Creswell (1998) described that an ethnography is a description and interpretation of a cultural or social group or system. The objects of observations or under examinations include observable and learned patterns of behavior, customs, and ways of life. The inquiry process consists of :

  • Prolonged observation of the group, typically through participant observation in which the researcher immersed in the day-to-day lives of the people
  • One-on-one interview with members of the group

Any kinds of research studies involve a learning process. As a key instrument in the study, an ethnographer has to equip herself with an insider's view, with extensive communication with the observed, and with continuous discourses with other scholars and herself. In other words, the researcher needs to engage in dynamic participation and self-examination.
The purpose of the ethnography research study is to close up the distance between an outsider's interpretation (the etic perspective) of social order and the real meaning of life experience to those under study (the emic perspective). In order to achieve such a goal, the researcher becomes both "an actor and a subject whose learned definitions can be themselves to be analyzed" (Stake, 1974, p. xxi). The emic perspective refers to the insider's perception of the reality; it intends to grasp the subjectivist consciousness or intent of the actor from the inside; "an act of psychological reenactment" (Schwandt, Thomas, A. 2000: Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry, in Denzin and Lincoln, p. 189-213). On the other hand, the etic perspective refers to ow it looks to the outside observer, i.e. the researcher's conceptual and theoretical understanding of the research participant' social reality. Generally speaking, ethnography study intends to come up with the descriptions of the culture-sharing group, the analysis of the culture-sharing group by themes or perspectives, and interpretation of the culture-sharing group for meanings of social interaction and generalizations about human social life.

To ensure quality and accuracy of the data, researchers need to employ the strategies of multiple sources, methods, investigators and theories (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Researchers also need to recognize the inevitability of subjectivity. Fetterman (1989) say patterns of thought and behavior are "a form" of ethnographic reliability. If we agree with Fetterman, the establishment of such reliability can lie in close examination of the interwoven strands in every event from different aspects to identify the patterns.

In the participant observations where the researcher works directly with people under study, the ethical issues are embedded in all aspects of the communication in the field. Fetterman (1998) pointed out central ethical codes to ethnographers: doing no harm to people or the community under study, respect for the rights of the people, for integrity of the data, and for people's way of life. Researchers should not impose superiority over the people under study. Researchers should understand that his or her role is not to judge but to learn.

What are under examination in ethnography?
Creswell (1998) explained that the ethnography study looks at people in interaction in ordinary settings and attempts to discern pervasive patterns such as life cycle, events, and cultural themes. The ethnographer gathers artifacts and physical trace evidence, finds stories, rituals, and myths, and/or uncover cultural themes. To identify the cultural patterns, the ethnographer engages in extensive work in the field, gathering information through observations, interviews, artifacts and materials. The researcher needs to be sensitive to the issues, such as:

  • Gatekeepers: the access to the group
  • Key informants: the individuals who provide useful insights into the group
  • Reciprocity between the investigator and the subjects being studied
  • Reactivity: the impact of the researcher on the site and the people being studied.

Creswell (1998) also described the general structure of ethnography as follows:

  1. Introduction: problem and questions
  2. Research procedures: ethnography, data collection, analysis, outcomes
  3. Description of culture
  4. Analysis of cultural themes
  5. Interpretation, lessons learned, questions raised


Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fetterman, D. M. (1998). Ethnography: Step by step. 2nd edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage..

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E., G. (2000). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions and emerging confluences. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 163-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Stack, C. (1974). All our kin: Strategies for survival in a black community. New York, NY: Haper & Row, Publishers.