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Section 6. Gathering and Interpreting Ethnographic Information

Learn about processing data specifically from members of a culture or group, defining and using their own perspective and world view as much as possible.


  • What is ethnographic information?

  • Why might ethnographic information be important to evaluation?

  • When might you want to collect ethnographic information?

  • Who should collect and interpret ethnographic information?

  • How do you gather ethnographic information?

  • How do you interpret ethnographic information?

Someone watching a baseball game or cricket match for the first time might be baffled by seeing a batter perform a series of actions before each pitch – touching his helmet, knocking the dirt off his shoes, stepping out of the batters’ box. Any long-time fan, however, knows what’s happening: first, many players have superstitious or calming rituals they perform when batting; second, some of the batter’s motions may be acknowledgements of signals from coaches; and third, there is an intense psychological battle between hitter and pitcher that plays itself out in stalling, distracting motions and other actions meant to make it difficult for the opposition. Without this knowledge, the first-time observer sees only a series of random, seemingly purposeless actions and could be left with the impression that players are afflicted with a strange disease.

Understanding why people do what they do can be tremendously important in trying to understand a culture. When anthropologists want to understand a culture, they often immerse themselves in it, so they can study it from the inside. Margaret Mead popularized this type of research in the 1920s in Samoa, where she lived for nine months as part of an island community. A researcher who is embedded in a culture in this way can gain insight not only into what happens – how people go about their daily lives, what rituals they perform, what their celebrations are like, etc. – but also how members of the culture view what happens. They can begin to piece together the culture’s structure – the beliefs and assumptions that underlie everything people do and the world view that creates and supports them.

Depending on what you’re trying to change, your evaluation may have to look at more than just the behavior of individuals. The whole context of the community may be involved if, for instance, you’re attempting to address social exclusion based on race or gender or to alter a culture of violence. Deep knowledge of a community, or a segment of it, can’t necessarily be gained by administering tests or counting the number of times individuals perform certain actions. Rather, it takes an understanding of the community’s whole world view and what leads to it – whether religion, social or political factors, economics, some combination, or something else entirely. That kind of deep knowledge may best be gained by immersion in the culture of the community you’re serving. This section will explore the use of ethnographic research – the kind of cultural immersion we’ve been describing – as a method for evaluation.

What is ethnographic information?

Ethnographic information is data about a particular culture or group gathered specifically from members of that culture or group, defining and using their own perspective and world view as much as possible. It’s meant to provide an understanding of the culture from the inside – to describe and explain its assumptions, customs, and accepted behavior from the point of view of those who live by them.

These can include community norms, health conditions and knowledge, political realities, religion, economics, and world view.

The terms “culture,” “group,” and “community” are all used in this section to refer to a group that can be seen as having its own set of norms and practices and the formal or informal rules that guide them. By that definition, we may be referring to a culture as large as that of a whole ethnic or religious group (e.g., Latinos, Hindus, Navajos) or as small as that of a single elementary school classroom. It may encompass people of many backgrounds (e.g., English as a Second or Other Language students; low-income families) or people from a single neighborhood or informal settlement. No culture or group or community is completely homogeneous, of course, – not everyone thinks and believes exactly the same things as everyone else – but you can generally find basic cultural elements on which most people agree, and those are what define the culture.

Community norms. These encompass what the community or group considers normal and acceptable in everyday behavior and activity. We can look at community norms through a number of filters:

  • Gender roles. These define what men and women are each expected to do, how they’re expected to act, dress, etc., and how they are expected to relate to one another in different circumstances.
  • Social structure. Social structure establishes who is accorded higher status in the community, how one gains status, how social groups are made up and what forms they take, and who are the social arbiters – those who make the rules or set the standards. It also defines who is considered lower status, who is socially excluded, and how possible it is to improve one’s status through merit, entrepreneurship, illegal activity, education, etc. It also determines whether and how the community’s world is divided up into social classes or hierarchies, and whether some are perceived to have higher status than others.
  • Behavior. What is considered acceptable behavior and language in public? This encompasses, for example, how people greet one another (and how much this depends on status, gender, age, etc.). It also refers to how they respond to real or perceived compliments and insults (and what are considered compliments and insults), ritual or other behavior unique to the population, and behavior accepted or condoned (or encouraged) by the community. Most communities and groups also set standards for behavior that is so unacceptable or harmful to the group, whether public or private, that it is punished in official ways, including exclusion from the group.

In some communities and cultures, behaviors that people in other communities and cultures have come to consider unhealthy or antisocial are seen as acceptable – if sometimes regrettable – or normal. Domestic and other physical violence, alcoholism, racism and racial discrimination, smoking, traffic violations – even slavery – are examples of illegal, unethical, unhealthy, or undesirable behaviors that have been or still are tolerated in some communities.

Understanding the level of tolerance or encouragement for these kinds of behaviors is absolutely necessary for understanding how to change them. An ethnographic investigation can show you how people view your efforts, and what you can do to make it more likely that they’ll respond to your program or initiative.

Health conditions and knowledge. What do the folks you’re concerned with know about health and health conditions in general and in the community, and what healthy (or unhealthy) practices do they engage in? Some areas to examine:

  • Knowledge about and practices related to prenatal, infant, and child health.
  • The understanding and frequency of the effects of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and of addiction in general.
  • Awareness of chronic or other health conditions that are common in the community, and of environmental threats or benefits to health.
  • Knowledge about nutrition and physical activity, and their relationship to health, as well as practices that reflect that knowledge.
  • Engagement in regular health screenings, vaccinations, and other health protection strategies.
  • Relationships with a regular primary care provider whom people see regularly.
  • The percentage of the population with access to health care.

In the developing world, how many people have access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and basic medications? Do they know how to treat dysentery and other common diseases in order to prevent infant mortality? How far must they go to see a health care provider, and will they consider doing so?


Power and Political realities. Who holds positions of power? Who are the opinion leaders and policymakers? How is power exercised – formally or informally, fairly or ruthlessly, for self-interest or the public good? How are civic goals or actions accomplished (or are they at all)? Who is or feels powerless? Whose concerns are most often attended to? Are laws enforced differently for some people than for others? The answers to these and similar questions can help paint a clear picture of the power relationships and political realities of a community or group.

Religion. Faith can be a complex issue, since the extent of its influence, depending upon the population, can range from none to all-encompassing. How large a role does religion play in the daily life of the community? How does religion affect daily life? Asking more specific questions along these lines can help you develop a picture of religion’s role in the community:

  • Are most people in the community of one faith, or is it made up of members of a number of different faiths, as well as many with no religious affiliation?
  • What roles do religious institutions play – spiritual guide, social center, political adviser, information source, community leader (in the person of the clergy), or some or all of the above?
  • If most of the community subscribes to a particular religion, how inclusive and tolerant is it of different beliefs?
  • What are the major elements of the belief system (e.g. tolerance, alms-giving)?
  • Do people try to convert others?
  • Do they understand and believe in the separation of church and state?

Economics. What is the community or group’s economic situation?

  • Is there a problem with unemployment or underemployment?
  • Is the community dependent on a single industry, occupation, or employer (e.g., manufacturing, farming, a military base)?
  • Is there discrimination in hiring or promotion? Against or in favor of whom?
  • How does the community view education in relation to economic opportunity, and how good is its education system?
  • How strong is its work ethic?
  • How easy is it to advance economically?
  • Is decent housing affordable and available?
  • Are most people able to provide for their families’ basic needs, or is poverty a serious problem? Homelessness? Hunger?

“Basic needs” is a relative term. In a village in a developing country, it may mean one or two meals a day, a simple one-room shelter, access to water and firewood or other cooking fuel, one change of clothing (which may or may not include shoes), and occasional basic health care. In the developed world, it usually means three substantial meals a day; a solid, enclosed, multi-room dwelling that includes a modern kitchen and bathroom; decent clothes for all weather conditions; regular access to health care; and even such amenities as a telephone, a TV set, and – at least in rural areas – a vehicle. The definition of “basic needs” (beyond what it takes simply to survive) depends on what is normal for the rest of the society.

  • How large are the disparities in income and wealth? What groups experience greater disparities?

World view. This idea overlaps with several of the categories above and encompasses the way individuals in a community (and, therefore, often the community as a whole) see themselves and their lives. A “world view” is really the set of assumptions about the “rightness” of things that everyone applies to the world around her. Some of the most important elements of world view are:

  • Attitudes toward authority. There are three elements here: how authority is defined; which definition, if any, is considered legitimate; and how authority is viewed and treated. The definitions can vary from authority that comes from official position (judges, police, teachers, politicians, bureaucrats) to authority enforced by physical or economic power (warlords, gang leaders, employers and supervisors) to authority conferred by knowledge or respect and position in the social structure (elders, doctors, business leaders, clergy, academics, individuals known for their integrity and intelligence). Who is considered legitimate authority depends on loyalty and solidarity (you give your allegiance to “one of your own”). So the gang leader of the same ethnic background as most people in the neighborhood may wield more authority than the police. It also relates to who has real power (that same gang leader can have you beaten – or worse – if you disobey) and who can best advance the community’s interests. For instance, many Palestinians voted for Hamas in the 2006 election not specifically because they supported the violent overthrow of Israel, but because they believed that Hamas could improve economic conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The basic view of authority might range from unquestioning respect (authority is always right and must be trusted and obeyed) to profound lack of respect (authority is always self-serving and wrong and must be resisted actively or passively).

Obedience to authority has been of tremendous importance as a topic in history. The obvious example is that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, where much of the population blindly followed an authoritarian government into world war, wholesale murder, and genocide. We have since apparently seen many other examples, where blind obedience to authority – or the resistance to that obedience – has led to violence, overthrow of governments, and yet more genocide. Street and gang violence can be a result of ignoring authority altogether. The questions of how a culture views authority and whom it considers to be legitimate authority are extremely significant, and may have a great deal to do with your evaluation and the success of your initiative.

  • Sense of efficacy and control of the environment. Do people see their lives as totally or mostly under their own control, or out of their control entirely? Do they feel their actions make a difference, or that they can effect change in their lives or in the community? If not with them, where do they think control lies? With politicians? With the wealthy? With those who exercise control by force? If the population is made up of many young people (or socially excluded groups), what is their sense of control or lack of control?

Control might be seen to reside in a person or a group of people in “official” authority (the President, the landlord, the school principal, the boss, parents, police); in an institution or set of institutions (government, welfare, the university, the church, the army); in a set of legal, ethical, or religious principles (the Constitution, Islam, the law, the Hippocratic Oath); in the conventions of a group of which the individual is a member (Latinos, the football or soccer team, upper class, the Catholic Church, etc.); or in the decisions and actions of the individual herself. The way an individual sees her ability to control her life depends on a number of factors, including family background and upbringing, education, emotional issues, and life experience. Obviously, perspectives on this issue will differ among individuals even in a highly homogeneous community, but community norms generally reflect the views of most community members.

  • Relationships and trust. Do members of the population see most others as generally trustworthy, or is trust reserved only for family or for those within a small inner circle? Are marital (or, among youth, sexual) relationships viewed differently by men and women, and, if so, how? How are marital relationships viewed in general (positive, negative, mutually supportive, exploitative, etc.)? Are children indulged, beaten, expected to work, treasured, seen as burdens? Are there spoken or unspoken rules for economic and social relationships, and relationships among people of different economic and social classes?
  • Obligations and rights. Do most members of the community or group feel obligated to consider the general interest as well as their own? Do they see the group as a community, or does their sense of obligation extend only to family and/or close friends? What do they expect from the community or group? What rights do they feel they can exercise, both in the larger society and in the community?​

The issue of rights and obligations can vary tremendously with the nature of the group or community in question, and with the nature of the society that group is part of. In a farming village in a developing country, people may grow up with a sense of obligation to others because everyone in the village is dependent on everyone else. If one family’s crops fail, the village may feel obligated to feed them, knowing that the next year, it could be one of the helping families that is without food. The same might be true, at least to a certain extent, in small towns in the more industrialized world.

In large cities, neighborhoods may be like villages and small towns, if many residents have grown up there or lived there for many years, or they may be impersonal places where people seldom know their neighbors and feel very little sense of obligation to them. More often, if people feel an obligation at all, it’s to their particular group, however it’s defined, and/or to the society as a whole. Obligation becomes more an expression of principle, whether religious or ethical/philosophical, than a personal connection to a group of others with whom one lives.

The same may be true for rights. In the Global North, we take for granted a certain set of political rights under the law – rights to property, to political choice (voting), to fair and equal treatment under the law, etc. When those rights don’t exist or are often violated, people may define their rights more locally, in terms of the obligations owed to them by those in their group or community (I helped your family get through a bad time last year, and I have a right to your help this year.)

  • Tolerance and inclusiveness. Is the community or group inclusive – does it welcome those from other communities and cultures and generally accept their differences? Does it discriminate against or distrust “outsiders”? Are there laws or customs that guarantee everyone’s rights, and are they honored or enforced? Are behaviors that are different tolerated? Who is socially excluded, and what basis (e.g. racial or ethnic group, social class).
  • Sense of identification. How do members of the population identify themselves, and with whom do they identify and claim solidarity? Family? Ethnic group? Peer group (teens, musicians, political party, close friends, sports team)? Community (neighborhood, municipality, state, region)? As individuals, or simply as part of the human race?

You may not need to know about all these aspects of the community unless the issue you’re dealing with is so rooted in the culture (racism or gang violence, for example) that you really can’t understand the context of your evaluation without understanding the culture as a whole. It’s more likely that you’re concerned with a specific situation, and you’ll need to focus on gathering ethnographic information as it relates to that situation. (How do young people who leave school view education, for instance? What can you learn from an ethnographic investigation that can make it more attractive to them?)

The major points about ethnographic information are these:

  • Ethnographic information is obtained directly from those who live in the community of interest. In the case of gathering information for an evaluation, that means participants in a program or initiative, or the specific group in which they’re members (Black men over 40, Hispanic teens, single mothers, non-English speakers, unemployed workers, etc.) It’s not exactly the same as simple qualitative information, although some researchers see it that way, but rather a specific and more focused instance of qualitative information gathering. (See Chapter 3, Section 15, Qualitative Methods to Assess Community Issues, for more about qualitative data.)
  • The gathering of ethnographic information takes place in a natural, rather than an artificial setting. That means it happens in the environment where people in the group normally spend their time. If you’re running a program, you want to understand participants’ normal lives, not just the ways they behave and function in the program.
  • Ethnographic information is meant to help you understand a culture from the point of view of its members.
  • Ethnographic information is simply descriptive, not judgmental. Valuing may come later, but the point of the research is simply to understand how the individuals you’re concerned with see the world, and how they understand and view what they do. That can give you the entry you need to devise or revise programs in order to effect change and improvement.

Why might ethnographic information be important to evaluation?

In many circumstances, ethnographic information explains why approaches work or don’t work in ways that quantitative information can’t.

The U.S. Census Bureau used ethnographic studies to understand what populations were undercounted and why. The bureau had long acknowledged the difficulty of counting people who were homeless but knew that many others went uncounted as well. By using interviews, observation, surveys, and other methods, investigators found that undercounting resulted from several factors:

  • Record-keeping errors (uncounted residences listed as unoccupied or nonexistent, which in fact did exist and were occupied)
  • Different definitions of residence (some older or young family members might have their care shared by several siblings or cousins and might live with different people at different times so that their permanent residence was difficult to determine)
  • Attempts to avoid losing benefits (men living with women receiving public assistance would simply not be reported)
  • General distrust of government, especially among those who were in the country illegally
  • Difficulties with reading or understanding the census form
  • Difficulties with English (no accommodations for other languages)

As a result, the U.S. Census Bureau decentralized some of the data collection function, put more collectors on the streets, simplified and translated the form, and made other adjustments trying to include as many as possible of those previously uncounted. None of this information would have been found and none of the adjustments to address the issues it demonstrated would have been made without an ethnographic approach in the areas where undercounting was most common.

Ethnographic information gives real insight into the ways participants or beneficiaries of programs and initiatives experience them, as opposed to what staff members and others predict or think about how they’re experiencing them. Successful programs learn how their participants are actually experiencing the program (e.g. delays, how people are treated, time and effort to participate). An ethnographic study can help you understand if and why there’s a gap between how you view your program or initiative and how participants actually see it.

Ethnographic information helps clarify what needs to be addressed in order for participants to respond to your approach. If there are differences in the ways you and the participants see your work, an understanding of their point of view can help you make adjustments that will either make clearer to them what the intent of the program is, or adjust the program so it starts closer to what they perceive and moves toward your shared goals.

Ethnographic information can clarify the issue and its effect on, and importance to, the population of interest. Seeing the issue you’re concerned with from the perspective of current and potential participants – its seriousness, its effect on their lives, its causes, its possible alternatives – can guide the way you frame your program for greatest effectiveness.

Ethnographic information can help you gain a clearer and more complex understanding of the culture you’re working with, so you can make better plans and adjustments in the future. A true picture of the culture of the community or group can inform all your work, and allow you to participate in that culture, to be a better advocate, and to plan and run more effective initiatives in the future.

When might you want to collect ethnographic information?

Ethnographic information is useful, but an ethnographic study, even a very specific one, takes some effort. Especially if you’re part of a small community-based or non-governmental organization, you may not want to spend staff or volunteer time on gathering information that isn’t really necessary. When might ethnographic information in fact be necessary?

  • When you’re engaged with a population or cultural group that you’re not familiar with or part of. Ethnographic information can prevent you from unintentionally causing harm, or from ignoring “obvious” factors that everyone in the population takes for granted and that might be key to the success or failure of your program.
  • When you’re working with a clearly-defined group that has had a chance to develop its own culture. This might be a class, a church, a gang, a club, a team … any group that has been together long enough to have created norms for itself that might be even slightly different from those of the larger society. The more mainstream the group, the easier it is to miss these norms and to misunderstand how to approach them.
  • When an understanding of the context and culture of the community is fundamental to what you’re doing. If you’re addressing an issue, such as racism or violence, it’s essential to understand the real attitudes of the people you’re working with – not only what they think, but why they think it, how they react to various aspects of the issues, what the history is for them, etc. If you don’t understand that at least part of the attraction of a gang is that it functions as a family for kids who often have no real connection or belonging to their actual family, you’re not likely to be able to make any headway in working with gang members.
  • When you’re addressing, as is often the case in an evaluation, a focused, clearly-defined situation that involves a specific population group. Understanding exactly how that population sees that situation (e.g., a job training program, or an initiative to increase physical activity among children) will make it easier to understand what is and is not working and why.

Who should collect ethnographic information?

This depends on such factors as how much time you have, whether you already have a foothold in the community (or are part of it), the size of the group you’re concerned with, your financial resources, etc. In some circumstances, anyone trained to do so can become a participant or non-participant observer; in others, you might do best to get the cooperation of one or more key individuals in the community. When outsiders are universally mistrusted, the information might best be gathered by actual members of the community who are trained in interviewing and other data collection techniques.

How do you gather ethnographic information?

Now that you’ve decided to gather and use ethnographic information in your planning and evaluation, how do you go about getting it? The first step is to decide what kinds of information you need. Then you’ll have to determine how to get it, gain the trust of the group you want to learn about, plan your field study, and carry it out.

1. Decide what kinds of information you need. As we’ve discussed, you might want to understand the whole context and content of the group’s culture, or you may only be concerned with a very specific topic. If you’re dealing with a distinct cultural group – one defined by ethnicity or religion, for instance, whose culture has developed over centuries – gaining an understanding of the whole culture may take years. If, on the other hand, the group is part of the general culture – a middle school classroom, a workplace – but has developed a culture of its own within that confined physical and psychological space, a useful ethnographic study may only take days or weeks. In most cases, when you’re gathering ethnographic data for an evaluation, you’ll be looking at culture in relation to a very specific topic.

To conduct ethnographic research on a specific topic, you have to make sure you’ve defined that topic well enough so that you can zero in on it in your observations and conversations. What exactly is it that you need to understand about your population that will inform your evaluation? One question often asked is “How do participants (or members of the population that participants are drawn from) view the program or initiative?” Other related questions might be asked as well: Is the program and its activities culturally appropriate and respectful? Are participants’ goals similar to those of the organization, or are they very different? Are there cultural advantages or barriers that make it more or less likely that the program will succeed or that individuals will be able to participate? What would enhance those advantages or remove those barriers? Are cultural differences between participants and staff or volunteers – or cultural ignorance on one or both sides – getting in the way of program effectiveness?

Suppose, for example, you want to find out how an ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) program was viewed by students. In this case, you’d be dealing not with a coherent ethnic or religious culture, but with the culture of the classroom, unless all the students came from the same background.

Some questions you might ask:

  • How do the ESOL students view education (as something for the upper classes, as necessary for them and their children, as an imposition, as time away from earning a living, as a ticket to a better life, as part of becoming part of the country)?
  • How do they view teachers (great respect, fear, intimidation, scorn, confusion)?
  • How do they approach their learning (enthusiastically, with a strong work ethic, with no knowledge or experience of how to do it, collaboratively, with fear and trepidation, hopefully)?
  • What are the cultural barriers to learning? The cultural advantages? (In many families, for example, family support may be an extremely important factor.)
  • What arguments for learning and techniques of teaching do students respond to?
  • What do they discuss among themselves?
  • Are there intercultural dynamics in the classroom, rooted in people’s cultures, that enhance or detract from the learning environment (gender discrimination or racial or ethnic prejudice, for instance)?

Answers to these and other questions might lead to such adjustments as restructuring classes by language group or ethnicity, changing the vocabulary and topics discussed in the course of lessons, changing the atmosphere in the classroom to be more or less teacher-centered, assigning more or less independent work and more or less group work, changing the teacher-student ratio, etc.

Knowing what kinds of questions you want to answer will help you plan whom you need to gather information from, how long it might take, and – perhaps most important – how you should go about it. (We’ll look at that in more detail when we discuss planning a field study.)

2. Determine what you have the resources to do. If you’re part of a small non-governmental organization (NGO) serving Haitian immigrants, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the money or the time to spend two years in Haiti. You may have the resources to spend a good bit of time in your participants’ neighborhoods, however, learning about their assumptions and their lives. That will probably be far more useful ethnographic information for your evaluation than a years-long study of Haitian culture, anyway.

3. Gain the trust of the group you’re engaged with. If you’re an anthropologist looking for a site to conduct a field study, you’ll have to find an appropriate situation, perhaps get permission to travel there (if you’re venturing onto tribal lands, for instance), find the people you’re looking for, and convince them not only to let you stay but to answer your questions, show and explain to you their ways and customs, and help you understand their lives.

In the case of an evaluation, you won’t have to choose your field study site – it’s the program you’re evaluating and/or the community from which your participants come. But no matter whether you’re an outside evaluator or you’re gathering ethnographic information from your program’s participants’ community (Hispanics, laid-off workers, Haitian immigrants, migrant laborers), you’ll have to establish enough trust so that people will tell and show you what you want to know.

This is easier if you have a presence in the community of concern – if your program has been running for a while and has the community’s support and respect, for instance. You may already know and have the trust and support of many in the community who can vouch for you and what you’re doing.

Often the best strategy is to enter the community under the auspices of someone community members trust – a clergy person, a community leader or tribal leader, a respected long-time community member or elder, a coach, etc. This is often how a new program is introduced to a community.

An ESOL program in a community with a large Portuguese population received a boost when the outreach worker helping to establish it made contact with the president of the local soccer club. The club’s headquarters and teams were central to the social life of the Portuguese community, and when the club president began promoting the program, the community immediately accepted and flocked to it.

If you can’t do that, then you’ll have to gain entry on your own. Find out where you can meet community members – sports events, festivals, bars and cafes, parks, shopping places, etc. Choose a place that’s comfortable for you to start with, since you’re far more likely to make others comfortable with you if you feel comfortable yourself. (If you don’t normally spend time in bars, you may not want to start with bars, for example, unless that’s the only place to meet the population you’re interested in. If you’re a sports fan or athlete, the local soccer field or recreational center may be the best place for you to start.) Also make sure it’s a place that feels safe and comfortable to people you’re likely to approach, so they don’t feel threatened or rudely intruded upon. Once you start meeting people, they’ll introduce you to others.

4. Plan your field study. The core of ethnographic research is the field study. This is essentially your observational system (see Section 3 of this chapter). It involves going into the normal environment of the population of interest and observing and interviewing members there, rather than in an artificial environment such as an office or laboratory, or under artificial conditions such as a test or an experiment. This could involve anything from spending time in the ESOL classroom we’ve talked about to living for years in a West African village to working for a year or two in an auto assembly plant. Most ethnographic information for evaluations is likely to be the kind that focuses on a specific topic and that can be collected over the course of the evaluation – usually a year or less.

By this point, you’ve already done some of the work planning your field study. The basic steps are:

  • Decide on your questions. You may have already set these out when you determined what information you needed. They’ll probably be related to, but not the same as, your evaluation questions. They’re meant to inform your evaluation questions by providing such information as how participants perceive the program and their (and your) role in it. Questions might be focused on a specific topic (See “How do ESOL students perceive their classes?” above), or might be more general and relate to the larger elements of the culture. They should make sense in terms of the group you’re concerned with (i.e., they should be able to be answered by observation and/or interviews and other methods of data collection) and in terms of the evaluation (they should give you information that helps you look at what you’re doing and adjust it for the better).
  • Determine what method(s) you’ll use to gather information. There are a number of ways to gain insight into the culture of a community or group:
    • Individual or group interviews can range from casual conversation to relatively formal, recorded semi-structured or structured interviews.
    • Participant or non-participant direct observation.
    • Casual interaction
    • Participation in community events, celebrations, work, etc.
    • Surveys. If you use them, they should be open-ended (e.g., Tell me about…), rather than agree/disagree.
    • Third-party informants (others with knowledge).
    • Documents – texts, AV, budgets, posters, brochures, manuals, art, etc. – by, about, important to (religious texts, for example), and directed at (instructions, policies) the group.
    • Demographic data and public records – census, court records, public health data, etc.
    • For more detail on several of these data collection methods, see Chapter 3, Section 15, Qualitative Methods to Assess Community Issues.
  • Decide whom you’ll need to contact for information, and how. These may be specific people, chosen for their position in the community, appropriateness for the research at hand, or particular characteristics; or they may simply be members of the general population – whoever you happen to be able to make contact with. Will you contact targeted individuals directly, by mail, e-mail, personal approach, or phone? Will you contact people at random – striking up conversations at community events, approaching people in public places, knocking on doors? Or, will you work through intermediaries – community leaders, clergy, translators, etc.?

Ethical considerations: Ethically, your first obligation is to those whom you’re studying. The essentials include informing people about the existence and purpose of your research and obtaining their permission to be included; giving them the choice of anonymity and honoring their decision; giving them access to the final report if they wish; and being careful not to exploit or harm them.

While ethnographic research is by its nature subjective, you also have ethical obligations to be as truthful as possible about what you see, hear, and experience, and to paint as clear a picture as you can of the culture in question. Your interpretation of your data will undoubtedly be colored by your assumptions, experience, and background (and by the norms of your own culture), but your description of the group and its individual members should be impeccably accurate with biases filtered out. (See Chapter 19, Section 5, Ethical Issues in Community Interventions, for a more detailed discussion of research ethics.)

5. Carry out your fieldwork and keeping fieldnotes. An ethnographic study requires fieldwork – going to where the population you want to find out about is and observing and interacting with them in their own environment. That might be as simple as walking down the street to a particular corner or as complex as flying into a remote Arctic village on a seaplane. Whatever the character of your study, the elements of it will be the same.

Fieldwork is really carrying out the details of your plan – establishing trust, contacting people, and gathering information using the methods you worked out beforehand. You might find yourself changing some of your strategies and adjusting to the conditions and the people as you learn more about them. Your understanding of the culture will evolve as you get deeper into it and observe, listen, and participate more. This evolution should be reflected in your fieldnotes, both as they describe what you’ve seen, heard and taken part in, and as they describe your own reactions to your experience.

Fieldnotes are notes taken about your conversations, observations, and other data collection. They should be taken during or as soon as possible after each visit, conversation, experience, etc., before memory fades or changes. Where possible, audio and/or video recording is helpful to get an accurate rendering of what was said and done.

Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater and Bonnie Stone Sunstein (FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research, 1997. P. 73. Blair Press: Upper Saddle River, NJ.) propose a list of elements that should be included in all fieldnotes:

  • Date, time, and place of observation.
  • Specific facts, numbers, details of what happens at the site.
  • Sensory impressions: sights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes.
  • Personal responses to the fact of recording fieldnotes.
  • Specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language.
  • Questions about people or behaviors at the site for future investigation.
  • Page numbers to help keep observations in order.

Fieldnotes come in four categories, which should be separated to reflect different forms and functions (from How to Do Ethnographic Research: A Simplified Guide, by Barbara Hall (U. of Pennsylvania):

  • Jottings are the brief words or phrases written down while at the fieldsite or in a situation about which more complete notes will be written later. Usually recorded in a small notebook, jottings are intended to help you remember things you want to include when you write the full-fledged notes. They’re the kind of notes that newspaper reporters take when they’re talking to sources about a story. Although not all research situations are appropriate for writing jottings all the time, they do help a great deal when sitting down to write afterwards.
  • Description of everything you can remember regarding the occasion you are writing about - a meal, a ritual, a meeting, a sequence of events, etc. While it is useful to focus primarily on things you did or observed that relate to the guiding question, some amount of general information is also helpful. This information might help in writing an overall description of the site later, but it may also help to link related factors to one another or to point out useful research directions later.
  • Analysis of what you learned in the setting regarding your guiding question and other related points. This is how you will make links between details and the larger things you are learning about how culture works in this context. What themes can you begin to identify regarding your guiding question? What questions do you have to help focus your observation on subsequent visits? Can you begin to draw preliminary connections or potential conclusions based on what you learned?
  • Personal reflection on what you learned. What was it like for you to be doing this research in this context? What felt comfortable for you about being in this situation and what felt uncomfortable? In what ways did you connect with informants, and in what ways didn't you? While this is extremely important information, be especially careful to separate it from analysis.

In evaluation, this information can help you identify your biases, and may make it clearer why your program is less effective than you’d like, or how it’s challenging or in conflict with some of the participants’ important beliefs or assumptions. (Challenging beliefs and assumptions isn’t necessarily wrong, but denying them – even if you find them unacceptable or clearly misguided in some way – is usually counterproductive. Challenging is asking people to reassess their actions or assumptions; denying is telling them they’re wrong or stupid.) If you’re ignoring your participants’ culture, or presenting things in ways that they’re likely, for cultural reasons, to understand differently, you may not be reaching them, and may, in fact, be driving them away.

These notes are the basis for the study, so their timeliness, completeness, and accuracy are extremely important.

How do you interpret ethnographic information?

The ethnographic information you’ve gathered won’t do you any good unless you use it to understand the dynamics of your program and the results of your evaluation. You can begin by organizing your fieldnotes and whatever other information you’ve collected.

Organize the final version of your completed notes. Categorize them by patterns, by demographics (gender, age, education level, socio-economic status, etc.), by topic or theme– whatever makes sense in relation to what you were trying to find out. Sometimes, this may mean categorizing them in more than one way. Often, just the act of putting your notes together in particular ways can reveal patterns or highlight issues you weren’t previously aware of.

Starting from the point of view of your original interest, write up a description of the culture as you understand it to be seen by its members. Depending on your purposes, this might range from a complete description of the culture to a very narrow description of how members of that culture – a village, an office, an agency, a consumer sector, a country – perceive a particular aspect of your program.

This type of description can encompass great complexity if you’ve gotten a true picture of the culture you’ve been studying. Many elements may fit together in patterns you didn’t expect, and these may stand out as you put all your information together or organize it in certain ways. The goal here is to understand how the elements of the culture blend and influence one another, and how those elements and the culture as a whole affect participants’ performance, responses, behavior, communication, etc., in your program or initiative. That understanding can lead to adjustments that will make the program more successful with the group intended to benefit.

Let’s look at that ESOL program again. If most of the class members are from a culture where women defer to men as a matter of course, it may be difficult to persuade women in a coed class to participate actively. This is a particular problem in such a class, because the teaching method is based in part on encouraging as much speaking in English as possible from the beginning. If women are reluctant to speak out – even if their grasp of the new language is improving – their progress will be slower.

Understanding the underlying reasons for women’s silence in class allows the instructor to respond to the real situation, rather than simply assuming that the women don’t get it, or that calling on them will solve the problem. One solution is to break the class up into single-gender groups for part of each lesson. (This could be explained either forthrightly – to give the women a chance to speak more – or as a way to let men and women discuss what interests each.) Another is to explain that in this country, at least in public, customs are different, and that women need to learn to speak out so that they’ll be able to hold their own in shopping, jobs, and other daily tasks. Whatever the method, knowing the reasons for the women’s silence makes devising a solution possible.

Reexamine the analyses from your field notes. What did you find out about the culture’s perceptions, norms, and customs as they interacted with the focus of your questions? Seeing the study whole, do you still agree with most of your initial analyses? Set aside those ideas you think are probably incorrect or misinformed, and reformulate analyses to replace them that reflect your subsequent learning, if you haven’t already.

Try to understand the answer to your original question from the point of view of those you’re concerned with.

  • Do local people see the question in the same way you do?
  • Are there factors you didn’t know about that affect their perspective on the answer to the question?
  • Are there factors that they perceive or act on in a different way than you expected?
  • How important to the group is what’s important to you?
  • Do you and they have the same expectations for outcomes? If so, do they have the same expectations about how to get to those outcomes? If not, are your and their expectations in opposition or totally different? Are they starting with the same view of reality that you have?
  • Do some of their perceptions, cultural norms, or culturally-rooted behaviors present barriers to the success of your program that you’re either already working to counter or could work to counter?
  • Do some of their perceptions, norms, or culturally-rooted behaviors support the success of your program in ways that you do already or could take advantage of?
  • Does the program have unintended or unexpected consequences – positive or negative – as a result of cultural factors?

Some possible examples from our ESOL class: Are the younger members of the class intentionally holding back in answering questions or even in demonstrating their developing English skills so as not to show up or embarrass older class members whom they have been taught to defer to out of respect? Are class members specifically slowing down the rate of learning/instruction to that of the slowest learners so as not to embarrass anyone? Are there conflicts caused by cultural differences along these lines?

Translate what you’ve learned about participants into supporting information or answers to your evaluation questions. Some of the questions you might want to pose for yourself include:

  • How do the culture, attitudes, and norms of the population you’re engaged with affect the effectiveness of the program for them?
  • Are your methods appropriate for the culture you’re working with?
  • Are you creating rather than eliminating barriers with some of your activities or methods, or, indeed, with your program as a whole?
  • How can you make things easier and more rewarding for participants?
  • What are you doing that is most effective? Can you understand from your ethnographic data why it is effective?

Continue to gather ethnographic information to guide your work. Just as evaluation continues as long as your program or initiative lasts, your ethnographic investigation should continue as well, so that you can use the information to continue to improve your program and adapt it to the culture of the community.

In Summary

Ethnography – the attempt to understand a culture from the perspective of its members – can be extremely helpful in conducting a valid evaluation of a program or initiative. Ethnographic information can tell you why participants behave or respond in certain ways, what parts of your program conflict with or are reinforced by participants’ cultural norms, and why particular program elements are more or less effective. This knowledge can help you adjust what you’re doing to be more effective and more valuable for participants.

The culture you’re engaged with might be as small and self-contained as that of a classroom or as large as a major world religion or ethnicity. Whatever the case, an ethnographic study involves approaching the culture from the inside by embedding yourself in it to the extent possible. That may mean spending many days in that classroom, observing and talking to the teacher and students, or spending years in another country, absorbing the language, customs, and behavior that define it as a distinct culture. You’ll have to decide whether an ethnographic study is necessary for your evaluation, and, if so, what resources you can devote to it.

Planning and conducting an ethnographic study requires deciding on the information you need and the resources you have to devote to it; gaining access to the group you’re interested in; choosing your specific research questions, the methods you’ll use to collect information, and whom you’ll collect it from; and then carrying out your plan, taking careful notes and/or audio or video recordings of your observations and conversations throughout. Organizing and analyzing your notes and other information can then give you a picture of the group’s culture that can help you better understand your evaluation results and improve your program. Continuing to gather ethnographic data will result in a continuing growth of your understanding and knowledge, and, ultimately, can mean a more successful program.

We encourage the reproduction of this material, but ask that you credit the Community Tool Box:

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Written by Tony L. Whitehead, Ph.D., MS.Hyg., Basic Classical Ethnographic Research Methods is a handbook with extensive information about various ethnographic methods.  Included in the handbook is information about secondary data analysis, fieldwork, and models for ethnographic study.

Collecting Ethnographic Data is an article written by Tao Kwan-Gett, M.D. about performing ethnographic interviews. It is provided by the EthnoMed website.

Ethnographic Research is a chapter from the online resource Methods of Discovery: A Guide to Research Writing. This chapter provides information on a variety of facets of ethnography, including advice on how to keep field research notes.

The Evaluation Cookbook, from the Learning Technology Dissemination Initiative.

Ethnographic Research. An explanation of ethnography, with some key concepts and terms, and some basic assumptions of the field.

National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (UK – University of London). A short essay on ethnography and its uses.

Research Methods: Qualitative and Ethnographic. An essay on the subject from

Statement on Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. The standard for ethics in ethnographic research.

Asking the Right Questions in the Right Ways: Strategies for Ethnographic Interviewing is a featured article from ASHA’s 2003 issue of The ASHA Leader.  In addition to offering information on maximizing information attained through ethnographic interviewing, the article also provides examples of descriptive and structural questions.

A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research, Michael Genzuk, PhD, Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research, USC.

An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, a study by Dr. Francine Hallcom, California State University at Northridge. A good example of an ethnographic study.

Print Resources

Emerson, R.M. & Fretz, R.I. (2011). Writing ethnographic field notes, 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Fawcett, S., et. al. (2008). CTB Toolkit Curriculum Module 12: Evaluating the Initiative. Work Group for Community Health and Development. University of Kansas.

O’Reilly, K. (2012). Ethnographic methods. New York, NY: Routledge.

Schensul, J.J. & LeCompte, M.D. (2012). Essential ethnographic methods: Observations, interviews, and questionnaires, 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Schensul, S.L., Schensul, J.J., & LeCompte, M.D. (2012). Initiating ethnographic research: A mixed methods approach. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.