Sociology Group: Welcome to Social Sciences Blog

Ethnography: Methods, Types, Importance, Limitations, Examples

Ethnography is a descriptive study of a certain human culture or the process of conducting such a study.  It is a  qualitative data collection approach commonly employed in the social and behavioural sciences. The term “ethnography” comes from the Greek words “ethnos” (which means “people” or “nation) and “grapho” (which means “I write”). A very common example of ethnographic research is an ethnographer coming to an island, living within its community for years, and investigating its people and culture via persistent observation and involvement. A few essential elements of ethnographic research are the significance of context, detailed recording of people and their life and a holistic and qualitative analysis of the data collected. This article will discuss the methods and types of ethnographic research. It will also shed light on the importance of ethnography as a research tool, as well as its advantages and limitations. The article will also illustrate some differences between ethnography and anthropology.

Ethnography examples

Methods of Ethnography

  • Naturalism :

The earliest form of ethnographic research, naturalism is an approach in which the researcher watches the variables of the study in their natural surroundings in order to detect and document behavioural patterns. It may entail spending time in the native habitat of the group or persons being studied in order to document their behaviours. Also known as the live and work method, this approach provides accurate information since it minimises interference within the group. However, this method is also time consuming and is thus not favoured by ethnographers.

For example, a naturalist ethnographic study was conducted in South African primary schools, with a focus on the learning habits of a group of Grade 6 children at an urban township school in the Western Cape (Plooy, 2010).

  • Participant Observation

The participant observation approach is used when a sociologist becomes a member of the group being studied in order to gather data and comprehend social phenomena.  Throughout participant observation , the researcher takes on two roles at once: participant and observer. The group is sometimes, but not always, aware that the researcher is watching them. In 2011, sociologist Ashley Mears conducted an ethnographic study on the world of fashion modelling. She worked as a model in New York and London, and conducted interviews with major people of the fashion world in order to better understand it.

  • Archival Research

Some researchers acquire access to massive volumes of data by relying on existing information to address a variety of study queries. This method of inquiry is called archival research. Looking at past records helps the researcher to identify patterns or relationships that can further lead to new paths of study. Fire agencies in the United States preserve records of fires, chemical spills, accidents, and so on, all of which represent archived data. From 1953 until 2001, the measurements of models shoot for Playboy magazine’s centrefolds were investigated as an example of archival research (Voracek & Fisher, 2002).

  • Netnography

Netnography is a method of performing ethnographic research on the internet. It is a qualitative, interpretative research approach that applies standard ethnographic methodologies to the study of internet platforms. The ethnographic research setting is understood by going to the field where the researcher does fieldwork. Netnography doesn’t always need fieldwork, but what is done is online fieldwork. Even in some research examples, netnographic research can be done completely in front of a smartphone or computer screen. Using a netnographic and case-study method, a study by Johansson and Andreasson examined how loneliness is perceived and comprehended via the use of several blogs as data (2017).  More specifically, the study intended to analyse loneliness and associated topics in the context of online communication.

Types of Ethnographic Research

  • Educational Ethnographic Research

There are certain procedures included in educational research that study people’s learning and teaching approaches and the influence they have on classroom behaviour. People may learn about student behaviour and attitudes, as well as academic motives, learning dispositions, and much more, through educational ethnography research. People can pay greater attention to the consequences of learning processes, pedagogy, and certain general arrangements in the learning environment with the aid of this study methodology.

  • Business Ethnographic Research

Business ethnographic research is a study design that entails monitoring consumer behaviours and target markets in order to determine genuine market demands and the general attitude toward your product or service. It is an exceptionally useful research instrument that may assist your firm in identifying client wants and meeting market expectations. This research strategy combines many methodologies such as fieldwork, physical interviews, and internet surveys to get meaningful data about target market consumer behaviours.

  • Medical Ethnographic Research

Ethnography is a valuable study tool for understanding patients’ and service consumers’ experiences throughout their medical journey. It may tell you what it’s like to have a certain medical condition or diagnosis, as well as the norms and behaviours of individuals with that ailment. The patient’s voice can be heard owing to ethnographic data. Information from ethnographic research of patient populations can be utilised to enhance healthcare and social care services.

There are various advantages of ethnography, which make it important to the field of sociological research. Some benefits of ethnography are:

  • It investigates complex issues. Ethnographies are highly suited to studying complicated social and cultural interactions, unforeseen circumstances, and connections that are too complex and challenging to analyse using quantitative approaches such as questionnaires and model testing.
  • It aids in the understanding of human behaviour. It contributes to scientists’ knowledge of human behaviour. Many scientists work in behavioural sciences to learn how and why individuals react to stimuli in various ways, as well as what variables influence their decisions and actions. Ethnography is extremely useful to behavioural scientists because it demonstrates if particular behaviours are exclusive to a certain community or if they are prevalent in all individuals, independent of geography, culture, customs, religious, political, or educational background.
  • Ethnographic research transcends boundaries to provide a peek into other cultures. In issues of human rights, the ethnographer develops a knowledge of the group’s perspective and, in certain cases, acts as a spokesperson for the group.
  • It offers in-depth insights. It is readily adaptable and capable of discovering new things. Ethnography employs qualitative research rather than quantitative study. This implies that, rather than depending on predefined assessments with restricted responses, the ethnographer focuses on his observation and conversations with the participants utilising open-ended questions. This approach enables ethnographers to find discoveries that would not have been apparent if quantitative research had been utilised, as well as provide more thorough, in-depth results.

However, there are some limitations to ethnographic research as well.

  • It is time-consuming. One of the most significant disadvantages of ethnography is the time factor. Before the researcher can begin investigating a certain set of individuals, the ethnographer must first establish rapport with them. The researcher must spend months or perhaps years studying their everyday lives and learning about their culture, conventions, and practices.
  • It requires effort and training. Ethnographies are hard to duplicate, and are limited to the subjects of the research, and are strongly reliant on the ethnographer. Ethnographers need significant training in interviewing procedures, note keeping, other data gathering methods, and data processing methods, as well as linguistic and other skills particular to the society or community they wish to investigate.
  • It is susceptible to bias or prejudice. Ethnographers, no matter how neutral they strive to be, might nonetheless be impacted by cultural prejudice or ignorance. For example, if they have an innate attitude that their race is “better” than others, this might influence how they research and communicate with their subjects.
  • Due to the nature of the study, ethnography may pose many ethical concerns. Therefore, researchers must pay close attention to ethics while conducting their studies. Ethnographers must pay close attention to ethics when doing their research. Ethnographers frequently examine delicate cultures that are prone to exploitation if precautions are not in place. Ethnographers also examine subcultures and labour groups, which necessitates cautious research to prevent harming the individuals.

Ethnography vs Anthropology

Ethnography seeks to depict life as it is seen and perceived by a person, somewhere, at some point in time. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a study of the circumstances and possibilities of people living in the world. Although anthropology and ethnography have much to offer each other, their goals and purposes are quite different. Ethnography is a methodology while anthropology is a discipline. Anthropology is the study of human communities in general, while ethnography is a methodical technique to discover a culture, place, or group.

For instance, an anthropologist might be interested in studying the mating rituals of a small town in New Guinea. Now he might employ many methods to achieve his objective. One of those methodological approaches can be the use of ethnographic research. The anthropologist can use participant observation to explore the culture of this tribe in New Guinea. Thus, in this case, the cultural anthropologist has used ethnography to understand a culture.

Ethnography is thus an extremely useful research tool that offers a wide range of benefits.

Johansson, T., & Andreasson, J. (2017, September 1). The web of loneliness: A netnographic study of narratives of being alone in an online context . MDPI. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from

Lucille, D. P. (M. L. (n.d.). An ethnographic study of the learning practices of grade 6 students in an urban township school in the Western Cape: A sociological perspective (thesis).

Voracek, M. (2002). Shapely centrefolds? temporal change in body measures: Trend Analysis. BMJ , 325 (7378), 1447–1448.

limitations to ethnographic research

Ishita Bhambri

Ishita Bhambri is an undergraduate student of Psychology and Sociology at FLAME University, Pune. A raging feminist and a mental health advocate, she is deeply interested in gender studies and film literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading books and baking desserts.

Log in using your username and password

  • Search More Search for this keyword Advanced search
  • Latest content
  • Current issue
  • Write for Us
  • BMJ Journals More You are viewing from: Google Indexer

You are here

  • Volume 20, Issue 4
  • Ethnography: challenges and opportunities
  • Article Text
  • Article info
  • Citation Tools
  • Rapid Responses
  • Article metrics

Download PDF

  • Janice Jones 1 ,
  • Joanna Smith 2
  • 1 Institute of Vocational Learning, School of Health and Social Care, London South Bank University , London , UK
  • 2 Children’s Nursing, School of Healthcare, University of Leeds , Leeds , UK
  • Correspondence to Dr Janice Jones, Institute of Vocational Learning, School of Health and Social Care, London South Bank University, London SE1 0AA, UK; jonesj33{at}

Statistics from

Request permissions.

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

  • paediatrics
  • paediatric surgery
  • paediatric neurosurgery
  • health services administration & management
  • quality in health care


Collectively qualitative research is a group of methodologies, with each approach offering a different lens though which to explore, understand, interpret or explain phenomena in real word contexts and settings. This article will provide an overview of one of the many qualitative approaches, ethnography , and its relevance to healthcare. We will use an exemplar based on a study that used participant-as-observer observation and follow-up interviews to explore how occupational therapists embed spirituality into everyday practice, and offer insights into the future directions of ethnography in response to increased globalisation and technological advances.

What is ethnography?

What research methods do ethnographic researchers adopt.

Ethnographic methods are diverse and a range of approaches can be adopted; they are based on observation, often complemented with interviews, and detailed analysis often at a micro level. Although the methods used are not exclusive to ethnography, it is the depth of fieldwork and the continuous process of engaging with participants and their natural environments that is central and adds strength to the findings of ethnographic studies. 6 Participant observation requires immersion in the setting under investigation, and observing the language, behaviours and values of the participants. 7 Consequently, paramount to undertaking an ethnographic study is the role of the researcher in data collection.

Engaging with participants in the real world poses several challenges; first the researcher must decide whether to adopt an overt or covert approach to data collection and observation. In an overt approach the participants know they are being observed, whereas in a covert approach the participants are unaware they are being observed. The rationale for undertaking covert data collection in healthcare contexts needs careful consideration because of ethical implications, and the tensions with the principles of good research governance such as the right to choice whether to participate, information provision and gaining consent. 8 Second, the researcher must consider ‘their position’ either as an ‘insider’ (emic) or ‘outsider’ (etic). 5 Broadly, an emic approach is aligned with immersing into the culture, observing and recording participants’ way of life and activity, in contrast to the etic approach that observes and describes communities and cultures ( table 1 ). Both methods produce rich, in-depth data aiming to make sense of the context or phenomena under investigation, and require the researcher to be reflexive when undertaking fieldwork, accounting for their own assumptions and presuppositions to strengthen the findings. 5

  • View inline

Approaches to participant observation 7

Ethnographic approaches to data collection produce voluminous unstructured data from a range of sources, for example fieldwork notes, diary entries, memos and, where appropriate, interview transcripts. The volume of data can be challenging to analyse and we would recommend a structured approach such as the framework approach. 9 The framework approach is rigorous, logical and transparent, and is particularly suitable to manage large amounts of textual information, while remaining close to the original data. 10 Framework approach supports the process of crystallisation, where the multiple facets of an ethnographic study are iteratively analysed, and constantly reviewed to identify patterns and associations across the data. 9 While the final stage in the framework approach aims to present the data in a way that is meaningful to the reader by grouping findings into categories and themes, the role of the researcher is to offer explanations about ‘how and why’ events, actions and interactions occur. 9 10

Table 2 outlines the methods adopted, rationale for decisions made and challenges of undertaking an ethnographical study that explored how occupational therapists incorporate spiritual care into their everyday practice. 11 Data were collected through participant-as-observer, recognising JJ’s role as an occupational therapist and knowledge of the study setting, with semistructured interviews used to explore with participants their decisions and thoughts by reflection on the observational data collected. Several key findings emerged; first spirituality is more meaningfully described than defined for occupational therapy practice. Second, central to occupational therapy practice is supporting patients during times of vulnerability; addressing the spiritual constructs of practice is essential to holistic person-centred care. Finally, organisational and contextual factors influenced how the occupational therapists framed their practice, and adopted strategies to retain their commitment to holistic, person-centred practice. 11

Methods, rationale for decision and challenges undertaking ethnographical research

How flexible is ethnography to social changes, globalisation and technological advances?

Rapidly advancing technology and increased globalisation require healthcare organisations to adapt and change; similarly approaches to undertaking qualitative research must evolve. 12 The increased use of web-based platforms as a means of sharing information, offering support networks and monitoring patients is creating opportunities for health researchers to study the naturally occurring and vast amount of data generated online. The rapid advancement of online communities has resulted in the emergence of online research methodologies such as netnography. 13 Netnography is rooted in ethnographical methods that aim to explore the social interactions of online communities, and can be adapted across the spectrum of online activities. 14

The emergence of team-based ethnography, as a departure from the traditional lone researcher working ‘ in the field’ , is in part in response to the globalisation of societies, economies and ororganisations. 15 Multisite or global ethnography is a new way of conceptualising ethnography that offers opportunities to study the interconnectedness of modern society, 15 and could be appropriate to study healthcare systems globally.

In summary, it is not surprising that qualitative research has been widely adopted as a means of understanding healthcare from the patient experience, and exploring service provision, care delivery and organisational cultures. The value of focused ethnographic studies in healthcare is essential to develop an in-depth understanding of healthcare cultures and explore complex phenomenon in real world contexts.

  • Ritchie J ,
  • Streubert HJ ,
  • Carpenter DR
  • Hammersley M ,
  • Edgecombe N
  • McNaughton Nichols C ,
  • Angrosino M
  • Hammersley M
  • Costello L ,
  • McDermott M ,
  • Kozinets RV
  • Jarzabkowski P ,
  • Bednarek R ,
  • Cabantous L
  • Monahan T ,

Competing interests None declared.

Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

Read the full text or download the PDF:

Anthropology Review

Breaking Down Barriers – Using Ethnography to Build Cultural Understanding

Ethnography is a research method used to study human cultures and societies. At its core, ethnography is the study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their day-to-day activities.

Table of Contents

Ethnographers aim to gain an in-depth understanding of the culture they are studying by immersing themselves in it and observing it from within. This approach allows them to gather rich qualitative data that can help explain how people think, behave, interact with one another, and make sense of their world.

This research method is widely used across various fields such as anthropology, sociology , education, business, and more to gain insights into different cultures and ways of life.

Ethnography – An Introduction

Ethnography is a research method that involves the systematic study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their daily activities. It typically requires immersion in the culture being studied, often for an extended period of time, to gain a deep understanding of its norms, values, beliefs, and practices.

The key components of ethnography include participant observation, fieldwork, and data analysis.

Participant observation involves the researcher taking an active role in the culture they are studying by participating in its activities and observing its members’ behaviour. Fieldwork refers to the process of collecting data through direct observation, interviews, and other methods while living among the people being studied. Data analysis involves interpreting the data collected during fieldwork to develop insights into the culture under study.

Ethnography differs from other research methods like surveys or interviews in several ways. Surveys typically involve collecting data from a large group of people using standardized questions or measurements. Interviews involve asking individuals about their experiences or opinions on a particular topic. In contrast, ethnography emphasizes direct observation of cultural practices and behaviors within their natural context rather than relying on self-reported information.

Overall, ethnography provides a unique perspective on human cultures and societies that cannot be obtained through other research methods. By immersing themselves in a culture and experiencing it first-hand, ethnographers can gain insights into how people think, behave, and interact with one another that would be difficult to obtain through any other means.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a research method used in ethnography and other social sciences that involves the researcher taking an active role in the culture or group being studied.

In participant observation, the researcher immerses themselves in the culture and participates in its activities while observing and recording their experiences. This approach allows the researcher to gain a deep understanding of the culture’s norms, values, beliefs, and practices from an insider’s perspective.

Participant observation typically involves several stages, including gaining entry into the culture or group being studied, establishing trust with its members, learning about its social structure and dynamics, participating in its activities while observing them, and collecting data through field notes or other methods.

The process is time-consuming and challenging, but it can provide rich qualitative data that would be difficult to obtain through other means.

Fieldwork is a research method used in ethnography and other social sciences that involves conducting research in the natural environment or “field” where the culture or group being studied is located. In the context of ethnography, fieldwork typically involves immersing oneself in the culture being studied to gain a deep understanding of its norms, values, beliefs, and practices.

During fieldwork, researchers may engage in participant observation by actively participating in the activities of the culture they are studying while observing and recording their experiences. They may also conduct interviews with members of the culture to gain additional insights into their perspectives and experiences.

Cultural Informant Interviews

Cultural informants are individuals who are knowledgeable about the culture being studied and can provide valuable information to researchers. The ethnographer interviews them to gain insights into their perspectives, experiences, and beliefs.

During cultural informant interviews, researchers ask open-ended questions to gather information about the society’s norms, values, beliefs, and practices. The goal is to gain a deep understanding of the culture from the perspective of its members. Informants may be chosen based on their expertise in specific areas or because they are representative of particular groups within the culture being studied.

Cultural informant interviews can be conducted individually or in groups and may take place in person or remotely. They typically involve building rapport with informants over time to establish trust and create an open dialogue.

Analysing and Describing Ethnographic Findings

Analyzing and describing ethnographic findings involves interpreting the data collected during fieldwork in order to draw conclusions about the culture being studied. The anthropologist begins by organizing their field notes, transcripts, and other data into categories or themes that emerge from the data itself. This involves identifying recurring patterns, themes, or ideas that arise during observation or interviews.

Once the anthropologist has organized their data into categories or themes, they identify the key cultural concepts that emerge from their analysis. These may include values, beliefs, practices, symbols, or social structures that are central to the culture being studied.

The anthropologist then uses their data to describe the norms and behaviors that are common within the culture being studied. This could involve discussing how people interact with each other in social settings or how they communicate with one another.

To understand cultural practices and beliefs fully, it’s important for the anthropologist to provide context for them. One of the ways anthropologists achieve this aim is by using a style known as thick description .

Thick description refers to the practice of providing detailed, contextualized accounts of cultural phenomena. When writing anthropological reports, ethnographers aim to provide readers with enough information to understand the cultural context in which events or activities took place. This type of detailed description is essential for understanding the complexities of human cultures and societies.

Based on their analysis of the data, the anthropologist draws conclusions about what they have learned about the culture being studied. This could involve making generalizations about cultural values or identifying unique features of a particular group within the culture.

Finally, the anthropologist presents their findings in a clear and concise manner using appropriate qualitative research methods such as narrative description, thematic analysis, or grounded theory.

Best Practices for Conducting Ethnographic Research

Develop a clear research question: Before beginning your research, it’s important to have a well-defined research question that will guide your study and help you stay focused on what you want to learn.

Build rapport with participants: Ethnography often involves spending extended periods of time in the field and building relationships with members of the community being studied. It’s essential to establish trust and create an open dialogue with participants.

Use multiple methods: Ethnographers use a variety of data collection methods, including observation, interviews, surveys, and document analysis. Using multiple methods can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the culture being studied.

Maintain detailed field notes: Accurate and detailed field notes are crucial for ethnographic research as they provide a record of observations, conversations, and experiences that can be analyzed later.

Practice reflexivity: Reflexivity is the process of reflecting on one’s own role in the research process and how this may impact data collection and analysis. Ethnographers should be aware of their own biases and assumptions and actively work to minimize their influence on the study.

Ensure confidentiality: Confidentiality is critical in ethnographic research as participants may share personal information or engage in behaviors that could put them at risk if made public. Researchers must take steps to protect participant privacy and ensure that any information shared is kept confidential.

Analyze data systematically: After collecting data, it’s essential to analyze it systematically using established qualitative research methods such as coding, thematic analysis, or grounded theory.

By following these best practices, ethnographers can conduct rigorous and ethical research that provides valuable insights into human cultures and societies while also respecting the rights and privacy of participants.

How Ethnography Differs from Other Qualitative Methods

Ethnography differs from other qualitative research methods, such as focus groups or interviews, in two key ways.

First, the main aim of ethnographic research is the interpretation of the shared norms and beliefs of the community under study. This means that ethnographers are more interested in understanding how a group interacts with each other and their cultural worlds than they are in individual perspectives.

Second, ethnography relies heavily on fieldwork. This means that ethnographers must immerse themselves in the daily lives of the people they are researching in order to understand their culture. This can be done through direct observation or participation in activities. This means that ethnographers often live with the people they are researching for extended periods of time in order to really understand their culture.

The Ethical Considerations of Ethnographic Research

When conducting ethnographic research, there are a number of ethical considerations that need to be taken into account in order to ensure that the research is conducted in a responsible and respectful manner. This is especially important when working with vulnerable populations.

The following are some of the challenges involved in conducting ethnographic research and the ethical considerations that need to be taken into account.

Informed Consent

Conducting anthropological research requires gaining the trust of those being studied. This can be a challenge, especially if the researcher is coming from a different culture.

It is important to build relationships of trust and mutual respect in order to conduct ethical research. This can be done by spending time getting to know the people you will be working with, learning about their culture and customs, and respecting their way of life. If people do not trust you, they will not participate in your research.

It is also important to obtain informed consent from those who will be participating in your research. This means that participants must be made aware of what the research entails, what their role in the research will be, and how their personal information will be used. Participants must also be given the opportunity to ask questions and withdraw from the study at any time.

Respecting Privacy and Confidentiality

Another ethical consideration is protecting the confidentiality of participants. This means keeping their information safe and ensuring that it will not be used for any purpose other than what was originally agreed upon.

In some cases, researchers may need to change the names of participants or use pseudonyms in order to protect their identity. Any recordings or notes that are made during the course of the research should also be kept confidential.

This can be a challenge in ethnographic research because the very nature of the methodology involves observing people in their natural environment. This means that researchers may inadvertently collect personal information about participants without their knowledge or consent. One way to overcome this challenge is to establish clear boundaries with participants at the beginning of the research process and make sure they are aware of what information will be collected and how it will be used.

Code of Ethics

All anthropologists are bound by a code of ethics which sets out principles for conducting responsible and ethical research. The code of ethics includes principles such as respect for human dignity, protecting participant welfare, minimizing harm, upholding confidentiality, and obtaining informed consent.

The Challenges of Conducting Ethnographic Research

The goal of ethnographic research is to understand how people interact with each other and the world around them. In order to do this, ethnographers immerse themselves in the lives of the people they are studying. This can be a challenge, both logistically and emotionally. Here are some of the challenges involved in conducting ethnographic research.

Gaining access to the people being studied

One of the biggest challenges in conducting ethnographic research is gaining access to the necessary people and places. This can be difficult for a number of reasons, including language barriers, unfamiliarity with local customs, and lack of personal connections.

One way to overcome this challenge is to partner with someone who is already familiar with the community you’re researching. This person can act as a guide and introduce you to key members of the community who can provide valuable insights into your research topic.

Another challenge faced by many ethnographers is gaining the cooperation of research subjects. This can be difficult because people are often reluctant to talk about sensitive topics or share personal information with strangers. One way to overcome this challenge is to build rapport with your research subjects by establishing trust and demonstrating your understanding of their culture and values. Only once you have gained their trust should you begin asking questions about your research topic.

Time Commitment

Another challenge is the time commitment required. In order to really understand a culture, an ethnographer needs to spend a significant amount of time observing and interacting with the people in that culture. This can be logistically difficult, especially if the society under study is located in a different country or region. It can also be emotionally challenging, as it requires an ethnographer to be open and vulnerable with the people they are studying.

Analysis and Interpretation

Once an ethnographer has collected their data, they then face the challenge of analysis and interpretation. This is difficult because ethnographers must not only understand the culture they are studying, but also their own culture and biases.

In addition, ethnographic data often takes the form of unstructured observations, interviews, and field notes, which can be challenging to organize and interpret. One way to overcome this challenge is to use data management software like NVivo or Atlas.ti to help you organize and analyse your data.

And finally, the ethnographer must find a way to communicate their findings to others who have not experienced the society first hand. This is where thick description is crucial.

Conclusion – Ethnography is a Powerful Tool

Ethnography is a powerful research method that allows anthropologists to study human cultures and societies in depth. Its strength lies in its ability to provide rich, detailed descriptions of cultural practices, beliefs, and values while also providing context for these phenomena.

Ethnography differs from other qualitative research methods in that it emphasizes the importance of long-term fieldwork and participant observation as a way of gaining deep insights into cultural phenomena. By immersing themselves in the culture being studied, ethnographers can gain a nuanced understanding of complex social processes and interactions.

As such, ethnography continues to be an important tool for anthropologists seeking to understand the diverse ways in which people live and interact with one another around the world.

Related Terminology:

Thick description: A type of ethnographic data that provides highly detailed, contextualized accounts of social phenomena.

Triangulation: A method used by ethnographers to corroborate their findings by collecting data from multiple sources.

Qualitative research : A type of research that uses inductive, observational methods to generate rich, detailed data about a particular phenomenon.

Quantitative research: A type of research that uses deductive, statistical methods to generate numerical data about a particular phenomenon.

Anthropology Glossary Terms starting with E






Disclosure:  Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. When you use one of  my affiliate links , the company compensates me. At no additional cost to you, I’ll earn a commission, which helps me run this blog and keep my in-depth content free of charge for all my readers.

limitations to ethnographic research

Leave a comment Cancel reply

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

Educational resources and simple solutions for your research journey

Ethnographic Research

What is Ethnographic Research? Methods and Examples

Ethnographic research , rooted in the discipline of anthropology, is a systematic and immersive approach for the study of individual cultures. Ethnographic research methods involve the examination of cultural phenomena from the perspective of the subjects under investigation. This method of social research places a particular emphasis on participant observation, where researchers engage with the setting or individuals being studied, documenting intricate patterns of social interaction and analyzing the participants’ own interpretations of their behavior within their local contexts.   

While ethnography originated in social and cultural anthropology in the early twentieth century, its application has extended to various disciplines. Widely adopted as a qualitative data collection strategy, ethnographic research design stands out for its reliance on observing life as it naturally unfolds, dispensing with the controlled environment of a laboratory. Ethnographic observation seeks to understand societies and individuals through direct observation and interviews, providing valuable insights into how they interact with their surroundings in their natural environments.  

limitations to ethnographic research

Here are some ethnographic research examples :  

  • An anthropologist observing the people and culture of an Indigenous tribe by living with them for several months.  
  • A child psychologist observing the social dynamics of toddlers in a play school (interactions with teachers and with one another).   
  • A potential startup looking to create a product and a market for that product by observing how a group of potential customers interact with and discuss similar products in various stores over a specified length of time.

Table of Contents

What is ethnographic research ?  

Ethnographic research systematically studies cultures and behaviors, relying on participant observation and exploring cultural phenomena from the perspective of the subjects. Its versatility and qualitative nature make it a valuable data collection strategy in the social and behavioral research sciences. It has transcended disciplinary boundaries, making its way into various social science disciplines, notably sociology. Some key points to better understand what is ethnographic research ? and what are the advantages of ethnography research ? are as follows:  

  • Ethnographic research is an immersive approach that aims to document detailed patterns of social interaction and behavior.   
  • Ethnographic observation provides a rich source of qualitative data.  
  • Ethnographic research methods acknowledge the unpredictability of real-world situations, offering a more authentic understanding of societal dynamics and individual behaviors.  
  • Ethnographic research puts the point of view of the subject of the research first.  

Main aim of ethnographic research  

The main aim of ethnographic research is to deep dive into the perspectives and actions of subjects, capturing the variables that characterize their daily experiences. It offers researchers a comprehensive understanding of how subjects perceive the world and navigate their interactions with the surrounding elements.    

Types of ethnographic research  

Ethnographic observation might be applied in fields of business, medicine, education, psychology, and more. There are various types of ethnographic research , broadly based on the study discipline and the activity under study, with each shedding light on human behavior, experiences, and cultural nuances.  

Below are different types of ethnographic research , which will give you a broad idea about how to conduct ethnographic research in various fields:  

1. Psychology ethnography

To explore human experiences and behaviors within a cultural context, researchers immerse themselves in the natural habitat of individuals, applying ethnographic research methods such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, and field notes. 

2. Life history ethnography

Life history ethnography looks at the tapestry of an individual’s life, offering a nuanced understanding of their experiences, challenges, and cultural influences. Researchers conduct in-depth interviews, collect personal documents, and may even observe the subject in their daily life to capture a comprehensive life narrative. By zooming in on a single life, researchers can uncover patterns, transitions, and unique perspectives that might be overlooked in broader ethnographic studies.  

3. Business ethnography

In business and retail, ethnographic research focuses on consumer habits and target markets to discern market demands and attitudes toward products or services. Fieldwork, interviews, and online surveys are used to identify preferences and meet market demands effectively.   

4. Educational ethnography

Researchers employing educational ethnography observe students’ learning attitudes and motivations using non-participant and direct participant observation.  

5. Medical ethnography

In medicine and healthcare, ethnographic research involves qualitative exploration of patient behavior across various healthcare scenarios to understand patient needs, reactions to prescriptions and treatment procedures, suggestions for improvement, etc.  

6. Digital ethnography

Digital ethnography or desk study is conducted remotely. Researchers rely on second- or third-hand information collected by others to compile knowledge about a particular ethnic group without direct observation. This method leverages the wealth of information available online.   

7. Literary ethnography

Novels and books, often overlooked in traditional ethnographic discussions, offer a unique avenue for cultural exploration. Literary ethnography involves analyzing fictional works, autobiographies, and cultural narratives to extract insights into societal norms, values, and historical contexts. This method recognizes the power of storytelling as a medium through which cultural knowledge is transmitted.   

Methods of ethnographic research    

Various methodologies are employed in ethnography, from direct observation, diary studies, video recordings and photography to the analysis of devices used by individuals. The duration of ethnographic studies varies, with observation periods ranging from a few hours to several months, depending on the specific research objectives. Thus, ethnographic research methods employed will depend on the field, the size of the sample, and the research goal.    

So, what are ethnographic methods employed by researchers to answer questions in diverse disciplines? Let’s take a look:  

1. Triangulation  

A researcher used multiple data collection strategies and data sources to obtain a complete picture of the topic in focus and to cross-check information.  

2. Field notes  

A researcher collects, records, and compiles notes on-site during the study. This can be considered a researcher’s primary tool to collect data.  

3. Naturalism  

This is probably the oldest ethnographic research method . In this ethnographic research design , one spends time in the group’s natural environment to observe and record research variables.   

4. Participant observation  

Similar to the above approach, in participant observation, the ethnographer actively interacts with the research subjects. The difference lies in the ethnographer participating in the group. Participant observation gives ethnographers more data. They better understand the research subjects’ experiences and habits from the participant’s perspective.  

5. Interviews  

For authentic and relevant research results, the ethnographer interacts with the research group, asking questions about the research group, while conducting research-related activities.  

6. Surveys  

Ethnography surveys help the researcher obtain and analyze data to arrive at objective conclusions. Multiple choice questions, Likert scale, open-ended, and close-ended ethnography survey questions are commonly used. This approach saves time and costs.   

7. Archival research  

This qualitative ethnographic research method examines existing literature and records of relevant research rather than by the researcher’s physical presence.   

Examples of ethnographic research  

To better understand ethnographic research meaning , methods, and design, let’s take a look at some ethnographic research examples :  

Observing urban street performers: Over the course of several months, a researcher observes urban street performers’ performances and their interactions with passersby, exploring how these individuals collaborate or compete with one another for attention and recognition.  

Studying patterns of coffee shop regulars: Through a combination of direct observation and casual conversations, a researcher might uncover the habits and interactions of regular patrons and the social dynamics that characterize the daily lives of individuals who frequent the establishment.   

Exploring online gaming communities: In the realm of virtual spaces, a researcher might examine online gaming communities to understand the social structures, communication patterns, and shared norms among players. Through active participation and observation within the gaming environment, the researcher might seek insights into how relationships form, conflicts are resolved, and cultural practices evolve within this digital subculture.  

Observing farmers’ market vendors: At a local farmers’ market, a researcher may closely examine the interactions between vendors, customers, and the broader community. This study aims to uncover the cultural nuances of the market environment, exploring aspects such as negotiation tactics, vendor-customer relationships, and the role of the market in creating a sense of community.  

Advantages of ethnography research  

The advantages of ethnography research are manifold. Ethnographic observation allows first-hand observation of subjects’ interactions in their natural environment. This might help uncover subjects’ unconscious or implicit behaviors. Ethnographic research also enables a researcher to gain longitudinal insights as ethnography often involves extended periods of fieldwork, allowing researchers to observe changes and developments over time. Further, this approach often captures the holistic nature of social phenomena by considering various interconnected elements within a cultural context. This holistic approach is beneficial for understanding complex social structures, rituals, and the interplay of different factors influencing behaviors.  

Finally, ethnographic research involves a variety of data collection methods, and this multi-faceted approach yields rich and diverse data, enhancing the depth and validity of the research findings.  

Disadvantages of ethnography research  

Despite its relevance to certain studies, ethnographic research is not without its limitations. One significant challenge lies in the necessity to establish and sustain intimate face-to-face interactions with participants, a task that can prove difficult depending on the study’s nature and the type of participants involved. Prolonged fieldwork might prove costly in terms of time and resources. Second, culture, being an abstract concept, poses difficulties when used as an interpretive lens. Third, ethnographic research lacks reliability and validity since it cannot be easily replicated, and its findings may not extend to other similar situations    

Frequently asked questions  

Q: What are some examples of ethnographic research?

A: Some ethnographic research examples are as follows:  

  • Studying yoga retreat participants: An ethnographer may immerse themselves in the experience of a yoga retreat, observing the behaviors, rituals, and social dynamics among participants. This research involves both active participation in yoga sessions and passive observation of communal activities, providing insights into how individuals connect, form bonds, and integrate spiritual practices into their daily lives.  
  • Life history ethnography: An in-depth interview of a stroke survivor to obtain an account of their personal struggle for recovery, followed by a narrative analysis based on the transcription, coding, and analysis of transcripts from hours of interviews.  
  • Field study on a remote island: A researcher visits a remote island inhabited by an obscure tribe. The researcher then lives and spends a significant amount of time getting to know their daily life customs and practices.  
  • Surveying nurses in a trauma hospital: A researcher conducts in-depth surveys to understand the psychological effects of working late-night shifts and dealing with patients with severe trauma.  

Q: What is the main aim of ethnographic research ?

A: The main aim of ethnography is to remain objective and to collect and report what the researcher observes to add to the body of knowledge about the group. It is not to make judgments about the group’s characteristics or methods of interaction or devise approaches to improve or change the group.

Q: Can ethnography be applied to various fields?  

A: Yes, ethnographic research is versatile and can be applied across various disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, marketing, design, education, healthcare, and more. Its adaptability makes it a valuable method for gaining insights into diverse aspects of human behavior and culture.    

Q: Is ethnography only suitable for studying small or isolated communities?  

A: No, while ethnography is often associated with studying small or isolated communities, it can also be applied to larger populations and urban settings. The focus is on understanding the cultural context and social dynamics, regardless of the size or location of the community.  

Q: Can the findings from ethnographic research be generalized to broader populations?  

A: Ethnographic observation is often more concerned with depth than breadth, so generalizability to larger populations may be limited. However, the insights gained can inform broader theories and provide a foundation for further research in similar contexts.  

Q: How should researchers ensure ethical conduct in ethnographic research?  

A: Ethnographers must prioritize ethical considerations by obtaining informed consent from participants, maintaining confidentiality, and being transparent about the research purpose. They also navigate potential conflicts of interest and consider the impact of their presence on the community being studied.  

Researcher.Life is a subscription-based platform that unifies top AI tools and services designed to speed up, simplify, and streamline a researcher’s journey, from reading to writing, submission, promotion and more. Based on over 20 years of experience in academia, Researcher.Life empowers researchers to put their best research forward and move closer to success.

Try for free or sign up for the Researcher.Life All Access Pack , a one-of-a-kind subscription that unlocks full access to an AI academic writing assistant, literature reading app, journal finder, scientific illustration tool, and exclusive discounts on professional services from Editage. Find the best AI tools a researcher needs, all in one place – Get All Access now for prices starting at just $17 a month!

Related Posts

essay writing

Essay Writing Basics: Strategies for PhD Success 

research funding

Streamlining the Research Funding Journey With Researcher.Life’s GrantDesk

Have a language expert improve your writing

Run a free plagiarism check in 10 minutes, generate accurate citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base


  • What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples

What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples

Published on March 13, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word “ethnography” also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

Table of contents

What is ethnography used for, different approaches to ethnographic research, gaining access to a community, working with informants, observing the group and taking field notes, writing up an ethnography, other interesting articles.

Ethnographic research originated in the field of anthropology, and it often involved an anthropologist living with an isolated tribal community for an extended period of time in order to understand their culture.

This type of research could sometimes last for years. For example, Colin M. Turnbull lived with the Mbuti people for three years in order to write the classic ethnography The Forest People .

Today, ethnography is a common approach in various social science fields, not just anthropology. It is used not only to study distant or unfamiliar cultures, but also to study specific communities within the researcher’s own society.

For example, ethnographic research (sometimes called participant observation ) has been used to investigate  football fans , call center workers , and police officers .

Advantages of ethnography

The main advantage of ethnography is that it gives the researcher direct access to the culture and practices of a group. It is a useful approach for learning first-hand about the behavior and interactions of people within a particular context.

By becoming immersed in a social environment, you may have access to more authentic information and spontaneously observe dynamics that you could not have found out about simply by asking.

Ethnography is also an open and flexible method. Rather than aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis , it aims to offer a rich narrative account of a specific culture, allowing you to explore many different aspects of the group and setting.

Disadvantages of ethnography

Ethnography is a time-consuming method. In order to embed yourself in the setting and gather enough observations to build up a representative picture, you can expect to spend at least a few weeks, but more likely several months. This long-term immersion can be challenging, and requires careful planning.

Ethnographic research can run the risk of observer bias . Writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, and it can be difficult to maintain the necessary distance to analyze a group that you are embedded in.

There are often also ethical considerations to take into account: for example, about how your role is disclosed to members of the group, or about observing and reporting sensitive information.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

If you’re a student who wants to use ethnographic research in your thesis or dissertation , it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s the right approach:

  • Could the information you need be collected in another way (e.g. a survey , interviews)?
  • How difficult will it be to gain access to the community you want to study?
  • How exactly will you conduct your research, and over what timespan?
  • What ethical issues might arise?

If you do decide to do ethnography, it’s generally best to choose a relatively small and easily accessible group, to ensure that the research is feasible within a limited timeframe.

Receive feedback on language, structure, and formatting

Professional editors proofread and edit your paper by focusing on:

  • Academic style
  • Vague sentences
  • Style consistency

See an example

limitations to ethnographic research

There are a few key distinctions in ethnography which help to inform the researcher’s approach: open vs. closed settings, overt vs. covert ethnography, and active vs. passive observation. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Open vs. closed settings

The setting of your ethnography—the environment in which you will observe your chosen community in action—may be open or closed.

An open or public setting is one with no formal barriers to entry. For example, you might consider a community of people living in a certain neighborhood, or the fans of a particular baseball team.

  • Gaining initial access to open groups is not too difficult…
  • …but it may be harder to become immersed in a less clearly defined group.

A closed or private setting is harder to access. This may be for example a business, a school, or a cult.

  • A closed group’s boundaries are clearly defined and the ethnographer can become fully immersed in the setting…
  • …but gaining access is tougher; the ethnographer may have to negotiate their way in or acquire some role in the organization.

Overt vs. covert ethnography

Most ethnography is overt . In an overt approach, the ethnographer openly states their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the members of the group being studied.

  • Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent…
  • …but people may behave differently with the awareness that they are being studied.

Sometimes ethnography can be covert . This means that the researcher does not tell participants about their research, and comes up with some other pretense for being there.

  • Covert ethnography allows access to environments where the group would not welcome a researcher…
  • …but hiding the researcher’s role can be considered deceptive and thus unethical.

Active vs. passive observation

Different levels of immersion in the community may be appropriate in different contexts. The ethnographer may be a more active or passive participant depending on the demands of their research and the nature of the setting.

An active role involves trying to fully integrate, carrying out tasks and participating in activities like any other member of the community.

  • Active participation may encourage the group to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence…
  • …but runs the risk of disrupting the regular functioning of the community.

A passive role is one in which the ethnographer stands back from the activities of others, behaving as a more distant observer and not involving themselves in the community’s activities.

  • Passive observation allows more space for careful observation and note-taking…
  • …but group members may behave unnaturally due to feeling they are being observed by an outsider.

While ethnographers usually have a preference, they also have to be flexible about their level of participation. For example, access to the community might depend upon engaging in certain activities, or there might be certain practices in which outsiders cannot participate.

An important consideration for ethnographers is the question of access. The difficulty of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To gain access to the fans of a particular sports team, you might start by simply attending the team’s games and speaking with the fans.
  • To access the employees of a particular business, you might contact the management and ask for permission to perform a study there.
  • Alternatively, you might perform a covert ethnography of a community or organization you are already personally involved in or employed by.

Flexibility is important here too: where it’s impossible to access the desired setting, the ethnographer must consider alternatives that could provide comparable information.

For example, if you had the idea of observing the staff within a particular finance company but could not get permission, you might look into other companies of the same kind as alternatives. Ethnography is a sensitive research method, and it may take multiple attempts to find a feasible approach.

All ethnographies involve the use of informants . These are people involved in the group in question who function as the researcher’s primary points of contact, facilitating access and assisting their understanding of the group.

This might be someone in a high position at an organization allowing you access to their employees, or a member of a community sponsoring your entry into that community and giving advice on how to fit in.

However,  i f you come to rely too much on a single informant, you may be influenced by their perspective on the community, which might be unrepresentative of the group as a whole.

In addition, an informant may not provide the kind of spontaneous information which is most useful to ethnographers, instead trying to show what they believe you want to see. For this reason, it’s good to have a variety of contacts within the group.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

The core of ethnography is observation of the group from the inside. Field notes are taken to record these observations while immersed in the setting; they form the basis of the final written ethnography. They are usually written by hand, but other solutions such as voice recordings can be useful alternatives.

Field notes record any and all important data: phenomena observed, conversations had, preliminary analysis. For example, if you’re researching how service staff interact with customers, you should write down anything you notice about these interactions—body language, phrases used repeatedly, differences and similarities between staff, customer reactions.

Don’t be afraid to also note down things you notice that fall outside the pre-formulated scope of your research; anything may prove relevant, and it’s better to have extra notes you might discard later than to end up with missing data.

Field notes should be as detailed and clear as possible. It’s important to take time to go over your notes, expand on them with further detail, and keep them organized (including information such as dates and locations).

After observations are concluded, there’s still the task of writing them up into an ethnography. This entails going through the field notes and formulating a convincing account of the behaviors and dynamics observed.

The structure of an ethnography

An ethnography can take many different forms: It may be an article, a thesis, or an entire book, for example.

Ethnographies often do not follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, though like most academic texts, they should have an introduction and conclusion. For example, this paper begins by describing the historical background of the research, then focuses on various themes in turn before concluding.

An ethnography may still use a more traditional structure, however, especially when used in combination with other research methods. For example, this paper follows the standard structure for empirical research: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

The content of an ethnography

The goal of a written ethnography is to provide a rich, authoritative account of the social setting in which you were embedded—to convince the reader that your observations and interpretations are representative of reality.

Ethnography tends to take a less impersonal approach than other research methods. Due to the embedded nature of the work, an ethnography often necessarily involves discussion of your personal experiences and feelings during the research.

Ethnography is not limited to making observations; it also attempts to explain the phenomena observed in a structured, narrative way. For this, you may draw on theory, but also on your direct experience and intuitions, which may well contradict the assumptions that you brought into the research.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

Caulfield, J. (2023, June 22). What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved April 2, 2024, from

Is this article helpful?

Jack Caulfield

Jack Caulfield

Other students also liked, what is qualitative research | methods & examples, what is a case study | definition, examples & methods, critical discourse analysis | definition, guide & examples, what is your plagiarism score.

  • Reviews / Why join our community?
  • For companies
  • Frequently asked questions

Ethnographic Research

What is ethnographic research.

Ethnography is a research method that involves immersing oneself in the natural context of individuals to collect quantitative insights into their behavior and culture. This method emphasizes observation, engagement, and analysis of human experiences in real-world settings.

Ethnographic research is widely used in UX design since it provides detailed data about users' preferences and behaviors. This data is used to create products and services that meet the needs of diverse user groups. It also ensures user-centered and culturally sensitive design. Research of this type helps designers comprehend how users interact with technology in a range of settings. It also reveals areas that have the potential for growth.

While ethnographic research has several advantages, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider, even more so when conducting ethnographic research in cross-cultural contexts. It's important for researchers to be aware of their own biases and to approach the culture being studied with respect and sensitivity. 

Benefits and Limitations of Ethnographic Research

Thanks to its immersive nature, ethnographic research offers several advantages over other qualitative research methods, for example:

It enables researchers to understand the cultural context in which their subjects live, work, and interact.

It offers crucial insights into the factors that influence how individuals make decisions, act, and perceive their environment.

It allows for flexibility in data collection since researchers can adapt their methods as they go along and explore new areas of interest that may emerge during the study.

While ethnography can provide an understanding of human behavior and culture, researchers must be aware of its limitations and possible ethical concerns. Some of the most common challenges associated with ethnographic research include its time-consuming and expensive nature, the difficulty of addressing certain research questions or populations effectively, the potential language barriers, and the challenges to accessing the culture to study.

Still, this method reveals how different cultures operate and interact. For example, a study of workplace culture in Japan might show differences in communication styles or decision-making processes compared to a similar study conducted in the United States.

Ethnographic Research Methods

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research method to study human behavior and societies and culture.

The most common methods of ethnographic research are participant observation and interviews.

Participant Observation: The researcher immerses themselves in the natural environment of the people they study. They observe their behavior firsthand and may even participate in activities alongside them.

Interviews: The researcher conducts interviews with individuals from the culture of interest to understand how they perceive and experience their culture. These interviews can be structured (with a predefined or standardized set of questions) or unstructured (less formal conversations that allow the researcher to explore topics as they arise) and may be conducted one-on-one or in a group setting.

Ann Blandford, expert in qualitative user studies and professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London, explains the characteristics of a semi-structured interview:

  • Transcript loading…

Examples of Ethnographic Research in Various Fields

Ethnographer with workers in a field.


Ethnographic research has been employed in several fields to understand human behavior and culture better. Here are some examples:

Anthropology: Anthropologists have long used ethnographic research to study different cultures worldwide. Margaret Mead is a well-known example of an ethnographic researcher who studied the people of Samoa, revealing important information about their social and cultural practices.

Sociology: Sociologists also use ethnographic research to understand social phenomena. For example, Erving Goffman's classic work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life used participant observation to explore how individuals present themselves to others in everyday interactions.

Marketing: Ethnographic research is increasingly being used in marketing to gain insights into consumer behavior. For example, a company may conduct ethnographic research by observing consumers in a natural setting (such as a grocery store) to understand their purchasing decisions and what factors influence those decisions.

UX Design: Ethnographic research allows designers to understand their users' habits and behaviors deeply. For instance, a UX designer working on a travel booking platform might use ethnographic research to investigate how travelers plan and book their trips.

Ethical Considerations in Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research involves observing individuals in their natural environment, which can raise ethical concerns. It's important for researchers to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of their studies and obtain informed consent from participants.

One fundamental consideration in ethnographic research is privacy. Researchers must take steps to protect the privacy of their subjects.

Obtain permission before taking photographs or recording conversations.

Be careful not to reveal personal information about subjects that could lead to their identification. 

It’s also important to obtain informed consent from subjects before conducting any study activities. This means that people understand the study's purpose, what will be involved, and any potential risks or benefits. Ensure that any study does not cause harm or distress to subjects, either physically or emotionally. This may involve avoiding sensitive topics or situations that could trigger trauma.

The Role of Technology in Ethnographic Research

Technology has become an increasingly important tool for ethnographic research. Here are a few ways in which researchers use technology in ethnographic research:

Digital Recording: One of the most basic ways to use technology in ethnographic research is through digital recording. Researchers can use audio or video recording devices to capture conversations, interactions, and other observations.

Online Platforms: Social media is making it easier for researchers to observe and interact with people from all over the world, which can be especially useful when studying cultures that are difficult to access due to geography or political barriers.

Mobile Apps: Mobile apps can also be helpful tools for ethnographic research. For example, a researcher could develop an app that allows participants to record their daily activities and thoughts, offering unique perspectives on their behavior and experiences.

Virtual Reality: Virtual reality (VR) is another emerging technology with potential ethnographic research applications. VR allows researchers to create immersive environments that simulate real-world situations, allowing participants to interact with simulated objects and people as if they were actually there.

While technology can provide many benefits for ethnographic research, it's important for researchers also to consider its limitations. For example, relying too heavily on digital recordings may prevent researchers from noticing important nonverbal cues or context that may be lost when not observed directly in person. Additionally, some cultures may need more access or knowledge about specific technologies, making it difficult to use them in certain contexts.

Learn More about Ethnographic Research

Learn how to get better results from ethnographic research.

Explore when and how to conduct ethnographic research in different contexts. 

Read this comprehensive guide to conducting ethnographic research .

Understand some of the key methods used in ethnography .

Literature on Ethnographic Research

Here’s the entire UX literature on Ethnographic Research by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Ethnographic Research

Take a deep dive into Ethnographic Research with our course Mobile UX Strategy: How to Build Successful Products .

All open-source articles on Ethnographic Research


limitations to ethnographic research

7 Simple Ways to Get Better Results From Ethnographic Research

limitations to ethnographic research

Open Access—Link to us!

We believe in Open Access and the  democratization of knowledge . Unfortunately, world-class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.

If you want this to change , cite this page , link to us, or join us to help us democratize design knowledge !

Privacy Settings

Our digital services use necessary tracking technologies, including third-party cookies, for security, functionality, and to uphold user rights. Optional cookies offer enhanced features, and analytics.

Experience the full potential of our site that remembers your preferences and supports secure sign-in.

Governs the storage of data necessary for maintaining website security, user authentication, and fraud prevention mechanisms.

Enhanced Functionality

Saves your settings and preferences, like your location, for a more personalized experience.

Referral Program

We use cookies to enable our referral program, giving you and your friends discounts.

Error Reporting

We share user ID with Bugsnag and NewRelic to help us track errors and fix issues.

Optimize your experience by allowing us to monitor site usage. You’ll enjoy a smoother, more personalized journey without compromising your privacy.

Analytics Storage

Collects anonymous data on how you navigate and interact, helping us make informed improvements.

Differentiates real visitors from automated bots, ensuring accurate usage data and improving your website experience.

Lets us tailor your digital ads to match your interests, making them more relevant and useful to you.

Advertising Storage

Stores information for better-targeted advertising, enhancing your online ad experience.

Personalization Storage

Permits storing data to personalize content and ads across Google services based on user behavior, enhancing overall user experience.

Advertising Personalization

Allows for content and ad personalization across Google services based on user behavior. This consent enhances user experiences.

Enables personalizing ads based on user data and interactions, allowing for more relevant advertising experiences across Google services.

Receive more relevant advertisements by sharing your interests and behavior with our trusted advertising partners.

Enables better ad targeting and measurement on Meta platforms, making ads you see more relevant.

Allows for improved ad effectiveness and measurement through Meta’s Conversions API, ensuring privacy-compliant data sharing.

LinkedIn Insights

Tracks conversions, retargeting, and web analytics for LinkedIn ad campaigns, enhancing ad relevance and performance.

LinkedIn CAPI

Enhances LinkedIn advertising through server-side event tracking, offering more accurate measurement and personalization.

Google Ads Tag

Tracks ad performance and user engagement, helping deliver ads that are most useful to you.

Share the knowledge!

Share this content on:

or copy link

Cite according to academic standards

Simply copy and paste the text below into your bibliographic reference list, onto your blog, or anywhere else. You can also just hyperlink to this page.

New to UX Design? We’re Giving You a Free ebook!

The Basics of User Experience Design

Download our free ebook The Basics of User Experience Design to learn about core concepts of UX design.

In 9 chapters, we’ll cover: conducting user interviews, design thinking, interaction design, mobile UX design, usability, UX research, and many more!


Examining the Strengths and Limitations of Ethnographic Research

Article sidebar.

limitations to ethnographic research

Main Article Content

Ethnography offers a holistic approach to qualitative researchers in educational contexts and appeals to scholars who wish seek to reveal rich narratives through their immersion in specific domains. This review paper examines the mobilization of the ethnographic research approach reported in studies from two distinctive learning contexts: an elementary school and a vocational college. Employing the specific evaluative criteria of Punch (2005), the desk-based study draws on existing literature to document the strengths and limitations of ethnographic method and reportage to reveal edifying insights to novice and experienced qualitative researchers who may be contemplating an ethnographic study in the future. The review reveals how extensive ethnography lends itself well to presenting thick descriptions in rich narratives to demonstrate high veracity. In contrast, this research approach may be limited in its verisimilitude, especially if ethnographers abridge their methodological and analytical descriptions and fail to acknowledge reactivity

Article Details

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .


  • Aunger, R. (1994). Sources of variation in ethnographic interview data: Food avoidances in the Ituri Forest, Zaire. Ethnology, 33(1), 65–99.
  • Boud, D., & Middleton, H. (2003). Learning from others at work: Communities of practice and informal learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(5), 194–202.
  • Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Sage.
  • Cunningham, G. (1998). Assessment in the classroom. London.
  • Denscombe, M. (2014). The good research guide for small-scale social research projects. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133–156.
  • Jones, J., & Smith, J. (2017). Ethnography: challenges and opportunities. Evidence-Based Nursing, 20, 98–100.
  • Journal of Work Place Learning. (2016). Author Guidelines.
  • Kisielnicki, J. (2008). Virtual Technologies: Concepts, methodologies, tools, and applications. Information Science Reference, Hershey.
  • LeCompte, M., & Goetz, J. (1982). Problems of reliability and validity in ethnographic research. Review of Educational Research, 52(1), 31–60.
  • Locke, L., Silverman, S. J., & Spirduso, W. W. (1998). Reading and understanding research. Sage Publications.
  • Mills, D., & Morton, M. (2013). Ethnography in education. SAGE.
  • Neuman, W. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (6th ed.). Allyn and Bacon.
  • Perri, 6., & Bellamy, C. (2012). Principles of methodology research design in social science. Sage.
  • Piaget. J. (1929). The child's conception of the world. Paul Trench and Trubner.
  • Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief note on the origins, evolution, and meaning of the qualitative research concept "thick description." The Qualitative Report, 11(3), 538–549.
  • Punch, K. (2005). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches (2nd ed.). Sage.
  • Reeves, S., Kuper, A., & Hodges, B. (2008). Qualitative research methodologies: Ethnography. BMJ, 337.
  • ResearchGate. (2021). Journal of Workplace Learning.
  • Richardson, L. (2000). Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), 253–255.
  • Robson, Colin. (2002). Real-world research: A resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers. Blackwell.
  • Scott, D., & Morrison, M. (2007). Key ideas in educational research. Continuum.
  • Stewart, A. (1998). Qualitative research methods: The ethnographer's method. SAGE.
  • Thomson, P., Hall, C., & Russell, L. (2007). If these walls could speak: Reading displays of primary children's work. Ethnography and Education, 2(3), 381–400.
  • Wellington, J. (2000). Educational research: Contemporary issues and practical approaches. Continuum.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity (Learning in doing). Cambridge University Press.
  • White, P. (2009). Developing research questions: A guide for social scientists. Palgrave Macmillan.

Most read articles by the same author(s)

  • Natalie-Jane Howard, A Theoretical Examination of Shadow Education in South Korea , International Journal of Asian Education: Vol. 2 No. 3 (2021): IJAE Vol. 02, No. 3, September 2021
  • Privacy Policy

Buy Me a Coffee

Research Method

Home » Ethnographic Research -Types, Methods and Guide

Ethnographic Research -Types, Methods and Guide

Table of Contents

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic Research


Ethnographic research is a qualitative research method used to study and document the culture, behaviors, beliefs, and social interactions of a particular group of people. It involves direct observation and participation in the daily life and activities of the group being studied, often for an extended period of time.

Ethnographic Study

An ethnographic study is a research method that involves the detailed and systematic study of a particular group, culture, or community. Ethnographic studies seek to understand the beliefs, values, behaviors, and social dynamics of a group through direct observation and participation in their daily life.

Ethnographic Research vs Ethnographic Study

here’s a table comparing ethnographic study and ethnographic research:

While there are some differences between the two, they are similar in that they both use qualitative research methods to study a particular group, culture, or community. The main difference is that an ethnographic study involves the researcher spending an extended period of time within the community being studied in order to develop a deep understanding, while ethnographic research is focused on documenting and analyzing the culture, beliefs, behaviors, and social interactions of the group being studied.

Ethnographic Research Types

Ethnographic research can be divided into several types based on the focus of the study and the research objectives. Here are some common types of ethnographic research:

Classic Ethnography

This type of ethnographic research involves an extended period of observation and interaction with a particular community or group. The researcher aims to understand the community’s culture, beliefs, practices, and social structure by immersing themselves in the community’s daily life.


Autoethnography involves the researcher using their own personal experiences to gain insights into a particular community or culture. The researcher may use personal narratives, diaries, or other forms of self-reflection to explore the ways in which their own experiences relate to the culture being studied.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory action research involves the researcher working collaboratively with members of a particular community or group to identify and address social issues affecting the community. The researcher aims to empower community members to take an active role in the research process and to use the findings to effect positive change.

Virtual Ethnography

Virtual ethnography involves the use of online or digital media to study a particular community or culture. The researcher may use social media, online forums, or other digital platforms to observe and interact with the group being studied.

Critical Ethnography

Critical ethnography aims to expose power imbalances and social inequalities within a particular community or culture. The researcher may use their observations to critique dominant cultural narratives or to identify opportunities for social change.

Ethnographic Research Methods

Some common ethnographic research methods include:

Participant Observation

This involves the researcher directly observing and participating in the daily life and activities of the group being studied. This technique helps the researcher gain an in-depth understanding of the group’s behavior, culture, and social dynamics.

Ethnographic researchers use interviews to gather information about the group’s beliefs, values, and practices. Interviews may be formal or informal and can be conducted one-on-one or in group settings.

Surveys can be used to collect data on specific topics, such as attitudes towards a particular issue or behavior patterns. Ethnographic researchers may use surveys as a way to gather quantitative data in addition to qualitative data.

Document Analysis

This involves analyzing written or visual documents produced by the group being studied, such as newspapers, photographs, or social media posts. Document analysis can provide insight into the group’s values, beliefs, and practices.

Field Notes

Ethnographic researchers keep detailed field notes of their observations and interactions with the group being studied. These notes help the researcher organize their thoughts and observations and can be used to analyze the data collected.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are group interviews that allow the researcher to gather information from multiple people at once. This technique can be useful for exploring shared beliefs or experiences within the group being studied.

Ethnographic Research Data Analysis Methods

Ethnographic research data analysis methods involve analyzing qualitative data collected from observations, interviews, and other sources in order to identify patterns, themes, and insights related to the research question.

Here are some common data analysis methods used in ethnographic research:

Content Analysis

This involves systematically coding and categorizing the data collected from field notes, interviews, and other sources. The researcher identifies recurring themes, patterns, and categories in the data and assigns codes or labels to each one.

Narrative Analysis

This involves analyzing the stories and narratives collected from participants in order to understand how they construct and make sense of their experiences. The researcher looks for common themes, plot structures, and rhetorical strategies used by participants.

Discourse Analysis

This involves analyzing the language and communication practices of the group being studied in order to understand how they construct and reproduce social norms and cultural meanings. The researcher looks for patterns in the use of language, including metaphors, idioms, and other linguistic devices.

Comparative Analysis

This involves comparing data collected from different groups or communities in order to identify similarities and differences in their cultures, behaviors, and social structures. The researcher may use this analysis to generate hypotheses about why these differences exist and what factors may be contributing to them.

Grounded Theory

This involves developing a theoretical framework based on the data collected during the research process. The researcher identifies patterns and themes in the data and uses these to develop a theory that explains the social phenomena being studied.

How to Conduct Ethnographic Research

To conduct ethnographic research, follow these general steps:

  • Choose a Research Question: Identify a research question that you want to explore. It should be focused and specific, but also open-ended to allow for flexibility and exploration.
  • Select a research site: Choose a site or group that is relevant to your research question. This could be a workplace, a community, a social movement, or any other social setting where you can observe and interact with people.
  • Obtain ethical clearance: Obtain ethical clearance from your institution or organization before beginning your research. This involves ensuring that your research is conducted in an ethical and responsible manner, and that the privacy and confidentiality of participants are protected.
  • Conduct observations: Observe the people in your research site and take detailed notes. This involves being present and engaged in the social setting, participating in activities, and taking note of the behaviors, interactions, and social norms that you observe.
  • Conduct interviews : Conduct interviews with people in the research site to gain deeper insights into their experiences, perspectives, and beliefs. This could involve structured or semi-structured interviews, focus groups, or other forms of data collection.
  • Analyze data: Analyze the data that you have collected, looking for themes and patterns that emerge. This involves immersing yourself in the data and interpreting it within the social and cultural context of the research site.
  • Write up findings: Write up your findings in a clear and concise manner, using quotes and examples to illustrate your key points. This may involve creating narratives, tables, or other visual representations of your findings.
  • Reflect on your process: Reflect on your process and methods, thinking about what worked well and what could be improved for future research.

When to Use Ethnographic Research

Here are some situations where ethnographic research may be particularly appropriate:

  • When exploring a new topic: Ethnographic research can be useful when exploring a topic that has not been well-studied before. By engaging with members of a particular group or community, researchers can gain insights into their experiences and perspectives that may not be visible from other research methods.
  • When studying cultural practices: Ethnographic research is particularly useful when studying cultural practices and beliefs. By immersing themselves in the cultural context being studied, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which cultural practices are enacted, maintained, and transmitted.
  • When studying complex social phenomena: Ethnographic research can be useful when studying complex social phenomena that cannot be easily understood through quantitative methods. By observing social interactions and behaviors, researchers can gain insights into the ways in which social norms and structures are created and maintained.
  • When studying marginalized communities: Ethnographic research can be particularly useful when studying marginalized communities, as it allows researchers to give voice to members of these communities and understand their experiences and perspectives.

Overall, ethnographic research can be a useful research approach when the goal is to gain a deep understanding of a particular group or community and their cultural practices, beliefs, and experiences. It is a flexible and adaptable research method that can be used in a variety of research contexts.

Applications of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research has many applications across a wide range of fields and disciplines. Some of the key applications of ethnographic research include:

  • Informing policy and practice: Ethnographic research can provide valuable insights into the experiences and perspectives of marginalized or underrepresented groups, which can inform policy and practice in fields such as health care, education, and social services.
  • Developing theories and concepts: Ethnographic research can contribute to the development of theories and concepts in social and cultural anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines, by providing detailed and nuanced accounts of social and cultural phenomena.
  • Improving product design and marketing: Ethnographic research can be used to understand consumer behavior and preferences, which can inform the design and marketing of products and services.
  • Studying workplace culture: Ethnographic research can provide insights into the norms, values, and practices of organizations, which can inform efforts to improve workplace culture and employee satisfaction.
  • Examining social movements: Ethnographic research can be used to study the practices, beliefs, and experiences of social movements, which can inform efforts to understand and address social and political issues.
  • Studying healthcare practices: Ethnographic research can provide insights into healthcare practices and patient experiences, which can inform efforts to improve healthcare delivery and patient outcomes.

Examples of Ethnographic Research

Here are some real-time examples of ethnographic research:

  • Anthropological study of a remote indigenous tribe: Anthropologists often use ethnographic research to study remote indigenous tribes and gain insights into their culture, beliefs, and practices. For example, an anthropologist may live with a tribe for an extended period of time, observing and participating in their daily activities, and conducting interviews with members of the community.
  • Study of workplace culture: Ethnographic research can be useful in studying workplace culture and understanding the dynamics of the organization. For example, an ethnographer may observe and interview employees in a particular department or team to gain insights into their work practices, communication styles, and social dynamics.
  • Study of consumer behavior: Ethnographic research can be useful in studying consumer behavior and understanding how people interact with products and services. For example, an ethnographer may observe and interview consumers as they use a particular product, such as a new smartphone or fitness tracker, to gain insights into their behaviors and preferences.
  • Study of health care practices: Ethnographic research can be useful in studying health care practices and understanding how patients and providers interact within the health care system. For example, an ethnographer may observe and interview patients and providers in a hospital or clinic to gain insights into their experiences and perspectives.
  • Study of social movements: Ethnographic research can be useful in studying social movements and understanding how they emerge and evolve over time. For example, an ethnographer may observe and interview participants in a protest movement to gain insights into their motivations and strategies.

Purpose of Ethnographic Research

The purpose of ethnographic research is to provide an in-depth understanding of a particular group or community, including their cultural practices, beliefs, and experiences. This research approach is particularly useful when the research question is exploratory and the goal is to generate new insights and understandings. Ethnographic research seeks to understand the experiences, perspectives, and behaviors of the participants in their natural setting, without imposing the researcher’s own biases or preconceptions.

Ethnographic research can be used to study a wide range of topics, including social movements, workplace culture, consumer behavior, and health care practices, among others. The researcher aims to understand the social and cultural context of the group or community being studied, and to generate new insights and understandings that can inform future research, policy, and practice.

Overall, the purpose of ethnographic research is to gain a deep understanding of a particular group or community, with the goal of generating new insights and understandings that can inform future research, policy, and practice. Ethnographic research can be a valuable research approach in many different contexts, particularly when the goal is to gain a rich, contextualized understanding of social and cultural phenomena.

Advantages of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research has several advantages that make it a valuable research approach in many different fields. Here are some of the advantages of ethnographic research:

  • Provides in-depth and detailed information: Ethnographic research involves direct observation of the group or community being studied, which allows researchers to gain a detailed and in-depth understanding of their beliefs, practices, and experiences. This type of information cannot be obtained through other research methods.
  • Offers a unique perspective: Ethnographic research allows researchers to see the world from the perspective of the group or community being studied. This can provide unique insights into the ways in which different cultural practices and beliefs are constructed and maintained.
  • Promotes cultural understanding: Ethnographic research can help to promote cultural understanding and reduce stereotypes by providing a more nuanced and accurate picture of different cultures and communities.
  • Allows for flexibility: Ethnographic research is a flexible research approach that can be adapted to fit different research contexts and questions. Researchers can adjust their methods based on the needs of the group being studied and the research goals.
  • Generates rich and diverse data: Ethnographic research generates rich and diverse data through a combination of observation, interviews, and other methods. This allows researchers to analyze different aspects of the group or community being studied and identify patterns and themes in the data.
  • Supports theory development: Ethnographic research can support theory development by providing empirical data that can be used to test and refine theoretical frameworks.

Limitations of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research has several limitations that researchers should consider when selecting this research approach. Here are some of the limitations of ethnographic research:

  • Limited generalizability: Ethnographic research typically involves studying a small and specific group or community, which limits the generalizability of the findings to other contexts or populations.
  • Time-consuming: Ethnographic research is a time-consuming process that requires a significant investment of time and resources. Researchers must spend time observing and interacting with the group being studied, which may not be feasible in all research contexts.
  • Subjectivity: Ethnographic research relies on the researcher’s interpretation and analysis of the data collected, which may introduce subjective bias into the research findings.
  • Limited control: Ethnographic research involves studying a group or community in their natural setting, which limits the researcher’s control over the research context and the behavior of the participants.
  • Ethical concerns: Ethnographic research can raise ethical concerns, particularly when studying marginalized or vulnerable populations. Researchers must be careful to ensure that they do not harm or exploit the participants in the research process.
  • Limited quantitative data: Ethnographic research typically generates qualitative data, which may limit the types of analysis that can be conducted and the types of conclusions that can be drawn.

About the author

' src=

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer

You may also like


Questionnaire – Definition, Types, and Examples

Case Study Research

Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Observational Research

Observational Research – Methods and Guide

Quantitative Research

Quantitative Research – Methods, Types and...

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative Research Methods

Explanatory Research

Explanatory Research – Types, Methods, Guide

  • Qualitative Research
  • Quantitative Research
  • IIM Branded Solutions
  • Get A Free Consultation

Ethnographies: The Pros, Cons and Modern Solutions

With Insights in Marketing, delve into what ethnographic research is, & understand the strengths & limitations of ethnography for your market research.

Ethnography is “the study and systematic recording of human cultures,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

One of the best ways to gain deeper consumer insights and understand what ethnographic research is would be to spend time sitting in someone’s home observing when, why, and how much time they spend doing things like watching TV, cooking, eating, drinking, brushing their teeth, or cleaning.

The most interesting insights will come from just watching, which is the basis of ethnographic research.

What is Ethnographic Research in Marketing?

Ethnographic research for marketers is observing consumers in their natural habitat – usually their home. This is where they tend to be more open and honest and where brand marketers, product developers, engineers, and designers can directly observe people using products. 

Analysts performing ethnographic research in marketing can see firsthand how participants use products, and create their own work-arounds — rather than relying on people to explain how they get a task done.

what is ethnographic research

What Are the Advantages and Limitations of Ethnographic Research for Product Development?

Ethnography is more than just an in-depth interview. It is a methodology that gets to the root of why people do what they do versus what they say they do. Ethnographies are well suited to study unpredictable situations and relationships that are too complex or difficult for quantitative methods, such as surveys and statistical analysis of numerical data. 

Though there are strengths and limitations of ethnography and ethnographic research in marketing, the main idea is to simply observe consumer behavior, rather than interact with people. It involves qualitative research and analysis of consumers’ pain points and behavior. Ethnography identifies unmet needs – and this is where the real breakthroughs in product development can occur.

Learn more about the importance of intuition and curiosity in market research.

Advantages of Ethnographic Research:

The more brand marketers, product developers, engineers, and designers know about their target consumers and how the world around them shapes their behavior, the more they can empathize with them and develop products that meet their unmet needs.

Marketers Get a More Realistic Picture

To grasp what ethnographic research in marketing is and how consumers react to brands, researchers can look into your target consumer’s attitudes, behaviors and motivations towards a brand or product. Rather than a survey, you can see actual consumers in real life situations, and in real time.

Uncovers Extremely Valuable Insight

In ethnography, the data relates to everyday solutions and innovation that customers really need. This in-depth approach can reveal extremely valuable insights you can’t always glean from a survey.

Pinpoint Business Needs & Make Accurate Predictions

By viewing consumers in their environment, researchers are able to see needs versus wants, which is one of the many advantages of ethnographic research. Understanding a target market’s needs can be invaluable to pinpoint the direction of a business and what a brand should really focus on. Gathering data at this level can help companies predict future products, designs, models of service or even the entire business structure itself.

Extended Observations

Unlike focus groups, you have a lot more time to spend studying motivations and develop a greater understanding of the consumer. With digital ethnography, you can extend observations even further than in-person methods. However, while extended observations create more in-depth data, you’ll want to keep this in mind for your timeline and budget.

Higher Scope of Available Data

Both digital and traditional ethnography offer a greater depth of data than other approaches. While a survey may allow you to study and research more people, ethnography gets to the heart of the research. The amount of data collected through ethnographic research gives businesses full transparency from the participants. Online methods can also contain and store more data than previously.

Learn more about understanding the voice and mind of the consumer.

Limitations of Ethnographic Research:

Ethnography isn’t for every research project. Like any type of research, there are strengths and limitations of ethnography. Here are a few aspects to keep in mind when considering ethnographic research:

Ethnography Requires Time

Whether you choose traditional ethnographic research or an online approach, one of the biggest limitations of ethnographic research is that this method takes time. You are observing for at least three hours and this is only one person, while with a focus group you are talking to 6-8 people over a two-hour time span. If you are on a tight timeframe, you may want to consider another approach or adjust your deadlines.

Creating a Normal Environment Isn’t Always Easy

Consumers aren’t used to being watched in their own home. That is why it is important to be there a long enough time, so they forget you are there! Even with digital approaches, participants may be mindful of cameras or moderators, which may affect how they behave and skew your results. However, with the right team of researchers and even digital methods, this limitation of ethnographic research is often easy to overcome.

It’s More Difficult to Recruit

Because you need to find participants that are comfortable having strangers in their home or who are willing to put in the time, finding recruits can take time. However, incentives are helpful to overcome this challenge.

Traditional Approaches Have Geography Limitations

The more locations the greater the time and expense (unless you are going with a digital approach to ethnography, which we’ll cover in the next section).

Overall Expense May Be Higher

Recruiting cost and time can be higher and traditional ethnographic research may require travel expenses as well.

The Power of Digital Ethnography:

Technology can help eliminate some of the possible challenges while still achieving some of the benefits and advantages of ethnographic research. The evolution of video has greatly enhanced digital ethnography. Consumers can wear small cameras or use their smartphones to take videos and provide instant responses and updates to an app.

Digital ethnography has transformed what ethnographic research is into the current day. Here are a few common digital ethnography methods and specific benefits:

Mobile Ethnography/Lifelogging

Thanks to social media consumers are used to reporting what they do, when and why they do it. Mobile ethnography is becoming a popular research tool, sometimes called “Lifelogging,” with participants using their cell phones to record events as they happen. Ethnographic research in person or mobile is not a big investment to make, given that the outcome could be products that meet your target consumers’ unmet needs.

Learn more about the necessity of mobile in qualitative research.

Online Journals

Online diaries give researchers an even deeper understanding into consumers’ routines, habits or attitudes towards a brand’s product or service. These journals can provide context and document the use of a product or service over an extended period of time– even across phases or stages of a project.

Online Community

Similar to online diaries, respondents answer questions and prompts from a moderator in an online forum or bulletin board. Online communities can be open so that others can see responses, interact or share ideas or closed so that only the facilitator can see conversations.

Data Collection

In digital, you can store a massive amount of data – from recorded conversations to written journal entries. All of this information is collected and safely stored during the ethnographic research process. Accessing this data digitally allows for large-scale analysis and deeper insights.

Want to learn more about what ethnographic research in marketing is, or get more in depth about the advantages and limitations of ethnographic research? Get in touch with our team of researchers and learn more about Insights in Marketing through our case studies , infographics , and blogs !

Share this article:

Related resources.

limitations to ethnographic research

How to Integrate Consumer Insights into Strategic Plans 

Keeping the consumer at the core of strategic business decisions drives innovation and growth, whether…

limitations to ethnographic research

Concept Testing Amps Up the Power of Creative 

Ads can be designed to do a lot of things -- create social buzz, launch a new product, change perceptions. But a…

limitations to ethnographic research


What Is Your Brand Doing To Address Issues People Care About?  When marketing gets real, it has the power to…

limitations to ethnographic research

How Do Super Bowl Ads Score a Lasting Impression with Consumers?

How Do Super Bowl Ads Score a Lasting Impression with Consumers? Ads featuring humor, light hearted stories and…

Request a free consultation

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • BMC Med Res Methodol

Logo of bmcmrm

Ethnographic research as an evolving method for supporting healthcare improvement skills: a scoping review

Georgia b. black.

Department of Applied Health Research, UCL, London, UK

Sandra van Os

Samantha machen, naomi j. fulop, associated data.

All papers included in the review are listed in Additional file 4 and are publicly available from their publishers’ websites.

The relationship between ethnography and healthcare improvement has been the subject of methodological concern. We conducted a scoping review of ethnographic literature on healthcare improvement topics, with two aims: (1) to describe current ethnographic methods and practices in healthcare improvement research and (2) to consider how these may affect habit and skill formation in the service of healthcare improvement.

We used a scoping review methodology drawing on Arksey and O’Malley’s methods and more recent guidance. We systematically searched electronic databases including Medline, PsychINFO, EMBASE and CINAHL for papers published between April 2013 – April 2018, with an update in September 2019. Information about study aims, methodology and recommendations for improvement were extracted. We used a theoretical framework outlining the habits and skills required for healthcare improvement to consider how ethnographic research may foster improvement skills.

We included 274 studies covering a wide range of healthcare topics and methods. Ethnography was commonly used for healthcare improvement research about vulnerable populations, e.g. elderly, psychiatry. Focussed ethnography was a prominent method, using a rapid feedback loop into improvement through focus and insider status. Ethnographic approaches such as the use of theory and focus on every day practices can foster improvement skills and habits such as creativity, learning and systems thinking.


We have identified that a variety of ethnographic approaches can be relevant to improvement. The skills and habits we identified may help ethnographers reflect on their approaches in planning healthcare improvement studies and guide peer-review in this field. An important area of future research will be to understand how ethnographic findings are received by decision-makers.

Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12874-021-01466-9.

Research can help to support the practice of healthcare improvement, and identify ways to “improve improvement” [ 1 ]. Ethnography has been identified particularly as a research method that can show what happens routinely in healthcare, and reveal the ‘ what and how of improving patient care [ 2 ]. Ethnography is not one method, but a paradigm of mainly qualitative research involving direct observations of people and places, producing a written account of natural or everyday behaviours and ideas [ 3 ]. Ethnographic research can identify contextual barriers to healthcare improvement. For example, Waring and colleagues suggested that hospital discharge could be improved by allowing staff to have more opportunities for informal communication [ 4 ].

There have been advances in ethnographic methods that support its role in supporting healthcare improvement. Multi-site, collaborative modalities of ethnography have evolved that suit the networked nature of modern healthcare [ 5 ]. Similarly, rapid ethnographic approaches (e.g. Bentley et al. [ 6 ];) meet the needs of improvement activities to produce findings within short timeframes [ 7 ]. However, the production of sustained ethnographic fieldwork has waned in response to demands for rapid evidence [ 6 , 8 , 9 ]. Critics of rapid ethnographic methods worry that they are diluting ethnography within applied contexts more widely [ 5 , 10 ].

The relationship between ethnography and healthcare improvement has been the subject of methodological concern [ 8 ]. The first concern is that some research identified as ethnography does not fit within the ethnographic paradigm, merely collecting observational data without a theoretical analysis, interpretation or researcher reflexivity [ 11 ]. A second concern is whether the topics of ethnographic inquiry produce findings that are seen as useful for improvement [ 12 ], particularly if they do not make explicit recommendations or produce checklists [ 8 , 13 – 15 ]. Authors fear that ethnographic findings that capture complexity [ 16 ] and expose taken-for-granted behaviours and phenomena [ 14 , 17 ] may be too abstract to be relevant to healthcare improvement [ 8 ]. However, these critiques position ethnographic research as a product which may be taken up by healthcare improvers, rather than seeing ethnographic work itself as an improvement activity. We take the view that healthcare improvement aims to change human behaviour to improve patient care, and is therefore reliant on the development of particular skills and habits (such as good communication) [ 18 ]. We would consider that engaging in ethnographic research may support skill development and habit formation that serves healthcare improvement.

In the literature of ethnography in healthcare improvement, there is not much discussion of the close relationship between methodological features of ethnographic research, and their impact on improvement skills. The aim of this paper is twofold: (1) to describe current ethnographic methods and practices in healthcare improvement research and (2) to consider how these may affect habit and skill formation in the service of healthcare improvement [ 19 ].

This is a scoping review following the methods outlined by Arksey & O’Malley and later refined by Levac et al., [ 20 , 21 ] including a systematically conducted literature review and reported in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR; see Additional file 1 for PRISMA checklist). No protocol was published for this review. Our literature search and analyses were conducted iteratively, searching reference lists and undertaking discussions with colleagues about key lines of argument. We also held a workshop at Health Services Research UK conference in 2018 on this topic to gain a wide range of stakeholder views.

Systematic retrieval of empirical papers and purposive sampling

Our search strategy was designed to capture a wide range of approaches to ethnography from different journals, healthcare settings and types of research environment. It was not our aim to capture every study using this methodology, but to map the current field. Thus we did not search grey literature, books or monographs. The search strategy was developed and piloted in consultation with a health librarian. Medline (on OVID platform), PsychINFO, CINAHL and EMBASE databases were searched, and six journals were hand-searched, including: BMJ Quality & Safety, Social Science and Medicine, Medical Anthropology, Cochrane library, Sociology of Health and Illness and Implementation Science. These databases were searched between dates April 2013 – April 2018 and an update was performed in September 2019 using the search terms outlined in Additional file 2 . We limited the search to these dates in order to capture the most recent methodological characteristics of ethnographic studies in this field.

We screened titles and then abstracts according to the inclusion and exclusion criteria detailed in Table ​ Table1. 1 . We included studies which self-identified as using ethnography or ethnographic methods rather than using our own criteria. This is because ethnography can be hard to define, and use of criteria may risk excluding papers which exemplify the sorts of tensions and workarounds we are trying to capture.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

The retrieved papers were screened by GB, SVO and SM based on inclusion and exclusion criteria (Table ​ (Table1). 1 ). The total number of papers after screening titles, abstracts and full texts was 274 (Fig. ​ (Fig.1 1 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 12874_2021_1466_Fig1_HTML.jpg

PRISMA statement of all references retrieved, screened and included in the scoping review

Numerical charting

Characteristics of each paper, such as title, authors, journal, year, country and healthcare subject area were extracted (see Table ​ Table2 2 ).

Characteristics of studies in review

a some studies have been allocated to more than one region

Thematic analysis and development

We coded all 274 papers using NVivo software for stated aims and recommendations. This included close reading, and retrieval of key ideas and quotations from the papers that exemplified key ideas in relation to healthcare improvement, methodology and the authors’ reflections on these. The coded extracts of aims and recommendation in conjunction with the closer reading of the sub-sample were used to inductively develop conceptual ideas, such as how the corpus of papers explicitly aimed to contribute to healthcare improvement, and if not, how this affected the types of conclusions drawn. Some papers were read in greater depth to understand how the authors’ methods related to their findings and conclusions. In order to consider how ethnography supports habits and skills associated with healthcare improvement, we drew on a framework which identifies five habits of ‘improvers’: creativity, learning, systems thinking, resilience and influencing [ 19 ]. Applying this model to our selected papers, we mapped traits or approaches to the ethnographic studies that exemplified these habits either in the authors, or as part of developing these habits in others (e.g. healthcare decision-makers and professionals). Thematic interpretations and lines of argument were generated and discussed by all the authors.

Overview of study characteristics

The included studies covered a wide range of ethnographic methodologies and healthcare subjects, published internationally (Table ​ (Table2) 2 ) in predominantly social science and clinical journals (see Additional file 3 ). The full list of the 274 included studies is available in Additional file 4 .

Most studies described themselves as an ‘ethnography’ or ‘ethnographic’, although some described their methodology as ‘mixed methods’ including ethnographic components. For example, Collet et al. conducted a mixed methods participatory action research study using observations to produce an “ethnographic description” [ 22 ].

Almost all studies relied on observation and interviews as the main data sources. It was not always specified whether researchers took a participant or non-participant approach to observation. There were some examples of other data sources e.g. video data, surveys, documents, field notes, diaries, and artefacts. A few examples contained a paucity of data, such as only video data [ 23 ], limited fieldwork [ 24 ], a small number of interviewees [ 25 ], or reliance on focus group data alone [ 26 ]. Methods associated with qualitative methodology (but not necessarily ethnographic) were also used, such as data ‘saturation’ to denote that additional data did not provide new insights into the topic [ 27 ].

There were a number of minority or unusual ethnographic variations:

  • Quantitative ethnography [ 23 ]: temporal coding of physicians' workflow and interaction with the electronic health record system, and their patient.
  • Cognitive ethnography [ 28 ]: “identifying and elaborating distributed cognitive processes that occur when an individual enacts purposeful improvements in a clinical context”.
  • Street-level organizational ethnography [ 29 ]: intensive case study methods to explore the implications of healthcare policy at a street level.
  • Phenomenological ethnographies [ 30 ]: focussing on the lived experience and meanings associated with a phenomenon.
  • Geo-mapping [ 31 ]: geomapping of selected service data to define Latino immigrant community before conducting interviews and observations.

Use of different types of ethnography to support healthcare improvement

We found that many studies used methods that could identify issues relating to power and vulnerability, with potential relevance to how healthcare improvement problems are defined and solved, and by whom [ 1 ]. For example we noted a significant minority of studies using institutional and critical ethnography, mostly in vulnerable populations (see Table ​ Table3). 3 ). These studies were explicitly attentive to systems and power relations, rather than on individual practices. We suggest that the use of geographically-oriented methods such as geo-mapping and street-level organisational ethnography are also attentive to the power structures inherent in place and space, and could be relevant to other geographical healthcare improvement topics such as networked healthcare systems, care at home and patient travel for treatment.

Ethnographic methodology and its relevance to healthcare improvement

The high prevalence of ethnographic studies with vulnerable populations (e.g. psychiatry, end of life care) suggests that ethnography is also being conceptualised as an emancipatory method, reversing healthcare power structures in its focus. This has been a traditional focus of ethnography since social changes in power and representation in the 1970s, incorporated into the development of healthcare research methodology [ 40 , 41 ]. Some methods used were calculated to maximise the potential for supporting vulnerable groups, for example, Nightingale et al. [ 42 ] used focused ethnography (prolonged fieldwork in a small number of settings) to look at patient-professional interactions in paediatric chronic illness settings. The authors suggested that focussed ethnography is particularly suited to settings where fostering trust is essential. We would also suggest that ethnography may be particularly suited to settings in which participants are less able to verbalise their experiences.

The reviewed studies suggested that video ethnography can support healthcare improvement at a team level. For example, Stevens et al. [ 43 ] promoted video ethnography as a way to capture in-depth data on intimate interactions, in their study of elective caesareans. The video data allowed them to make use of timing data (e.g. of certain actions), physical positioning of different actors and equipment, and verbatim dialogue recording. The video data also suited the technical nature of the procedure, which was relatively time-limited. This form of data collection may not suit environments where healthcare activities are more spread out.

The impact of healthcare practitioner involvement in ethnographic fieldwork and findings

We noted that the use of ethnography for healthcare improvement has led to healthcare practitioners’ widespread involvement in data collection or analysis. We suggest that this is a form of negotiation across the healthcare-academia boundary, translating from ‘real world’ to data and back again. This has potential to create rich and relevant ethnographic studies that are geared towards improvement. However, some studies were undermined by a lack of reflexivity about the dual practitioner-ethnographer role.

A significant number of papers involved healthcare practitioners in fieldwork (e.g. Abdulrehman, 2017, Hoare et al. 2013; [ 37 , 44 ]). For example in Hoare et al. the lead researcher was a nurse, and wrote that they hoped “to bring both an emic and etic perspective to the data collection by bracketing my emic sense of self as a nurse practitioner in order to become a participant observer within my own general practice ” [ 37 ]. In this study, the findings fed directly into local service improvement as the lead researcher felt compelled to “share new ‘best practice’ information and join in the conversation.” There was little discussion about how this affected the generalisability of the findings, and whether their recommendations were adopted.

Similarly, Bergenholz et al. [ 45 ] conducted a study where a nursing researcher completed the main fieldwork and “assisted the nurses with practical care .” They acknowledged that “This may have caused limitations with regards to ‘blind spots’ in the nursing practice, but that it also gave access to a field that might be difficult for ‘outside-outsiders’ to gain .” However, there was no commentary on where the blind spots or extra access occurred, and how this may have affected the relevance and dissemination of their findings.

How might ethnography support healthcare improvement habits?

In this section, we evaluate the studies included in the review in terms of how their methods relate to improvement. We draw on the idea that successful improvement is based on a set of habits and their related skills acquired through experience and practice [ 19 ]. This section is structured around Lucas’s five habits of ‘improvers’: creativity, learning, systems thinking, resilience and influencing [ 19 ]. Under those headings, we describe the mechanisms by which ethnographic studies can support healthcare improvement habits, using illustrative examples.

Resilience is defined as being adaptable, particularly tolerating calculated risks and uncertainty, and proceeding with optimism. Being able to recover from adverse events is core to improvement, reframing them as opportunities. Adaptation and the ability to bounce back from adverse events and variation are core to improvement.

Tolerating the uncertainty of ethnographic data collection

While we did not relate these traits to any particular ethnographic approach in our studies, we would consider that undertaking any ethnographic project requires resilience, as data collection is inherently exploratory and uncertain. For example, Belanger et al. wanted to know how health care providers and their patients approach patient participation in palliative care decisions. The authors explicitly eschewed the pull to create guidelines or other formalised knowledge, but aimed to explore the “unforeseen and somewhat unavoidable ways in which discursive practices prompt or impede patient participation during these interactions.” [ 46 ]

Creativity is defined as working together to encourage fresh thinking by generating ideas and thinking critically.

Using a theoretical lens

Researchers may consider healthcare through a particular theory or framework (e.g. private ordering [ 47 ], masculine discourse [ 48 ], compassion [ 49 ]). The restriction of the theoretical lens enables critical thinking, and keeps the ethnographer creatively engaged. For example, Mylopoulos & Farhat [ 28 ] used the concept of adaptive expertise in a cognitive ethnography to explore “the phenomenon of purposeful improvement” in a teaching hospital. This theoretical lens revealed that clinicians were engaging in “invisible” improvement in their daily work, in “specific activities such as scheduling, establishing patient relationships, designing physical space and building supporting resources”. The authors suggested that these practices were devalued in comparison to more formal improvement activities, justifying the utility of the ‘adaptive expertise’ theory in bringing the daily improvement practices to light.

Challenging current problems and perspectives

We identified studies that challenged or reframed existing improvement problems e.g. Mishra [ 50 ]. This role removes the ‘blinkers’ of improvement research [ 51 ], and can ‘dissolve’ previously intractable implementation problems. For example, Boonan et al. [ 52 ] studied the practice of bar-coded medication from the perspective of nurses using the intervention. In their discussion, the authors challenge the assumption that if you introduce technology, then you will mitigate human factor risks. They highlighted that external pressures on hospitals perpetuate this perspective, and that “nurses and patients are consequently drawn into this discourse and institutional ruling, to which they are not oblivious”. Their recommendation was to understand the skills of nurses in tailoring technology to meet individual patients’ needs rather than trusting in systems blindly.

Learning is defined as harnessing curiosity and using reflective processes to extract meaning from experience.

Inviting reflection

We noted that some studies did not make explicit recommendations for improvement, but wrote their findings in a manner that would invite reflection on its subject matter. For example, Thomas & Latimer [ 53 ] wrote that they view their role as provocateurs of new ideas, stating that their intention “is not to propose specific policies or discourses designed to change or improve practice. More modestly, we hope that by analysing the everyday and by theorising the mundane, this article will ignite reflexive, ethical and pluralistic dialogues – and so better communication between practitioners, parents and the wider lay public – around reproductive technologies and medical conditions” (authors’ underline; p.951-2) [ 53 ]. Others such as Mackintosh et al [ 54 ] used their discussion section to examine their results in the context of other theories and provide illumination: “Our focus on trajectories illuminates the physiological process of birth and the unfolding pathology of illness (and death). This frame provides a means for us to link the agency of those involved in organising the care of acutely ill patients with the wider socio-political factors beyond the clinic, such as governmentality and risk (Heyman 2010, Waring 2007), death brokering (Timmermans 2005) and the medicalisation of birth and death (De Vries 1981).” (p.264). These two examples show that ethnographic work can be offered as an opportunity for learning and reflection, without a translation to specific recommendations.

Supporting a more ethical, expansive, inclusive, and participatory mode of healthcare

Problem-finding is highlighted as an important part of learning in improvement [ 19 ]. Several studies paid attention to multivocality and power, using this to find problematic, unethical and exclusive practices in healthcare. For example, some studies reported previously unheard viewpoints [ 55 – 57 ], or identified restrictive organisational barriers and normative assumptions [ 58 , 59 ]. Others promoted ethnography as a way of exploring ethics and morality [ 47 , 60 , 61 ], such as criticising research that prioritizes the needs of individuals over the good of society [ 62 ]. Ross et al. [ 63 ] suggested that it is also more ethical to use critical ethnography than other evaluative methods in researching vulnerable populations (e.g. neurological illness), by being able to “explore perceived political and emancipatory implications, [clarify] existing power differentials and [maintain] an explicit focus on action” .

Some studies directly researched power within the healthcare setting. For example, Batch and Windsor’s study of nursing workforce suggested that senior nurse leaders should use their positions to advocate for better working conditions [ 35 ], “ Manageable nurse/patient ratios, flexible patient-centred work models, equal opportunity for advancement, skill development for all and unit teamwork promotion”. Challenging traditional cultural assumptions that have produced and reproduced stereotypes is problematic because they most often are, by their very nature, invisible. In a more critical approach, Gesbeck’s thesis [ 62 ] on diabetes care work challenges the very mechanism of achieving healthcare improvement through research, stating that “we need to change the social and political context in which health care policy is made. This requires social change that prioritizes the good of the society over the good of the individual—a position directly opposed to the current system oriented toward profit and steeped in the ideology of personal responsibility.”

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is defined as seeing whole systems as well as their parts and recognising complex relationships, connections and interdependencies.

Suggesting reorientation to new ‘problem’ areas

We found that many ethnographic studies emphasised skills of synthesis and connection-making, reorienting improvement to different areas, for example in overarching policy recommendations (e.g. Hughes [ 36 ]; Liu et al. [ 64 ], Matinga et al. [ 65 ]), or resetting priorities. For example, Manias’ [ 66 ] ethnography of communication relating to family members' involvement in medication management in hospital suggests that “greater attention should be played on health professionals initiating communication in proactive ways ” [p.865]. In another example, Cable-Williams & Wilson’s (2017) focussed ethnography captures cultural factors within long-term care facilities. Their discussion suggests that acknowledgement of death is under-represented in front-line practice and government policy, reorienting discussions towards an integration of living and dying care.

Exposing hidden practices within the everyday

We found that several studies drew attention to ‘hidden’ practices in healthcare work, allowing them to evaluated and improved. For example, we found reference to practices such as coordinating [ 67 ], repair [ 68 ], caretaking [ 69 ], scaffolding [ 68 ], tinkering [ 52 ] and bricolage [ 58 ]. We also found that some studies had new interpretations of ‘the everyday’ or ‘taken-for-granted’ (e.g. nursing culture [ 34 , 35 , 45 , 70 ], interprofessional practice [ 67 , 71 – 75 ]). Authors’ outputs included frameworks [ 76 ] or models [ 69 , 71 , 77 , 78 ] that map these types of practices in a way that is helpful for intervention development or quality improvement. For example, Mackintosh et al. [ 54 ] looked at rescue practices in medical wards and maternity care settings using Strauss’s concept of the patient trajectory. Their findings highlighted the risks inherent in the wider social practices of hospital care, and suggested that improvement was needed at a level “beyond individual and team processes and technical safety solutions.”


Influencing is defined as engaging others and gaining buy-in using a range of facilitative processes.

Direct translation of findings to targets for improvement

Lucas suggests that to be influential, ethnographic studies need to have some empathy with clinical reality, whilst being facilitative and comfortable with conflict [ 19 ]. This was shown in ethnographic studies that made pragmatic recommendations, such as in Jensen’s study of clinical simulation. They advised that simulation might be useful in staging “adverse event scenarios with a view to creating more controlled and safer environments.” ( 80). In MacKichan et al. [ 79 ] observations and interviews were used to understand how primary care access influenced decisions to seek help at the emergency department. The authors made empathic, actionable recommendations such as “ simplifying appointments systems and communicating mechanisms to patients.” (p.10).

Evaluating the context of healthcare improvement

By capturing contextual and social aspects of healthcare improvement, ethnographic evaluations can support leaders and managers who are trying to implement improvement activities. This is a particularly helpful trait in ethnographic studies that pay attention to politics, governance and social theory in their evaluation of new interventions, “zooming out” [ 80 ] beyond the patient-clinician interaction to broader social networks. For example, Tietbohl et al. [ 81 ] investigated the difficulties of implementing a patient decision support intervention (DESI) in primary care through the theoretical lens of relational coordination between “physician and clinical staff groups (healthcare professionals)”. The authors’ recommended attention to the “underlying barriers such as the relational dynamics in a medical clinic or healthcare organization” when creating policies and programs that support shared decision-making using support interventions. This sort of insight can make it more likely that new policies or interventions will succeed. This skill was particularly fertile in the tradition of techno-anthropology, exploring technology-induced errors and the real-world interaction between people and technology, e.g. decision-support tools [ 81 – 86 ], the introduction of robot caregivers [ 87 ] and clinical simulations [ 88 ]. Other approaches included an investigation of one intervention or change but with a theoretical lens of inquiry.

Summary of findings

This scoping review has identified the methodological characteristics of 5 years of published papers that self-identify as ethnography or ethnographic in the field of healthcare improvement. Ethnography is currently a popular research method in a wide range of healthcare topics, particularly in psychiatry, e.g. mental health, dementia and experiential concerns such as quality of life. Focused ethnography is a significant sub-group in healthcare, suggesting that messages about the importance of research timeliness have taken hold [ 89 ].

We have identified ethnographic methods reported in these papers, and considered their utility in developing skills and habits that support healthcare improvement. Specific practices associated with the ethnographic paradigm can encourage good habits (resilience, creativity, learning, systems thinking and influencing) in healthcare, which can support improvement. For example, using relevant theories to look at every day work in healthcare can foster creativity. The use of critical and institutional ethnography could increase skills in ‘systems thinking’ by critically evaluating how healthcare improvement problems are defined and solved, and by whom.

Comparison with previous literature

This scoping review is the first to consider how current ethnographic methods and practices may relate to healthcare improvement. Within the paradigm of applied healthcare research, there is normative value in being ‘useful’ or ‘impactful’ in our research, which affects our prospects for funding and career success [ 12 ]. However, our review has uncovered a multitude of ways that an ethnographic study can be useful in relation to healthcare improvement, without creating actionable findings. We found a spectrum of interactions with healthcare improvement: some authors explicitly eschewed recommendations or clinical implications; others made imperative statements about required changes to policy or practice. However, this diversity was not necessarily a reflection on how ‘traditional’ the ethnographic methodology was. This challenges the paper by Leslie et al. which puts ethnographic studies in two output categories with respect to healthcare improvement: critique versus feedback [ 8 ]. Instead, we uncovered a variety of ways that ethnography can support healthcare improvement habits, such as encouraging reflection, problem-finding and exposing hidden practices in healthcare.

We did find that supporting healthcare improvement through ethnographic research can require strategic effort, however. For example, we noted that several authors wrote multiple articles based on the same project, often for different types of journal to reach different audiences such as diverse readerships in health services and academic settings. For example, Collier and colleagues published two papers based on a video ethnography of end-of-life care (both in 2016), one in a healthcare quality journal [ 32 ] and one in a qualitative research journal [ 76 ]. The former is shorter, with explicit recommendations for patient safety, whereas the latter is longer, has more detailed results and long sections on reflexivity. Similarly, Grant published an article in a sociology journal [ 90 ] and a healthcare improvement paper [ 91 ] on the same work about medication safety. The sociological paper covered “spatio-temporal elements of articulation work” whereas the other put forward “key stages” and risks, suggesting that it was more closely oriented to improvement.

There have been some considerable debates about changes in ethnographic methods and tools, with concerns about lost researcher identity, dilution of the method, and challenges to “upholding ethnographic integrity” [ 92 ] . We contest this, suggesting that new variants such as focussed and cognitive ethnography are evolving in response to the complexity of hospitals and healthcare [ 93 ], while also being highly regulated, standardised and ordered by biomedicine. Such complex environments cannot be studied and improved under one paradigm alone. Ethnographic identity and method have also been affected by the cross-pollination of ethnography with other social science paradigms and applied environments (e.g. clinical trials, technology development). Debates about theoretical and methodological choices are not only made merely with respect to healthcare improvement, but also in response to professional pressures (e.g. university requirements for impact) [ 12 ], and the mores of taste situated within the overlapping communities of practice that evaluate ethnographic healthcare research [ 94 ]. That said, we echo previous authors’ calls for attention to reflexivity, particularly in embedded or clinician-as-researcher roles [ 95 ].

Our scoping review challenges a previously expressed concern that ethnographic studies may not produce findings that are useful for improvement [ 10 , 12 , 16 ]. By considering different ethnographic designs in relation to skills and habits needed for improvement, we have shown that studies need not necessarily produce ‘actionable findings’ in order to make a valuable contribution. Instead, we would characterise ethnography’s role in the canon of healthcare research methodologies as a way of enhancing improvement habits such as comfort with conflict, problem-finding and connection-making.

Strengths and limitations

This review has a number of limitations. The search may not have found all relevant studies, however the retrieved papers are intended as an exemplar rather than an exhaustive or aggregative review. The review is also limited to journal articles as evidence of researchers’ approach to improvement. This ignores many other ‘offline’ and ‘online’ activities such as meetings, presentations, blogs, books, and websites, which are conducted to disseminate findings and ideas. Our reliance on self-report for the identification of ethnographic studies will have excluded some studies within an ethnographic paradigm who chose different terms for their methodology (e.g. critical inquiry, case study). The strengths of this paper are its comprehensive coverage, incorporating all representative studies in healthcare research published within a five year period, and a wide range of ethnographic sub-types and healthcare subjects, drawn from an international pool of research communities.

We did not prescribe the right way for ethnographers to engage in healthcare improvement, indeed, we have identified that a variety of approaches can be relevant to improvement. The habits we identified may help ethnographers reflect on their approaches in planning healthcare improvement studies and guide peer-review in this field. Issues of taste, traditionalism and researcher identity need to be scrutinised in favour of value and audience. An important area of future research will be to understand how ethnographic findings are received by decision-makers, and further focused reviews on the relationship(s) between ethnographic methods, quality improvement skills and improvement outcomes.


The authors wish to thank Lorelei Jones, Natalie Armstrong, Justin Waring and Bill Lucas for their insightful comments and direction in the undertaking of this work.

Authors’ contributions

NJF and GB led the development and conceptualization of this scoping review and provided guidance on methods and design of the scoping review. GB, SVO and SM made contributions to study search, study screening, and all data extraction work. All authors analysed the data. All authors contributed to the writing and editing of the paper, and all authors have read and approved the manuscript.

This paper is independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research CLAHRC North Thames. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.

NJF is an NIHR Senior Investigator. GB is supported by the Health Foundation’s grant to the University of Cambridge for The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute.

Availability of data and materials


The authors have no competing interests to declare.

The original online version of this article was revised: due to incorrect figure 1 and the number of included papers need to be changed from "283" to "274".

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Change history

A Correction to this paper has been published: 10.1186/s12874-022-01587-9

Apple researchers develop AI that can ‘see’ and understand screen context

  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on LinkedIn

Join us in Atlanta on April 10th and explore the landscape of security workforce. We will explore the vision, benefits, and use cases of AI for security teams. Request an invite here.

Apple researchers have developed a new artificial intelligence system that can understand ambiguous references to on-screen entities as well as conversational and background context, enabling more natural interactions with voice assistants, according to a paper published on Friday.

The system, called ReALM (Reference Resolution As Language Modeling) , leverages large language models to convert the complex task of reference resolution — including understanding references to visual elements on a screen — into a pure language modeling problem. This allows ReALM to achieve substantial performance gains compared to existing methods.

“Being able to understand context, including references, is essential for a conversational assistant,” wrote the team of Apple researchers. “Enabling the user to issue queries about what they see on their screen is a crucial step in ensuring a true hands-free experience in voice assistants.”

Enhancing conversational assistants

To tackle screen-based references, a key innovation of ReALM is reconstructing the screen using parsed on-screen entities and their locations to generate a textual representation that captures the visual layout. The researchers demonstrated that this approach, combined with fine-tuning language models specifically for reference resolution, could outperform GPT-4 on the task.

The AI Impact Tour – Atlanta

limitations to ethnographic research

“We demonstrate large improvements over an existing system with similar functionality across different types of references, with our smallest model obtaining absolute gains of over 5% for on-screen references,” the researchers wrote. “Our larger models substantially outperform GPT-4.”

Practical applications and limitations

The work highlights the potential for focused language models to handle tasks like reference resolution in production systems where using massive end-to-end models is infeasible due to latency or compute constraints. By publishing the research, Apple is signaling its continuing investments in making Siri and other products more conversant and context-aware.

Still, the researchers caution that relying on automated parsing of screens has limitations. Handling more complex visual references, like distinguishing between multiple images, would likely require incorporating computer vision and multi-modal techniques.

Apple races to close AI gap as rivals soar

Apple is quietly making significant strides in artificial intelligence research , even as it trails tech rivals in the race to dominate the fast-moving AI landscape.

From multimodal models that blend vision and language , to AI-powered animation tools , to techniques for building high-performing specialized AI on a budget , a steady drumbeat of breakthroughs from the company’s research labs suggest its AI ambitions are rapidly escalating.

But the famously secretive tech giant faces stiff competition from the likes of Google , Microsoft , Amazon and OpenAI , who have aggressively productized generative AI in search, office software, cloud services and more.

Apple, long a fast follower rather than a first mover, now confronts a market being transformed at breakneck speed by artificial intelligence. At its closely watched Worldwide Developers Conference in June, the company is expected to unveil a new large language model framework, an “ Apple GPT ” chatbot, and other AI-powered features across its ecosystem.

“We’re excited to share details of our ongoing work in AI later this year,” CEO Tim Cook recently hinted on an earnings call. Despite its characteristic opacity, it’s clear Apple’s AI efforts are sweeping in scope.

Yet as the battle for AI supremacy heats up, the iPhone maker’s lateness to the party has put it in an uncharacteristic position of weakness. Deep coffers, brand loyalty, elite engineering and a tightly integrated product portfolio give it a puncher’s chance — but there are no guarantees in this high stakes contest.

A new age of ubiquitous, truly intelligent computing is on the horizon. Come June, we’ll see if Apple has done enough to ensure it has a hand in shaping it.

Stay in the know! Get the latest news in your inbox daily

By subscribing, you agree to VentureBeat's Terms of Service.

Thanks for subscribing. Check out more VB newsletters here .

An error occured.


  1. [PDF] Ethnography, Its Strengths, Weaknesses and Its Application in

    limitations to ethnographic research

  2. (PDF) Examining the Strengths and Limitations of Ethnographic Research

    limitations to ethnographic research

  3. PPT

    limitations to ethnographic research

  4. 😍 Ethnography thesis examples. Ethnography: Methods, Types, Importance

    limitations to ethnographic research

  5. PPT

    limitations to ethnographic research

  6. Table 1 from Ethnography for new media studies: a field report of its

    limitations to ethnographic research


  1. Ethnographic Field Study

  2. Examples of ethnography studies

  3. Ethnographic Method By Prof. Geetika Ranjan

  4. Ethnographic Research || TGT Syllabus || Type of Educational research

  5. Field Research

  6. Deep Dive into Customer Behavior #EthnographicResearch #customerbehavior #customerpsychology


  1. The Encounters and Challenges of Ethnography as a Methodology in Health

    The origin of ethnography in health research dates back to the development of a branch of anthropology known as medical anthropology. "Medical anthropology concerns its self with a wide variety of health-related issues, including the etiology of disease, the preventive measures that human members of sociocultural systems have constructed or devised to prevent the onset of disease, and the ...

  2. Ethnography: An Analysis of its Advantages and Disadvantages

    Abstract. Ethnography is a research precisely about individuals, societies and their culture. It aims to study social and cultural aspects of a society and the researcher focusses to collect information for that. It focusses on behaviour of people with respect to the social setup they live in. The outcome of a field study mirrors the learning ...

  3. Examining the Strengths and Limitations of Ethnographic Research: An

    Employing the specific evaluative criteria of Punch (2005), the desk-based study draws on existing literature to document the strengths and limitations of ethnographic method and reportage to ...

  4. Ethnography: Methods, Types, Importance, Limitations, Examples

    However, there are some limitations to ethnographic research as well. It is time-consuming. One of the most significant disadvantages of ethnography is the time factor. Before the researcher can begin investigating a certain set of individuals, the ethnographer must first establish rapport with them. The researcher must spend months or perhaps ...

  5. Full article: Ethnography: problems and prospects

    Abstract. This article reviews a range of difficult issues that currently face ethnographic research, and offers some reflections on them. These issues include: how ethnographers define the spatial and temporal boundaries of what they study; how they determine the context that is appropriate for understanding it; in what senses ethnography can be—or is—virtual rather than actual; the role ...

  6. Potential and limitations of digital ethnographic research: A case

    Introduction. Among the social research methods, ethnography is one of the most comprehensive tools available to researchers to reconstruct the visions, perspectives, imaginaries, beliefs, values, and practices that underpin a given culture (Masullo et al., 2020).It is no coincidence that many manuals on social research methods and techniques consider the ethnographic approach to be among the ...

  7. Ethnography: challenges and opportunities

    Collectively qualitative research is a group of methodologies, with each approach offering a different lens though which to explore, understand, interpret or explain phenomena in real word contexts and settings. This article will provide an overview of one of the many qualitative approaches, ethnography , and its relevance to healthcare. We will use an exemplar based on a study that used ...

  8. Breaking Down Barriers

    Ethnography is a research method that involves the systematic study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their daily activities. It typically requires immersion in the culture being studied, often for an extended period of time, to gain a deep understanding of its norms, values, beliefs, and practices.

  9. An overview of ethnography in healthcare and medical education research

    In terms of time considerations, ethnography is a research method characterized by long-term fieldwork since thick description of the participants and setting may only be acquired from sufficient exposure to them. ... LIMITATIONS OF ETHNOGRAPHY. Sample size is a limitation of the ethnography method. The time required being involved in ...

  10. Practices of Ethnographic Research: Introduction to the Special Issue

    Methods and practices of ethnographic research are closely connected: practices inform methods, and methods inform practices. In a recent study on the history of qualitative research, Ploder (2018) found that methods are typically developed by researchers conducting pioneering studies that deal with an unknown phenomenon or field (a study of Andreas Franzmann 2016 points in a similar direction).

  11. What is Ethnographic Research? Methods and Examples

    Methods and Examples. December 13, 2023 Sunaina Singh. Ethnographic research seeks to understand societies and individuals through direct observation and interviews. Photo by Alex Green on Ethnographic research, rooted in the discipline of anthropology, is a systematic and immersive approach for the study of individual cultures.

  12. What Is Ethnography?

    Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word "ethnography" also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards. Ethnography is a flexible research method that ...

  13. What is Ethnographic Research?

    Ethnography is a research method that involves immersing oneself in the natural context of individuals to collect quantitative insights into their behavior and culture. This method emphasizes observation, engagement, and analysis of human experiences in real-world settings. Ethnographic research is widely used in UX design since it provides ...

  14. The pros and cons of researching events ethnographically

    The ethnographic method thus has quite a lot to offer for the study of events. Nevertheless, using this method also brings about difficulties. First, there are practical issues, such as the possibility of being at the right place at the right moment and having the time and money to conduct research.

  15. Examining the Strengths and Limitations of Ethnographic Research

    Ethnography offers a holistic approach to qualitative researchers in educational contexts and appeals to scholars who wish seek to reveal rich narratives through their immersion in specific domains. This review paper examines the mobilization of the ethnographic research approach reported in studies from two distinctive learning contexts: an elementary school and a vocational college ...

  16. (Pdf) Ethnography Research: an Overview

    The demerits or limitations o f the Ethnography Research are as below- I. One of the main limitations o r criticisms leveled at Ethnography research istime taking. II.

  17. Critical ethnography and its others ...

    In drawing on exemplar empirical data from an arts-based project, the article demonstrates the limitations in the humanist-based qualitative research approach and advances a postdualist, postrepresentationalist direction for critical ethnography called entangled ethnography. Using data from a larger study that examined the perspectives of ...

  18. Ethnography, Its Strengths, Weaknesses and Its Application in

    Ethnography is a qualitative research method used to study people and cultures. It is largely adopted in disciplines outside software engineering, including different areas of computer science.

  19. Ethnographic Research -Types, Methods and Guide

    Ethnographic research has several limitations that researchers should consider when selecting this research approach. Here are some of the limitations of ethnographic research: Limited generalizability: Ethnographic research typically involves studying a small and specific group or community, which limits the generalizability of the findings to ...

  20. What is Ethnographic Research?

    Like any type of research, there are strengths and limitations of ethnography. Here are a few aspects to keep in mind when considering ethnographic research: Ethnography Requires Time. Whether you choose traditional ethnographic research or an online approach, one of the biggest limitations of ethnographic research is that this method takes time.

  21. Qualitative Literacy: A Guide to Evaluating Ethnographic and Interview

    How do we determine whether a book featuring qualitative research is empirically sound and not just a lovely, interesting read? ... A Guide to Evaluating Ethnographic and Interview Research By Mario Luis Small and Jessica McCrory Calarco. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2022, 240 pp., $85.00 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback), ISBN ...

  22. A scoping review of the use of ethnographic approaches in

    Notably, sociology and anthropology journals, where ethnographic research has traditionally been published, have word limits in the range of 9,000-15,000, rather than 2,000-4,000 that is typical of health journals, and do not dictate the article structure. ... Limitations. As a scoping review, our study provides an exploratory rather than a ...

  23. Social Constructivist Meta-Ethnography

    A single author conducted a review for literature and the author accepts the limitations identified as a result. The search undertaken was not exhaustive or conducted by a group of researchers. ... Panagioti M., Johnson J. (2021). Meta-ethnography in healthcare research: A guide to using a meta-ethnographic approach for literature synthesis ...

  24. Autoethnography as a research method: Advantages, limitations and

    as a research method, there are also limitations and. criticisms which need to be explored. Advantages and limitations of. autoethnography. One of the main advantages of personal. narratives is ...

  25. Ethnoarchaeology before Processual Ethnoarchaeology: The First

    From a genealogical perspective, this article explores the foundations of ethnoarchaeological research in the context of European colonialism. It investigates methodologies that utilize ethnographic information for reconstructing historical contexts, focusing first on early comparisons during colonial encounters.

  26. Ethnographic research as an evolving method for supporting healthcare

    Background. Research can help to support the practice of healthcare improvement, and identify ways to "improve improvement" [].Ethnography has been identified particularly as a research method that can show what happens routinely in healthcare, and reveal the 'what and how of improving patient care [].Ethnography is not one method, but a paradigm of mainly qualitative research involving ...

  27. Apple researchers develop AI that can 'see' and understand screen

    Apple's AI system, ReALM, can understand references to on-screen entities like the "260 Sample Sale" listing shown in this mockup, enabling more natural interactions with voice assistants.