Ethnography is basically cultural description. It usually depends on participant observation, and nearly always depends on getting people's answers to your questions. However, you can also use other methods as part of an ethnographic project, and in larger projects it would be normal (or even required) to use a variety of them.
The best time to start an ethnographic project is when you land in a new culture. You can learn from the initial adjustment. During the early stages of cultural adaptation. You'll initiate basic social contact and learn how to use routine etiquette in normal social situations. If it involves language learning, you'll start with simple greetings in the local language.
Maintain a diary as a contemporaneous written record of the learning experience.
Contemporaneous means written at the time. Do not try to work form memory days after the event.
Write in the diary an outline of the timeframe and location (when and where) of orientation.
Make explicit notes of observations, your interview questions and the answers you were given, your observations, and things to which you had to adjust. It's better to get everything and not need it, than to miss important things that you'll need later.
Take the role of a learner. Account for your own cultural predispositions by identifying and making them explicit. Develop a list of ethnographic questions and revise them as you learn more.
Describe the process of personal cultural adjustment. Report the effects of culture shock on yourself and on your relations with others. Identify major influences and issues pertaining to inter-cultural communication that impinge on personal relationships.
Describe major features of normal lifestyle:
Represent empathically the indigenous (emic) viewpoint
Write the normal daily routine of the life of a family.
Suggest plausible reasons for observations concerning lifestyle.
Identify influential social institutions at a local level and suggest the prominent features of their influence.
Identify and suggest explanations of major cultural streams that determine world view.
Make notes on conceptual and perceptual systems if you observe any.
Make allowance for individual differences and changes of mind (e.g. opinion, mood, temperament, occupation, gender, status, etc.)
Draw comparisons and contrasts between the target culture and your own.
Record what you found out through debriefing and the lessons you learnt from hindsight. Make you own personal assessment of your growth in cognitive understanding.as well as your social and emotional learning.
Getting permission to do research in an organization can be very difficult, because people are afraid you will hang out their dirty washing, get access to confidential information, or waste their time.
You will learn much more than you think about the organization by finding the entry channels and dealing with its people to gain admission. You are figuring out who the doorkeepers are and what the passwords are.
It can be very frustrating at the time, because you are often working with inadequate information and might not know the doorkeepers.
Be encouraged, and keep good notes. You will probably learn so much but don't quite know what it is that you're learning, and then by the time you're in, it starts to feel familiar. Like many cultural learning experiences, it will make much more sense in hindsight.
You might find that access is limited (perhaps for good reasons), but you can modify your topic according to the extent of access you have. Besides, when you're in and trusted, they might provide greater access.
Interviews are often excellent for getting detailed information, although there are practical limits about how many people you can meet. They lend themselves best for open-ended questions and information that is not statistical, but can also work well for closed questions that generate statistical information.
The idea is simply that you write a list of questions and then interview people. The advantages are:
You personally meet people and can monitor the atmosphere of the conversation.
You observe any problems and unexpected eventualities in how people interpret your questions.
Your list of questions will probably evolve as you find out more about your topic.
You can follow up with spontaneous questions to get more information if a topic comes up that you didn't expect.
You get instant feedback.
You get very specific individual information.
It's important to put people at ease and create a situation that creates openness and honesty. Don’t appear threatening. To put people at ease, ethnographers can memorise their questions so that they are naturally part of normal conversations and are useful in high-security situations. It also makes it easy to ask follow-up questions as the opportunities arise.
You can also make them feel like they know something valuable; most people love to share their knowledge.
While most interviews will be with individuals, you can also interview couples or groups, and it can become much more like a focus group. In some cases, the group dynamics might tell you as much as people's answers. Whether you interview individuals, couples or groups, you should also observe body language.
Because a list of questions can evolve very quickly and naturally, it is easy to start before the questions are properly developed. It is better to have a list of good questions first, so that the first interviews are not wasted.
When it come to asking questions, as much as possible, keep interviews to friendly conversations and make notes immediately afterwards, not during the conversation. Technically these are called "free informal interviews". Other than that, there are certain important attitudes and rationales in ethnography.
Assume that their culture really makes sense. People almost certainly have very good reasons for what they do. Try to find out those reasons. I am consistently surprised that cultures are so logical, even when I don't agree with some values.
Are some answers better than others? Some people will give better answers than others and some answers might not seem to make much sense. It might be that they do make sense, but you haven't figured out why yet because you haven't gone far enough into the mindset.
Some people give partial answers simply because they are speaking spontaneously and don't have time to think out their entire rationale. And of course there will always be people who simply don't know why or who deliberately give you a poor answer because they are shy or feel threatened.
There will probably be cultural aspects to asking good questions. For example, people of one culture differentiate sharply between the purpose (hidden agenda) of the question and what it is that is asked (direct intent). They might not answer what you asked, but respond according to what they perceive your purpose to be.
As another example, they might answer your question very well, but their idea of a reason might not seem logical to you. In that case, you need to identify what kind of cultural logic they are using. If you dismiss the answer, you have dismissed an excellent learning opportunity.
Who should you ask? People might become embarrassed if you push them for an answer and they honestly don't know. It might be totally inappropriate to ask a person of the opposite sex, or of particular age groups.
Some people will be recognized as knowing more than others. People will generally know who has the job of safeguarding their cultural knowledge. Those people may be university staff, shamans, reclusive mystics, artisans, or grandmothers. They maintain their knowledge, perhaps act as a resource to the general population, teach it to others, and pass it onto their replacements in the next generation.
Some safeguarded knowledge might deliberately be kept secret, and some knowledge is considered too "deep" for most people to understand. They may also use specific terminology that is different from the general populace.
How much depends on who you think they are? Be aware that your race, age, gender, apparent class or role could affect the research. For example, if you are a male, then you might have limited access to women informants in some societies and only be able to research amongst men.
Alternatively, you might receive very different answers from a female researcher. This is not bad, but you need to realize that your identity is a factor in what you can learn. Obviously, then, a woman might be able to do very good research amongst women if only men had previously researched that group of people.
People will also probably give better answers when they know you better and trust you more. If they think you are a genuine friend who wants to learn, they will likely give you an honest answer. But if you say that you are writing a graduate dissertation, they can feel threatened by your role and very pressured to provide a clever answer. They might decline, especially if they have much lesser formal education, or they might manufacture a fictitious answer. There are cases when researchers have become disrespected, and people make up spurious, fictitious answers.
Give people time. It might be that you are poorly understood or unknowingly asked an offensive question. Be aware that many people might be too polite to tell you, and you will only find out what happened after a considerable period of time.
Avoid frustrating questions. Some questions can annoy people if they sound like:
Have you stopped beating your wife? (Whether you answer yes or no, it still means that you have been beating you wife.)
How much is a one-dollar candy? (The answer is so obvious that it can be frustrating, and it seems like you're fishing for another answer.)
In ethnography, anecdotes are very useful because they demonstrate the beliefs of the person giving the anecdote. They are also worthy of study as local folklore; for example, people in organizations use them as folklore to maintain their organization's unique culture and identity.
In most other research, anecdotal information is usually rather useless. It might be hearsay or rumor. The informant might have motives or opinions that slant the anecdote so far that it might not be useful information. A researcher might not have enough reliable information to know whether or not the anecdote is even true. Even if it is, the circumstances of the anecdote and factors affecting it might be unknown. Moreover, an anecdote does not prove that something is normal; it might show that something happened once, but a researcher cannot easily draw conclusions or make generalizations.
You can ethically conduct research, even on sensitive topics.
1. Be respectful of persons, their culture, and their institutions.
As an underlying principle, you are required to treat people as valuable and worthy of trust. This brings up issues of your personal ethnocentricity and prejudices, potential favouritism toward some individuals, and your bias toward some viewpoints.
Clearly, you do not need to agree with everything that people say and do, and you could be exposed to practices that may be seen as grossly immoral. Nevertheless, your starting point is your respect toward them.
2. Get people's permission if they are to be your informants.
You only need to need to ask them orally; in fact anything more might make them suspicious or act unnaturally. For example, "I'm new here and I'm learning your culture. I don't understand some things. Could you help me please?" (Of course you'd adapt the example to your situation.) Then, as much as possible, keep interviews to friendly conversations and make notes immediately afterwards, not during the conversation. Technically these are called "free informal interviews". They also enhance your security.
Some interviewees give permission to be quoted with their names, especially on matters that are not sensitive and perhaps enhance their prestige. You can reference them fully as formal interviews.
In some countries, privacy laws require you to obtain the written consent of informants, but the general trend this that this does not apply to free informal interviews if you keep specific identities confidential.
Some topics become impractical if laws require you to disclose fully the nature of the research project for getting informants' or subjects' permission. In many cases, providing that information is just unscientific, because it predisposes people toward particular responses, making your conclusions invalid.
3. Do not make identities public without their explicit consent.
Keep people’s personal information private and confidential unless they have authorized its release. This is also a legal requirement under privacy laws.
Unless you have explicit consent, you should keep informants' quotes anonymous in the final work, and maintain the integrity of the informants' information by keeping it distinct from your analysis and comments. Readers should not be able to identify your informants from the way you have written about them. Informants might also validly perceive audio or video recordings to be a risk. "What if someone recognizes my voice? Or sees my face?" It is generally better simply to add a note in your introduction that informants are not identified for ethical reasons. You might find pseudonyms helpful.
However, you should record identities (as much as you know), places, and times of interviews in your field notes. These records are helpful when you need to establish the authenticity of your field information with your supervisor, but these records must then be handled according to security procedures.
Similarly, you may not mention in a public document an organization by name without its permission unless its activities are on public record in the location of their activities. Some organizations need to operate out of the public eye, and being mentioned in a public document may endanger their personnel or their activities.
4. Protect the interests of your research subjects.
First, avoid any way in which informants' cooperation and personal information could be used against them. In some cases, people can be arrested and imprisoned based on your information. For example, Spradley's ethnography of the homeless in the US could have been used to arrest many of his informants had it been published locally. The danger is even greater in countries with oppressive regimes or persecution policies.
Your research could lead you to knowledge of illegal activities. Your commitment to your informants generally means that you should prefer to protect their interests. In some cases, you might even need to "pull the plug" on your research to protect a victim. Besides, simply by being present and observing an illegal act may lead you to be deemed an accomplice.
Second, your research, including your relationships with informants and any means used to acquire information, may not be exploitative, or seen to be so. Besides the obvious problems of inappropriate relationships (e.g. romantic entanglements), your information gathering gives you the ability to become power-broker or mediator, which is a potentially exploitive position. You also have a duty to protect them from exploitation.
Third, maintain a safe environment for yourself and others. Kind of obvious, with the emphasis on WHS and the current aversion to risk.
5. Your information must accurately reflect your sources.
Your reporting needs to be honest and representative of what you have observed, read, and heard. You need to protect the intellectual property of authors, informants, colleagues and research assistants.
The list of prohibitions is more illustrative of the kinds of potential problems:
• You may not use fictitious information. This includes not just manufactured information, but also bending, adjustingor exaggerating aspects to suit your own ends.
• You may not delete information that would create an impression different from taht which you had observed.
• Reference the source if you use other people’s ideas or data. You may not plagiarize or submit work resulting from unauthorized collusion.
6. Do not use deceptive means to obtain information.
While it is normal to select information that you should disclose, you may not provide misinformation.
Many books are available, but the following are recommended as starters:
• James P. Spradley The Ethnographic Interview Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1979.
• David M. Fetterman Ethnography Step by Step Applied Social Research Methods Series Vol. 17, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Ca. 1989.
Due to US legislative requirements for human research subjects to give prior written permission, US ethnographers have shifted toward “embedded ethnography”. In this approach, the ethnographer works with a team of informants (“co-workers or collaborators”) to write an ethnography.
It works well for organizational ethnography, but , disclosure of purpose and permission makes the researcher’s more difficult in cultural studies because it can precipitate subjects’ attitudes that defeat the research:
The Hawthorne effect: If people know that they are part of an experiment, they behave differently than they would if they didn’t know. They often try to make the experiment a "success."
The Pygmalion effect (also known as the Rosenthal effect), refers to the phenomenon in which people perform better when more is expected of them. It is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; if teachers expect children do better, then they probably will.
Lewis, S. and Russell, A. (2011) 'Being embedded : a way forward for ethnographic research.', Ethnography, 12 (3). pp. 398-416.