(Angrosino) Projects in Ethnographic Research, Chapters 2 & 3 [Stephanie]

Angrosino, M. V. (2005).  Projects in Ethnographic Research. Waveland Press. 

Chapter 2

Basic Principles of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographers are interested in studying people in their natural settings, which means that ethnographic research is conducted in the field rather than a lab.  It requires personal contact between the researcher and the study community.   In essence, the researcher becomes part (to the extent possible) of the everyday life of those being studied.  Because the researcher seeks the perspectives and meanings held by the community, establishing rapport with those being studied is vital in order to conduct a successful study.

Ethnographic research is an “inductive inquiry”, which operates under the framework of “grounded theory.”  This theory is based on the notion that this type of data generation is to conclude general theories.  When working in an “open ended” field, without controlled variables, it is more practical to begin with general questions.  This is opposed to “deductive inquiry” which is the process in which a researcher starts with an established theory from which a hypothesis is tested. 

Ethnographic research seeks a holistic perspective, which means understanding the context of behavior and not simply the content of it.   Ethnographer studies people in the settings in which they actually live, work, and play.  The research does not simply record acts or expressions, but also how those fit together as to constitute a culture.  To that effect, there must be recognition of cultural relativism, which is the assumption that all culture is meaningful and useful and that it is neither good nor bad, it just is.  Additionally, ethnography researchers look for answers to social and cultural questions and become part of the everyday life of the people being studied in order to establish real friendship and rapport.  Essential to rapport is mutuality, which is when the researcher reciprocates what he or she is asking those being studied to do.


Because of past abuses in research, the Federal Government began mandating Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the 1970s.  Ethnographers must respect the people they study and protect their dignity.  Informed Consent is the process of giving human subjects enough information to make the decision if they would like to participate.  Confidentiality is principle of protecting the privacy of individual participants.

Chapter 3

Site Selection and Other Practical Considerations 


A unit of analysis is another way to describe the research field.  It can be a city, neighborhood, family, agency, school district, etc.  In order to be a workable unit of analysis, the researcher should select a unit that is locatable (in real space of virtual space) and bounded (people must be connected is some fashion and not scattered).


To select an appropriate study, there are three basic criteria that researchers must take into account:  logistical, definitional and conceptual.

Logistical Criteria

  • Select a unit that is close by
  • Can do observations without running cost
  • Single researcher vs. coordinated team?
  • Can be done in a time-efficient manner
  • Any potential barriers to entry?

Definitional Criteria

  • How can the group be bounded?

Conceptual Criteria

  • Are there sufficient numbers of people in the unit to make the study worthwhile?


  • Do I need special permissions to enter the community?
  • Will I need any supplies to carry out research?
  • Will I need special equipment?
  • Do I need to make special arrangements for work and living space?
  • Do I have the kind of clothes considered appropriate?
  • Do I need to make arrangements for transportation?


It is desirable to enter the field “cold,” to see if anyone is interested in participating, but researchers can also work to identify those inside the community who control access (gatekeepers).  It is prudent to have some preparation, as some people will claim to access to a particular group, but really don’t have that power.


A “good” ethnographer is:

  •  Adventurous
  •  Resourceful
  •  Enthusiastic
  •  Self-motivated
  •  Trustworthy
  •  Risk-taking
  •  Curious
  •  Sociable
  •  Able to think conceptually
  •  Culturally sensitive

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever done research in the field?  What were the conditions like?  How did you gain access?
  2. Are there benefits into going to the field “cold”?
  3. Looking at the “personal considerations” above, do you have what it takes to be a good ethnographer?

14 thoughts on “(Angrosino) Projects in Ethnographic Research, Chapters 2 & 3 [Stephanie]

  1. I have never done research in the field and I’m not sure that going in “cold” would be how I would approach it. I do think I have some of the personal characteristics that are mentioned, but I’m sure I would want to do that. I think it would be interesting and enlightening to do so, but I’m very reluctant to give up a year or more of my time to commit to that in depth of a study.

  2. There are benefits of going in cold to study a culture, particularly when the objective of the study is to learn about a new culture to inform those in your own culture. If the purpose of the ethnographic study is to inform members of the same culture of patterns of behavior not immediately apparent, I think some previous experience within the culture is necessary. The vast amount of data available in any culture requires that some kind of boundaries of the study be established so the study can be completed in a timely manner. Selecting a unit close by implies some knowledge of the unit prior to beginning the study. Ethnographers need to perceive themselves as having no previous knowledge or understanding of the culture to ensure data collection is not limited from the outset; however, some knowledge will help inform the researcher of how the group can be bound.

    • Nan,
      I agree with this distinction and think it is a pointed response. The answer to the “going in cold” question seems to always be “it depends.” The advantage seems to in fact be to allow the reader to align with the perspective of the researcher in this case.

    • Nan,
      When I was writing this summary, I thought about you and the work that you do. I was wondering how a hearing person would be able to conduct this type of research – because they can never really be part of the community, no matter how well they are able to sign. Do you think this is one of the reasons why there is little literature about the deaf and hearing impaired culture?

      • Yes, Stephanie you are right that a hearing person would not get access to the innermost circles of Deaf culture. One reason for so little literature is the number of deaf children born to hearing parents. Deaf culture flourishes most in families where there are deaf parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. Most deaf children do not have that experience as 90% have two hearing parents and 5% have one Deaf parent and one hearing parent.

  3. I, too, have never done research in the field, but it seems that a huge challenge in becoming immersed in another culture in order to study it would be one’s personal bias. I think I do have many of the personal characteristics that are necessary to be a good ethnographer. However, that is said with the caveat that I could see where I may have personal conflict if what I am witnessing runs counter to my own personal morality. (e.g., culturally accepted mistreatment of others.)

    • I would also have trouble with this. I also don’t think I have what it takes to live outside of my own comfort zone for a long period of time. My family needs (and my emotional needs) would make this type of work impossible for me. I know that some researchers bring their families with them, but I cannot see doing this.

  4. I have not done extensive research in this field, but this is an area I am interested in. After reviewing the personal considerations about what a “good” ethnographer is, I feel that I do have what it takes to go into this field. Cultural sensitivity is an important part of being an ethnographer. The practical considerations included the consideration of having appropriate clothes for the study. Sometimes we forget that our appearance dictates a lot about how people react to us. By simply looking a different way (the way we might usually dress) may alter the study all together. Cultures/people may be behaving in a different way based on the researcher simply being there (in their personal attire), and the observation/study of the way people are may simply be a façade the research is observing.

  5. During my Master’s thesis I conducted field research on the strengths/weaknesses of new and old behavioral interventions on at-risk students. The conditions of the environment are dangerous for the students and staff at times, but even the smallest of accomplishments are celebrated as a community. I initially gained access into this setting, because it also is the place of my employment. The selection of this setting was due to convenience. Being a unique place as it is, I feel anyone engaging in this type of research is entering into the field “cold”, because behavior interventions with this level of population is a learned experience and not something mastered from a book. I believe I have many of the personal traits to be a good “ethnographer”, but to be a great “ethnographer” one must immerse themselves into the subjects and I’d be hesitant to take such a large risk to work with at-risk students and live in their community with my family.

  6. I have not had experience conducting field research formally. I did, however, take a job where I was fully immersed in the drug and alcohol treatment community with little knowledge of this “culture.” In order to perform my work effectively, I had to assimilate myself into the culture. It seems the longer a researcher is immersed in the culture, the more difficult it would be to maitain an objective stance about the culture being studied.

  7. I agree with Nan in that the potential benefits derived from entering the field “cold” far outweigh the risks associated with an initial misunderstanding of the nuances of context. Attempting to describe a set of conditions without any assumptions whatsoever is the entire point of cultural anthropology — suspension of judgment is perhaps the most critical element of this discipline. What better way to achieve this aim than entering cold, documenting the phenomena, and then returning and consulting with existing knowledge?

  8. I have not conducted a field study but I do believe I have the qualities to conduct field research in my current setting. If my research is to stays in the educational setting I am in, I definitely have an advantage. Access, no cost, availabilty of participants, no special equipment or transportation. If I were to conduct a study cold, it may be a set up for failure. Going cold would have too many variables.

  9. Information that contributes to the ethnography is filtered through the researcher’s impressions and biases inherent in theoretical orientation, research strategy, social status, and individual background and personality. The “ethnographer” must consider his/her biases that can be introduced into the research process. In fact, the convergence of all a researcher’s biases inherent in the ethnographic process may result in a description that is uniquely the product of a particular observer. Accordingly, two different researchers may produce contradictory accounts of the same culture. Hence, my perspective on this issue is that, although perfect objectivity may not be attainable, it can be approximated. We must maintain scientific standards and procedures to try achieve as impartial a perspective on data as possible. We must also acknowledge and clearly discuss our sources of bias when reporting research results.

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