2.1 Introduction to the EAR toolbox and key tools

In this section you will be introduced to the key tools (methods) needed to carry out Ethnographic Action Research. As an EAR researcher you will learn to select the appropriate tools from the toolbox to conduct your research. You will need to use at least three tools from our toolbox in order to carry out any research plan. All of the tools are best used in conjunction with other tools in the toolbox.

Key tools

By reading this section, we hope you will get a sense of the different kinds of knowledge different tools are likely to generate. You can add additional tools to this toolbox.

1. Participant observation and field notes

An EAR researcher is both a participant and an observer. Field notes record as much as possible of what EAR researchers see and hear and also record their own reactions and ideas as they happen. This helps an EAR researcher to think through difficult issues, to reflect upon and share with others some of the emerging and important research themes they come across. Field notes need to be written at least once a week, preferably more often.

This is the kind of data-collecting activity that EAR researchers will continuously undertake, and can also be undertaken by anyone involved in the project simply by reflecting on what they observe and recording this in the form of field notes. EAR researchers do this every day.

2. Interviews: In-depth and group

In-depth interviews are (usually one on one) detailed conversations. Interviews should be guided by an 'interview schedule' - a list of a few issues to be covered in each interview - while leaving lots of room to respond to what is interesting in the conversation.

Group interviews are discussions in which researchers set a topic and guide discussion but allow the participants to talk to each other and develop a conversation. Group interviews are sometimes called 'focus group discussions'. A good group size is between 6 and 10 people.

3. Participatory techniques

The participatory techniques included in this handbook are aimed at getting you started in collecting data and quickly gaining an understanding of the local area, local people and local issues. They involve local people participating in defining their own issues. They are a useful way of starting your EAR work, and they can be drawn upon at any time to explore issues in different ways, and to test findings or ideas generated using other tools.

4. Short questionnaire-based surveys

All of the tools above generate detailed information on a small number of participants. Short questionnaire-based surveys can allow researchers to generate less detailed information from larger numbers, and can help produce statistical information for evaluation reports to external agencies. It is an especially useful tool for testing ideas emerging from other research activities.

5. Diaries, feedback mechanisms and other self-documentation

All kinds of participants - staff, users, and community members - can express themselves on a range of social or personal issues; keep logs of their activities; or document their lives through text, audio recordings, photographs or drawings. Projects can also use feedback forms, visitors' books, log-books, suggestion boxes, and other ways to get feedback and to monitor activities and frequencies of participation.

6. Public information and documentary material

A range of data will already exist that you can draw upon to get a broader understanding of your research focus.
None of the tools should be used on their own to fully understand an issue - just as you would use a range of tools to build a house; you need to use a range of tools to build your research and understandings.

For example, you might use a participatory technique, in-depth interviews and participant observation to explore what poverty means in a particular place. You would never attempt to understand this fully through just using participatory techniques, just using in-depth interviews, or just using participant observation. Through combining these tools you get to a deeper and more rounded understanding of any issue, topic or group.

In this section we provide some examples to demonstrate some of the different things that you can do with particular tools. The examples will give you an idea of how tools can be used in specific ways and you can think about them and adapt them for your own research. This section also provides some exercises so you can practice using these tools.