What is Ethnographic Research?

One of the biggest challenges in qualitative research is conducting an ethnography. Let's explore ethnographic methods and explain how you understand and analyze culture.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Ethnographic research - Overview
  2. What is ethnographic research?
  3. What is the purpose of ethnographic research?
  4. What are the methods in ethnographic research?
  5. How do I conduct an ethnography?
  6. How do I analyze ethnographic data?
  7. How do I present ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research - an Overview

An ethnographic study is one of the most ambitious endeavors a researcher can pursue in qualitative research. It involves using several ethnographic methods to observe and describe social life, social relations, or human society as a whole. Time-consuming and arduous as the data collection and data analysis might be, conducting an ethnography is one of the most rewarding challenges in cultural anthropology and social anthropology.

Figure 1: Ethnographic studies examine groups of people and their behaviors. Photo by mostafa meraji.

Let's look at the fundamentals of ethnographic research, briefly overview ethnographic methods, and explain how ATLAS.ti can help you make sense of cultures through data analysis.

  • What is ethnographic research?
  • What is the purpose of ethnographic research?
  • What are the methods in ethnographic research?
  • How do I conduct an ethnography?
  • How do I analyze ethnographic data?
  • How do I present ethnographic research?

What is ethnographic research?

"Culture" is an ambiguous term that resists an easy definition. What defines a culture? What takes place inside a culture? What cultures does a particular individual belong to? Who decides who belongs to any specific culture?

Even within a particular context, there are several layers of cultures. Take the United States, for example. As diverse and as big as it is, how can one define American culture in as brief an explanation as possible? What are the different social groups within this one country, and how do those groups interact with each other?

Researchers employ the ethnographic method when they want to understand a culture. A credible, written account of a social group is challenging to produce and requires different forms of data collection, including participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and document collection.

An ethnography belongs squarely in the realm of observational research. In other words, writing culture and cultural critique cannot be based on experiments performed in controlled settings. Suppose ethnography aims to provide an immersive experience in a culture for readers who are unfamiliar with it. In that case, the researcher must observe the intricate dimensions of social interaction in its natural environment.

That said, even observation alone cannot capture concepts such as social relationships or cultural practices. Researchers conducting ethnographic studies acknowledge that simply observing and describing actions are insufficient to grasp social interaction fully. The concept of thick description, or the description of perspectives and beliefs informing those actions in addition to the actions themselves, guides the use of various methods to capture social phenomena from multiple angles.

What is the purpose of ethnographic research?

Today, ethnographic studies are used in disciplines such as social anthropology and cultural anthropology to generate and expand anthropological theory. Outside of anthropology, the insights uncovered by ethnography help to propose theories that can be confirmed or challenged by quantitative or experimental research within the social and human sciences.

In simple terms, ethnographic studies relate what a culture is to audiences who are otherwise unfamiliar outsiders. Armed with this understanding, researchers can illustrate and persuade audiences about patterns that emerge from a community or group of people. These patterns are essential to generating theory and pioneering work.

Applications for ethnographic research

Ethnographic research aims to reach a deep understanding of various socially-constructed topics, including:

  • Rituals and other cultural practices in everyday life
  • Social interaction among people of different cultures
  • People's interactions with their natural environment
  • Creation of and tensions in social relationships

Ethnography is common in social and cultural anthropology, as well as any scholarly discipline that is concerned with social interaction. The traditional role of ethnography is to inform scholars interested in anthropology about cultures they wouldn't otherwise have contact or experience with. Various topics that have been explored by such research with ethnography include:

  • health care workers interacting with patients
  • teachers and students constructing classroom dialogue
  • workplace relations between employees and managers
  • experiences of refugees in conflict zones

Other disciplines, especially in the social sciences, employ ethnographic research methods for varied reasons, including understanding:

  • effective teaching practices
  • socialization processes
  • intercultural cohesiveness
  • company-customer relations

The range of inquiries that ethnography can answer is vast, which highlights the importance of ethnographic methods in studies where the researcher seeks a deep understanding of a particular topic.

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What are the methods in ethnographic research?

Even within anthropology, there is a lack of consensus on the particular processes for conducting an ethnography. Interaction among people is unpredictable to the extent that the researcher might encounter unexpected issues not foreseen at the outset of a study. Because no observational research can be conducted in a fully controlled setting, it is a challenge to define an exact process for an ethnography beyond the general principles guiding an ethnographic approach.

In broad terms, ethnographic data collection comes in many forms, with the assumption that a single research method cannot fully capture a thorough understanding of a cultural phenomenon. A systematic study that employs ethnographic research methods collects data from observations, participant observations, and interviews. The researchers' reflections also contribute to the body of data since personal experiences are essential to understanding the ethnography.

Participant observation

At the core of field research is a method called participant observation. Scholars in contemporary ethnography have long acknowledged the importance of active participation in understanding cultural life. This method allows the researcher to experience activities and interactions to establish an understanding they wouldn't otherwise achieve by observing from afar.

In participant observation, the ethnographic researcher takes field notes of what they see and experience. These notes have several purposes, including their contribution to theory, but they are essential during fieldwork as they create a record that the researcher can look at later on, so they don't forget essential developments that are useful to data analysis.

During participant observation, the researcher may also collect other forms of data, including photographs and audio and video recordings. Sensory data is beneficial to ethnography because it helps the researcher recall key experiences with vivid detail and provides potentially abundant supporting evidence for the arguments in their findings.

Interviews and focus groups

Participant observation provides data for seeing what people say and do in their natural environment. However, observation has its limits for capturing what people think and believe. As a result, an ethnographic researcher conducts interviews to follow up on what they saw in fieldwork with research participants.

A common type of interview in an ethnography is the stimulated recall interview. In a stimulated recall interview, research participants are asked questions about the events the researcher observed. These questions help research participants remember past experiences while providing the researcher with their way of thinking about those experiences.

A focus group involves interactions between the researcher and their research participants. Moreover, if the researcher is interested in the interpersonal dynamics between research participants, they might consider these types of interviews to elicit interactions that are markedly different from one-on-one exchanges between a single research participant and the researcher.

Interviews also help uncover insights otherwise unfamiliar to the researcher, who can then use those insights to guide their theoretical understanding and further data collection.

Document collection

Documents often make up an important aspect of cultural practices. Think about these examples:

  • student homework
  • medical records
  • newspaper articles
  • informational posters

The visual elements uncovered during an ethnography are potentially valuable to theoretical insights, and a researcher might find it important to incorporate documents in their project data.


In any ethnography, the researcher is the main instrument of data collection. Their thoughts and beliefs are consequential to the data analysis in that any theoretical insights are filtered by their interpretations. As a result, a researcher should take field notes during participant observation and reflection notes about any connections between what they saw and what it might mean for generating theory during data analysis.

As with taking field notes, a researcher might not remember all the different things that transpire during an ethnography without being able to refer to some sort of record later on. More importantly, reflecting on theory during participant observation may be challenging. A useful practice involves sitting down after observations or interviews and writing down potential theoretical insights that come to mind.

Reflections guide participant observations during an ethnography and theoretical analysis afterward. They point the researcher toward phenomena that are most relevant to theory and guide discussion of that theory when the time comes to write a description of their ethnographic study.

ATLAS.ti provides a valuable space for reflections on your research. You can add comments to the major elements of your project (e.g., codes, documents, etc.). These comments allow you to add your reflections without changing the body of your data. You can also create memos to write about your higher-level reflections and thus develop your overarching theory.

Organizing data

With a research approach as complex as ethnography, you will likely collect abundant data that require easy organization to make the analytical process more efficient. Researchers can use ATLAS.ti to store all their data in a single project. Document groups allow you to categorize data into different types (e.g., text, audio, video), different contexts (e.g., hospital room, doctor's office), or even different dates (e.g., February 17th observation, March 21st observation).

Moreover, researchers can integrate text with multimedia in ATLAS.ti, which is ideal for analyzing interviews, because you can look at transcripts and their video or audio recordings simultaneously. This is a valuable feature in ethnographic studies examining how people speak and what they say. Photos and other visual documents can also easily be incorporated and analyzed, adding further valuable dimensions to your research.

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How do I conduct an ethnography?

Now that we have established a foundational understanding of the various methods associated with ethnography, let's look at what an ethnographic approach to research might look like.

Defining your research questions

As with any research study, ethnographic studies begin when researchers want to know more about something unfamiliar. Do you want to understand how a particular group of people interact with their natural environment? What about how group members decide on a social structure? How is daily life affected by changing economic conditions over a long period of time?

Ethnographic research may also be appropriate for conducting a comparative study of multiple cultures. For example, consider the different groups of soccer fans in several parts of the world: fans in South America might act differently from fans in Europe or Asia. Teaching and learning in high school are bound to look different than teaching and learning in university settings. Emergency room medicine and hospice care have distinct purposes that affect the nature of interactions between doctors and patients.

Whatever the inquiry, the researcher benefits from defining a focus for their ethnography. A clear research question can help the researcher narrow their field of perception during participant observation. Suppose the research question has to do with doctor-patient interactions. In that case, the ethnographer can lend more focus to those conversations and less emphasis on ancillary developments within their research context. With a more specific view, they can examine how doctors speak to their patients while being less concerned about the hospital executives in earshot or the orderlies passing by unless and until they are relevant to the research inquiry.

Choosing theoretical perspectives

To further narrow the focus of the ethnography, a theoretical lens can direct the ethnographer toward aspects relevant to theory. Continuing with the example regarding doctor-patient interactions, let's imagine that the ethnographic study explores the role of reassuring language in situations regarding dire medical conditions. Are there relevant theories about what people can say to give peace of mind to others?

Typically, theories in qualitative research consist of a framework with discrete indicators you can use to organize knowledge. For example, let's suppose that there exists a concept of reassurance that can be broken down like this:

  • empathy - understanding and affirming other people's emotions
  • evidence - providing examples of favorable results in similar situations
  • responsiveness - actively listening to and validating others' concerns

With this sort of theory in mind, an ethnography can focus on listening for instances of these particular indicators during participant observation and recording these examples in field notes. Naturally, a theory is more credible if it's grounded in previous research.

Entering ethnographic fieldwork

The next step is to choose an appropriate and accessible context for your ethnography. Ethics are an important part of contemporary research in the social sciences, requiring permission from potential participants to observe and interact with them for research purposes.

Before any meaningful data collection, make sure to obtain informed consent from the research participants you are studying. Essentially, this involves receiving permission from your participants to document what they say and do after explaining the purpose of your study and the rights they have while participating in your ethnography.

Figure 2: Conducting ethnographic studies require cooperation with research participants. Photo by Cytonn Photography.

Ethnographic collection of data

With a context and theory in mind, it's now time to conduct your ethnography. In general terms, this means entering the field and capturing as much rich data relevant to your research question as possible.

Good ethnographic practice relies on pursuing multiple research methods to capture data. Participant observation can help you document what people say and do, but good ethnographies also capture what people believe about their everyday actions.

However, the research method most associated with ethnographic research is note-taking. Field notes capture the researcher's personal experience with the culture they observe, which is necessary to fully understand the captured data. With the ethnographer as the main instrument of data collection, readers of ethnographic studies can attain a sense of the possible ways they can view cultures through the researcher's eyes.

Moreover, ethnography relies on rapport with research participants. Ethnographers who want to conduct interviews later will benefit from establishing good relationships with their research participants. As a result, more involved interactions during fieldwork will generate deeper and richer data for your study.

Considerations during fieldwork

It's important to remember that the ethnographer's presence can affect how people behave. Especially in participant observation, your interactions with research participants will directly influence what they do in their daily lives. Even our natural environment is affected by what we do in it. When writing your reflections, qualifying your interactions in the field with a sufficient accounting of how your presence might change what others say and do is important.

There are also ethical questions about what to document and how to use the resulting data afterward. Within anthropology, there are issues of representing cultural groups with respect and ensuring you have their permission to use what you observe and collect from the field. Top scholarly journals and academic conferences also want to know how you observed research ethics during fieldwork, so it is necessary to use your reflection memos to document your ethics practices in addition to the data you collect.

Further development in ethnographic fieldwork

Unexpected issues in field research, especially long-term fieldwork, can help you refine your theoretical framework. Returning to the example of the concept of reassurance, you might observe a doctor's explanation of a medical procedure and find that it's similar to providing evidence without necessarily aligning with the established theory. In other words, episodes of medical explanations may contribute novel insights about reassurance, helping you further develop your focus in subsequent observations.

As you continue your ethnography, refining the scope of your theoretical perspective helps you more easily gather observational data relevant to your research inquiry and thus provide a fully developed framework for analyzing your data. You can keep track of all your theoretical developments during fieldwork by creating and maintaining memos and codes in ATLAS.ti.

The Code Manager in ATLAS.ti is an ideal space to store your proposed codes. At the same time, networks in ATLAS.ti can help you create visualizations for your theory as you develop it during your ethnographic study. Over the course of an ethnography, you can modify the codes and networks in your project to account for adjustments to your analytical lens during participant observations.

How do I analyze ethnographic data?

By the end of ethnographic fieldwork, you will have collected a significant amount of data. Ideally, you will want to analyze this data during your field research in addition to analysis after data collection.

ATLAS.ti can help you analyze data from each and every qualitative method you employ. The software supports numerous file types, especially those used to store text and multimedia. The ability to manage different forms of data in ATLAS.ti makes the data analysis process easier than ever.


The coding phase of your project becomes more important as the body of data in an ethnographic study grows. Coding aims to organize your data to make it easier and faster to understand.

For example, suppose you have data from an interview where one of your research participants tells a lengthy story about learning a new language to adjust to life in a different country. In an interview transcript, that story can be several paragraphs long and may get lost among other narratives when you try to come back and read it again. In ATLAS.ti, you can tag those paragraphs and other data segments in your project with a simple code - "learning new languages."

This will be essential to analyzing data because organizing your project with codes will allow you to look at and analyze your data from different angles. With a fully coded project, you can examine all data segments that contain a certain code, ensuring that you are analyzing the most relevant data. For example, the Query Tool gives you a list of all quotations that contain a certain code or even multiple codes, depending on your inquiry. This will help you save time by filtering out all the other data that may not be important to your analysis in a given moment.

Codes as evidence

Ultimately, you will need to cite evidence from your ethnographic data to support the theoretical developments you propose. If you have been using codes in ATLAS.ti to capture the aspects of your new theory, then you can look at the Code Manager to have a sense of how much supporting evidence exists for each facet of your proposed theory.

Returning to the example of doctors reassuring patients, suppose that you want to argue that explanations and examples contribute to this reassurance. If you have coded your data with the label "explanations and examples", you can use the Code Manager to look at the number of episodes in your data that can potentially serve as evidence. You can comfortably examine all the data excerpts of a particular code in one place.

Data triangulation

Data triangulation in qualitative research refers to assessing multiple sources of data providing evidence for the same phenomenon. For example, if you want to understand why students in a particular school might struggle with studying for tests, you can observe them in class, interview them afterward, and examine their test scores. Finding data from multiple ethnographic methods that reaffirm the same thing will prove to be far more persuasive to your audience than drawing data from just one source.

Document groups are helpful for understanding the extent of data triangulation for a particular phenomenon. When you add documents to your ATLAS.ti project, you can also assign them to a document group. This is a great feature to help you organize projects with large numbers or types of files.

How do I present ethnographic research?

Writing about culture can be a formidable task because of its complexity and the researcher's responsibility in presenting cultures with sufficient context.

Describing your ethnographic methods

Researchers seldom conduct ethnographic studies similarly, and those unfamiliar with ethnographic research can benefit from understanding how you conducted your ethnography. As a result, it's essential that you describe the processes and methods you employed during ethnographic fieldwork. When you conducted a participant observation, what did you do in the field besides simple observation? How many people and what kinds of people did you interview? What kinds of documents did you collect for your ethnographic study?

You can use your ATLAS.ti project to provide records and accounts for your ethnography. ATLAS.ti allows you to attach comments to the various elements of your project and write stand-alone memos that you can use to capture reflections regarding your study. Document groups can help you organize transcripts into different categories so you can have a sense of the types and number of interviewees involved in your research. With these features in mind, you can describe basic elements of your study for the sake of transparency:

  • "I interviewed 3 teachers and 14 students"
  • "During fieldwork, I established a deep working relationship with many research participants through 5 sessions of participant observation"
  • "I took 78 pictures of different events organized by this company"

Ultimately, the goal is to explain how you arrived at your findings, and providing more detailed explanations about your study make it more credible to your audience.

Reporting themes

Qualitative research relies on rich data. Researchers can study various people and find detailed evidence to demonstrate the significance of a particular phenomenon. Without this empirical richness, an explanation of a phenomenon can be seen as anecdotal and not very credible.

The statistics compiled in the Code Manager can tell you which codes have been used more and less often, thus informing you about the presence of phenomena in your data. You can use these descriptive statistics to give readers a sense of which themes are most apparent in your findings, then write about your key themes using quotations from your data as supporting evidence to provide grounded illustrations of each theme.

Narrative writing

As an alternative to a clinical research paper, a narrative paper might make it easier for you to report your ethnography. Especially in social anthropology and cultural anthropology, many ethnographic studies have been reported as stories to be told rather than research to be presented. As long as you are sharing novel theoretical developments from your research, the narrative paper is a useful form of writing for the social sciences. You can easily refer to your ATLAS.ti project while writing to make sure that you are referencing the relevant theoretical developments and supporting evidence from the data.

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