Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Ethnography is the detailed direct study of small groups of people or communities.

explanatory context


Ethnography was a term originally used (in anthropology) to mean the study of the institutions and customs in small, well-defined communities in societies with little technological advance.


Ethnography is now generally used to refer to the detailed study of small groups of people (for example, in factories, classrooms, hospitals, ‘deviant’ sub-cultures) within a complex society. It is also used as a technique (often alongside other methods) in community studies.


Ethnography is seen as a basically descriptive approach by some practitioners and as a process for testing and developing theory by others.


For some ethnographers the strength of the approach is the insights it provides of social phenomena in their natural setting.


Thus, ethnography is often, although not always, used as a procedure for getting an understanding from the subjects’ point of view. This approach sees ethnography as means of gaining an understanding through an immersion of the researcher in the field of study. This presupposes that such immersion permits the researcher to come to appreciate the processes operating in the subject group, institution or community.


This immersion and attempting to see the subject’s point of view has lead to a tendency to see ethnography as closely linked to a phenomenological perspective. However, far from all ethnographic research is guided by phenomenological concerns and the approach has been used in conjunction with positivist orientations. Ethnography has also been used in critical social research. Ethnographic work is usually intended to provide detailed information on what people do and insights into what they think they are doing and why they are doing it. Watching what people do is useful as it provides a certain amount of direct data. However, as with any other data this only has meaning if put in some kind of context. If the researcher adopts an outsider view the data makes sense only through the researcher's frame of reference. This leads to the imposition of some external explanation onto the practices that operate within the group under study. In short, the researcher has a view of social actions that do not make the same sense to him or her as they do to the people in the social group.


Ethnography, thus goes one stage further and attempts to illicit the sense of the group. The researcher is required to become acquainted with meanings the actions have for the members of the group. The researcher, in one way or another, is expected to access members own self-accounting. Ethnography tries to generate an understanding of the group from their point of view.


This process of accessing members meanings may be by co-existing with the group, i.e. participating in one way or another and gradually assimilating the perspective, or it might be 'short-circuited' to some extent, by asking questions. Such questioning is, of course, not of the scheduled interview type. It is designed to allow the respondent to develop their own frames of reference, not the interviewer's. The idea is to get respondents to talk about how they see their world, so any device, ranging from an impromptu, in-situ chat through to semi-structured interviews, may be a suitable vehicle. Unfortunately, the respondents will not simply reveal sets of group meanings. This is not because they are trying to hide them but because they are unaware of the abstract frame of meaning of the social processes that operate in the group.


Thus the ethnographer has to extract these meanings from the plethora of comment, opinion, anecdote, example and intention contained in the responses. This requires a considerable amount of 'thinking on ones feet'. The researcher, particularly when conducting depth interviews, has to be alert to nuances, taken-for-granteds and things left unsaid, as they may provide clues to underlying motives, presuppositions or frames of reference. Gentle probing is crucial, the ethnographer should dig-down into the respondent's frame of reference. A relaxed attitude where short silences are not uncomfortable is important. Depth of response can often be achieved by allowing the respondent chance for a reprise, most easily achieved by not rushing to fill a silence at what appears to be the end of the respondent's reply by hastily asking another question.


Central to the ethnographer's ability to illicit meanings is a critical attitude towards ones own presuppositions. Reflexivity is central to ethnographic research.


Reflexivity (especially theoretical reflexivity) is not easy, but it is particularly difficult where interviews are 'one-offs'. The more contact one has the more likely one is to be able to dig deeper. However, a great deal of contact can also lead one to start taking the group perspective for granted and to lose track of the nature of group meanings. It is thus important to record material of all types scrupulously, in as much detail either at the time or as soon after as is reasonably possible. Material received from subjects should be augmented by an ongoing journal of the researcher's own involvement, actions, and reflections upon the research situation and research process. Constant review of recorded material of all sorts helps reflexivity, theory development and understanding.


Approaches to ethnography


There are a large number of different emphases among ethnographers. Some (probably most) ethnographers aim at detailed patterns of social interaction. Others attempt to reveal cultural knowledge. Still others consider it an approach suitable to holistic analysis of societies.


The emphasis for most ethnography is usually on forms of social interaction and the meanings that lie behind these, rather than attempts at causal analysis.


Conventional approach to ethnography

The conventional approach to ethnography is derived from the codification of the American experience since 1900, which mainly derives from the interactionist perspective. The conventional wisdom is that participant observation, while not 'objective; in the sense used in discussing the reliability and validity of the social survey, is a set of methods directed towards an unbiased and accurate analytic description of a complex social organisation.


This approach sees ethnography as a method which used prevailing theoretical concepts and propositions to guide the analysis through a systematic collection, classification and reporting of 'facts' in order to generate new empirical generalisations based on these data. As such, this inductive approach sees analytic description as primarily an empirical application and modification of theory. Only secondarily is ethnography able to test theory, and this is limited to a comparison of complex analytic descriptions of single cases as and when such cases are accumulated. Detailed empirical description to reveal social processes rather than causal generalisation is how the conventional approach projects ethnography.


However, for many ethnographers the strength of the approach is the insights it provides of social phenomena in their natural setting. For some, this is recast in phenomenological terms and ethnography has increasingly tended to be used as a procedure for gaining an understanding of social settings from the subjects' point of view. Immersion in a field of study allows the ethnographer to gain insights into the processes operating in the subject group, institution or community. Thus, the emphasis for most ethnography is usually on forms of social interaction and the meanings that lie behind these.


Nonetheless, ethnography, whether seeking subject's meanings or settling for detailed analytic description has conventionally been characterised by microscopic studies and an explicit concern with validity and reliability. The exemplary method of ethnography, participant observation, has been particularly susceptible to criticism of its subjectivism and unverifiability.


Participant observation, while receptive to subjects' conceptions and useful in constructing an understanding of a social setting must nonetheless strive for 'validity', according to conventional accounts. In order to obtain an accurate and reasonably complete and valid description it is necessary for researchers to employ participant observation techniques systematically, comprehensively and rigorously, that is, with adequate safeguards against the many potentially invalidating or contaminatory factors that threaten to diminish the interpretability of the resulting data. Contaminating factors are the reactive effects of the observer's presence or activities on the phenomena being observed; the distorting effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer's part; as well as the inability of the observer to witness all aspects of a given phenomenon.


The conventional approach suggests that it is crucial for the participant observer to maintain a balanced perspective. The researcher should be 'hypersenstive' to the various manifestations of threats to interpretability in order that steps may be taken to reduce 'contamination' through the modification of the observer's role.


The conventional approach to ethnography emphasises detachment, enabled by researchers' reflexive accounts of their role. This is crucial for an objective , systematic and valid analysis of a social setting.


Interactionist approach

Interactionists of all kinds have made extensive use of ethnography. Symbolic interactionists in particular have been at the forefront of establishing ethnography as a research style in its own right. This development (which is often closely linked with the Chicago School of Sociology) has been seen as opposed to the predominant positivistic quantitative approach.


It is notable, however, that the use of ethnography by symbolic interactionists more often than not incorporates positivistic concerns. The ‘standard’ symbolic interactionist approach adopts a pseudo-falsificationist approach. The procedure is to identify interactive links; make initial statements about the social processes observed (often on the basis of crude counts); posit some initial hypotheses; seek out negative or falsifying instances and account for them; and gradually build up a model based on unfalsified hypotheses.


Ethnomethodology and ethnography

Alternative models of ethnographic work can be found in the work of ethnomethodologists who use ethnographic techniques (non-participant observation and conversation analysis) to minutely inspect social processes (as part of the documentary method) in order to reveal subjects’ taken for granted assumptions about the social world.


Critical ethnography

Critical ethnography is a term with at least two distinct meanings.


First, it is used to refer to ethnographic study in which reflexivity is an integral element. So any ethnographic research that is overtly reflexive is sometimes referred to as critical ethnography. (See ethnographic reflexivity). This is a rather confusing usage as it does not fit with more general notions of critical social research that imply social critique rather than simply the reflexivity of the researcher. Furthermore, some ethnographers would argue that reflexivity is an essential element of all ethnography.


Second, critical ethnography is a term used to describe an approach to ethnography that attempts to link the detailed analysis of ethnography to wider social structures. There are, broadly speaking, three ways in which this is done: contexualisation; structural analysis; dialectical analysis. See the entry critical ethnography for details.


Ethnographic methods

Ethnography, as a style of research, uses a wide range of methods of data collection, including in-depth interviewing, personal document analysis, life histories, non-participant observation and especially participant observation.


Indeed participant observation and ethnography are terms that sometimes get used interchangeably as some commentators see them as synonomous.


However, in most accounts, ethnography encompasses a wider range of methods than participant observation. The confusion arises because participant observation, in some usages of the term, itself includes all the above methods. The difference is that ethnography does not necessarily have to include a participant observation element.


Where a distinction is made between participant observation and ethnography, the former is often seen as the exemplary ethnographic method.


Analysis of ethnographic data: vertical and horizontal reading

One useful procedures for sorting, coding and organising ethnographic material is as follows. This can be done in hard copy on paper or file cards but is usually faster and easier using a computer and there are various software programmes that assist in this. In essence though this is the procedure. The data is read ‘vertically’ (usually chronologically) until the researcher is familiar with it. Copy the data and then segment it into different themes, cross-referencing items (this may require multiple copies of some parts). Some ethnographers referred to this as ‘pile building’ because they literally cut up their material and arrange it, according to themes, in piles (on the floor). This is usually done virtually now on a computer but it is conceptually the same. The data is read again horizontally, by theme, to assess the internal cohesiveness of the identified themes and the interrelationship between themes. The initial themes indicate the structure of the argument and thus of the eventual report. The data are read again vertically within themes to see if it is cohesive, coherent and ‘works’ as an interpretive framework. If it does the most revealing and clear examples from amongst the separate theme piles are used to illustrate the report. If it doesn’t, new themes may emerge or further reflection or enquiry may be necessary.


Reporting ethnography

Ethnographic research invariably leads to the collection of an enormous amount of detailed accounts, quotes, examples, etc. The production of a finished ethnographic report requires a selection from this detail. The choice of material is guided by the theoretical framework (or angle) that has emerged in the course of the study.


The ethnographer has been closely involved in the research that is both an advantage and a drawback. It is an advantage because the researcher has a ‘feel’ for the diverse data and can see how it relates to alternative theoretical frameworks. Being close can be a drawback if it inhibits a critical appraisal of the material (a failure to see ‘the wood for the trees’). Hence, (ideally) ethnographers withdraw from the field and examine their data from a number of different perspectives in order to raise questions about preconceptions, acquired subject perspectives, and so on.


This reflexive analysis is regarded as crucial by some ethnographers who require that it be overt in the report. Others are less scrupulous about providing a reflexive account.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines ethnograpy as follows:

Ethnographies study groups and/or cultures over a period of time. The goal of this type of research is to comprehend the particular group/culture through observer immersion into the culture or group. Research is completed through various methods, which are similar to those of case studies, but since the researcher is immersed within the group for an extended period of time more detailed information is usually collected during the research.

Mann and Richards (undated) write:

This can be very crudely defined as ‘describing the behaviour of specific social groups’. In fact, the term is usually taken to stand for a particular approach to studying people’s behaviour in groups, an approach based on careful observation (often extended to include interviewing) with the object of building up a picture of how the group organises and understands its activities. Note that ‘ethnographic’ tends to be used very loosely to refer to data collection methods associated with ethnography (e.g. interviews and observation) or to qualitative research generally.

Duranti (1997, p. 85) provided an anthropological view:

As a first approximation, we can say that an ethnography is the written description of the social organisation, social activities, symbolic and material resources and interpretative practices characteristic of a particular group of people. Such a description is typically produced by prolonged and direct participation in the social life of community and implies two apparently contradictory qualities: (i) an ability to step back and distance oneself from one's own immediate, culturally-biased reactions so to achieve an acceptable degree of "objectivity" and (ii) the propensity to achieve sufficient identification with or empathy for the members of the group in order to provide an insider's perspective—what anthropologists call “the emic view”.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 3

Critical Social Research Section 1.4


Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

Duranti, A., 1997, Linguistic Anthropology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mann, S. and Richards, K, undated, Research Methods: Introduction to Qualitative Research , available at, accessed 24 June 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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