Research relies on this thing called methodology- a long word that particularly had no meaning to me until I took my first quantitative methods class (i.e. Statistics – another ugly word). No need for panic, methodology is simply related to the techniques and tools that one should use in order to address a specific research question. Those methods are generally divided into quantitative and qualitative, which are unfortunately often used independently and based on the idea that “those who do not like numbers, do qualitative and those who do not like people do quantitative”. I do not agree that any research should be attained by exclusion; on the contrary, a mixed method approach can be enriching for comprehensive analysis (Image 1). However, for the sake of organization this post is dedicated to ethnography as a qualitative method and its applicability.


Image 1: The chart shows how different typologies can be mixed according to the method used to collect data and method to analyse it. A few examples are also showed in parenthesis. Assembled by: Lara Furtado, 2015.

Qualitative research seeks to understand social and cultural phenomena through the observation and engagement of people. The methods used are often geared toward a low number of participants, therefore, one will rarely achieve a sample that is statistically significant, but the strength lies in the depth and richness of the information obtained.  Qualitative data has historically been devalued in certain fields such as economic development, policy or hard sciences, since numbers are a primary source of governmental and public interest. However, the existence of BIG DATA has facilitated the access to information for the general public and researchers, and thus quantitative limits are being exhausted at a faster pace. Research involving user interaction becomes increasingly popular including in computer science fields (Human Computer Interaction).

One relevant qualitative method is ethnography (informally called participant observation), which includes long term immersion and is typically place/community based. It consists of ongoing relations between the researcher and the participants, making ethnography a fluent and continuous form of observation and engagement. Interviews are aligned to the analysis of people’s behavior in place in order to put them into context. To summarize, the basic principles of ethnography are the following:

  1. It is based on rich data with a lot of detail;
  2. It Is used to understand processes, in a specific context, through which events and actions take place;
  3. The results are used to identify and anticipate phenomena.

Another important aspect, when collecting qualitative data is to document it accordingly by mastering the techniques of documentation and registry through field notes, transcribed interviews, drawings/diagrams, images and so on…The texts should be as systematic and detailed as possible. Finally, doing qualitative research is an inter-subjective process, which means that the role of the researcher as an influence cannot be ignored. One cannot be completely unbiased when collecting information but you can train to be a more passive and inviting listener.


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