Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of adopting an ethnographic approach to the study of society. Answer with detailed reference to at least one ethnographic study.
- the ethnographic approach to the study of society has its advantages and disadvantages; some of the disadvantages can be avoided if the researcher is made aware of the risk of encountering them
- I will first try to define the ethnographic studies and then analyse this approach from different perspectives, namely regarding the researcher, the participants and, respectively, the research process and, thusly, the final result
- definition of the ethnography and briefly naming a few distinctive characteristics of the ethnographic approach, which basically comprises conducting interviews and doing fieldwork
- three perspectives from which one could look at the advantages and disadvantages of adopting an ethnographic approach to the study of society:
- regarding the researcher
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- requires sustained effort and engagement
- personal safety of the researcher in peril
- however, it is rewarding
- regarding the subjects
- preciseness of the information which could be affected either by the way the researcher records information, or by the participants themselves
- regarding the research process and, thus, affecting the final result, the complexity and accuracy of the information from the ethnography
- first hand data
- unavoidable subjectivity
- covert research - issues related to social identities, which leads to prejudice
- data which cannot be generalised
-practical use of ethnographic studies
- Despite noting more possible flaws than strong points in using an ethnographic approach to study the social world which are due to the fact that the ethnographic approach is a more complex way of studying reality because it poses diverse problems offering a complex final study as well, its main advantage stands out: to describe and discuss in its complexity the way in which a part of society manifests itself.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Ethnographic Studies
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of adopting an ethnographic approach to the study of society. Answer with detailed reference to at least one ethnographic study.
The grade of complexity and accuracy of the results of a social research depends on adopting the most appropriate method. Every research method has its advantages and disadvantages, this also being the case of ethnographies. However, some of the disadvantages can be avoided if the researcher is made aware of the risk of encountering them. In order to outline and discuss some of the most relevant characteristics of an ethnographic approach to the study of society, I will first try to define the ethnographic studies and then analyse this approach from different perspectives, namely regarding the researcher, the participants and, respectively, the research process and, thusly, the final result. The theoretical aspects presented throughout the essay will be supported with methodological observations from 'Sidewalk', Mitchell Duneier's ethnography of the people who earn a living on Sixth Avenue, in Greenwich Village.
Before proceeding to analyse the characteristics of an ethnographic study, we should cast our attention on one general definitions of ethnography. One should bear in mind that there are multiple understandings of the ethnographic approach, influenced by different schools of thought (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007). Nevertheless, the most complete definition of the ethnography I have encountered is the following:
[E]thnography at least (in its minimal definition) is iterative-inductive research (that evolves in design through the study), drawing on a family of methods, involving direct and sustained contact with human agents, within the context of their daily lives (and cultures), watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions, and producing a richly written account that respects the irreducibility of human experience, that acknowledges the role of theory, as well as the researcher's own role, and that views humans as part object/part subject (O'Reilly, 2005: 3).
Therefore, by using an ethnographic approach to the study of society, the social researcher enters a particular social environment in order to understand the participants in-depth, also employing open-ended interviews with the help of which to comprehend more thoroughly the participants' social behaviour.
After having established the broad distinctive features of ethnographic studies, we can now look at the advantages and disadvantages of adopting this social research method from the perspective of the researcher itself, namely how conducting an ethnographic research influences him or her. Doing an ethnographic research is time consuming, requiring the fieldworker to spend enough time in order to be accepted into a particular social system and then observe and reliably interpret the social relations which develop in that specific environment, as an insider (O'Reilly, 2005), 'and so to understand other people's own worldview' (Taylor, 2002: 3); it is also important 'to regard the normal as unfamiliar' (May, 2001: 157). The research Mitchell Duneier (2001) conducted for 'Sidewalk' lasted, for example, more than four years. This aspect also enables ethnographers to conduct open research, such being the case for Duneier, as well, at the beginning of his research, according to the methodological section of 'Sidewalk': 'I had only approximate notions about what I would do with the data I collected and what I sought to learn' (2001: 336); however, during his fieldwork the leading questions became clear.
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Engaging in doing ethnographic research has other consequences for the researcher as well. Having to adopt a different role than when using quantitative research methods, the researcher becomes instrumental in the process of collecting the data to be analysed (Padgett, 1998; Marshall and Rossman, 2006). Thus, doing fieldwork requires more effort and commitment from the researcher, as May argues: 'participant observation is the most personally demanding and analytically difficult method of social research to undertake' (2001: 153). Furthermore, after collecting information, the ethnographer has to analyse it, so that to elaborate categories for the relevant social issues denoted by the subjects (Padgett, 1998). This happened to Duneier (2001) in the process of writing 'Sidewalk', when after spending two years studying Hakim, the main participant in the research, he realised, helped by the useful feedback given by Hakim after reading the manuscript of the study, that he had omitted several important aspects from the social life on the sidewalk.
Another effect on the fieldworker discussed here is related to his or her personal safety. If dealing with dangerous subjects, and mainly if undergoing covert research, i.e. 'research that has not gained the full consent, and is not conducted with the full knowledge, of the participants' (O'Reilly, 2005: 60), the safety of the fieldworker could be jeopardized, such being the case if one studies criminals or other deviant people, especially in their own environment. Moreover, in order to better understand the participants, the ethnographer could engage in dangerous activities, for example drug dealing or smuggling, or in activities which would normally be considered morally degrading if judged by the current social norms. Duneier (2001) could have decided, for example, to buy and consume drugs himself, like some of the participants; this, he could have thought, would have enabled him to better understand their perspective on society.
As a conclusion to this section of the essay, one could note that the work of an ethnographer has more disadvantages than advantages. However, the researcher who engages in such an effort should be willing to make some sacrifices in order to achieve a more lively and accurate account of how a part of society functions, this being what ethnographies offer, some would argue. Furthermore, despite the possible inconvenients, the work of an ethnographer can be rewarding because ethnographic studies always have at least one named author. For example, Mitchell Duneier (2001) has received an award for his first ethnography, 'Slim's Table', and also numerous critical acclaims for 'Sidewalk'.
The participants in an ethnographic research are affected in various ways by the admittance of the fieldworker in their social environment. One of the aspects which should be considered is the privacy of the people involved as subjects. It should be noted that in an ethnographic research, 'the right of human subjects to privacy comes into conflict with other rights such as the right of the public to know' (Homan, 1991: 65). The main disadvantage for the subjects of ethnographies is that the researcher intrudes in their lives and perturbs them. Although this happens especially when the ethnographer overtly assumes the role of a participant observer, i.e. openly conducted research, he or she can consent and even enjoy taking part in an ethnographic study, as Hakim and Keith do, two participants in Duneier's ethnography. In this situation, however, in the case of interviews, the subject has the chance to present as clearly as possible the information the ethnographer wants to know, not being constrained by pre-defined answers, even if this means that they can distort information (Padgett, 1998). In qualitative research projects, participants remain individualities in the final result of the study, this being the reason why an ethnographer should always seek informed consent for using the real identities of the people observed and exact information, as Duneier did: 'I have received permission to quote almost all the people who were taped without their knowledge' (2001: 13). Mitchell Duneier (2001) made sure that the people presented in his ethnography were content with the way they were presented in the book by having several meetings with each of them in which he showed them the pictures and read them the passages in which they appeared. In case the participants do not agree with their identity being revealed, information about their lives can still be found in the ethnography; however, this poses ethical questions. The problem becomes more important when the researcher is a covert participant observer. In this case, the subject is not made aware of the fact that aspects of his or her life will be made public through an ethnography, this raising more ethical issues, as O'Reilly asserts: 'ethical considerations are arguably most likely to be overridden when research is covert' (2005: 60).
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Finally, we will cast our attention on the positive and negative aspects of doing fieldwork and its result: the ethnographic study. In order to do so, it should be noted that adopting an ethnographic approach to the study of society implies participating in a natural process which takes place in a dynamic and unforeseen reality, where people act in different and complex ways (Padgett, 1998). Being a participant observer means collecting first hand data, a part exact, recorded by technical devices as tape recorders or photo cameras, another part filtered by the ethnographer (Bourgeois, 2002). Hence, de facto, writing an ethnographic study is a very subjective process, as Duneier admits: '[l]ike all observers, I have my subjectivities. […] [However,] I try to help the reader recognize the lens through which the reality is refracted' (2001: 14). Subjectivity can be identified as well in the fact that the researcher observes only what is caught in his eyesight and has to select the gathered information. However, by using technical devices to accurately register the words of the participants, the level of subjectivity could diminish: 'the meanings of a culture are embodied, in part, in its language, which cannot be grasped by an outsider without attention to the choice and order of the words and sentences' (Duneier, 2001: 339); therefore this possible disadvantage of the ethnographic approach can be eliminated.
In order to be a good participant observer, one has to gain the trust of the other participants, either overtly or covertly. The advantage when researching covertly is that people can be observed in natural circumstances in their environment; however, this raises ethical issues. Undertaking overt research, as the case of Duneier in 'Sidewalk', has the advantage of being honest with the participants, but it influences the normal state of the social relations observed; in this particular situation, Duneier emphasises the fact that 'there are many things members of the different races will not say in one another's presence' (2001, 338). Hence, issues of social identity rise in cases similar to the one presented in Duneier's 'Sidewalk' (2001): the differences of race, class and social status (and in other situations of age and sex as well) between the ethnographer and the participants in the research not only made the people observed be more reserved in what they told Duneier, but also posed problems to the ethnographer who had to surpass his prejudices which were due to his social background. This could affect 'the researcher's goal [which] is to describe the symbols and values of such a culture without passing judgment based on his cultural context' (Marshall and Rossman, 2006: 82).
Another critique of the ethnographic approach is related to the qualities of the research process, to the unsystematic way of conducting the fieldwork and collecting data (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007; Padgett, 1998). However, social life itself is guided by unknown laws which are not systematic, so this is an adaptive method of studying it. The critics would continue by stating that this approach '[is] using small, non-representative samples to produce impressionistic findings vulnerable to almost any bias one could imagine' (Padgett, 1998: 12). Nevertheless, ethnographic studies reveal and explain the complexity of the human relations in a limited particular environment, which goal Duneier (2001) achieves in his ethnography, after a long lasting labour and several versions of manuscripts. As Taylor writes, an ethnographic study 'is said to produce situated knowledge rather than universals and to capture the detail of social life' (2002: 3) and, according to Gray, some critics argue that the findings are 'inadequate in representativeness and generalisability, two key criteria of validity in sociological research' (2003: 15). Moreover, due to the fact that ethnographies are the result of a researcher's work carried throughout long periods of time, they show a more accurate image of society, unlike the quantitative methods which register the reality of a particular moment in time. Moreover, by having contact with the world the interviewee is referring to, the ethnographer can discern what is true or plausible in his or her statements (Weinberg, 2002). Furthermore, the researcher can also make use of information related to aspects of their lives which are considered unimportant by the research participant. Duneier (2001) recalls a situation when he was rendered confused by an interviewee, without his intention; the ethnographer could realise which was the real situation because of his findings.
The last point to be highlighted in this essay regards the practical use of ethnographic studies in comparison to quantitative analysis. If the latter is more useful for developing strategies, the work of an ethnographer resembles more the work of a writer; its use is not often that of changing policies, one of its critiques being concerned with 'its lack of impact on policy-making and practice, its limited payoff in the everyday worlds of politics and work' (Atkinson and Hammersley, 2007: 17). Duneier (2001) emphasises in 'Sidewalk' the importance of using the conclusions drawn from the ethnography to change policies and prejudices; apart from the measure he suggests the authorities should take, Duneier states that 'only by understanding the rich social organization of the sidewalk, in all its complexity, might citizens and politicians appreciate how much is lost when we accept the idea that the presence of a few broken windows justifies tearing down the whole informal structure' (2001: 315). Besides the ineffective attempt to change policies, ethnographies can determine the readers to think in a different manner about what is happening around them, i.e. to think sociologically; I would say that the use of ethnographies is more personal, as is their subject. After reading 'Sidewalk', for example, it is desirable that people should start looking at least at the street vendors and panhandlers with different eyes, not expressing ready-made assumptions about them.
To conclude, in this essay I have analysed a small part of the possible advantages and disadvantages of adopting an ethnographic approach to the study of society. I have looked at the effects of the decision to employ this research method on the researcher him/herself, on the participants and on the process and result of the research, drawing on examples from Mitchell Duneier's 'Sidewalk' (2001). Despite noting more possible flaws than strong points in using an ethnographic approach to study the social world which are due to the fact that the ethnographic approach is a more complex way of studying reality because it poses diverse problems, offering a complex final study as well, its main advantage stands out: to describe and discuss in its complexity the way in which a part of society manifests itself.
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