Ethnographic Research – Long or Short Term Approach?
Traditional ethnographic research takes a long time, but the time is necessary for an accurate and in depth understanding of the culture or phenomenon under observation. When an anthropologist embarks on a research project in a totally new area, a year of language study is often needed before detailed ethnographic research can begin. Fieldwork often lasts 2 or more years. Such longer term approaches to ethnographic research are crucial for accurate understandings of culture. These published ethnographies have been the basis for many of the major theories that have arisen in cultural anthropology over the last 150 years.
While there is tremendous value to the long term approach to research, there are instances when a short term model can produce accurate and helpful results. For example, anthropologists are more readily hired as consultants by companies looking for specific and focused research on a particular aspect of society. Other times, an anthropologist may be employed to give a general overview of a culture with specific findings and suggested strategies for doing business in the area.
I’ve been involved with several of these short term ethnographic research projects. In some instances I was the sole researcher. In other instances I was part of a team commissioned to research and report on some culture or aspect of culture. I’ve found that the short-term, team approach to ethnographic research can be a very helpful, time efficient means of understanding a culture. Look at it this way – one researcher can spend two months in an area and put in about 400 hours of research. A team of eight can spend less than a week in an area and put in the same number of man hours. In this post, I want to give a brief overview of two approaches to the team based research method, along with pros and cons of each.
Team-Based Categorical Model
In this model, each member of a team is tasked with focusing on a specific cultural category or domain to research during the trip. For example, one member may focus all her research on the linguistic aspects of the people. Another may research the family structures. Yet another will tackle religion and myth in the culture. The team can be formed according to each individual’s strength or background with the assigned category.
Each person has a specific focus and as the days progress, the research/informant base builds. The most helpful research is often done several days into the trip as the researcher has had a few days to build a general knowledge of the people and has been introduced to knowledgeable informants in the area. Each researcher also has an ear and eye open to informants with knowledge in other cultural categories. Nightly team debriefing sessions afford opportunity to share contacts with other members of the research team. For example, I might be researching linguistics but come across a local business owner. I ask the owner for contact information that I can share with my teammate who is researching the local economy.
That each member of the team only has to focus on one cultural category means the category can be intensively researched without distraction. It is surprising how much information can be found on one topic in a week’s time. Furthermore, team members can share contacts so members save time by not having to always set out with a blank slate. Finally, the ethnographic write up comes together more seamlessly because each team member only has to write up their one cultural category. Each small paper can be combined to form the more comprehensive ethnography.
The major concern is that each team member has the ability to understand and ask the right questions related to their topic of inquiry. If all members do not have formal anthropological training, several team training sessions prior to the research trip can help. However, the research will be more accurate when members have the proper background and training.
Team-Based Geographical Model
This model works better in an urban setting. The geographical model was used by my team on a recent trip to London. We split our larger team into groups of two or three. We had four groups and each was assigned a borough in London. In this model, each team or individual returns to the same geographic location every day. The geographic model allows a large area to be covered in a short time, providing a general picture of the city to those requesting the research.
In my case, each small team was tasked with locating as many different people groups living in the borough as possible. Secondarily, we were to find out basic information about each people group such as immigration history, religion, community leaders, and businesses owned by those from that people group. We were able to discover a basic understanding of the cultural dynamics in each borough, use of space and power by dominant and minority groups, and weave together a larger understanding of immigration in London by comparing research from the four boroughs.
In a large city like London, the geographic model can provide a basic overview of the city. Specific information about each sub-geographic area helps one understand local and neighborhood dynamics as well as determine if certain themes are prominent in the city as a whole or are confined to certain people groups or neighborhoods.
This model does not allow for the more in depth research that the category specific model allows for. There simply is not enough time to dig deeply into each people group. Additionally, the final write up can be somewhat difficult to compile by the lead researcher. The task can be made easier by requiring the same format to be used by each team when doing their write up. For example, should each team’s write up be categorized by neighborhood within the borough, listing people groups found locally? Or should the write up be categorized by people group, and then list the geographic locations they reside in under the group. The answer depends on what the one requesting the research is using the research for. Advanced planning in necessary for the write up to be helpful and organized.
In conclusion, the short-term, team based model for ethnographic research can be an effective means of research. Man hours are multiplied and if the team is compiled and trained properly, a lot of good research can be done in a short amount of time. The two models, category specific and geography specific each have their value and limitations. If you are a business owner, church, missionary, school administrator, ect., consider employing an anthropologist to conduct short term, team based research for you.