The aim of this literature review is to look at the strengths and limitations of ethnographical research and also look at the origins and applications of this type of research method. Ethnography is a method of research that looks at behaviour and culture of people by observation. It is used to understand and explain socio-cultural activities such as schools, prisons, laboratories and hospitals etc. One of the most popular observations has been done by a William Whyte called “street corner society”. Whyte lived for three and a half years in a rough district in Boston that was know for its danger and the amount of crime, where immigrants from Italy had settled.
Whyte observed gangs and accounted for how they formed and organised there activities. He was able to differentiate between “corner boys” who hung around certain street corners and local shops and also “college boys” who were more interested in a good education. Whyte was also observing the relations of the social structure, politics, and racketeering of this small district of Boston (Wikipedia,2006).
According to Atkinson and Hammersley (1994), ethnography describes forms of social research that focus on (a) exploring the nature of particular social experience, (b) gathering and using unstructured data, (c) using a relatively small number of informants, and (d) interpreting the meanings of human behaviour. To do a ethnographical experiment the experimenter needs to select a project area of interest collect data with interviews and also make ethnographical observations after all the data has been collected an analysis must be done so results can be drawn and then the findings written up into a report or journal.
The first ethnographical research was adopted from a anthropologist called Bronislaw Malinowski, who published the book “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” in 1922. before Malinowski did their research through structured interviews and did not mix with informants in there day to day life so he detailed the importance of participant observation and that if anthropologists wanted to obtain detailed results of understanding other people and different cultures then there must be an interaction in there everyday life. (Darnell, 1974). The methods of an anthropologist is still used today in ethnography as there is more than one way to find an understanding from within a group these include interviewing which is used as both formal and informal methods, can help obtain data and information of understanding in the field of work.
Interviewing is not the most reliable data as participants can exaggerate or say what they think you want them to say. Observations and informal diaries can also be kept on the relevance of the research area so that what the participant thinks can be used as data. Data for the research can also be collected in a number of different ways but the most important one used for ethnography is the field notes taken from the researcher which is a written account of the social activities. This is normally written after the observations have been made. Also photos and videoed or taped research can be used so the researcher can make notes later (Elliott & Jankel-Elliott, 2003)
Before conducting an ethnography experiment a number of questions that all researcher must think about before starting to collect data. “What are my personal motivations for studying this topic? Why this place? Why this community? Why these people? How, if at all, will this study benefit me personally? (e.g., Will the study of an “exotic” community enhance prospects for tenure?) What cultural or personal perspectives and biases do I bring to this process, and how might those shape the various phases of this work (e.g., conceptualisation, attention to data, interpretation, relationships with community members)? Why am I doing this research at this historical, personal, or professional moment? In what concrete ways will the community be benefited or harmed by this work?” (Suzuki et al, 2004)
Not seriously thinking about these questions can lead to classical problems like creating or recreating inaccurate, stereotypical, or eroticised views of communities. (Suzuki et al, 2004). The researcher also need to think about how they will do their research there are three ways a researcher can collect their data (1) total participating which is were the researcher is fully involved in the field rather than just observing the situation. (2) participant-researcher where the researcher switches between observing and involving themselves in the settings. So getting a hands on approach whilst also sitting back and observing from a distance. (3) And finally a total researcher where the researcher is only there to observe no hands on data is collected this keeps the researcher both emotionally and physically separate (Ethnographic research, 2004)