Ethnography – is my social impact PhD research ethnographic?

Ethnography – drawing a picture of a group/culture

Last week I attended a lecture on analysing ethnographic papers and considering ethnographic methods and designs. The focus was on education research, which isn’t directly related to my subject area, but nonetheless I found some useful aspects to apply to my work.

Now do bear in mind that before this lecture I had absolutely no knowledge of ethnography, and I wrote most of the ideas down in bed after a 12 hour day and a snooze inducing MacDonald’s (this PhD is doing my healthy eating efforts ZERO favours). I want to try and put down my understanding of the terminology and also explain how I think it could relate to my work, but it is kinda complex, so bear with me.

What is ethnography?

Our lecturer explained that, in Educational research, the term ‘ethno’ refers to a particular group or culture, and the term ‘graphy’ refers to a picture of something. Working off this definition, I understand ethnography as a research design which paints a picture, or tells a story about a particular group. A pretty wide definition no?! That said, the lecturer went on to discuss the different types of ethnography which are more defined.

Different types of ethnography

  • Traditional – does what it says on the tin, and is usually at a fixed research site lasting 12 months or longer
  • Fast – operate in a similar way to the traditional approach but over a shorter period of time, criticised for not being in depth
  • Multi-site – this type follows the participants in their various environments, rather than sticking to one site
  • Critical – displays underpinning assumptions about the group/culture which influence the research
  • Digital – exploring a group or culture existing in a digital environment
  • Auto – carrying out research about a group or culture which the researcher is fully a part of

Is my research ethnographic?

With these very pared down definitions in mind, I have been trying to think about my own work in ethnographic terms, and whether it fits a particular category.

In traditional terms, my work could certainly be viewed through an ethnographic lens, as it will concern a group of academics and will be carried out over more than 12 months. I expect much of the research will be done on campus, in research offices and university buildings, which could be classed as one site. There will also be a digital element to it, as some of the dissemination activities will be carried out in an online environment. The type of ethnography that really had me puzzling was critical ethnography – do I have underlying assumptions that will influence my research? And of course, the answer to the first part of that question is yes – we all make assumptions about groups and issues which we are interested in, and I am certainly no different. This really comes back to ontology – what is my underlying view of the world and how does this affect my research? In my case, I harbor the underlying assumption that one of the primary aims of research is to affect society in a positive and useful way, which in turn leads me to assert that demonstrating this impact is important and worthwhile. But does this make my work critical ethnography? I am really making assumptions about research as a whole, rather than making assumptions about the actual academics I am studying, so I am not so sure.

What do you think? Either way, I think some ethnographic theory will definitely be useful in my methodology chapter.


5 thoughts on “Ethnography – is my social impact PhD research ethnographic?

  1. I think that the ‘graphy’ part refers to the writing aspect, the representation of the subjects of the study. I am not sure I can convey here how much of a topic for debate and endless reflections the concept of ‘representation’ and indeed the act of ‘writing’ itself is in ethnography and anthropology. Ethnography can perhaps be described as telling a story about a particular group but in my view a key aspect is that the researcher attempts (in many very flawed ways, such as interviews and participant observation) to gain an understanding of another world view, another way of life, their lived experiences etc. There is an important distinction between telling a story about some one and telling someone’s story if that makes sense. I think it might be useful to look at the distinction between emic and etic, see
    Look forward to keeping up with the progress
    Kathrine (@kshjensen)

    • This is really useful Katherine, especially the part about telling a story about someone or telling their story. I think the notion of telling somebody’s story for them can be very problematic. I am interested in exploring different ways of asking participants to tell their own story to the researcher – such as through creative drawing methods. Thank you for the feedback.

  2. Hi Megan

    I understand your struggle, but based on the general introduction you got from the lecturer, it would be hard to define your research.
    The way you describe your research, it can fit in several other methodologies equally. Essentially, you’re not asking yourself the right questions.
    What is your position as researcher in the study setting? Etnography fits within the paradigm of the critical theory, where the researcher typically positions himself closely involved in the studied group (observational research is typical) and empowers the studied group to think about the studied topic.
    What kind of knowledge do you want to gain from your participants? (Epistemology) In etnography you are co-constructing the reality of the group in a certain culture and social, political context.


    • Hi Jessica, thanks for this comment – very useful. I’m very aware that I am just learning about these approaches and definitions, and am definitely not in a position as of yet to define my approach/design, I’m mainly trying to explore the discussions that come up in my lectures and reading to try and gain a deeper understanding. I agree that the most important question at the moment is that of what kind of knowledge this research is trying to achieve – I have been talking this through with my supervisor. I want to explore with researchers their perceptions of social impact, as well as the activities they carry out related to it, and the outcomes of these activities. In this way I hope to build up a picture of attitudes and opinions around the impact debate, as well as data which will allow an understanding of approaches which work well or don’t work well.

  3. Pingback: Digital Ethnography – The Future of Design Research? | Design Futures

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