Ethnographic Research Design

Ethnographic Research Design contrasts markedly with the experimental methods in its assumption, methods, and attitudes to evidence (Nunan, 2010).

Ethnographic Research Design

Ethnographic Research Design

Ethnographic Research Design contrasts markedly with the experimental methods in its assumption, methods, and attitudes to evidence (Nunan, 2010). Why does Nunan start his statement with the contrast between two qualitative research designs? In my understanding, ethnography and experimental research are similar in terms of the subject to be studied however in the first look and surficial understanding the audience might get confused.  The quality of treatment for the subject markedly contrasts the ethnography with the experimental because the principle of ethnographic research rejects interference in the field of the study. 

Before going through the detail of ethnography we need to define it properly so that we can further explain it in detail. The word ethnography comes from these two Greek words “Ethnos” which means people and “ graphein” which means writing (Wolcott, 1999). The integrated term ethnography and the way of systematic study under the strict principle of the research make it a distinct research method for widely practised social science research This includes the systematic observation of the particular culture and


Ethnographic research is a qualitative method where researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment. Ethnography was popularised by anthropology but is used across a wide range of social sciences. 

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behavior, and perceptions that occur within organizations, teams, communities, and Groups - Hammersley (1985)

Ethnography is a research approach that focuses on ‘people’s behavior in naturally occurring, ongoing settings, with a focus on the cultural interpretation of behavior’ (Watson-Gegeo, 1988, p. 576)

Creswell (1998) explained that the ethnography study looks at people in interaction in ordinary settings and attempts to discern pervasive patterns such as life cycle, events, and cultural themes. 

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people'. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture, the custom, belief, and behaviour based on information collected through fieldwork.” (Harris and Johnson 2000). 

“An Attempt to attain as holistic picture as possible of a particular society, group, institution or situation” –( Frankel & Wallen,2006)

Above mentioned definitions suggest that the core identity of ethnographic research relies on people and society. The term ethnographic research can not be covered in certain definitions however the definition given by the different scholars focuses on the study of certain societies in a natural setting. The research tries to obtain optimum information without manipulating the participants but can welcome the changes because of his involvement. The collaborative approach in ethnographic research distinguishes its nature from other social science research. Ethnography is not only the study rather it is the involvement in the field. 

Essential Characteristics of the Ethnographic Research Design

Under social science research, Ethnographic research is widely practised. On the basics of the nature, paradigm, and systematic guidelines the research designs are categorized into different types. The characteristic that they hold during the research study makes them distinct from others. In the same way, the Ethnographic research design has also distinct characteristics. The essential characteristic of Ethnographic research are:-


In ethnographic research design, the research is carried out in the context in which the subjects normally live and work. The fundamental principles of ethnographic research do not allow the researcher to go beyond the context of the researchers’ proposal. As the researcher is bounded by the research topic delimitation, consent, and other ethical and legal consideration the researcher investigates involve and experience under a context. So the ethnographic research is contextual.


The researcher avoids manipulating the phenomena under investigation. The researcher is a neutral agent in the research field. The researcher should have the quality to assimilate with the culture of the participants and the field. The researcher should mirror the real image of the field however s/he can interpret the data in multiple dimensions. But the manipulation of data and the participants in the name of getting things done is supposed to be avoided.


Ethnography is the study of ethnicity, societal belief, and cultural structure. In that sense, a one-shot investigation can not capture the real picture of the culture of phenomena. The researcher needs to build good relations with the concerned variables in the research field. Of course building, a good relationship takes a long time and study also takes a long time to get the desired data based on the research questions In this context ethnography is relatively long-term research. 


Ethnographic research is collaborative research as one variable is not enough to get the answer of the research. If the research subject or field rejects the research may not be carried out. Collaboration in terms of multiple researchers and the collab between the researcher and the research participants is required. To some extent, collaboration is required in all research studies but in ethnographic research, the researchers are expected to involve the stakeholders in the research study. To depict the real picture of the research issue the researcher involves the stakeholders in the research study unknowingly. Involvement in writing and interpretation, Not in the research process. The researcher is a neutral agent and the major picture of the research finding is based on the research site and the participant. 


The interpretive analysis of the obtained data is a major approach to this study. The researcher tries to reveal the hidden meaning of the data. The thematic analysis explains the possible issues related to the field and the participants. The facts and figures collected from the field the researcher interpret in a thematic way. The illustrative representation of the data tries to include the hidden meaning of the certain phenomenon ideology, societal beliefs, and common understanding of the particular society on which the research is based on.


In philosophical understanding and theoretical belief, all research studies are supposed to be organic. However, ethnographic research is a contextual and longitudinal study. It is completely based on primary data collected from the field. All the societal phenomena have distinct characteristics in this regard the research study becomes organic. It is the blend of highly scientific principles of qualitative research and the unique practices of the society so that the ethnographic research is believed to be organic.

 On the other hand, the rigorous process of interpretations and study involves a higher degree of Interaction between research questions/hypotheses and data collection/interpretation.


Ethnographic research can help to identify and analyze unexpected issues.  It is believed that the ethnographic research study has a detailed and faithful representation. It is widely practised and more scientific research in social science research.

  • It provides extensive and in-depth findings on human behaviour.

  • It can evolve and explore new inquiries.

  • It provides opportunities to study in-depth a variety of cultural aspects of the present-day human population and their ways of life.

  • It allows utilizing a range of unique methods like focus groups, participant observation, interviews, and direct field observations.

  • It offers researchers rich and thorough commentary on human behaviour, culture, and society as a whole.

  • Participant observation gives opportunities to collect observed insights into social practices which are usually concealed. 


Normally ethnographic research studies are time-consuming as previously discussed it is longitudinal and need prolonged engagement in the research field. It is scientific and presents faithful data however the chances of misinterpretation and information missing can be there as the researcher may not be involved in all the surroundings and activities over the research field.

  • In ethnography, there is a chance of researcher bias.

  • It deals almost solely with qualitative data.

  • Statistics and numbers are replaced with recorded statements of individuals and the observations of the researcher.

  • To provide an accurate and legitimate conclusion the researcher must visit the place several times.

  • The unpredictable occurrences are common sense it occurs in an uncontrolled environment.

  • It is nonreplicable as human behaviour can be influenced by numerous variables at any given moment.

  •  The results can’t be generalized to other time periods or to other cultures due to their specificity

A Research paper on Ethnographic Research Design

Language Ideologies and Local Languages as The Medium-of Instruction Policy: A Critical Ethnography of A Multilingual School In Nepal 

  • Prem Physik

This paper analyzes the ideologies and practices of local languages as the medium of instruction (MOI) policy in a multilingual school in Nepal. Grounded on the notion of language policy as a locally situated social practice, this critical ethnographic study investigates challenges – both ideological and implementational – that local language MOI policies face in a socio-politically stratified multilingual country, Nepal. This study shows that a well-intended language policy aiming at promoting linguistic diversity and addressing linguistic minority children’s learning difficulties may face ideological and implementational resistance. As the cultural and linguistic capital of linguistic minorities is not recognized in the wider educational market, indigenous communities are found ambivalent with regard to the relevance of their own languages in school. The fragile socio-economic, political, and educational position of the minority groups due to the long history of monolingual top-down policy and the covert or implicit language policy that promotes the teaching of English from the early grades are the major intransigent forces affecting the use of local languages in school. I argue that it is important to look at the ideological and implementational challenges of local languages as the MOI from the local actors’ perspectives to understand the gap between policy and practice [Continue Reading Here]


Hammersley, M. (1985). From ethnography to theory: a program and paradigm in the sociology of education. Sociology, 19(2), 244-259.

WATSON‐GEGEO, K. A. (1988). Ethnography in ESL: Defining the essentials. TESOL Quarterly, 22(4), 575-592.

Williams, C. (2007). Research methods. Journal of Business & Economics Research (JBER), 5(3).


Freeman, L. (2010). Digital Ethnography, Practice, and Ethics.

Wolcott, H. F. (1999). Ethnography: A way of seeing. Rowman Altamira.

Phyak, P. (2013). Language ideologies and local languages as the medium-of-instruction policy: A critical ethnography of a multilingual school in Nepal. Current Issues in Language Planning, 14(1), 127-143.

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