Ethnography: Method in a Nutshell


At its very root, ethnography consists of spending time with people and recording their responses and behaviors. The classic ethnographies such as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski 1922) or The Nuer (Evans-Pritchard 1951) would attempt to observe and record all aspects of societies including social, economic, political, and ideological organization, religion and belief, landscape, subsistence, kinship, conflict, marriage alliances, etc. This was possible as ethnographers spent multiple years in the same site.

Recently, the focus has changed to question-oriented or question-driven ethnography where the ethnographer goes to the field and gathers data to answer a posed question. While this approach still requires trust building between respondents and ethnographers, the specific focus usually means that ethnographers today spend less time in the field than did their predecessors.

The methods used today in a nutshell are:

  • Participant Observation
  • Interviews
    • Open-Ended
    • Semi-Structured
    • Structured
  • Focus Group Discussions
  • Questionnaire-Based Surveys


Using participant observation, the ethnographer engages with the respondents and the community, to gain an etic and emic perspective. This is the primary strength of ethnographic techniques since it enables comparison of reported behaviors and norms with observation of practiced and lives behaviors and norms.


Interviews are usually informal or formal conversations specifically meant to elicit data and information from respondents. Interview techniques used in ethnographic research can range from

  • Open-Ended Interviews: This are Broad/Deep Listening dialogues between ethnographer and respondent where the conversation is not structured and the respondent usually determines the direction and nature of conversation in an organic dialogue with the ethnographer. These interviews result in long narratives without structuring themes, and are the key to trust building between ethnographer and the community. These interviews are often repeated to maintain the dialogue and the trust. Many ethnographers employ the open-ended interview in the initial phases of the field work to build relationships with the local community. While seemingly unstructured, aforementioned analytical techniques can be used to detect patterns and themes in the data that can be verified or tested with other interviewing techniques.
  • Semi-Structured Interviews: Here the ethnographer has a list of themes around which the questions will be asked and which will structure the interview. The responses are usually in the narrative form. However, the semi-structured interview usually leaves space for the respondent to go off topic, to elaborate, to explain, and to draw analogies or inferences akin to the open-ended interview, and hence is valuable on providing context to the responses.
  • Structured Interviews: Here the ethnographer asks scripted questions that call for elaborate narrative responses but do not allow deviation from the questions. The strength of structured interviews is that all the questions asked are identical and hence make comparative analysis easier than open-ended or even semi-structured interviews. However, the primary drawback of the structured interview is the loss of contextual data or seemingly tangential information that emerges in the open-ended or semi-structured interviews.


These are not as actively used in most academic ethnographic approaches, but can be used to gain access to information and data from a large group of respondents in relatively little time. The ethnographer usually asks structured questions, and may ask each respondent in the focus group in turn, or may allow the focus group to determine the nature and order of responses. Often, the ethnographer has to maintain control over the group to enable the quieter people to speak up and to prevent a few respondents from dominating the conversation.


Usually employed by ethnographers interested in scaling, transferring, or generalizing their research, surveys are used to increase sample size and often ask questions that have already been tested and verified through participant observation, and other forms of interviews. Specifically, the surveys are used when the ethnographer has already built trust in the community and hence can be reasonably sure of getting more accurate and precise responses from the respondents.