Planning for Ethnography

I am currently, on the guidance of my research supervisors, trying to develop a specific plan for the ethnographic element of my research. By this, I am referring to the kind of qualitative enquiry I am seeking to carry out. Aside from any data that will be gleaned from statistics provided by regional, national and international agencies, the largest part of my research will be interacting with people. When dealing with humans, aspects of culture, character, relationships, feelings, opinions all come into play and these cannot be counted quantitatively as such. Put crudely, I am not as concerned with figures as much as bodies.

Last year, I visited an ethnographic museum for the first time in Italy. The museum was not much different from other museums, save for the fact that it focussed on humans and their lives. Therefore it was full of clothes, tools, personal writings and many other things representing the social and cultural aspects of life. When I embarked on the idea for this research, however, I had not even considered that my Case Study work or interviews would be classed as ‘ethnographic’. Therefore I have read around the subject a little and tried to compile some useful ideas that will contribute to defining it and ensuring it can be justified and validated when the time comes.

Luckily, the interviewing I had initially envisaged has not changed in character, it is merely reinforced by the theory and arguments I have read. I have also managed to find on-line summaries of the most useful books I have consulted, and these are at the foot of this blog post.

One interesting aspect of the processes I am considering, is that they will be enriched by my awareness now of differing levels of opinion, especially the depth to which I should attempt to go. As a starting point, I feel it is useful to take a definition of roles and interviewer can play from Kvale (1996). Two distinct entities are presented:

1. Miner – This is the ‘traditional’ view where transcriptions of interactions in interview are made and the text is then analysed in various ways for meaning.
2. Traveller – A more recent interpretation, where connections are made with people along the way, and both interviewer and interviewees are learning, particularly with the former from the latter.

As a ‘Miner’: I will be seeking to deduce the following from participants in their own ‘social worlds’:
* Record their personal experiences and feelings about Lifelong Learning
* Gain an impression of the nature of the interpersonal dynamics at play in their lives
* Assertain what cultural meaning there is to the information they share

As a ‘Traveller’: I will be embarking on a learning journey together with:
* Each individual
* Each set of ‘friends’
* Every group I engage with
* Each organisation I discuss things with

Point 2, above, is noteworthy also for its reflection of andragogical values, wherein the learning journey is conducted mutually by adults and the roles of facilitator and student can, at times, be reversed. In an interview context, this breaks away from the formality of a straight Q&A interview, enabling more dialogue and promotes a reflexivity allowable between different parties. Paradoxically, the researcher could be viewed as novice, and the interviewee as teacher in such a situation.

Sherman (2007) presents a good overview of ethnographic interviewing through outlining the thinking of a range of authors. Arising from my attempts to synthesise what she says, I have arrived at a user-friendly maxim that I could employ to keep me grounded as interviewer:
‘I want to understand how you feel and why you feel it’
Feelings, as I have suggested before, are not countable, (quantifiable), they are, instead, qualitative and need to be appreciated both in the context of where and when they are expressed. In order to enable opportunities for interviewees to feel they can express themselves freely, I will need to, as interviewer, ensure the correct parameters are set. Therefore the following elements will need serious consideration in my qualitative research:

  • Duration of interview
  • Timing of interview
  • Nature of questioning (open-ended or closed)
  • Frequency of contact with interviewee
  • Establishment of trust between interviewer and interviewee
  • Awareness by interviewee of context of interview

My behaviour and approach as interviewer is also going to be extremely important. Interviews may well take place throughout a period of several months and at different locations. Therefore, aside from considering the physical variables, I need to have a code of practice for myself, in order to standardise my techniques to allow for fairness, validity and effectiveness.

  • Engage ethically at all times, be transparent, co-operative and respectful
  • Value all opinions, even those which counter my own
  • Record information appropriately and unobtrusively
  • Listen intently, use visual cues to encourage and confirm
  • Stay objective in questioning, reactions and conversations

Of course, once the interviewing process is completed in each case, there are a number of stages for the resultant information to go through.
Kvale (1996) helpfully defined seven stages of an interview investigation:

  1. thematising
  2. designing
  3. interviewing
  4. transcribing
  5. analysing
  6. verifying
  7. reporting

The final four stages above follow the interview process and I am planning on using technology to assist me. I am considering using a piece of open source software called ‘TAMS analyzer’ which will enable me to analyse the texts of my interviews and to output various data based upon, for instance, the frequency of concepts expressed, thereby offering me a way of assessing the importance of various aspects across the board. This is where Kvale’s Miner/Traveller metaphor perhaps starts to need deepening, It has come under scrutiny from several parties, who contend that certain aspects of interviewee’s responses can be analysed more deeply. This includes taking notice not just of what is said, but also of hesitations, contradictions, shifts in viewpoint, emphasis in diction (including in the questioner). In the process of analysis, therefore, I will seek to include events such as these, which could allow for a deeper understanding of the data.

The verifying stage I would consider crucial to the process, so that I can maintain the validity of what data I will have ended up with. At this stage, I may also be able to begin the process of partial reporting back to interested parties as to the progress of my research and feedback to them apparent conclusions I may be drawing which will be relevant to them.

I always have understood that, to some people, my area of research is a sensitive subject. Notions of ’empowerment’ resulting from the interviewing process are noted by Sherman Heyl (1996) in regard to feminist interviewing. It may be appropriate to expect that a vulnerability of many of the participants in my research will pervade the context, since we are very much acting within a damaged Lifelong Learning environment that is at risk, along with the broader implications on life stage quality and the concerns surrounding ageing.

Mishler (1991) identifies three stages of relationships, which can between the interviewers and interviewees: informants and reporters, research collaborators and learners/actors and advocates. In investigating Lifelong Learning for older adults, I feel there is a good case to argue that all three will be in play potentially in this research.
* informants and reporters – In the anticipated context of my research, the majority of case study interviewees will be one of these. Information will be revealed through straight forward, standardised interview.
* research collaborators – I will certainly be considering some interviewees as ‘collaborators’ in my research. Anticipating that the nature of what I am doing will interest certain individuals, perhaps because of their status in a organisation or they express a voluntary desire to help further. This is already the case, as, for instance, the willingness of organisers of some groups to permit me to get closer to their members is evident in my preliminary discussions with them.
* learners/actors and advocates – Certain people have offered to help in any way possible, because the area of research I am involved with matters a great deal to them and they seem to understand the importance and significance of what I am trying to achieve, along with the benefit that their communities can reap.

It is my belief also that the help some people offer me can be repaid in part through a mutual benefit of pooling experience and sharing the information we jointly interpret. Therefore, I will be offering to speak to groups after the research, shedding light on my findings relevant to them and attempting to continue any intellectual dynamic that will have been instigated.

Kvale, S. (1996). InterViews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing (p. 344). Sage Publications, Inc. Retrieved from
Mishler, E. G. (1991). Research interviewing: context and narrative (p. 189). Harvard University Press. Retrieved from
Sherman Heyl, B. (2007). Ethnographic Interviewing. In P. A. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. J. Coffey, J. Lofland, & L. H. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of Ethnography (pp. 369-383). SAGE. Retrieved from

TAMS analyzer – A Qualitative Research Tool by Matthew Weinstein