an ethnographic paper will do these things:

  • Conclude the argument presented in your thesis statement;
  • Give some context for how your study fits into the larger body of research on this topic;
  • Be written clearly and directly with no jargon. The language should be accessible to a non-specialist audience.

Steps to write an ethnography paper

Here are core 11 steps in conducting an ethnographic research study and writing a perfect ethnographic report for your study.

Step 1. Choose a good topic:

The first step is to pick a topic for your paper. You should choose an issue that you want to explore and that has not been covered in depth in the existing literature. Topic ideas may include: See Also What Is Spacing and Kerning and Why They Are Crucial To Typography | HipFonts

What children learn from video gaming, digital technologies and how they’ve influenced people’s relationships and negotiating styles.

How mobility-related disabilities affect people’s daily lives when trying to find transportation options.

The interaction between social media and family relationships such as what power it provides to parents and children, the benefits of parenting via social media, and its role in strengthening families.

Step 2. Develop a thesis statement

The second step is to develop a thesis statement for your paper. Your thesis statement is your argument; it should describe what you are exploring in your research (i.e., what question or problem are you trying to answer). It’s not necessary to state the actual questions at this point, but rather identify the main idea of your argument.

Step 3. Conduct literature review

Next, conduct a literature review by reading about existing theories and research around the topic that will help provide context for your argument. You can choose any articles or books that suit your specific requirements, but most often students read articles from peer-reviewed journals because they tend to be more comprehensive than other sources. References cited in these articles may also be useful for further exploration on this topic so keep track of any relevant information that you find.

Step 4. Develop research questions/hypotheses when necessary

If your paper requires hypotheses or specific questions to be answered, develop these here. You should list any hypothesis that you want to test in the experiment, and describe why the question is important and how it builds on existing literature. It’s important to note that a hypothesis should be a single claim, not several claims joined by “and” or “or”.

Step 5. Choose a qualitative method for data collection

The next step in writing an ethnography paper is choosing a method of data collection appropriate for your topic and argument. Ethnographic researchers collect data through observation – by talking to people, through photographs or videos, or from artifacts such as drawings.

Step 6. Find an appropriate research site

You should find a site for your observations, interviews or other data collection. This can be your first choice of research sites, but if it doesn’t work out you may have to choose another. It’s important to note that many ethnographic studies involve spending extensive time at the research site observing and interviewing participants; this may require moving away from home or taking time off school to conduct fieldwork (for example). Think carefully about how much time and energy this will take before choosing your study site! Your study should be carried out in a location where you can observe people participating in whatever activity is central to your research question; i.e., someone playing video games, talking on their mobile phone, or taking the bus/train to work.

Step 7. Gain approval from research site

Once you’ve chosen a site for your study, you should discuss your plans with the people in charge and get their approval (to ensure that they will cooperate). You’ll also need to get written permission from them to use quotes and other data collected during your observations; it’s important to be completely transparent about this since most people will not want you using their name in your paper without prior approval – even if you anonymize all of the details! Anonymizing participant information is especially important when working with minors who are participating in online activities.

Step 8. Plan data collection schedule & roles

Plan out dates for conducting data collection, and who will do what at each observation session. Once you have approval from the research site it’s a good idea to circulate a preliminary schedule with them so that they can give their input on your proposed dates for observations. If possible, try to collect observational data around the same time of day if this makes sense – e.g., everyday at 2pm or every Wednesday from 10am-12pm etc. It’s also important to clarify which students should be interviewed and when these interviews will take place so there is no overlap in scheduling with observation sessions.

Step 9. Conduct Data Collection

Once you’ve finalized your plan, you should start conducting data collection! You’ll need to go into the field and conduct observations, make recordings, take photographs or videos, and interview participants. You can also collect artifacts if they are important to your study (e.g., a student’s phone during an observation session).

Step 10. Analyze Data

This step in writing an ethnography paper is where you analyze the data that was collected throughout the research process. It’s not always necessary to conduct analysis in this step; some researchers only finalize their analysis after they’re sure that all of their data collection is complete (to avoid altering responses by asking follow up questions later on) – but it’s usually best to let your readers know when you’ve completed data collection and how/when you analyzed the data for your paper! Analysis should be related directly to the research question that you posed in step 1 of writing an ethnography paper.

Step 11. A write up of your findings

The final component of writing an ethnography paper is the write-up – this section should include all of your findings and discussion related to each specific research site. You should also reference any relevant articles or theories that are tied back into the context of your study (and provide full citations for these references). It’s important to think about how your research fits into existing literature on the topic; if possible, refer to previous studies that examined similar phenomena at different times or in different places (this will help validate/replicate your own work) – e.g., other studies on playing video games, chatting online, or taking public transit.

Ethnographic research examples

When conducting an ethnographic study, here are some ethnographic research examples to consider:

  • Develop a research plan that includes fieldwork, interviews and observation of the population. Collect data on the behavior, beliefs and attitudes of people in a community.
  • Create an ethnographic research design. The study may explore issues such as culture, economics or biology from the point of view of people who live within a particular area or region. For example, some researchers have attempted to define culture by taking into account lifestyle aspects such as eating, drinking and holiday rituals. Ethnographers approach cultural lifestyles with respect for tradition while focusing on changes that occur over time due to economic influences or other factors. This type of ethnographic research attempts to determine what is unique about life in various areas around the world. Other types of ethnographic study may focus on specific topics such as the study of language, kinship or politics.
  • Conduct an ethnographic study about a community in your area. For example, some communities may have problems that you can explore using this type of research approach. For example, various countries that are experiencing political change may be affected by violence, ethnic cleansing and other issues after years of oppression under ruling regimes. Area studies provide new opportunities for ethnographers who look at how people living in certain areas perceive themselves; their culture; and how they interact with members of their community. Areas studied could include urban areas, isolated rural regions or areas where indigenous people strive to maintain traditional lifestyles while dealing with outside influences on their way of life.

Ethnography is very descriptive, but can also be explanatory. It is part of social science research which helps us to understand how people live, interact and construct meaning. Through ethnography, we are able to see the perspectives of different groups of people across society. When doing an ethnography you have to be extremely watchful for bias or personal views that you have on the topic that may influence your judgement on what you are witnessing – it is important not to assume anything! If you are studying a group of people it is good practice to always give them the right to remove themselves from the situation if they wish, this should be explained at the beginning so there are no surprises later on in your research. This article aims to explain some key things about carrying out an ethnographic study. It will give you an idea of what is involved, the skills required and how to make sure your findings are accurate and credible.

Ethnography is concerned with studying people in their natural setting, over a period of time through participant observation. These observations may be written up into field notes or into journals to provide accounts of daily life that can then be used as individual pieces for contextual analysis. The focus here is on ‘bricolage’, using multiple sources so as to produce accounts which are full and rich rather than simply relying on one method alone. Ethnographers rely heavily on observation but do not discount other information gathering techniques such as interviews, questionnaires or discourse analysis where appropriate.

The practice of ethnography has frequently been considered an observational method though this may be restricted. Hence, it should not simply equate to methods of data collection or analysis, but mean observation in the widest sense, including what is collected through other means. This includes thoughts and feelings as much as social interactions between members of specific groups within a community under study. It also requires a detailed interest in processes and events so that they can be understood in their own terms rather than simply being classified according to externally imposed disciplines such as economics or politics. Ethnographers often seek out intensive long-term relationships with informants so that they can understand interpersonal aspects and how this relates to wider social structures.

Ethnographic research is most frequently conducted by anthropologists, sociologists and social scientists though it is not limited to these.

Ethnographic research allows an in-depth understanding of a particular group or community, allowing us to see things from their perspective. This is particularly useful for gaining information about specific groups that are often marginalised, such as immigrants within host countries, subcultures within urban centres or ethnic minorities living predominantly outside ‘majority’ cultures.

The approach can provide vital opportunities for the exchange of ideas by improving knowledge between individuals who have little exposure to one another’s lives or way of thinking. It also enables members of different communities to understand each other better so they don’t have preconceptions which may lead to conflict. Ethnographic research can be used in various academic disciplines including education, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and psychology. It not only contributes to our understanding of particular groups but can also be highly useful for marketing purposes as well as for medical research and healthcare services – the list is endless!

Ethnographic research requires a high level of both organisational and observational skills. As with any research project there needs to be a clear purpose and set objectives which you must explain clearly in your introductory section. This should include what you would like to find out, why it is important to know this information (or how it will benefit others) and the methods you intend to use including who or what is involved; where, when and how long; as well as ethical considerations such as whether informed consent was obtained from those involved. Ethnographic studies are particularly useful for exploring everyday life, including the topic of health and illness.

Ethnographers are often interested in how societies function, focusing on the way that people communicate with each other about their lives. As a result there is usually some account given to social structure – that is to say how groups within society relate to one another through social institutions such as family, education or work. Understanding this adds depth to what might otherwise be considered as separate domains or activities if they were studied independently. For example, daily routine can be better understood when ethnographers consider it in relation to wider issues such as transport links, travel time between work/home/shopping facilities etc., types of establishments visited (for leisure or shopping), reasons for visiting and so on.

Ethnographers typically conduct research over a significant length of time, often employing diary-keeping techniques in order to record changes and developments as they occur. It is also useful to think about ways that you can help the groups you are studying by participating in their activities rather than just observing them or asking questions – for example taking part in cultural events such as festivals, dance styles etc., sharing tasks such as childcare with indigenous women, working alongside labourers perhaps visiting your GP surgery with friends/neighbours/acquaintances who might otherwise not have access to healthcare services…

Four key points:

  • Ethnographic research involves a detailed study of social groups or communities which requires a high level of both organisational and observational skills.
  • Ethnographers are usually interested in how societies function, focusing on the way that people communicate with each other about their lives.
  • It is useful to consider social structure which can be better understood when ethnographers consider it in relation to wider issues such as transport links, travel time between work/home/shopping facilities etc., types of establishments visited (for leisure or shopping), reasons for visiting and so on.
  • Ethnographers typically conduct research over a significant length of time, often employing diary-keeping techniques in order to record changes and developments as they occur. It is also useful to think about ways that you can help the groups you are studying by participating in their activities rather than just observing them or asking questions.

Ethnographic Report Writing Help – Essay, Research Papers, Study Report

Do you need help writing an ethnographic research paper, ethnographic essay , ethnographic report, or you just need to know how to write an ethnography paper? Well, we are ready to help you write ethnography paper examples, ethnographic essay examples or any other essay on ethnography.

Ethnographic research is a type of qualitative, inductive research approach in which the researcher studies a group of people to uncover their beliefs and behaviours. Ethnography papers are a unique form of academic writing that require you to explore someone’s culture.

Writing an ethnographic research paper may seem simple enough, but actually requires special attention and knowledge about how this type of project should be carried out successfully… To write an outstanding paper on ethnography, follow these steps:

  • Find some interesting topic for your ethnographic term paper;
  • Start with general idea of what will be included into your work;
  • Write down sub-topics related to the main topic;
  • Make a list of sources you will use for your paper;
  • Compose the draft.

Though ethnography is an intensive form of participant observation, it can also be used to study non-humans. Researchers often think of animals as ‘cultural’ in some sense, because they are adept at passing on information about their species through social learning – but humans are not the only animals that pass on culture…

Anthropology Ethnography Paper Writing Help Online

Since anthropology is all about studying different cultures around the world, it would make sense to say that ethnography research papers are one of the most common forms of academic writing in the field. While there are many branches within anthropology, ethology or cultural studies , ethnography focuses on people’s culture in particular. For example, an ethnography may look at aspects of people’s life, including their diet , social behavior , religious beliefs etc…

Whether you need help writing an anthropology ethnography paper, religion ethnography paper or a simple ethnographic essay about people or animals, just hire our tutors who will assist you in obtaining top grades!

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Ethnographic Essay: how to write an ethnography paper/report + Examples (2024)

What is a good example of ethnography? ›

A classic example of ethnographic research would be an anthropologist traveling to an island, living within the society on said island for years, and researching its people and culture through a process of sustained observation and participation.

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word “ethnography” also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards .

What is an Ethnographic Essay? It's an essay that focuses on a group, culture or subculture . It emphasizes close observation, interview, and field notes. Additional research may be found through library resources.

  • Choose a good topic: ...
  • Develop a thesis statement. ...
  • Conduct literature review. ...
  • Develop research questions/hypotheses when necessary. ...
  • Choose a qualitative method for data collection. ...
  • Find an appropriate research site. ...
  • Gain approval from research site. ...
  • Plan data collection schedule & roles.

Conclude your ethnography with a suitable conclusion page that sums up what you did and what you learned . Restate your main points so that the reader is left with the impact of your work and what it will mean in the overall study of that culture.

Ethnography can often answer questions about the social rules, the conventions and the contingencies which operate in a particular setting .

Ethnographic methods are qualitative, inductive, exploratory and longitudinal .

Writing and Presenting Ethnographic Findings - YouTube

A 10-page paper will have approximately 2500 to 2750 words, double-spaced. It can be written within few hours to a week . It all depends on the writer, including how easy the topic is. So, how long it takes you to finish each part of the structure will determine how long it takes you to write the overall paper.

To be clear, I agree that 8-12 months is an appropriate estimate for good ethnography. My point is that a researcher may face repeated pressure to shrink that timeframe. Thijs's and Tobias Köllner 's experiences demonstrate that good work is, of course, possible in a corporate setting.

How do you analyze ethnographic data? ›

  • be familiar with the ways in which the data collected through ethnographic research can be systematically searched for patterns; and.
  • know in which ways those patterns can be explained and used as the basis for further research.

Ethnography can be briefly defined as the systematic study of people and cultures . It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. It is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group.

  • Photo Elicitation. ...
  • Rephotography. ...
  • Photovoice. ...
  • Visual Narratives.

Ethnography is characterised by long-term participant observation as a central method, where the researcher spends an extended period of time in a social group in order to collect data.

This is because ethnography focuses on developing an understanding of the design problem . Therefore, it makes more sense to conduct ethnographic studies at the beginning of a project in order to support future design decisions (which will happen later in the user-centred design process).

Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences. Data are collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function.

Ethnographic fieldwork typically begins with participant observation which is later complemented by other data (e.g. interviews and documents). Keeping field notes is a key activity performed by the ethnographer. Everyday events are recorded along with the participants' viewpoints and interpretations.

How long does it take to write a 2,000 word essay? It takes about 6 hours and 40 minutes to write a 2,000 word essay.

Writing 5,000 words will take about 2.1 hours for the average writer typing on a keyboard and 4.2 hours for handwriting . However, if the content needs to include in-depth research, links, citations, or graphics such as for a blog article or high school essay, the length can grow to 16.7 hours.

Typed Words The most common format required for essays is double-spaced, font type Times New Roman, and font size 12pt. With that in mind, 1,000 typed words is about four pages .

How does ethnography work in real life? ›

Ethnography is a study through direct observation of users in their natural environment rather than in a lab . The objective of this type of research is to gain insights into how users interact with things in their natural environment.

Ethnographic data can be quantitative or qualitative in nature, and can include the following: Interviews conducted with a population of nurses in Finland . Audio recordings of folk songs from a local Appalachian community. Photographs of backcountry areas in National Parks in New Zealand.

Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences . Data are collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function.

Ethnography is a research method central to knowing the world from the standpoint of its social relations . It is a qualitative research method predicated on the diversity of culture at home (wherever that may be) and abroad.

  • Observing a group of children playing. ...
  • Observing employees in a corporate office. ...
  • Observing medical personnel in a high-volume hospital. ...
  • Observing an indigenous village. ...
  • Observing a high school classroom. ...
  • Observing motorcycle riders.

For something to be ethnography it needs to, of course, involve use of ethnographic methods, such as participant observation (as one element), and also time. I see a minimum of 6 months as being necessary for good ethnographic research and it is much better if one spends at least a year at one's field site.

Analysing data The data analysis in the ethnographic methodology is iterative and unstructured. There are three aspects of data analysis: description, analysis and interpretation . Description refers to the recounting and describing of data, inevitably treating the data as fact.

  • Narrative research.
  • Phenomenology research.
  • Grounded theory research.
  • Ethnographic research.
  • Case study research.

What is the difference between ethnography and ethnography? ›

Ethnography is the in depth study of a particular cultural group, while ethnology is the comparative study of ethnographic data, society and culture . Many of the readings for this course and your own research project have been ethnographic in nature.

Doing ethnography The hallmark method of ethnographic field research in anthropology is known as participant-observation . This type of data-gathering is when the anthropologist records their experiences and observations while taking part in activities alongside local participants or informants in the field site.

Ethnology: the comparative and analytical study of cultures ; cultural anthropology. Anthropologists aim to describe and interpret aspects of the culture of various social groups--e.g., the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, rice villages of the Chinese Canton Delta, or a community of physicists at Livermore Laboratory.

ethnographic research paper outline

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Ethnographic research as an evolving method for supporting healthcare improvement skills: a scoping review

Georgia b. black.

Department of Applied Health Research, UCL, London, UK

Sandra van Os

Samantha machen, naomi j. fulop, associated data.

All papers included in the review are listed in Additional file 4 and are publicly available from their publishers’ websites.

The relationship between ethnography and healthcare improvement has been the subject of methodological concern. We conducted a scoping review of ethnographic literature on healthcare improvement topics, with two aims: (1) to describe current ethnographic methods and practices in healthcare improvement research and (2) to consider how these may affect habit and skill formation in the service of healthcare improvement.

We used a scoping review methodology drawing on Arksey and O’Malley’s methods and more recent guidance. We systematically searched electronic databases including Medline, PsychINFO, EMBASE and CINAHL for papers published between April 2013 – April 2018, with an update in September 2019. Information about study aims, methodology and recommendations for improvement were extracted. We used a theoretical framework outlining the habits and skills required for healthcare improvement to consider how ethnographic research may foster improvement skills.

We included 274 studies covering a wide range of healthcare topics and methods. Ethnography was commonly used for healthcare improvement research about vulnerable populations, e.g. elderly, psychiatry. Focussed ethnography was a prominent method, using a rapid feedback loop into improvement through focus and insider status. Ethnographic approaches such as the use of theory and focus on every day practices can foster improvement skills and habits such as creativity, learning and systems thinking.


We have identified that a variety of ethnographic approaches can be relevant to improvement. The skills and habits we identified may help ethnographers reflect on their approaches in planning healthcare improvement studies and guide peer-review in this field. An important area of future research will be to understand how ethnographic findings are received by decision-makers.

Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12874-021-01466-9.

Research can help to support the practice of healthcare improvement, and identify ways to “improve improvement” [ 1 ]. Ethnography has been identified particularly as a research method that can show what happens routinely in healthcare, and reveal the ‘ what and how of improving patient care [ 2 ]. Ethnography is not one method, but a paradigm of mainly qualitative research involving direct observations of people and places, producing a written account of natural or everyday behaviours and ideas [ 3 ]. Ethnographic research can identify contextual barriers to healthcare improvement. For example, Waring and colleagues suggested that hospital discharge could be improved by allowing staff to have more opportunities for informal communication [ 4 ].

There have been advances in ethnographic methods that support its role in supporting healthcare improvement. Multi-site, collaborative modalities of ethnography have evolved that suit the networked nature of modern healthcare [ 5 ]. Similarly, rapid ethnographic approaches (e.g. Bentley et al. [ 6 ];) meet the needs of improvement activities to produce findings within short timeframes [ 7 ]. However, the production of sustained ethnographic fieldwork has waned in response to demands for rapid evidence [ 6 , 8 , 9 ]. Critics of rapid ethnographic methods worry that they are diluting ethnography within applied contexts more widely [ 5 , 10 ].

The relationship between ethnography and healthcare improvement has been the subject of methodological concern [ 8 ]. The first concern is that some research identified as ethnography does not fit within the ethnographic paradigm, merely collecting observational data without a theoretical analysis, interpretation or researcher reflexivity [ 11 ]. A second concern is whether the topics of ethnographic inquiry produce findings that are seen as useful for improvement [ 12 ], particularly if they do not make explicit recommendations or produce checklists [ 8 , 13 – 15 ]. Authors fear that ethnographic findings that capture complexity [ 16 ] and expose taken-for-granted behaviours and phenomena [ 14 , 17 ] may be too abstract to be relevant to healthcare improvement [ 8 ]. However, these critiques position ethnographic research as a product which may be taken up by healthcare improvers, rather than seeing ethnographic work itself as an improvement activity. We take the view that healthcare improvement aims to change human behaviour to improve patient care, and is therefore reliant on the development of particular skills and habits (such as good communication) [ 18 ]. We would consider that engaging in ethnographic research may support skill development and habit formation that serves healthcare improvement.

In the literature of ethnography in healthcare improvement, there is not much discussion of the close relationship between methodological features of ethnographic research, and their impact on improvement skills. The aim of this paper is twofold: (1) to describe current ethnographic methods and practices in healthcare improvement research and (2) to consider how these may affect habit and skill formation in the service of healthcare improvement [ 19 ].

This is a scoping review following the methods outlined by Arksey & O’Malley and later refined by Levac et al., [ 20 , 21 ] including a systematically conducted literature review and reported in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR; see Additional file 1 for PRISMA checklist). No protocol was published for this review. Our literature search and analyses were conducted iteratively, searching reference lists and undertaking discussions with colleagues about key lines of argument. We also held a workshop at Health Services Research UK conference in 2018 on this topic to gain a wide range of stakeholder views.

Systematic retrieval of empirical papers and purposive sampling

Our search strategy was designed to capture a wide range of approaches to ethnography from different journals, healthcare settings and types of research environment. It was not our aim to capture every study using this methodology, but to map the current field. Thus we did not search grey literature, books or monographs. The search strategy was developed and piloted in consultation with a health librarian. Medline (on OVID platform), PsychINFO, CINAHL and EMBASE databases were searched, and six journals were hand-searched, including: BMJ Quality & Safety, Social Science and Medicine, Medical Anthropology, Cochrane library, Sociology of Health and Illness and Implementation Science. These databases were searched between dates April 2013 – April 2018 and an update was performed in September 2019 using the search terms outlined in Additional file 2 . We limited the search to these dates in order to capture the most recent methodological characteristics of ethnographic studies in this field.

We screened titles and then abstracts according to the inclusion and exclusion criteria detailed in Table ​ Table1. 1 . We included studies which self-identified as using ethnography or ethnographic methods rather than using our own criteria. This is because ethnography can be hard to define, and use of criteria may risk excluding papers which exemplify the sorts of tensions and workarounds we are trying to capture.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

The retrieved papers were screened by GB, SVO and SM based on inclusion and exclusion criteria (Table ​ (Table1). 1 ). The total number of papers after screening titles, abstracts and full texts was 274 (Fig. ​ (Fig.1 1 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 12874_2021_1466_Fig1_HTML.jpg

PRISMA statement of all references retrieved, screened and included in the scoping review

Numerical charting

Characteristics of each paper, such as title, authors, journal, year, country and healthcare subject area were extracted (see Table ​ Table2 2 ).

Characteristics of studies in review

a some studies have been allocated to more than one region

Thematic analysis and development

We coded all 274 papers using NVivo software for stated aims and recommendations. This included close reading, and retrieval of key ideas and quotations from the papers that exemplified key ideas in relation to healthcare improvement, methodology and the authors’ reflections on these. The coded extracts of aims and recommendation in conjunction with the closer reading of the sub-sample were used to inductively develop conceptual ideas, such as how the corpus of papers explicitly aimed to contribute to healthcare improvement, and if not, how this affected the types of conclusions drawn. Some papers were read in greater depth to understand how the authors’ methods related to their findings and conclusions. In order to consider how ethnography supports habits and skills associated with healthcare improvement, we drew on a framework which identifies five habits of ‘improvers’: creativity, learning, systems thinking, resilience and influencing [ 19 ]. Applying this model to our selected papers, we mapped traits or approaches to the ethnographic studies that exemplified these habits either in the authors, or as part of developing these habits in others (e.g. healthcare decision-makers and professionals). Thematic interpretations and lines of argument were generated and discussed by all the authors.

Overview of study characteristics

The included studies covered a wide range of ethnographic methodologies and healthcare subjects, published internationally (Table ​ (Table2) 2 ) in predominantly social science and clinical journals (see Additional file 3 ). The full list of the 274 included studies is available in Additional file 4 .

Most studies described themselves as an ‘ethnography’ or ‘ethnographic’, although some described their methodology as ‘mixed methods’ including ethnographic components. For example, Collet et al. conducted a mixed methods participatory action research study using observations to produce an “ethnographic description” [ 22 ].

Almost all studies relied on observation and interviews as the main data sources. It was not always specified whether researchers took a participant or non-participant approach to observation. There were some examples of other data sources e.g. video data, surveys, documents, field notes, diaries, and artefacts. A few examples contained a paucity of data, such as only video data [ 23 ], limited fieldwork [ 24 ], a small number of interviewees [ 25 ], or reliance on focus group data alone [ 26 ]. Methods associated with qualitative methodology (but not necessarily ethnographic) were also used, such as data ‘saturation’ to denote that additional data did not provide new insights into the topic [ 27 ].

There were a number of minority or unusual ethnographic variations:

  • Quantitative ethnography [ 23 ]: temporal coding of physicians' workflow and interaction with the electronic health record system, and their patient.
  • Cognitive ethnography [ 28 ]: “identifying and elaborating distributed cognitive processes that occur when an individual enacts purposeful improvements in a clinical context”.
  • Street-level organizational ethnography [ 29 ]: intensive case study methods to explore the implications of healthcare policy at a street level.
  • Phenomenological ethnographies [ 30 ]: focussing on the lived experience and meanings associated with a phenomenon.
  • Geo-mapping [ 31 ]: geomapping of selected service data to define Latino immigrant community before conducting interviews and observations.

Use of different types of ethnography to support healthcare improvement

We found that many studies used methods that could identify issues relating to power and vulnerability, with potential relevance to how healthcare improvement problems are defined and solved, and by whom [ 1 ]. For example we noted a significant minority of studies using institutional and critical ethnography, mostly in vulnerable populations (see Table ​ Table3). 3 ). These studies were explicitly attentive to systems and power relations, rather than on individual practices. We suggest that the use of geographically-oriented methods such as geo-mapping and street-level organisational ethnography are also attentive to the power structures inherent in place and space, and could be relevant to other geographical healthcare improvement topics such as networked healthcare systems, care at home and patient travel for treatment.

Ethnographic methodology and its relevance to healthcare improvement

The high prevalence of ethnographic studies with vulnerable populations (e.g. psychiatry, end of life care) suggests that ethnography is also being conceptualised as an emancipatory method, reversing healthcare power structures in its focus. This has been a traditional focus of ethnography since social changes in power and representation in the 1970s, incorporated into the development of healthcare research methodology [ 40 , 41 ]. Some methods used were calculated to maximise the potential for supporting vulnerable groups, for example, Nightingale et al. [ 42 ] used focused ethnography (prolonged fieldwork in a small number of settings) to look at patient-professional interactions in paediatric chronic illness settings. The authors suggested that focussed ethnography is particularly suited to settings where fostering trust is essential. We would also suggest that ethnography may be particularly suited to settings in which participants are less able to verbalise their experiences.

The reviewed studies suggested that video ethnography can support healthcare improvement at a team level. For example, Stevens et al. [ 43 ] promoted video ethnography as a way to capture in-depth data on intimate interactions, in their study of elective caesareans. The video data allowed them to make use of timing data (e.g. of certain actions), physical positioning of different actors and equipment, and verbatim dialogue recording. The video data also suited the technical nature of the procedure, which was relatively time-limited. This form of data collection may not suit environments where healthcare activities are more spread out.

The impact of healthcare practitioner involvement in ethnographic fieldwork and findings

We noted that the use of ethnography for healthcare improvement has led to healthcare practitioners’ widespread involvement in data collection or analysis. We suggest that this is a form of negotiation across the healthcare-academia boundary, translating from ‘real world’ to data and back again. This has potential to create rich and relevant ethnographic studies that are geared towards improvement. However, some studies were undermined by a lack of reflexivity about the dual practitioner-ethnographer role.

A significant number of papers involved healthcare practitioners in fieldwork (e.g. Abdulrehman, 2017, Hoare et al. 2013; [ 37 , 44 ]). For example in Hoare et al. the lead researcher was a nurse, and wrote that they hoped “to bring both an emic and etic perspective to the data collection by bracketing my emic sense of self as a nurse practitioner in order to become a participant observer within my own general practice ” [ 37 ]. In this study, the findings fed directly into local service improvement as the lead researcher felt compelled to “share new ‘best practice’ information and join in the conversation.” There was little discussion about how this affected the generalisability of the findings, and whether their recommendations were adopted.

Similarly, Bergenholz et al. [ 45 ] conducted a study where a nursing researcher completed the main fieldwork and “assisted the nurses with practical care .” They acknowledged that “This may have caused limitations with regards to ‘blind spots’ in the nursing practice, but that it also gave access to a field that might be difficult for ‘outside-outsiders’ to gain .” However, there was no commentary on where the blind spots or extra access occurred, and how this may have affected the relevance and dissemination of their findings.

How might ethnography support healthcare improvement habits?

In this section, we evaluate the studies included in the review in terms of how their methods relate to improvement. We draw on the idea that successful improvement is based on a set of habits and their related skills acquired through experience and practice [ 19 ]. This section is structured around Lucas’s five habits of ‘improvers’: creativity, learning, systems thinking, resilience and influencing [ 19 ]. Under those headings, we describe the mechanisms by which ethnographic studies can support healthcare improvement habits, using illustrative examples.

Resilience is defined as being adaptable, particularly tolerating calculated risks and uncertainty, and proceeding with optimism. Being able to recover from adverse events is core to improvement, reframing them as opportunities. Adaptation and the ability to bounce back from adverse events and variation are core to improvement.

Tolerating the uncertainty of ethnographic data collection

While we did not relate these traits to any particular ethnographic approach in our studies, we would consider that undertaking any ethnographic project requires resilience, as data collection is inherently exploratory and uncertain. For example, Belanger et al. wanted to know how health care providers and their patients approach patient participation in palliative care decisions. The authors explicitly eschewed the pull to create guidelines or other formalised knowledge, but aimed to explore the “unforeseen and somewhat unavoidable ways in which discursive practices prompt or impede patient participation during these interactions.” [ 46 ]

Creativity is defined as working together to encourage fresh thinking by generating ideas and thinking critically.

Using a theoretical lens

Researchers may consider healthcare through a particular theory or framework (e.g. private ordering [ 47 ], masculine discourse [ 48 ], compassion [ 49 ]). The restriction of the theoretical lens enables critical thinking, and keeps the ethnographer creatively engaged. For example, Mylopoulos & Farhat [ 28 ] used the concept of adaptive expertise in a cognitive ethnography to explore “the phenomenon of purposeful improvement” in a teaching hospital. This theoretical lens revealed that clinicians were engaging in “invisible” improvement in their daily work, in “specific activities such as scheduling, establishing patient relationships, designing physical space and building supporting resources”. The authors suggested that these practices were devalued in comparison to more formal improvement activities, justifying the utility of the ‘adaptive expertise’ theory in bringing the daily improvement practices to light.

Challenging current problems and perspectives

We identified studies that challenged or reframed existing improvement problems e.g. Mishra [ 50 ]. This role removes the ‘blinkers’ of improvement research [ 51 ], and can ‘dissolve’ previously intractable implementation problems. For example, Boonan et al. [ 52 ] studied the practice of bar-coded medication from the perspective of nurses using the intervention. In their discussion, the authors challenge the assumption that if you introduce technology, then you will mitigate human factor risks. They highlighted that external pressures on hospitals perpetuate this perspective, and that “nurses and patients are consequently drawn into this discourse and institutional ruling, to which they are not oblivious”. Their recommendation was to understand the skills of nurses in tailoring technology to meet individual patients’ needs rather than trusting in systems blindly.

Learning is defined as harnessing curiosity and using reflective processes to extract meaning from experience.

Inviting reflection

We noted that some studies did not make explicit recommendations for improvement, but wrote their findings in a manner that would invite reflection on its subject matter. For example, Thomas & Latimer [ 53 ] wrote that they view their role as provocateurs of new ideas, stating that their intention “is not to propose specific policies or discourses designed to change or improve practice. More modestly, we hope that by analysing the everyday and by theorising the mundane, this article will ignite reflexive, ethical and pluralistic dialogues – and so better communication between practitioners, parents and the wider lay public – around reproductive technologies and medical conditions” (authors’ underline; p.951-2) [ 53 ]. Others such as Mackintosh et al [ 54 ] used their discussion section to examine their results in the context of other theories and provide illumination: “Our focus on trajectories illuminates the physiological process of birth and the unfolding pathology of illness (and death). This frame provides a means for us to link the agency of those involved in organising the care of acutely ill patients with the wider socio-political factors beyond the clinic, such as governmentality and risk (Heyman 2010, Waring 2007), death brokering (Timmermans 2005) and the medicalisation of birth and death (De Vries 1981).” (p.264). These two examples show that ethnographic work can be offered as an opportunity for learning and reflection, without a translation to specific recommendations.

Supporting a more ethical, expansive, inclusive, and participatory mode of healthcare

Problem-finding is highlighted as an important part of learning in improvement [ 19 ]. Several studies paid attention to multivocality and power, using this to find problematic, unethical and exclusive practices in healthcare. For example, some studies reported previously unheard viewpoints [ 55 – 57 ], or identified restrictive organisational barriers and normative assumptions [ 58 , 59 ]. Others promoted ethnography as a way of exploring ethics and morality [ 47 , 60 , 61 ], such as criticising research that prioritizes the needs of individuals over the good of society [ 62 ]. Ross et al. [ 63 ] suggested that it is also more ethical to use critical ethnography than other evaluative methods in researching vulnerable populations (e.g. neurological illness), by being able to “explore perceived political and emancipatory implications, [clarify] existing power differentials and [maintain] an explicit focus on action” .

Some studies directly researched power within the healthcare setting. For example, Batch and Windsor’s study of nursing workforce suggested that senior nurse leaders should use their positions to advocate for better working conditions [ 35 ], “ Manageable nurse/patient ratios, flexible patient-centred work models, equal opportunity for advancement, skill development for all and unit teamwork promotion”. Challenging traditional cultural assumptions that have produced and reproduced stereotypes is problematic because they most often are, by their very nature, invisible. In a more critical approach, Gesbeck’s thesis [ 62 ] on diabetes care work challenges the very mechanism of achieving healthcare improvement through research, stating that “we need to change the social and political context in which health care policy is made. This requires social change that prioritizes the good of the society over the good of the individual—a position directly opposed to the current system oriented toward profit and steeped in the ideology of personal responsibility.”

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is defined as seeing whole systems as well as their parts and recognising complex relationships, connections and interdependencies.

Suggesting reorientation to new ‘problem’ areas

We found that many ethnographic studies emphasised skills of synthesis and connection-making, reorienting improvement to different areas, for example in overarching policy recommendations (e.g. Hughes [ 36 ]; Liu et al. [ 64 ], Matinga et al. [ 65 ]), or resetting priorities. For example, Manias’ [ 66 ] ethnography of communication relating to family members' involvement in medication management in hospital suggests that “greater attention should be played on health professionals initiating communication in proactive ways ” [p.865]. In another example, Cable-Williams & Wilson’s (2017) focussed ethnography captures cultural factors within long-term care facilities. Their discussion suggests that acknowledgement of death is under-represented in front-line practice and government policy, reorienting discussions towards an integration of living and dying care.

Exposing hidden practices within the everyday

We found that several studies drew attention to ‘hidden’ practices in healthcare work, allowing them to evaluated and improved. For example, we found reference to practices such as coordinating [ 67 ], repair [ 68 ], caretaking [ 69 ], scaffolding [ 68 ], tinkering [ 52 ] and bricolage [ 58 ]. We also found that some studies had new interpretations of ‘the everyday’ or ‘taken-for-granted’ (e.g. nursing culture [ 34 , 35 , 45 , 70 ], interprofessional practice [ 67 , 71 – 75 ]). Authors’ outputs included frameworks [ 76 ] or models [ 69 , 71 , 77 , 78 ] that map these types of practices in a way that is helpful for intervention development or quality improvement. For example, Mackintosh et al. [ 54 ] looked at rescue practices in medical wards and maternity care settings using Strauss’s concept of the patient trajectory. Their findings highlighted the risks inherent in the wider social practices of hospital care, and suggested that improvement was needed at a level “beyond individual and team processes and technical safety solutions.”


Influencing is defined as engaging others and gaining buy-in using a range of facilitative processes.

Direct translation of findings to targets for improvement

Lucas suggests that to be influential, ethnographic studies need to have some empathy with clinical reality, whilst being facilitative and comfortable with conflict [ 19 ]. This was shown in ethnographic studies that made pragmatic recommendations, such as in Jensen’s study of clinical simulation. They advised that simulation might be useful in staging “adverse event scenarios with a view to creating more controlled and safer environments.” ( 80). In MacKichan et al. [ 79 ] observations and interviews were used to understand how primary care access influenced decisions to seek help at the emergency department. The authors made empathic, actionable recommendations such as “ simplifying appointments systems and communicating mechanisms to patients.” (p.10).

Evaluating the context of healthcare improvement

By capturing contextual and social aspects of healthcare improvement, ethnographic evaluations can support leaders and managers who are trying to implement improvement activities. This is a particularly helpful trait in ethnographic studies that pay attention to politics, governance and social theory in their evaluation of new interventions, “zooming out” [ 80 ] beyond the patient-clinician interaction to broader social networks. For example, Tietbohl et al. [ 81 ] investigated the difficulties of implementing a patient decision support intervention (DESI) in primary care through the theoretical lens of relational coordination between “physician and clinical staff groups (healthcare professionals)”. The authors’ recommended attention to the “underlying barriers such as the relational dynamics in a medical clinic or healthcare organization” when creating policies and programs that support shared decision-making using support interventions. This sort of insight can make it more likely that new policies or interventions will succeed. This skill was particularly fertile in the tradition of techno-anthropology, exploring technology-induced errors and the real-world interaction between people and technology, e.g. decision-support tools [ 81 – 86 ], the introduction of robot caregivers [ 87 ] and clinical simulations [ 88 ]. Other approaches included an investigation of one intervention or change but with a theoretical lens of inquiry.

Summary of findings

This scoping review has identified the methodological characteristics of 5 years of published papers that self-identify as ethnography or ethnographic in the field of healthcare improvement. Ethnography is currently a popular research method in a wide range of healthcare topics, particularly in psychiatry, e.g. mental health, dementia and experiential concerns such as quality of life. Focused ethnography is a significant sub-group in healthcare, suggesting that messages about the importance of research timeliness have taken hold [ 89 ].

We have identified ethnographic methods reported in these papers, and considered their utility in developing skills and habits that support healthcare improvement. Specific practices associated with the ethnographic paradigm can encourage good habits (resilience, creativity, learning, systems thinking and influencing) in healthcare, which can support improvement. For example, using relevant theories to look at every day work in healthcare can foster creativity. The use of critical and institutional ethnography could increase skills in ‘systems thinking’ by critically evaluating how healthcare improvement problems are defined and solved, and by whom.

Comparison with previous literature

This scoping review is the first to consider how current ethnographic methods and practices may relate to healthcare improvement. Within the paradigm of applied healthcare research, there is normative value in being ‘useful’ or ‘impactful’ in our research, which affects our prospects for funding and career success [ 12 ]. However, our review has uncovered a multitude of ways that an ethnographic study can be useful in relation to healthcare improvement, without creating actionable findings. We found a spectrum of interactions with healthcare improvement: some authors explicitly eschewed recommendations or clinical implications; others made imperative statements about required changes to policy or practice. However, this diversity was not necessarily a reflection on how ‘traditional’ the ethnographic methodology was. This challenges the paper by Leslie et al. which puts ethnographic studies in two output categories with respect to healthcare improvement: critique versus feedback [ 8 ]. Instead, we uncovered a variety of ways that ethnography can support healthcare improvement habits, such as encouraging reflection, problem-finding and exposing hidden practices in healthcare.

We did find that supporting healthcare improvement through ethnographic research can require strategic effort, however. For example, we noted that several authors wrote multiple articles based on the same project, often for different types of journal to reach different audiences such as diverse readerships in health services and academic settings. For example, Collier and colleagues published two papers based on a video ethnography of end-of-life care (both in 2016), one in a healthcare quality journal [ 32 ] and one in a qualitative research journal [ 76 ]. The former is shorter, with explicit recommendations for patient safety, whereas the latter is longer, has more detailed results and long sections on reflexivity. Similarly, Grant published an article in a sociology journal [ 90 ] and a healthcare improvement paper [ 91 ] on the same work about medication safety. The sociological paper covered “spatio-temporal elements of articulation work” whereas the other put forward “key stages” and risks, suggesting that it was more closely oriented to improvement.

There have been some considerable debates about changes in ethnographic methods and tools, with concerns about lost researcher identity, dilution of the method, and challenges to “upholding ethnographic integrity” [ 92 ] . We contest this, suggesting that new variants such as focussed and cognitive ethnography are evolving in response to the complexity of hospitals and healthcare [ 93 ], while also being highly regulated, standardised and ordered by biomedicine. Such complex environments cannot be studied and improved under one paradigm alone. Ethnographic identity and method have also been affected by the cross-pollination of ethnography with other social science paradigms and applied environments (e.g. clinical trials, technology development). Debates about theoretical and methodological choices are not only made merely with respect to healthcare improvement, but also in response to professional pressures (e.g. university requirements for impact) [ 12 ], and the mores of taste situated within the overlapping communities of practice that evaluate ethnographic healthcare research [ 94 ]. That said, we echo previous authors’ calls for attention to reflexivity, particularly in embedded or clinician-as-researcher roles [ 95 ].

Our scoping review challenges a previously expressed concern that ethnographic studies may not produce findings that are useful for improvement [ 10 , 12 , 16 ]. By considering different ethnographic designs in relation to skills and habits needed for improvement, we have shown that studies need not necessarily produce ‘actionable findings’ in order to make a valuable contribution. Instead, we would characterise ethnography’s role in the canon of healthcare research methodologies as a way of enhancing improvement habits such as comfort with conflict, problem-finding and connection-making.

Strengths and limitations

This review has a number of limitations. The search may not have found all relevant studies, however the retrieved papers are intended as an exemplar rather than an exhaustive or aggregative review. The review is also limited to journal articles as evidence of researchers’ approach to improvement. This ignores many other ‘offline’ and ‘online’ activities such as meetings, presentations, blogs, books, and websites, which are conducted to disseminate findings and ideas. Our reliance on self-report for the identification of ethnographic studies will have excluded some studies within an ethnographic paradigm who chose different terms for their methodology (e.g. critical inquiry, case study). The strengths of this paper are its comprehensive coverage, incorporating all representative studies in healthcare research published within a five year period, and a wide range of ethnographic sub-types and healthcare subjects, drawn from an international pool of research communities.

We did not prescribe the right way for ethnographers to engage in healthcare improvement, indeed, we have identified that a variety of approaches can be relevant to improvement. The habits we identified may help ethnographers reflect on their approaches in planning healthcare improvement studies and guide peer-review in this field. Issues of taste, traditionalism and researcher identity need to be scrutinised in favour of value and audience. An important area of future research will be to understand how ethnographic findings are received by decision-makers, and further focused reviews on the relationship(s) between ethnographic methods, quality improvement skills and improvement outcomes.


The authors wish to thank Lorelei Jones, Natalie Armstrong, Justin Waring and Bill Lucas for their insightful comments and direction in the undertaking of this work.

Authors’ contributions

NJF and GB led the development and conceptualization of this scoping review and provided guidance on methods and design of the scoping review. GB, SVO and SM made contributions to study search, study screening, and all data extraction work. All authors analysed the data. All authors contributed to the writing and editing of the paper, and all authors have read and approved the manuscript.

This paper is independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research CLAHRC North Thames. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.

NJF is an NIHR Senior Investigator. GB is supported by the Health Foundation’s grant to the University of Cambridge for The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute.

Availability of data and materials


The authors have no competing interests to declare.

The original online version of this article was revised: due to incorrect figure 1 and the number of included papers need to be changed from "283" to "274".

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Change history

A Correction to this paper has been published: 10.1186/s12874-022-01587-9

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How to Write an Ethnography Essay or Research Paper

How to Write an Ethnography Essay or Research Paper

How to Write an Ethnography Essay

How to Write an Ethnography Essay

Ethnographic writing is very common in colleges and universities. It involves ethnographic essays, research papers, and assignments. These papers are written at different levels in colleges and universities.

Therefore, as a student you have to be well versed on how these papers are written for you to score good grades.

ethnographic research paper outline

If you have been looking for a guide on how to handle ethnographic essays look no further because this article provides you with all information you need to know about ethnographic writing and different topics that you can use to practice.

What is an Ethnography Essay or Paper?

An ethnographic essay is a piece of writing that focuses on a subculture, culture, or group. The emphasis and focus is usually on observation, field notes, and observations.

ethnography writing

The understanding that any ethnographic paper seeks is the way people think and live their everyday life. Therefore, spending time with people is necessary for the writer to determine how people live and what they are interested in.

An ethnographic essay should have an introduction, literature review, methodology, data analysis, and conclusion.

How to Write an Ethnography Essay?

The following are important tips that one should consider when writing an ethnographic essay :

1. Research on Existing Studies on the Topic

primary research

By researching on the existing knowledge, you will be able to know areas of the topic that have already been explored and identify areas that need additional new knowledge.

Also, you are able to identify questions about the topic that have been left unanswered and the gaps that still exists. Additionally, you will be able to write your work confidently without the danger of duplicating the work of other people.

2. Research on the Topic or Focus Group

The purpose of researching on the topic or focus group is to test your hypothesis. For example, you can answer some research questions, try various methods of collecting data and record observations in real time. You can also learn about the ethics of the focus group.

This helps refine the topic and familiarize with the context of what you will write about. Also, you may get insight on any obstacle that you may have overlooked.

3. Use both Primary and Secondary Data when Conducting Research

When researching you should collect data through observation in real time, interviews, and focus groups. These are first hand sources of information that are authentic.

Also, you should use published studies and articles which present you with the ideas of how others have conducted ethnographic research.

4. Develop a Thesis Statement

writing thesis statement

While conducting your research, formulate a thesis statement which will be the main argument of the paper. It should describe what you are exploring in your research.

It is the main idea of your paper and not necessarily the questions that the topic poses.

It should be straight to the point and brief with no jargon to help the reader understand what your ethnography paper is all about

5. Use Retrospective or Prospective Study Design

Retrospective design involves the study of the past while prospective design involves data collection about an event that is ongoing.

The design you use depends on whether you want to pick up memories from people about an event of the past or if you want to find out something that is actually transpiring.

6. Take Notes during the Ethnographic Study

Taking notes will help clarify the observations made, provide audit trail for your research and look for patterns in data. Participants’ notes helps record observation in the real time that they happened and prevents the efforts of try to remember what was observed later.

Also through notes preconceived notions are avoided and relevant thoughts for your analysis captured.

7. Write the Introduction

introduction in research

The introduction of an ethnographic essay should provide the background information about the issue being written about.

A good ethnographic introduction should include a thesis statement that presents an argument and a proper investigation on why the topic is important to investigate.

Here you set the tone for the entire paper. Therefore, the introduction should be catchy to motivate the reader to continue reading.

8. Write the Background Information

This is where the information that gives the reader the context of what your ethnography paper is all about is written. The information included here should be relevant to your hypothesis or argument.

Geographical place where the research took place should also be included. Also, the literature review which consists of what has been written previously about the topic should be included.

Additionally, provide an explanation of how your research contributes to the understanding of the topic.

9. Write the Methodology

This is where you include how you as the ethnographer collected information and data. You can also include the limitations as well as the biases in the data process.

Data collection entails how you observed the data, the exact data you observed and how you recorded it.

10. Write the Findings

presenting research findings

These include the actual representation of your research which is data, quotes, keywords and illustrations. To do this you can choose a method of presentation which can be charts, tables, diagrams, and photographs.

Everything that is included in this part should be clear and concise for the reader to get the relevant facts of your research.

Everything that does not relate to your arguments directly should not be included in this part because it is unnecessary.

To keep it as simple as possible think of it as a presentation for non-specialists in your field of specialization.

11. Conclude your Ethnography

This is where you provide the summary for your paper. For any conclusion of an ethnography to be good it must include the argument that is presented on the thesis statement.

Also, it should provide the context of how your research fits into the larger researches already conducted about the topic. The language used to write it should be understandable by non-specialists. It should be clear and direct with no jargon.

Ethnography Essay Example Topics

  • Access the different career paths among children from rich families and poor families.
  • Outline the link that is seen as obvious between drug trafficking and violence experienced in South American Countries
  • In details, discuss the effectiveness of parenting practices used by African American parents to socialize their children
  • Analyse the perception of success and failure in low and middle class families compare to high social class families.
  • What policies can departments dealing with the welfare of children put in place to ensure that the rate of juvenile delinquency in America has achieved a significant drop. 
  • How religions especially Hinduism and Islam have influenced the perception of gender socialization
  • The effects of continued terrorism acts on migration and what that means for the tourism sector of affected countries
  • The plight of the homeless people in America and the rise of insecurity in urban centres
  • The discrimination of the minority races in America and its effects in the rise of incarceration rates in involved communities
  • The acceptance and opposition of euthanasia in Brazil and the effects it has on the population over time
  • How the increased adaptation of modern lifestyles of the western culture in Africa have impacted the traditional ways of African communities
  • The process of immigrants adapting to life in America and how it leads to the struggle to fit in
  • The toil for the American dream and its influence on criminality among the majority of African Americans
  • The rise of globalization and its impact on the economy of majority of African countries
  • The increased rate of drug abuse in Tertiary institutions and its effects on the quality of graduates

ethnographic research paper outline

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Home — Essay Samples — Arts & Culture — Ethnography

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Essays on Ethnography

Ethnographic essay topics and outline examples, essay title 1: unveiling cultural realities: an ethnographic study of [specific culture].

Thesis Statement: This ethnographic research paper provides an in-depth exploration of [specific culture], aiming to reveal the cultural practices, beliefs, social structures, and everyday life experiences of its members, while also shedding light on the impact of globalization and modernization.

  • Introduction
  • Research Context: Overview of [specific culture] and Its Significance
  • Research Methods: Participant Observation, Interviews, and Data Collection
  • Cultural Practices and Traditions: Rituals, Customs, and Social Norms
  • Community and Social Structure: Family, Hierarchy, and Social Roles
  • Impact of Globalization: Changes, Challenges, and Adaptations
  • Conclusion: Insights Gained and the Cultural Richness of [specific culture]

Essay Title 2: Urban Ethnography: Exploring the Dynamics of [Specific Urban Community]

Thesis Statement: This ethnographic study focuses on [specific urban community], examining the urban environment, social interactions, community networks, and the challenges and opportunities that residents encounter in their daily lives.

  • Research Context: Introduction to [specific urban community] and Its Demographics
  • Research Methods: Immersive Fieldwork, Surveys, and Ethnographic Data
  • Urban Landscape: Architecture, Public Spaces, and Neighborhood Characteristics
  • Community Bonds: Social Cohesion, Networks, and Support Systems
  • Challenges of Urban Life: Poverty, Gentrification, and Access to Resources
  • Aspirations and Resilience: Stories of Residents and Their Urban Experience
  • Conclusion: Understanding [specific urban community] and the Complex Urban Fabric

Essay Title 3: Ethnography of [Specific Subculture]: Navigating Identities, Belonging, and Expression

Thesis Statement: This ethnographic research paper explores the world of [specific subculture], shedding light on the subcultural identity, values, rituals, and modes of expression, while also examining the subculture's relationship with mainstream culture and the challenges it faces.

  • Subcultural Context: Introduction to [specific subculture] and Its Significance
  • Research Methods: Immersion, Interviews, and Documenting Subcultural Practices
  • Subcultural Identity: Shared Beliefs, Symbols, and Modes of Expression
  • Subculture vs. Mainstream Culture: Tensions, Resistance, and Integration
  • Subcultural Challenges: Stereotypes, Stigmatization, and Legal Issues
  • Subcultural Resilience: Community Building, Artistic Expression, and Social Change
  • Conclusion: Embracing the Diversity of [specific subculture] and Its Impact on Society

Ethnographic Report About The Sikh Diaspora

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Micro-ethnography Report: Observation of The Pool Area

Ethnography research of the polarities in society, the use of ethnography analysis and interview to analyze the work, the concept of feminist ethnography, let us write you an essay from scratch.

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Strengths and Weaknesses of Ethnography in Relation to Marxist Geography

The analysis of ethnographic methods, the role of ethnography in jenkins work, autoethnography: a personal and cultural exploration.

Ethnography (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "folk, people, nation" and γράφω grapho "I write") is a branch of anthropology and the systematic study of individual cultures.

Ethnography explores cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subject of the study. Ethnographers mainly use qualitative methods, though they may also employ quantitative data. The typical ethnography is a holistic study and so includes a brief history, and an analysis of the terrain, the climate, and the habitat.

Gerhard Friedrich Müller developed the concept of ethnography as a separate discipline whilst participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–43) as a professor of history and geography. Whilst involved in the expedition, he differentiated Völker-Beschreibung as a distinct area of study. This became known as "ethnography," following the introduction of the Greek neologism ethnographia by Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin.

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40 Most Interesting Ethnographic Research Topics

Ethnographic Research Topics

Finding A-grade examples of ethnographic research topics may not be a walk in the park for college students.

The way of writing an effective ethnographic paper depends on the points discussed below.

So, here is a ready solution.

What is an Ethnographic Research Paper?

Ethnography is a social science method of research that counts on personal experiences within a subject group or a culture. Different instructors may recommend several writing guidelines for such a paper, but it generally follows a standard format. Such an arrangement incorporates a proper analysis and evaluation of the problem. Before we embark on learning how to write an ethnography, let us have a look at an ethnographic essay outline.

Structure of an Ethnographic Essay

The paper should follow the outline below: Introduction It is where you introduce your thesis statement, which is the main idea of the whole project. A proper ethnographic research topic would form a strong foundation for this part. The reader should be able to see an overview of what to expect in the essay. Methodology In this part, you explain how you did your research. Mention all the tools used and why you settled on them. It should be detailed and even a couple of in such a way that the reader can verify the information you used. Presentation and Analysis of Collected Data The findings should be placed on the table first. They should be in a logical manner, beginning with the essential facts. After that, analyze and precisely interpret the data. Let your readers know your criteria for interpretation before you start. Conclusion Different ethnographic research paper topics have different endings. However, the standard procedure is that you reiterate the most important points. Ensure that they are presented in an original way to make your conclusion not to look like a reversed introduction. That is the first part; however, finding quality examples of ethnographic research topics is another battle. Yet, don’t panic, we’ve got a legion of professional soldiers to cover your back on this.

We are going to explore a list of ethnography topics in clusters of ten each to prompt you for more. Get that notebook as we embark on this exciting experience. The items strive to meet your high school and college ethnography topics requirements.

Let’s get right into it, gang.

We will start with the easiest ones as we slowly advance to the technical topics. There is something for everybody!

Easy Ethnography Topics for High School

  • A study of the incisor tooth
  • The best careers that people can settle on in 2023
  • A survey of the lifestyle of a teacher
  • A study of the health benefits of taking water daily
  • A look at the importance of the sun to children
  • How greetings are in Africa
  • A study of the eating habits of dogs and cats
  • A comparison of the red meat and white meat
  • How wealthy children compare to needy children in academic performance
  • A look at how children behave at home versus in school

Interesting Ethnography Topics for College

  • An ethnographic study of the Chinese diets
  • The inner perspective of the culture of skateboarders
  • Critical issues on the social, cultural experience of the dancing
  • How nurses make sense of their caring abilities on the job
  • A study of how second-hand merchants impact the bookselling industry
  • Evaluating the satisfaction of a patient with the quality of care in a hospital
  • What myths and misconceptions surround the global connection
  • A study on the effect of uniforms in schools
  • How language impacts culture
  • A survey of qualitative sampling in data collection

Great Mini Ethnography Topics

  • How have malls changed the shopping sector?
  • Racism and its effects on campus
  • Values promoted by media productions
  • How cultural productions interpret the history
  • A study of the communities in New York
  • Teamwork and its impact on football
  • Reasons for differences in families
  • How service staff view people
  • Lives and cultures of the hotel industry
  • How immigrants express their identity
  • The view of people on gays
  • Adjustments made by women to fit in societies
  • Homeschooling and low grades
  • Hunting as a rite of passage
  • Wrestling and men
  • Concerts and teens
  • Cultural differences between different ethnic groups
  • How political clubs are changing
  • A study of street children in Africa
  • Politics and the U.S

How to write an effective ethnographic paper depends on the points discussed above. There are several ethnography paper examples online to give you more ideas on what you can write. Do not limit yourself to the topics above; create more unique ones on your own.

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What Is The Proper Ethnographic Research Paper Structure

Writing an ethnographic research paper won’t be easy. It’s not the paper itself that will give you the most trouble, but the research involved. Ethnography relies on personal experiences and any research of this kind will include plenty of interviews. You will also need to corroborate the information you glean from them by providing factual evidence from various official reports and other documents.

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The paper itself should have the following structure:

  • Introduction.

In this part of the paper, you introduce your thesis statement, which is the central idea of the whole project. You also need to provide a short overview of the things readers should expect to see in the essay.

  • Methodology.

This section must explain how exactly you conducted your research. List all the tools you used and tell your readers why you choose them. Your methodology has to be detailed, and even the number of people you questioned needs to be mentioned. Your main goal is to describe your research in such a way that any reader who wishes to verify the information you used won’t have any trouble finding it.

  • Presentation and analysis of collected data.

Start with presenting the data collected during your research. Remember that all the important facts need to be presented in a logical order that will highlight connection between them. Once the data is presented, you need to analyze and most importantly interpret it. Be sure to provide your criteria for interpretation beforehand so that your readers will understand your thinking. When you build your presentation, you will need to use some very specific examples to prove every point you make. As presentation and interpretation are in essence two different parts of your paper, they must follow the same pattern.

  • Conclusion.

In the final paragraph of your research paper, you need to reiterate the most important points. Try to present them in an original way so that your conclusion doesn’t look like a reversed introduction. You must also explain how your research affects the field of study as a whole. However, be careful not to introduce any new ideas in this final section.

When you choose the topic for an ethnographic research project, your main consideration should be the availability of data. You need to be sure that there is enough information available to you. Otherwise, you won’t be able to create a strong educational essay and the project will be considered a failure. Therefore, you should do some preliminary research before you make the final decision on your topic.

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3223F course outline Trombley 2023

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  1. Ethnographic Paper (600 Words)

    ethnographic research paper outline

  2. 😂 Ethnography essay. Ethnography Essay Example. 2019-03-03

    ethnographic research paper outline

  3. 😊 Ethnography paper examples. Five Simple Steps for Helping Students

    ethnographic research paper outline

  4. Possible Outline for Ethnography

    ethnographic research paper outline

  5. Hannah`s Ethnographic project

    ethnographic research paper outline

  6. Ethnographic Research Is Used To Study Child Development

    ethnographic research paper outline


  1. Research Methodology

  2. Introduction to Research

  3. Types of Research Part 2

  4. Writing a Research Paper : Structure of a research paper outline

  5. Online Workshop on Research Paper Writing & Publishing Day 2

  6. What does it mean to do your research? How would you do your research?


  1. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 32, 2004 (April:322-327) 322

    Box 1. The Typical Outline of an Ethnographic Research Publication 1. The research question. May be formally stated as a hypothesis or informally as a motive to under- take the study. Usually found in the opening paragraphs. Poses a question about one or several related aspects of human association poorly understood by sociologists.

  2. Ethnographic Research

    Studying distant or new cultures. Studying and observing people's behaviour in a specific society or community over a more extended period with changing circumstances. Example: Malinowski's six years of research on the people of Trobriand islands in Melanesia. Today ethnographic research is also used in social sciences.

  3. What Is Ethnography?

    Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word "ethnography" also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

  4. How to Write An Ethnography

    Mar 15, 2017 The essential components to write an ethnography not an article! Writing a journal or article is not the same as writing an ethnography. An ethnography is a lengthy written...


    BOX 12.1 Key elements of ethnographic research Ethnographic research entails: an interest in cultures, cultural understanding, and meaning-making; looking at the culture from the 'inside', with the emic perspective;

  6. Practices of Ethnographic Research: Introduction to the Special Issue

    It is an assemblage of seeing and looking, hearing and listening, handling objects, describing, interviewing, recording, reading, documenting, and working with data—transcribing, storing, transforming, sharing, labelling, coding, sequencing, comparing, interpreting, visualizing, and quoting—as well as many other practices.

  7. (Pdf) Ethnography Research: an Overview

    This study is an ethnographic research. Ethnographic research, to Sharma and Sarkar (2019) involves an orderly study of a group of people and their culture. "The characteristics of Ethnography ...

  8. UCLA Labor Center

    Ethnographic Research and Design Click here to view the PPT slides that will review ethnographic methodology, types of ethnographic research, and how to translate theory to practice within the field. Ethnographic Research Design in Action!

  9. Useful Tips on Writing an Ethnography Paper

    An ethnography paper is a lengthy composed description that provides awareness and builds comprehension of social models in a cultural context. Usually, social scientists (anthropologists and sociologists) write ethnography papers in order to present them to a bigger public.

  10. Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography

    The previous articles (there were 2 before this 1) in this series discussed several methodological approaches commonly used by qualitative researchers in the health professions. This article focuses on another important qualitative methodology: ethnography. It provides background for those who will encounter this methodology in their reading rather than instructions for carrying out such research.

  11. Digital Ethnography: An Introduction to Theory and Practice

    The paper moves beyond a call for studies of digital folklore and instead endeavors to outline existing forms and methods of digital scholarship to inform its broad usage in the study of folklore. ... They demonstrate that while digital ethnography can help inform research, limitations including slow internet speeds, netspeak, differential ...

  12. Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography

    Abstract Autoethnography is an intriguing and promising qualitative method that offers a way of giving voice to personal experience for the purpose of extending sociological understanding.

  13. Introduction to Ethnography

    The chapter next outlines three principal research methods that most ethnographers utilize—namely, participant-observation, fieldnote writing, and ethnographic interviewing. The discussion then shifts from method to methodology to explain the primary qualities that separate ethnography from other forms of participant-observation-oriented research.

  14. Analyzing Ethnographic Data

    Analysis begins with coding. Ethnographers Scott-Jones & Watt (2010) have described ethnographic analysis as a two-stage process first involving the organizing and ordering of your data, and then the analysis proper (Scott-Jones & Watt, 2010, p. 159). In their framing, coding heralds the transition between these two stages.

  15. Ethnographic Essay: how to write an ethnography paper/report + Examples

    Ethnographic writing may include writing ethnography assignments, ethnographic essays, or ethnographic research papers. In this article we will guide you how to write an ethnography paper - all types for college and graduate level students. We will also discuss how to conduct an ethnographic research study.

  16. Ethnographic research as an evolving method for supporting healthcare

    Background. Research can help to support the practice of healthcare improvement, and identify ways to "improve improvement" [].Ethnography has been identified particularly as a research method that can show what happens routinely in healthcare, and reveal the 'what and how of improving patient care [].Ethnography is not one method, but a paradigm of mainly qualitative research involving ...

  17. I'm Interested in Autoethnography, but How Do I Do It?

    meaningful research results, we offer in this article some suggestions and reflections regarding the process of conducting an autoethnography - from developing the research question to reporting the findings. These recommendations draw from both narrative and ethnographic research methodologies, as well as descriptive and arts-based approaches.


    1) where will your field site be? Describe the place/places you would like to conduct research and offer important information regarding its geography, population (if relevant), and social composition. If you will be doing multi-sited ethnography, discuss your plans on dividing up time between the sites.

  19. How to Write an Ethnography Essay or Research Paper

    The following are important tips that one should consider when writing an ethnographic essay: 1. Research on Existing Studies on the Topic. By researching on the existing knowledge, you will be able to know areas of the topic that have already been explored and identify areas that need additional new knowledge.

  20. Ethnography Essays

    Ethnographic Essay Topics and Outline Examples Essay Title 1: Unveiling Cultural Realities: An Ethnographic Study of [Specific Culture] Thesis Statement: This ethnographic research paper provides an in-depth exploration of [specific culture], aiming to reveal the cultural practices, beliefs, social structures, and everyday life experiences of its members, while also shedding light on the ...

  21. Ethnographic Research Topics: Writing Tips And Best Examples

    Before we embark on learning how to write an ethnography, let us have a look at an ethnographic essay outline. Structure of an Ethnographic Essay. The paper should follow the outline below: Introduction. It is where you introduce your thesis statement, which is the main idea of the whole project. A proper ethnographic research topic would form ...

  22. Analyzing The Ethnographic Research Paper Structure

    Introduction. In this part of the paper, you introduce your thesis statement, which is the central idea of the whole project. You also need to provide a short overview of the things readers should expect to see in the essay. Methodology. This section must explain how exactly you conducted your research.

  23. 3223F course outline Trombley 2023 (pdf)

    The final research project will consist of several components, including: a short presentation of the project in class (5%); a detailed field interview and transcription (20%); and the final ethnographic analysis paper (30%). Your final paper should be about 2000 words and is due on Friday December 8.

  24. Outline Ethnographic Research Paper

    4.9 (6757 reviews) 5462 Finished Papers Your Price: .35 per page Register Meet Jeremiah! He is passionate about scholarly writing, World History, and Political sciences. If you want to make a lasting impression with your research paper, count on him without hesitation. Outline Ethnographic Research Paper -