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Research Methods

Qualitative And Ethnographic

A qualitative approach to research generally involves the researcher in contact with participants in their natural setting to answer questions related to how the participants make sense of their lives. Qualitative researchers may observe the participants and conduct formal and informal interviews to further an understanding of what is going on in the setting from the point of view of those involved in the study. Ethnographic research shares these qualitative traits, but ethnographers more specifically seek understanding of what participants do to create the culture in which they live, and how the culture develops over time. This article further explores what it means to conduct qualitative and ethnographic research by looking at them historically and then by describing key characteristics of these approaches.

The Context in Education

Qualitative and ethnographic research developed in education in the late 1970s. Ethnographic researchers drew on theory and methods in anthropology and sociology, creating a distinction between ethnography of education (work undertaken by anthropologists and sociologists) and ethnography in education (work undertaken by educators to address educational issues). Other forms of qualitative research drew on theories from the humanities and other social and behavioral sciences, adapting this work to educational goals and concerns, often creating new forms (e.g., connoisseurship, a field method approach, interview approaches, and some forms of action research).

In the early development of these traditions, educational researchers struggled for acceptance by both other professionals and policymakers. This phase was characterized by arguments over the value of qualitative methods in contrast to the dominant paradigms of the time–quantitative and experimental approaches. Qualitative and ethnographic researchers argued that questions important to education were left unexamined by the dominant paradigms. Some qualitative researchers argued for the need to include and represent the voices of people in their research, particularly voices not heard in other forms of research involving large-scale studies.

Questions asked by qualitative and ethnographic researchers generally focus on understanding the local experiences of people as they engage in their everyday worlds (e.g., classrooms, peer groups, homes, communities). For example, some researchers explore questions about ways in which people gain, or fail to gain, access to ways of learning in a diverse world; others focus on beliefs people hold about education and learning; while still others examine how patterns learned within a group are consequential for participation in other groups and situations.

A broad range of perspectives and approaches exist, each with its own historical tradition and theoretical orientation. A number of common dimensions can be identified across these perspectives and approaches. Qualitative and ethnographic researchers in education are concerned with the positions they take relative to participants and data collected. For example, many qualitative and ethnographic researchers engage in observations over a period of time to identify patterns of life in a particular group.

The theoretical orientation chosen guides the design and implementation of the research, including the tools used to collect (e.g., participant observation, interviewing, and collecting artifacts) and analyze data (e.g., discourse analysis, document analysis, content analysis, and transcribing video/audio data). Theory also guides other decisions, including how to enter the field (e.g., the social group, classroom, home, and/or community center), what types and how much data to collect and records to make (e.g., videotape, audiotape, and/or field notes), who to interview (formally and/or informally), how long to remain in the field (e.g., for ethnography, one or more years), and what literature is relevant. It also influences relationships researchers establish with people in local settings, which in turn influences what can be known. Some theoretical perspectives guide researchers to observe what is occurring from a distance by taking the role of passive observer, recording information for analysis once they leave the field. Such researchers often do not interview participants, preferring to "ground" their observations in patterns in the data, without concern for what members understand. These descriptions are called etic, or outsider descriptions, because the observer is not concerned with members' understandings.

This approach is in contrast with ones in which researchers join the group and become active participant-observers, at times participating directly in events. Such researchers also make videotape records that enable them to step back from what they thought was occurring to examine closely what resulted from those actions. Those not using video or audio records reconstruct events by constructing retrospective field notes, drawing on their memories of what occurred to create a written record to analyze when they leave the field. Just which type of approach and position researchers take depends on their research goal (s) and theoretical orientation (s) as well as what participants permit.

Approaches to Research Questions

Research questions in a qualitative study are generated as part of the research process. Qualitative and ethnographic researchers often begin a study with one or more initiating question (s) or an issue they want to examine. Qualitative and ethnographic research approaches involve a process of interacting with data, reflecting on what is important to members in the local setting, and using this to generate new questions and refine the initial questions. This interactive and responsive process also influences the data that are collected and analyzed throughout the study. Therefore, it is common for researchers to construct more detailed questions that are generated as part of the analysis as they proceed throughout the study, or to abandon questions and generate ones more relevant to the local group or issues being studied.

For example, in one study of a fifth-grade classroom, the initial research questions were open ended and general: (1) What counts as community to the students and teacher in this classroom? (2) How do the participants construct community in this classroom? and (3) How is participating in this classroom consequential for students and the teacher? As the study unfolded, the research questions became more directed toward what the researcher was beginning to understand about this classroom in particular. After first developing an understanding of patterns of interactions among participants, the researcher began to formulate more specific questions: (1) What patterns of practice does the teacher construct to offer opportunities for learning? (2) What roles do the social and academic practices play in the construction of community in this classroom? and (3) What are the consequences for individuals and the collective when a member leaves and reenters the classroom community? This last question was one that could not have been anticipated but was important to understanding what students learned and when student learning occurred as well as what supported and constrained that learning. The shifts in questions constitute this researcher's logic of inquiry and need to be reported as part of the dynamic design of the study.

Approaches to Design and Data Collection

In designing qualitative studies, researchers consider ways of collecting data to represent the multiple voices and actions constituting the research setting. Typical techniques used in qualitative research for collecting data include observing in the particular setting, conducting interviews with various participants, and reviewing documents or artifacts. The degree to which these techniques are used depends on the nature of the particular research study and what occurs in the local group.

Some studies involve in-depth analysis of one setting or interviews of one group of people. Others involve a contrastive design from the beginning, seeking to understand how the practices of one group are similar to or different from another group. Others seek to study multiple communities to test hypotheses from the research literature (e.g., child-rearing practices are the same in all communities). What is common to all of these studies is that they are examining the qualities of life and experiences within a local situation. This is often called a situated perspective.

Entering the Field and Gaining Access to Insider Knowledge

Entering the research setting is one of the first phases of conducting fieldwork. Gaining access to the site is ongoing and negotiated with the participants throughout the study. As new questions arise, the researcher has to renegotiate access. For example, a researcher may find that the outcomes of standardized tests become an important issue for the teachers and students. The researcher may not have obtained permission to collect these data at the beginning of the study and must then negotiate permission from parents, students, teachers, and district personnel to gain access to these scores.

Qualitative research involves a social contract with those participating in the study, and informed consent is negotiated at each phase of the research when new information is needed or new areas of study are undertaken. At such points of renegotiation, researchers need to consider the tools necessary and the ways to participate within the group (e.g., as participant-observer and/or observer-participant, as interviewer of one person or as a facilitator of a focus group, or as analyst of district data or student products). How the researcher conducts observations, collects new forms of data, and analyzes such data is related to shifts in questions and/or theoretical stance (s) necessary to understand what is occurring.

Research Tools

One of the most frequently used tools, in addition to participant observation, is interviewing. For ethnography and other types of field research, interviews occur within the context of the ongoing observations and collection of artifacts. These interviews are grounded in what is occurring in the local context, both within and across time. Some interviews are undertaken to gain insider information about what the researcher is observing or to test out the developing theory that the researcher is constructing.

In contrast, other forms of qualitative research may use interviews as the sole form of data collection. Such interviews also seek meanings that individuals or groups have for their own experience or of observed phenomena. These interviews, however, form the basis for analysis and do not require contextual information from observations. What the people say becomes the basis for exploration, not what was observed.

Other tools used by qualitative and ethnographic researchers include artifact and document analysis (artifacts being anything people make and use). The researcher in a field-based study collects artifacts produced and/or used by members of the group, identifies how these artifacts function for the individual and/or the group, and explores how members talk about and name these artifacts. For some theoretical positions, the artifacts may be viewed as a type of participant in the local event (e.g., computer programs as participants). Some artifacts, such as documents, are examined for links to other events or artifacts. This form of analysis builds on the understanding that the past (and future) is present in these artifacts and that intertextual links between and among events are often inscribed in such documents. In some cases, qualitative researchers may focus solely on a set of artifacts (e.g., student work, linked sets of laws, a photograph collection, or written texts in the environment–environmental print). Such studies seek to examine the range of texts or materials constructed, the patterned ways in which the texts are constructed, and how the choices of focus or discourse inscribe the views that members have of self and others as well as what is possible in their worlds.

Although some qualitative studies focus solely on the documents, field-based researchers generally move between document analysis and an exploration of the relationship of the document to past, present, and future actions of individuals and/or groups. These studies seek to understand the importance of the artifact or document within the lives of those being studied.

Ongoing Data Analysis

While conducting fieldwork, researchers reread their field notes and add to them any relevant information that they were not able to include at the time of first writing the notes. While reviewing their field notes, researchers look for themes and information relevant to the research questions. They note this information in the form of theoretical notes (or write theoretical memos to themselves) that may include questions about repeated patterns, links to other theories, and conceptual ideas they are beginning to develop. They also make methodological notes to reconstruct their thinking and their logic of inquiry. Sometimes they make personal notes that reflect their thoughts and feelings about what they are observing or experiencing. These notes allow them to keep from imposing their own opinion on data, helping them to focus on what is meaningful or important to those with whom they are working.

Researchers constantly use contrast to build interpretations that are grounded in the data, within and across actors, events, times, actions, and activities that constitute the social situations of everyday life. Many qualitative (particularly ethnographic) researchers examine material, activity, semiotic (meaning-carrying), and/or social dimensions of everyday life and its consequences for members. The analytic principles of practice that they use include comparing and contrasting data, methods, theories, and perspectives; examining part-whole relationships between and among actions, events, and actors; seeking insider (emic) understandings of experiences, actions, practices, and events; and identifying through these what is relevant to the local group.

Reporting Research Findings

The final step in qualitative and ethnographic research is writing an account. The researchers make choices about how to represent the data that illustrate what was typical about the particular group being studied. Another choice might be to highlight actions of the group that were illustrative of their particular patterns of beliefs. In some studies, several cases are chosen to make visible comparisons across different activities within the group, or across different groups that may have some activities in common. For example, researchers who study classroom interactions might bring together data from different classrooms to make visible principles of practice that are similar in general terms such as asking students to understand various points of view. However, in each classroom, the actions of juxtaposing points of view will be carried out differently due to the different experiences within each classroom.

Researchers also select genres for writing the report that best enable the intended audience to understand what the study made visible that was not previously known or that extended previous knowledge. The researcher does not seek to generalize from the specific case. Rather, qualitative or ethnographic researchers provide in-depth descriptions that lead to general patterns. These patterns are then examined in other situations to see if, when, and how they occur and what consequences they have for what members in the new setting can know, do, understand, and/or produce. In qualitative and ethnographic studies this is often referred to as transferability, in contrast to generalizability.


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