Conducting Ethnographic Studies, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry

Steps and Methods used in Qualitative Observational Research

Qualitative observational research involves more than simply going out into the field and observing a given group or culture. Researchers must also consider the following:

Observer's role

As Connelly and Clandinin (1990) point out, in all instances, qualitative observational research involves formulating a thoughtful and well-understood relationship between the researcher and research participants. It is essential for the researcher to determine what role(s) to play to ensure facilitation of the study and acceptance by the participants in the study group or culture. Some possibilities include observing-participant, participant-observer and neutral observer.

The observer's role is to record group interactions and behaviors as objectively as possible using various qualitative inquiry tools. Observing-participants already have a position in the society/community before taking on the role of observer. They must also examine their own subjectivity and consider that participating in the group might lead to sympathetic or antagonistic interpretations of group behaviors. Participant-observers, on the other hand, attempt to become part of community and to adopt roles as participants, but come to the study with their own culture or community inscriptions. They attempt to participate fully and take on participant roles, but must be careful to behave in a consistent manner as part of the setting so as not to cause significant changes in the community itself. Although neutral observers do not participate in the group they are studying, they still need to be aware of any presumptions they may hold that would influence their findings and what influence the act of observing the participants may have on their behavior.

It is the observer's responsibility to let readers of the research report know not only the role played in the research, but also the point of view of the observer.

Defining the research question

Unlike most scientific research methods, qualitative observational inquiry does not require the researcher to define a precise set of issues in the initial phases; these issues often emerge from the study over time. While some qualitative inquiries may begin with a set of questions, it is common for theories about group behavior and interactions to emerge as a result of the observer's exploratory work (emergent design). And, those theories may identify relevant questions for further research.

The goal of qualitative observational research is to define and answer a specific research problem or question, but this problem or question may or may not be defined at the time when the researcher first begins the study. Some researchers like to enter the field with a specific research problem already in mind. While such researchers still want to let events unfold as freely as possible once in the field, they believe that by defining the research problem in advance they are better able to observe the study group or culture and identify specific patterns of behavior.

Other qualitative observational researchers like to enter the field first and let the research questions or problems identify themselves. These researchers believe that entering the field with a specifically defined research question may bias their observations, and they may fail to notice relationships or behavior patterns that are important in understanding the study group or culture. Whatever approach is taken in determining the research question, the observer does need to be clear about the purpose, scope, and focus of the study and identify the subjects and the context in which they will be studied.

Identifying the theory that drives the inquiry

The qualitative observational researcher must determine what underlying theory or model should inform the research. This may mean replicating or building on an earlier study, or it may mean formulating a new model or theory by which to conduct the study. Either way, the theory or model chosen will help the researcher determine how to structure the study (i.e., whether to study participants in the classroom only or to study them outside of the classroom as well, and how and when to use interviews).

Selecting qualitative research tools

Selecting how and when data will be collected is an essential step in designing qualitative observational research studies. One of the primary tools of ethnographic study is the use of field notes. Observers may simply begin with a blank notebook and write down everything that goes on. Others may use audio and/or video tapes. Some observers begin with a list of categories of behavior to be noted. This works best when the research question is already defined; however, categories should be flexible and modifiable throughout the study.

The goals of note taking are to help ensure validity of the data collection and interpretation processes, to check data with members of context if possible, to weigh the evidence, and to check for researcher and subjects' effects on both patterned and outlying data.

Another useful tool, journal records, may be made by participants, researchers or practitioners. These records are collected through participant observation in a shared practical setting.

Written dialogue between researcher and participants is also used in narrative inquiry as a way of offering and responding to tentative narrative interpretations (Clandinin, 1986). Researchers may look at autobiographical and biographical writing, as well as documents such as plans, newsletters, course materials and student products, rules, laws, architecture, picturing, metaphors, poetry, clothing, foods, rituals, physical setting, and implements such as musical instruments, artifacts, logs--in short, anything within the context of the studied group that speaks of their experience.

Unstructured interviews may be used to collect data; personal stories tell us something of how group members perceive and experience their conditions. Structured interviews permit more focused information gathering, but may overlook aspects of the group that an unstructured interview might reveal. To facilitate truthful responses, the interview should be informal or conversational in nature. Interviewees may be selected with intent to uncover specific information or to gain a cross section of group members (for instance, both high achievers and those having difficultly with the material).

Researchers may need to use "stimulation recall" to prompt interviewees or participants in informal discussion concerning specific events. Another method, "simulation response," presents hypothetical situations to obtain responses from members of the community. While these methods are often helpful, they are not infallible. Members may inhibit access to information by concealing aspects of their lives or by telling researchers what they think they want to hear.

Analyzing and reporting data

The final steps to be taken by the qualitative observational researcher are analyzing the data and writing the research report. The researcher's work culminates in synthesizing and interpreting the data into an understandable and enlightening piece of writing. But, despite the fact that these steps mark the culmination of the researcher's work, it should not be assumed that they are reserved for the end of the study. Instead, it is common for the researcher to analyze data and write parts of the final report throughout the research process. In analyzing descriptive data, the researcher reviews what was witnessed and recorded, and synthesizes it with the observations and words of the participants themselves.

The observer begins with reading a situation as a text, applying as many critical techniques as possible without violating the sanctity of the text. It is important to avoid picking and choosing instances of behavior out of context. Analysis may reveal convergent data, metaphors that run throughout a language, culture, or group (thematic analysis). Key terms or key metaphors may be unpacked and examined for their significance and interrelationships among other aspects of group dynamics (content analysis). Dominant plots in the literature, films, and the text of daily life of the group aid in analysis of the data as a whole.

Writing the research report

The analyzing and writing stages of research also mark the point where researchers wed their stories with the stories of research participants. This marriage represents the ultimate goal of qualitative research: to produce a text that in the end provides a clearer understanding of the group or culture's behavior, and by doing so helps us better understand our own individual or group behaviors.

Often, the research report is written as an ethnography or a narrative. However, these two forms are not the only options for presenting qualitative observational research findings. Increasingly, the scope of qualitative observational research reporting is broadening to include elements of other genres, such as self-narratives, fiction, and performance texts (Alvermann, et al. 1996).

What researchers choose to include or exclude from the final text can have a tremendous effect on how their results are interpreted by others. Alvermann, et al. propose that conscientious qualitative researchers might pose the following questions when writing up their findings:

Researchers who take the time to confront these possible problems will produce fairer, clearer reports of their research. Even when the report takes the form of a narrative, researchers must be sure that their "telling of the story" gives readers an accurate and complete picture of the research.

It is important to note that the order of presentation is not indicative of an essential or set pattern. Although some elements in the researcher's decision-making process will necessarily precede others (i.e., the determination of the researcher's role before data collection), most of the steps outlined below will significantly overlap and recur throughout the research process.

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