Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry

Characteristics of Qualitative Observational Research

Qualitative observational research can be characterized by at least ten overlapping themes that researchers should be aware of when collecting and analyzing data. In Qualitative Evaluation Methods, Patton (1980) discusses these characteristics to help researchers design studies. These characteristics are explained below using examples relating to Black English Vernacular (BEV) and the African American rhetorical tradition. All of the examples below are based on Balester's 1993 text, Cultural divide: A study of African-American college-level writers.

Naturalistic Inquiry

Qualitative observational research is naturalistic because it studies a group in its natural setting. Patton explains, "Naturalistic inquiry is thus contrasted to experimental research where the investigator attempts to completely control the condition of the study" (p. 42). For example, if you wanted to study college students who were speakers of BEV, you would not conduct your research in a predominantly Caucasian college or university.

Inductive analysis

This characteristic is prevalent in qualitative research because it allows the observer to become immersed in a group. The researcher starts with answers, but forms questions throughout the research process. Hypotheses and theories can continuously change depending on what the observer wants to know. For instance, an observer might realize that the purpose of many of BEV speech acts is to build up the reputation of the speaker. Thus, the observer's job is to find out why. This could lead to further research into the rhetorical strategies and purposes of BEV.

Holistic perspective

Patton states, "[A] holistic approach assumes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (p. 40). In other words, almost every action or communication must be taken as a part of the whole phenomenon of a certain community or culture. However, this characteristic of qualitative observational research can be bothersome because it can lead researchers into taking every little action into consideration when writing a narrative. For instance, a researcher might notice that many speakers of BEV employ a particular rhetorical strategy in their writing. However, this phenomenon might not have anything to do with BEV and its traditions or strategies. It might be linked to something else in their lives.

Personal contact and insight

The researcher is responsible for becoming a part of a group to get a more in-depth study. However, the researcher also has to be aware of biases (both good and bad). For example, researchers who do not consider BEV a legitimate form of discourse should be aware of and acknowledge that bias before studying BEV. In contrast, a researcher who speaks BEV might ignore some negative implications of this discourse.

Dynamic systems

Qualitative observational research is not concerned with having straightforward, right or wrong answers. In addition, change in a study is common because the researcher is not concerned with finding only one answer. For example, a researcher could gain a different perspective on BEV by observing and interviewing a wide range of BEV speakers; the researcher could study both male and female speakers and speakers from different educational and geographical locations.

Unique case orientation

Researchers must remember that every study is special and deserves in-depth attention. This is especially necessary for doing cultural comparisons. For instance, a researcher may believe that "Jive" (a way of talking in the 1970s) and BEV are the same because they both derive from African-American culture. This is untrue, and BEV should be considered a unique form of discourse, with its own history, conventions, and uses/contexts.

Context sensitivity

Researchers must realize the different variables, such as values and beliefs, that influence cultural behaviors. For example, knowing that the rhetorical strategies of BEV--signifying, running it down, putting down, putting on, etc.--are context specific, a researcher might examine what values and beliefs influence this context specificity.

Empathic neutrality

Ideally, researchers should be non-judgmental when compiling findings. Because complete neutrality is impossible, this characteristic is a controversial aspect of qualitative research. For instance, it would be difficult for a researcher not to judge students who completely stop speaking BEV upon coming to college, since BEV has strong roots in African-American culture and is strongly tied to speakers' identities.This example might illustrate the difficulties in remaining completely neutral.

Design flexibility

Researchers can continue to do research on other topics or questions that emerge from the initial research. Some topics that could emerge from studying college students who are speakers of BEV are student composing processes, their academic success, or their assimilation or accommodation to academic discourse.

Qualitative data

This is a detailed description of why a culture is the way it is. Triangulation, or the use of many data gathering methods, such as field notes, interviews, writing samples, and other data helps determine the cultural phenomenon of a group. For example, a researcher could collect personal letters from different BEV speakers to find a common bond that is inherent in all their personal letters. The researcher could then interview the participants about their letter writing to get diverse points of view.


In sum, the qualitative observational researcher must attempt to maintain a non-judgmental bias throughout the study. The researcher's goal is to observe and describe group patterns, similarities, and differences as they occur. Preconceptions or expectations of an individual or group's behavior interferes with the researcher's ability to tell the group or culture's story in a fair and accurate manner. In addition, preconceived expectations preclude the researcher from observing subtle nuances of character and speech that may be important to understand group behaviors or interactions. While absolute objectivity is impossible, it is paramount that researchers enter the field or study group with an open a mind, an awareness of their own biases, and a commitment to detach from those biases as much as possible while observing and representing the group.

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