Ethnographic Observation

Background and Introduction

Malinowski at the Trobriand IslandsAlthough it wasn't the first case of participant observation, the way back to the origins of observational studies is mostly explained by the case of the Trobriand Islands of Bronislaw Malinowski (Bernard, 2002, Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994). Russel Bernard explains this was an accidental study as he was sort of locked on the islands as they were in German hands during World War I shortly after Malinowski arrived. Malinowski started collecting data while living at the islands, making participant observation known to be a good research method for social studies (Bernard, 2002, 324-325). Atkinson and Hammersley discuss to look even further back in history with possible roots in the times of the ancients (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994, 249). After the case-study of Malinowski, in 1926 Beatrice Webb laid the foundation for the urban flow of ethnographic observation of 'the Chicago School', which became at that point a leadingway of thinking about observation (Bernard, 2002).

Observational research is mostly acclaimed to social studies, with in particular anthropology and sociology and this is where you would find the history of the ethnographic observation. For new media studies this form of research is used to give (big) data context or meaning (Mahrt & Scharkow, 2013, 23, O' Toole & Were, 2008).

How To

The first step of the ethnographic researcher is to identify the problem that needs to be researched. This seems like a logical step. However, it is an important one. Since there are several methods to conduct ethnographic research, the problem needs to be identified to choose the method which is the most suitable (Fetterman, 2010, 3). The two most used research methods within ethnographic fieldwork are “participant observation” and “non participant observation”. Each of these methods both have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation.
When conducting a (non) participant observation method, there are three different kinds of observations. The first one, “descriptive observation”, refers to an exploratory way of observing ‘in which as many details as possible are recorded. The second one is called ‘“focused observation,” which begins to highlight some factors that take on greater significance in the field setting’ (Schensul and Lecompte, 2013, 91). The third one is ‘“selective observation,” which concentrates more deeply on the detail of specific types of events or interactions’ (Schensul and Lecompte, 2013, 91). The three kinds of observations will be used in different stages of the research. The first one, “descriptive observation”, is more exploratory and will be used in the early stage, while the third one, “selective observation”, is more zoomed-in and specific and will be used in the final stages of the fieldwork.

Non participant observation
The non participant observation method is also referred to as “observation from a distance” (Schensul and Lecompte, 2013, 88). In this case the researcher does not try to become a member of a certain community, instead he or she observers the community from a certain distance. This method is useful when the researcher does not want to influence the community by his or her presence. However, sometimes not being involved in the community does not give the researcher access to all the events taking place since the researcher is not there all the time.

Participant observation
Schensul and Lecompte describe participant observation as following:

It [participant observation] is always defined by researcher presence at the event being observed. Participation mean near total immersion when ethnographers live in unfamiliar communities where they have little or no knowledge of local culture and where they study life in those communities through their own participation as full-time residents and members. The traditional definition of participant observation refers to this immersion experience. (Emphasis added 2013, 84)

The total immersion is an important aspect of the participant observation method. It will give a more intimate access to the community. Jorgensen (1989) refers to this as access to the “insiders’ viewpoint” (14). Jorgensens argues that to be able to get the insiders’ viewpoint, the researcher first needs to comprehend the local culture and language that is used (14).

Problems in Ethnographic Observation

The main two problems of the ethnographic observation are those of reliability and validity. Both matters can be divided into two sub-problems those of internal and external issues.

Reliability is a factor which determines whether a research can be replicated. Thus, external reliability examines whether different autonomous researchers can come up with the same conclusions or form the same compositions in similar situations. In order for researchers to diminish the external unreliability of their work they have to locate and solve some issues that are summed up in the following categories: researcher status position, informant choices, social situations and conditions, analytic constructs and premises and methods of data collection and analysis. Internal reliability, on the other hand, examines if a researcher would be able to connect the conclusions or the compositions of a previous research in the same way to the data that the former researcher used. In order for an ethnographer to upgrade the internal reliability of his findings he must follow the next five methodologies: low-inference descriptors, multiple researchers, participant researchers, peer examination and mechanically recorded data.

Validity indicates the accuracy of the research. In other words, it examines whether the researchers conclusions and compositions correspond to reality. Validity is also divided into two sub-problems. Therefore in order for a researcher to be more accurate and enhance the internal validity he must take into consideration these issues: history and maturation, observer effects, selection and regression, mortality and spurious conclusions. External validity, on the other hand, addresses the problem of whether it is possible to compare the conclusions and compositions of a ethnographic research across other research groups. With this it could be said a research is internally invalid if it loses its ability to be compared. In order for this phenomenon not to occur the ethnographer should be careful the following factors: selection effects, setting effects, history effects and construct effects.

While reliability and validity are mostly referring to the creation, the construction, the usage, the analysis and the finalization of the data in a research, there is a third problem that emerges, this of morality, which refers to ethics. Gaining access to the entire data set is a key goal for an ethnographer in order for him to make a successful research. When a researcher gains full access to the information of an organization, a company, an institution or a society, he might obtain information that will oppose his principles or indicate illegal activity. Confidentiality and anonymity are the tools that the researcher has in order to protect his sources although they do not release him from the personal ethical dilemma that he is facing. Also by using the data for institutions which do not align with the researched group the ethnographer can make it difficult for future ethnographers to enter the field again and gain the trust of the respondents.

Case Examples

I've selected three different case studies specifically related to new media, varying in degrees of participation.

Dibbel, Julian. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
This study falls under the header of complete participation. Dibbell provides an extensive account of the Multi User Domain (a MUD is a text-based and real-time virtual community) LambdaMOO. He does this by becoming an active member of the community and participating in the rituals and practices of the MUD. Dibbell provides us with thick descriptions of almost all aspects of this purely text-based virtual world; the day-to-day practices, politics, virtual economics, gender relations and even virtual sex. His findings, however, are colored by his relationship and conversations with many of the members of LambdaMOO and therefore very subjective (Dibbell even finds himself romantically involved with one of them). He makes this clear from the start of his book and never tries to pass off his findings as scientifically accurate, but it's still important to mention. Dibbell's book can be considered one of the first virtual ethnographies.

Gabriella Coleman's studies of Anonymous
Gabriella Coleman's various studies of online protest movement Anonymous can generally be marked as falling under the category of complete observation. She never actually engages in the activities of Anonymous, but closely monitors their channels of communication (IRC channels, mailing lists, forums, et cetera). She occasionally does make use of interviews but mostly sticks to silent observation. Ethnographically speaking, Anonymous is an interesting entity; its elusive and rhizomatic structure make it a difficult group to study. Due to its heavy reliance on information technologies its organizational architecture is one that's inextricably linked to new media. It's interesting to see how useful classic ethnographic strategies proof to be when studying communities informed by these new technologies. In her studies, Coleman shows how the proven method of (complete) observation can also be applied to contemporary (virtual) communities. For an example of Coleman’s work, see the following video:

Pfeiffer, Ilja Leonid. Second Life. Verhalen en reportages uit een tweede leven. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2007.
Ilja Leonid Pfeiffer spent five months of his life researching the virtual world Second Life. His methodological approach is a classic example of participant observation; he becomes part of the community, but he also lets his respondents know that he is studying them. Through participating, observing and analysis Pfeiffer is able to establish an account of how virtuality influences gender relations. His research provides a clear vision of the fluidity of concepts like identity and gender on Second Life.

Relevant Tools

The most important of tools for most scientists who use observation are field notes. It depends entirely on the research or the stage of research what the research notes. If you have no hypothesis yet and are still trying to induce a question out of what you want to observe, your notes can be about anything. If for example, you would want write about the use of screens in the public sphere but do not have a question yet you could stand at the trainstation and note anything of interest. If however you have posed a research question a more methodical approach is necessary. For this I suggest using an observation schematic.

Observation Schematic
An observation schematic is a very important tool for researchers. It allows you to structure your research whether its participant or non-participant observation. There are many things you can put on an observation schematic, these data depend on what you are researching. Some things however are essential. You must always put a date and time of your observation on it, a description of the setting where you observe and a description of your relation to the observed.

There is always a lot to be observed and a lot to miss while observing, the following diagram could be of help when designing your schematic. It describes five different frameworks for observation.

Note Organizing

What is most important about this type of research is how you organize your field notes. As digital media students and enthusiasts I shouldn’t have to explain the advantages of digitizing your field notes. I still recommend using pen and paper on your printed observation schematic though, because laptops, tablets and phones are basically distraction machines and you might miss important details. However, after taking your notes it is very important that you organize them so you can use them later. You can use programs like Evernote or Mendeley but I recommend using software like NVivo because it lets you analyze your content as well.


Atkinson, Paul, and Martyn Hammersley. "Ethnography and participant observation." Handbook of qualitative research 1 (1994): 248-261.

Bernard, H.R.. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition. Walnut Creek, Lanham, New York, Oxford: Alta Mira Press, 2002.

Fetterman, David M. Ethnography: Step-by-Step. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2010.

Hannan, Andrew. ‘’Observation techniques’’ Resined. 2006. University of Plymouth. 20 September 2013. < >.

Jones, Matthew. "Ethnographic and Field Study Techniques" University of Cambridge. 20 September 2013. < >.

Jorgensen, Danny L., ed. Participant observation: A methodology for human studies. Vol. 15. Sage, 1989.

Kumar V, Whitney P. "Faster, Cheaper, Deeper User Research." Design Management Journal (Spring 2003): 50-57.

LeCompte, Margaret D., and Judith Preissle Goetz. "Problems of reliability and validity in ethnographic research." Review of educational research 52.1 (1982): 31-60.

Mahrt, Merja, and Michael Scharkow. "The Value of Big Data in Digital Media Research." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 57.1 (2013).

O'toole, Paddy, and Prisca Were. "Observing places: using space and material culture in qualitative research." Qualitative Research 8.5 (2008): 616-634.

Robson, C. Real World Research. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Rothstein, P. a(x 4): A user-centered method for designing experience. IDSA Education Conference Proceedings, Boston, Massachusetts, 2001.

Schensul, Jean J., and Margaret D. Le Compte. Essential Ethnographic Methods. A Mixed Methods Approach. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Alta Mira Press, 2013.

Sotirin, P. Bringing the Outside In: Ethnography in/beyond the Classroom, Presented at the 85th Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association Conference, Ethnography Division, Chicago, Illinois, November 4-7, 1999.

Spradley, J. P. Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.

Tjora, Aksel H. "Writing small discoveries: An exploration of fresh observers’ observations." Qualitative Research 6.4 (2006): 429-451.

Further Reading

Agar, Michael H. "The professional stranger: An informal introduction to ethnography." (1996).

The author’s objectives are to construct a general concept of Australian social organization based on kinship and marriage. The researcher applies the perspective of cognitive anthropology in his work and, thus, he advances traditional ethnographic research to the interdisciplinary “New Ethnography”.

Amit, Vered. Constructing the field: Ethnographic fieldwork in the contemporary world. London: Routledge, 2000.

The author analyzes the ethnographical observation process, its components and methods. She also identifies the challenges -in both the professional and personal area of activity and involvement- a researcher has to overcome for an effective and essential outcome. New insights and dimensions of ethnography in the contemporary society are also discussed.

Chapman, Christopher N., and Michal Lahav. "International ethnographic observation of social networking sites." CHI'08 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2008.

The authors examine the cross-cultural differences between American, French, Chinese and South Korean people in the usage of social networks with observation and ethnographic interviews. The results depict three different pillars of online behavior which gradually converts to more general communications behaviors.

Clifford, James, and Geoge E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography;[experiments in Contemporary Anthropology]. University of California Pr,1986.

A collection of essays that focuses on the relationship of the poetic and political codes and representations of ethnography. The author argues that the role of science in observation is not independent from historical and linguistic processes. On the contrary, these well-organized texts are tools of highlighting the artificial perspectives of culture.

Koro-Ljungberg, Mirka, et al. "(E) pistemological awareness, instantiation of methods, and uninformed methodological ambiguity in qualitative research projects." Educational Researcher 38.9 (2009): 687-699.

In this article the authors focus on the importance of accessibility and visibility of the research process. They argue that researchers should provide the audiences with evidence of the whole fieldwork. Thus, two ways of conceptualization, in terms of epistemological awareness and instantiation of methods, are discussed.

Marcus, George E. "Contemporary problems of ethnography in the modern world system." Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography (1986): 165-193.

A collection of essays from different educational backgrounds, such as anthropology, history, and literary studies, which demonstrates the traditional methods of ethnographic observation. However, the main concern of this work is to explain the new established techniques in the ethnographic fieldwork and suggest tools and methods for a closer observation of small cultural systems embedded in larger and impersonal ones.

---. "Ethnography in/of the world system: the emergence of multi-sited ethnography." Annual review of anthropology (1995): 95-117.

The survey refers to the gradual appearance of multi-sided ethnography in anthropological research. Ethnography and ethnographic researchers are now reshaping and reconstructing, simultaneously, their tools and strategies of observation and participation following the global shifts in economy and technology. Complex and interdisciplinary fields of work such as media studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies implies the emergence of multi-sided ethnography as a method of social observation.

Van Maanen, John. Tales of the field: On writing ethnography. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

An introductory and informal survey of ethnographic voices. The author examines the “peculiar practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one’s own experience in the world of these others”.

Wolcott, Harry F. Ethnography: A way of seeing. Rowman Altamira, 1999.

This book is an introduction to ethnography; it can be used as a manual in the observation process among anthropology and sociology. The author defines the fieldwork, narrates its historical establishment and shifts and proposes strategies and methods for future studies and development.

---. The art of fieldwork. Rowman Altamira, 2005.

The author in this book compares the scientific to the artistic perspective of ethnography. His main purpose is to encourage fieldworkers adopt an artistic, more informal, technique conducting their researches without, on the other hand, dismissing the scientific nature of the field.
Topic revision: r10 - 23 Sep 2013, ErikBorra
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