Imagine this: you’re looking through a microscope at the very essence of what makes up our universe. The microscope connects you to a world normally beyond your reach. This instrument allows researchers to discover problems right within the molecular composition of your blood cells.
The ultimate research instrument connects researchers to a world normally beyond our own reach, the truth of the social world. This instrument is the researcher. In ethnographic methods, the researcher becomes the primary tool of data collection. According to LeCompte and Schensul (1999), “Ethnography generates or builds theories of cultures—or explanations of how people think, believe, and behave– that are situated in local time and space” (8). Ethnographic methods include interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant-observation, recordings, and so on. LeCompte and Schensul identify ten clear uses for ethnographic methods, and here are the top 3 uses.
# 1: Define unclear problems
Quantitative research methods are all well and good if you know where to point your instruments. What happens when you know something is wrong within your organization but you’re just not sure what it is? A principal knows that teachers tend to “burn out” more quickly at his or her school than in others, but isn’t sure what factors cause that “burn out.” Ethnographic methods help define those unclear problems.
# 2: Define complex problems
Sometimes a problem is a bit more complex than other instruments can recognize. Ethnographic methods allow researchers to view the complexity of a problem and identify multiple variables, whereas with other research methods you need to know the variables first in order to test them.
# 3: Design measures that match target population
Not everyone will understand a set of questions in the same way. LeCompte and Schensul tell the story of biologists studying different types of potatoes growing in a rural area. The researchers tried to obtain insight from the local population, but farmers did not respond well to surveys. An ethnographer in the area suggested another way to obtain the information from the farmers. Instead of a survey, the biologists wheeled in a barrel of potatoes and asked the farmers about them. The farmers were excited to pick up each potato and discuss stories about each potato.