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Qualitative Research: Three Ethnographic Research Techniques

What is ethnographic research? How is this research approach conducted?

This article explains the meaning of ethnographic research and discusses three ethnographic research techniques namely mapping the block, private language, and body language. A detailed example is given for each of the techniques. 

What is Ethnographic Research?

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research approach where the researcher captures a particular phenomenon by describing or explaining it without the use of statistics. It involves a systematic collection, description, and analysis of data to explain the subject or develop a theory of a “cultural behavior.”

Further, ethnographic research is an in-depth study of a people’s culture,  or of a nation. It may also refer to studies of culture prevailing in different professional fields like education, business, communication, tourism, and language.

The following are three ethnographic research techniques that are easy to follow. These are mapping the block, private language, and body language.

Three Research Techniques Used in Ethnographic Research

1. Mapping the Block

One of the research tools for ethnographic study is called mapping of the block. This approach uses  a vivid documentation of observations made in a place or a street in which a phenomenon that you want to investigate is located.

For example, if you want to study the culture of an indigenous group of people called the “Molbog” living in the remote island of Balabac in Palawan, you have to get as much detail about their village or houses. Or, if you want to study a group of students in the classroom, you have to tell exactly where the classroom is located and how it looks like. A one-time visit is not enough to map a block so you must make repeat observations. I did it once and it took me two weeks to map a block of my study area.

2. Private Language

Another way of gathering data is by capturing the private language used by a participant. Private language may pertain to a single word, an expression or a sentence. (next page please)

For example, a participant may use a common word or a totally strange word where you can’t find its meaning, even if you consult a dictionary of their language or use context clues to know its meaning. That’s because it’s only the participant who knows about it.  You have to make sure, however, that this “private language” is important to your study.

3. Body Language

A third technique of ethnographic research uses keen observation of a participant’s  body language. Once you see something peculiar as to the way he/she moves or rolls his/her eyes, bear that in mind so that you can put that observation into writing once you get the chance. But then again, you must make sure that his/her body language is relevant to your study.

Here are detailed examples for the three ethnographic research techniques:

Detailed Examples of Ethnographic Research

Example 1: Mapping the Block

The Block of XYZ Language Academy

From my dormitory in Molo, Iloilo City, I often pass by M.H. Del Pilar Street with nothing so interesting. Old buildings and newly erected buildings can be seen everywhere with different structures and architectures uniquely designed according to the services and purposes of the establishments. It’s a long queue of banks, hotels, restaurants and offices.

buildings cartoon

But one day, while searching for a language school to conduct an action research, a newly found friend told me to try XYZ. I was not familiar with that school and I didn’t even know its location. So, armed with a letter of request , I rode a jeepney towards XYZ.

XYZ is renting a space in the John B. Lacson Maritime University, the first maritime university in Asia. It is located beside La Fiesta Hotel, just before the newly constructed flyover.

The façade of the John B. Lacson Maritime University building is painted off peach while the pillars are Gothic, like the one I saw in La Salle, Taft; and in the Supreme Court in Manila. The pillars are circular with distinct columns to support the building. The upper part of each pillar has concave spiral designs in both sides which are exquisitely made.

From the ground floor, after walking about four meters ahead, I saw a stairway at the right side. Each stairway has ten small steps.

While making my first step upstairs, I saw that the wall was originally painted off white, but now became gray or dirty white. Once I reached the 10th step, I arrived at a platform, where I saw another stairway with the same number of steps as the first one. That platform, which has space enough for only a few people to pass by, has a well-decorated wall with yellow plastic flowers. On top of the flowers are the crystal cubes. There are 5 cubes in a column, and 15 cubes in a row; a total of 75 cubes. The same is true in the third floor. The only difference is that the color of the flowers at that level is orange.

Once I reached the third floor, I turned right, and then walked a little further. At my right side, there’s a signage of XYZ, at the corner of an aisle. I passed through the aisle and took a passage towards the Korean managers’ office.

The entrance door of the office is made of glass with no tint at all. I can see a divider from outside. To go inside, I must push the glass door.