Ethnographic Persona: Section 2

In this section of this paper, I will briefly give an overview about ethnographic methods used in the field. The objective here is to inform the reader about the wide repertoire of ways to gather ethnographical data and to prepare him/her for the next sections – the application of these methods within an information project. It is not intended to give a full and detailed account of ethnographic methods, as there is no space within this paper. You will find recommendation for literature within the next paragraphs.

Ethnographers use a wide selection of methods for their research. Many of them are also used by other scientific disciplines. I will describe the main ethnographical methods in detail in the next paragraphs.

Participant observation
Participant observation is one of the two core methods of ethnography to collect qualitative socio-cultural data from a certain cultural environment. Cultural environments can be abroad (another country somewhere in the world) or they can be within the same society, but forming a distinct circle of cultural values and norms (sub-culture). From an ethnographic point of view, it is important to collect data about these cultures, values, norms, rules, the language used, to understand them comprehensively.

Roland Girtler (2001) talks about the “adventure” of sociological (ethnographical) research to leave the researcher’s office and to study his objects live and personally. He and Michael Agar (1996), among many others, argue that it is important for the research to participate in the world of the researched subjects and culture, and that the main method is to observe what these subjects do and how do they do it.

Ethnography is a holistic research method that doesn’t present single properties of social systems but a “complete” image of related social phenomena. Participant observations help to achieve this ideal of a complete image and are mainly based on fieldwork that asks for the researcher’s participation in the daily life of the observed culture. This includes observing what goes on, taking pictures, recording and following conversations, taking field notes in a research diary, and collecting other data that could help to describe and explain the research question (Hammersley / Atkinson, 1986) and providing a triangulation of them.

Ethnographic interview
The main argument for using ethnographical methods in research is to analyze unstructured data without a pre-defined theory first. The researcher is open to group and to conclude schemas and patterns, to re-evaluate them immediately in the field and to proceed to results, which are grounded. Regarding many socio-cultural research projects, there are no appropriate or existing theories. In this case, researchers try to find so-called rich points (Agar, 1996) first. Rich points are terms and actions, which are not understood by the researcher because of his different cultural background (e.g. South Indian villagers place a small lump of charcoal on top of lunch packages before leaving the village for another town. Obviously, there is a rich point for westerners to be explained “why?”). To understand the idea behind these rich points, the researcher must seek for explanations directly from the involved people and check them against other data found to model coherence. This is where the ethnographic interview is so valuable: an explanation will not be possible only through observation.

The final outcome of ethnography, which can be described as continuous trying, falsifying and modifying process of available data within a schema (explanative context or knowledge structure), is to generate a stable hypothesis based on the many schemas identified and explained. As a second outcome, this rich data set (and therefore the described schemas) can be linked to existing theories in related fields of research.

The ethnographic interview is a systematic approach to solve socio-cultural unknowns and mysteria. As described by Spradley (1979), the main stages of such an endeavour are to identify key informants, and then interview them using different kind of questions (descriptive, structural, contrast, componential), analyzing the language of the key informants, and finally discovering so-called cultural themes (topics of socio-cultural importance to the research environment), before ending up writing an ethnography.

Methods of virtual ethnography
This type of methods is partly related to the interview, but mainly focuses on the analysis of media, media content, ego-documents (see further below) and other forms of written or multi-media sources. The main difference to all other methods is the explicit relation toward digital media or virtual objects such synthetic worlds, avatars and websites. As such artefacts have a meaning in a culture, there are valuable to the ethnographer. But because of the nature of these cultures and their environment, some old methods must be considered and applied under new circumstances (Hine, 2000).

One example is the analysis of media content. Websites may be changed continuously, by many co-authors, they can tell stories spread through many different websites and connect a network of distant people and organizations. Hence, another problematic aspect of virtual ethnography is the authenticity of interview partners and the reliability of collected data  Virtual ethnography is not only useful to understand modern societies, but also to discover new forms of culture – like the synthetic worlds.

Additional methods, also used by other scientists
Beside the described methods, virtual ethnographers will collect additional data using a variety of methods known and applied in sciences like anthropology, history, or other culture-related disciplines. Most of them have their focus in the past, and therefore field work means here to research in archives of all sort. The direct contact to individuals as presented in the two first ethnographical methods is not possible (or rare like in contemporary oral history). As a consequence, these methods will produce a different quality of data. Göttsch & Lehmann (2007) cover many of these methods (see below) in their book in a substantial way.

Typically, ethnographers may use the following additional methods for their research:

  • Use and interpretation of archival sources (see also Kramer, 1968) is a standard method in history. Sources can be anything from meeting points to inventory lists. An interesting aspect is the so-called ego-document. In ego-documents, a subject reports about him-/herself. A modern variant of ego-documents are blogs and other media where statements are made online about oneself.
  • A sort of an ego-document (Dekker, 2002) are travel-reports and diaries, which are used to gather information about subjects or the culture which is described by the author.
  • Use and interpretation of material objects (see also Gerndt, 1981) is a relatively new aspect of historic and even ethnographic research. The underlying theory is that cultural life consists of cultural objects, for example. Therefore they can be understood as indicators of cultural processes.
  • Research of different kinds of folklore, that is narratives, fairy tales, jokes, and mythologies, can be used to interpret the present everyday-history and culture.
  • Empirical research of organizational culture in industrial and services sectors is another way to collect important data for the analysis of collective identity and values. The focus here is to learn more about the norms and values cultivated within an organisation.
  • Individual memories as a centrepiece to a method called analysis of consciousness (“Bewußtseinsanalyse”) are used to recall the personal history, the history of their milieu and to interpret history from a subjective point of view. The preferred method is to interview people and ask them to recount historical events and artefacts.
  • Related to the interpretation of material objects are methods that research the application and use of media and media content. Media is culture and therefore relevant for ethnographic research projects.

Although this list of methods and sources relevant for ethnographic research is not complete, it gives an overview about the diversity of methodical aspects of socio-cultural anthropology.

Domain analysis including taxonomy of alien culture
In the first lines of this section I promised not to go into details with ethnographic methods. But at this point, I have to make an exception though: an introduction into domain analysis and the construction of taxonomy of alien culture. This is important as language is a core piece of ethnography (see next section) and we need to understand a culture (through her linguistics) before we start we can draw any conclusions.

Domain analysis as proposed by Spradley (1979) is a systematic approach to test folk domains through interviewing informants. Domains are built upon a large number of cover and included terms. At the beginning it is difficult to say what term belong to what domain, so the ethnographer will research their semantic relationships and discover the culture’s principles how symbols are organized into domains. The further apart the cultural background of the ethnographer and the analyzed cultural scene are, the more will the researcher looks at semantic relationships first. A domain analysis consists of several steps looking thoroughly into language. The objective is to gain deep understanding of alien cultural domains, and the result will be a list of (hypothesized) domains. These domains will be tested again and completed.

The next step in an ethnographic project would be to focus on very few domains to be researched deeply or to do a surface analysis. This is due to the lack of time and other resources ethnographers have and also the vast task of researching all domains. In the most cases, ethnographers study a few domains in depth, and also get some surface understanding of a cultural scene (which would be similar when conducting ethnography during an information project). Once a domain is selected to be researched in depth, a taxonomy analysis will follow. A taxonomy shows all relationships among all terms in a domain. It’s a more precise analysis of the language, building a hierarchical structure of folk terms. It will finally lead to a cultural meaning system (Spradley, 1979, p, 142) that can be used at a later stage of an information project.


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