Yale University

Blogging Ethnography (AKA mixed methods research) out of the Box, or "how to study complexity up close and personal"


I never imagined writing a blog. And, after working on the second editions of five of the Ethnographer's Toolkit publications with my colleague and co-author sociologist Margaret LeCompte, I thought I might put qualitative, mixed methods, or any other methodology writing to bed! I am, however, one of those NIH addicted folks who can’t turn down an opportunity to "see what’s going on" by reviewing yet another set of grants. And one of the great pleasures in my life is working with other researchers to improve their research designs and add a bit of spice and quality to their data collection and triangulation procedures. So, after I looked at my fiftieth rote proposal/paper that promised to (or actually did) five to ten focus groups of five to ten people each for no longer than 30 minutes before conducting a survey; and after I read the most recent of a long string of articles and proposals that promised a Glaser and Straussian inductive way of identifying codes in blocks of text, in studies that were driven by a clearly defined research model, I decided that it was time to say something up close and personal about these qualitative/mixed methods SOPs and why we really must to move beyond them.

Designing & Conducting Ethnographic ResearchFirst, I want to distinguish between qualitative research and ethnography – they are NOT the same thing. Ethnography is a cover term for a wide variety of research methods that obtain data using multiple interactive approaches to data collection on social/cultural systems Qualitative research refers to the design and conduct of research based only on non-numerate data. Both are inherently creative offering multiple possibilities for exploration.  In this they are consistent with some of the (at times hidden) impulses of quantitative researchers. Even the most fundamentalist quantitative researcher would have to agree that it's as much fun to explore a data set, especially one that has taken months or years to collect, as to "prove" that the research model is correct by testing it statistically. Certainly we want to find out if we are "right" about our predictions. Often however, we aren't right, or we are only partially right. What then? Do we throw our hands up in despair, fearful that we won’t be able to publish – no. We see what other relevant relationships we can find in our data that might help to explain why we were only partially right. Further, in my experience, there is nothing that makes a quantitative researcher happier than a new statistical approach that might shed light on old data.

EthnographySame with qualitative data, only more so. Qualitative research methods are well designed for exploration of settings, situations, people and self. Some researchers have raised questions about whether qualitative research is science because the standards of rigor that apply to interactive data collection are different from those of survey research or epidemiology. And the assumptions that most qualitative researchers make about the nature of the world and reality are also somewhat different. What does it mean in the social sciences to be rigorous when we cannot hold settings constant; when situations are constantly shifting and non-repetitive, when people cannot easily be grouped numerically, and when through the process of carrying out data collection, the researcher merges with the setting, thereby changing both setting and self, even in tiny ways. Reliability, validity and generalizability are topics we will discuss in the future.

Even when NOT inclusive of numerate or quantitative data, qualitative research is far more than focus groups and indepth interviews. Methods encompass observations, mapping, cognitive elicitation activities, systematic photography and audiovisual recording of events, retrieval of data from archives and collections of material culture. Qualitative designs are always comparative. Comparative designs are many - from looking at single cases over time, to case comparative studies, and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) a systematic way of quantifying key theoretical variables to identify patterns. In this blog, I will highlight the variety of creative paths that qualitative, ethnographic and other forms of mixed methods researchers can take to broaden their vision and enhance their understanding of complex social phenomena occurring in equally complex and dynamic settings.

The Institute for Community ResearchStay tuned for more blogs on different types of designs, approaches to transcription of interviews that don’t always involve verbatim transcription, when to consider and when to avoid focus groups, designing mixed methods studies, and the uses of different types of software and feel free to suggest topics, and add your comments or co-author an issue on a topic of interest to you. You can contact me at Jean.Schensul@icrweb.org or www.incommunityresearch.org or through the Yale CIRA. The Institute for Community Research is a CIRA partner, specializing in mixed methods community based collaborative and participatory prevention research. For more information on mixed methods ethnography and qualitative research approaches, designs and methods, see Ethnographer's Toolkit, 2nd Edition Books 1 - 5, Altamira Press, 2010/12.  Additional references will be provided relative to each blog.