1.3.1 Ethnography

An ethnographic approach will produce rich understandings. These rich understandings consist of a range of relevant facts, observations, understandings, perceptions and interpretations.

  • Ethnography literally means to 'write (or represent) a culture'.
  • Ethnography is traditionally based on long-term engagement in the field of study, or 'field site' (i.e. an initiative and its communities).
  • A key method is participant observation, where the researcher participates in the society or culture being studied (i.e. lives amongst those people) yet retains an analytical or observational position so that through reflection and analysis the ethnographer can describe and interpret the place, people and activities.
  • An ethnographer looks for patterns, describes relationships and unpicks meanings.
  • Ethnography takes a 'holistic' approach to the subject of study - that is, the ethnographer looks at the whole social setting and understands individual events or relationships in a wider context (e.g. class, kinship or caste distinctions, extended families, the wider economy, government policies, politics, and so on).

In EAR an ethnographic approach aims to make sense of a complete range of social relationships and processes within which the initiative is doing its work. They include:

  • The immediate circle of workers and active participants - how they are organised, how they carry out their work, how the initiative fits into their lives.
  • Users, their everyday lives and ways of doing things (both in the initiative, but also in their families, friendships, social networks, jobs and so on).
  • The wider social context of the initiative: (e.g. social divisions within the community, language issues, local economy, social and cultural resources, power and institutions in the community).
  • Social structures and processes beyond the community (e.g. infrastructure, government policies, economic developments).

EAR researchers try to make sense of each feature of a place and an initiative in relation to the wider contexts and not in isolation from them. They focus on processes - e.g. how does internet or radio fit into the many different ways that people pass along information about health or education?

Through immersion in the field (that is, the ICT initiative and the local communities), an Ethnographic Action Researcher is better able to recommend actions based on sound local knowledge. This requires a wide range of methods that are flexible and responsive to local situations. Every experience, conversation and encounter can be treated as 'material' or 'data' alongside more formal research activities such as interviews. You could say that, in ethnography, 'everything is data', and should be noted in your notes for analysis.

The key to ethnography is that we focus on understanding people and their activities, ambitions and restrictions in a specific place, in detail and in its own terms . This way a researcher can understand how and why things operate in the way they do in this place , and will be in a better position to identify the need for, and encourage social change.

Ethnography uses a range of different methods (we call them tools and introduce then in the Toolbox section). An EAR researcher will use whatever tools are appropriate to their situation and will adapt tools to suit their needs. This will often mean combining different tools. Data collected using these different tools are brought together in the analysis (we show you how to do this in the Dealing with Data section). We look at all of our data and knowledge and experience together and in relation to each other.

These ethnographic principles and tools are supplemented by participatory techniques which add to the tools the EAR researcher can draw upon.