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What is Ethnography Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

“Ethnography is a predominantly qualitative research style using a set of methods in which the researcher takes part overtly or covertly in people’s lives for an extended period of time, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issue that are the focus of research”. To utilize this technique of gathering data, was the main objective of the workshop. 4 different aspects of the conduct of all practical experiences will be illustrated Throughout the assignment.

1. Aspect: Choice of setting

Choosing a setting involves also choosing a target audience. I wanted to find an environment where I could observe a variety of different people (different backgrounds, origins and color of skin; all gathering in one specific place). The underground system seemed to me as the perfect choice, since it offered the right ambience for my first, focused observing experience. What troubled me initially was the perspective of observation. I experienced problems placing myself correctly, where I did not have to fear to disturb my target audience. My first perspective was from within a given crowed at the beginning of the platform of the station Kings cross-St. Pancras, just after the stairways. After about 5 minutes I changed position and therefore moved further down to the end of the platform, where only few individuals were standing. This was important since I wanted to change my point of view. It was amazing to experience how images change with only altering perspective. In the middle of the crowed I felt like one of the mass, but as soon as I moved further away from all these people, I became a real observer, noticing much more detail.

Finally, I began to realize the fascinating facets which arise when observing humans and analyzing the examined data provided by the individuals within my visual focus. For the next location I chose to go to a bar. A setting with a completely different ambience. The first remarkable thing that I noticed was the division of the people in the room. In comparing these two settings I discovered a drastic change. Whilst the people on the platform were mostly standing in one big group at the beginning of the platform, the people in the bar were divided into numerous small groups and therefore spread all over the room in order to utilize provided space. It was very difficult to find a spot where I had a good overview of what was going on around me.

I chose to sit at the bar for a limited period of time and observed the civilians, who were sitting at tables, mostly in groups. My observations deviated from the one I examined at the underground. At the bar, people seemed more open, happier and of course the appearance of the people was different as well. At the underground, people seemed very distant from each other, although pursuing the same aim (traveling). Individuals were mostly in a hurry to get out of the underground. At the bar there was no feeling of rush. People enjoyed themselves and consequently had very different face expressions. Whilst on the platform there was hardly any eye contact, the bar offered enough scope to check out other people (a lot of eye contact). In general it was remarkable how a different location could strongly influence the way people responded to each other.

2.Aspect: Note taking

I usually took notes after my observations or when being covert, at the location itself. During my observations in the underground as well as at the bar, I became aware of the fact that people felt uncomfortable when they felt observed. The moment I began to take notes, people reacted highly irritable and therefore tried to move as fare away from me as possible. When revising my notes at home it acquired a lot of time to reconstruct my observations, since my notes were unstructured (in form of keywords). To structure all my observations did take me up to twice as long as the actual field study itself. Some times it was very difficult to analyze and understand what I’ve meant with certain keywords, like “people bumping in each other”.

The difficulty was to place keywords into a reasonable context. The example given above left me unsatisfied, because it gave rise to questions instead of clarity. In this case I was wondering on what occasion did people bump into each other. Another reason for the complexity of reconstructing my observations could be explained by the fact, that impressions were random, and since I feared missing out on issues of importance, it was impossible to structure whole sentences while observing, and to order them properly. Observing in a focused manner and taking notes was very unfamiliar for me, because it is a mental process that we go through every day (unconsciously). The peculiar aspect of observing (including note taking) concerns the sole concentration on individuals, and even going as far as invading their personal space, while they follow their daily routine.

3.Aspect: Assumptions

It was very difficult not to automatically make assumptions while observing individuals in their daily routine. It is difficult because we automatically start to produce a mental story plot around individuals as soon as we examine them in a focused manner. I observed many people, who seemed frustrated, angry, sad or happy. The first things that came to my mind, when focusing on the individual’s activity (like reading, looking at advertisements, etc.) or behavior, were usually assumptions. As soon as I noticed an individual standing out from the mass (like a woman on the platform with her baby, begging for money), I started to ask myself questions about the reason for that specific behavior or action. In general, when walking through the streets i.e., I come across many different people and I often wondered what their life might be like. Furthermore I often caught myself prejudging a person although I don’t know him/her (for reasons like: because a woman shouts at her children, or a car driver not letting me cross the street, etc.).

An important reason for this cessation towards others emerges most probably from the fact that we live in a world where our values and ideas about specific roles of behavior, a specific religion or background, are influenced by the media or current events. As soon as we recognize people who are connected to a specific idea that we are influenced by, we either feel a sympathy or an antipathy for those individuals. We quickly assume that the people we see, have something to do with what we know from books, television or the news. We live in a very difficult time, involving fear and insecurity. I sometimes catch myself thinking negatively about an individual whereas under normal circumstances I would not even dare to develop such thoughts.

Like for exa

mple on the platform, where I observed a group of Muslims wearing turbans. I immediately linked them

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to Al-Qaeda. Rationally it is a ridiculous assumption to make, but I couldn’t help myself assuming these prejudistic presumptions. It surprised me, realizing the power of external influences, having such a strong effect on my internal observation skills. We often make assumption without even realizing it. Our brain has to constantly process information given through observations. In order to understand and explain what we see, we make assumptions (unconsciously) rather than asking questions about a certain fact or observation.

4.Aspect: One example for Participant Observation

Field study: underground station Kings Cross-St. Pancras at 10.00 am (most people going to work).

First observation: the way people relate to each other, when they are forced to move in a designated area.

I noticed that most of the people were standing at the very beginning of the platform, just after the stairways. It was very hard to trespass. Individuals didn’t communicate with each other (except if they knew each other). While standing on the platform most of the civilians pursued different activities like reading, looking at advertisements or listening to music. Only seldom I observed people engaging in neither of these activities. It is very interesting to observe that most of the people avoided eye contact. In general, people seemed relaxed, but became more anxious when the tube did not arrive on time. When this occurred, people began to move nervously, turned around and faced the walls, checking the time and starting to breath more heavily, in a way that everyone else could hear them, affecting others with their nervousness. It happened occationally that Individuals looked at others, but when they were caught, they instantly looked at the floor or started to adapt the activity of other individuals (like reading, looking at the advertisements, etc.). In the case of groups, I could observe that there was more eye contact within the group itself, but also from inside the group to the outside.

Second observation: the way people claim space.

While walking through the mass of people, I observed that many people, who I touched unintentional, felt very uncomfortable and often looked at me in an aggressive manner. People, when arriving on the platform, looked to their right hand side first and than ahead of them, stopping when they found a free spot. A lot of people obviously felt comfortable by standing at the beginning of the platform, surrounded by other people. Others walked right through the mass and headed directly to the end of the platform. Some individuals sat down on one of the many chairs (first or last chair, hardly ever in the middle), placing their bags on their neighboring chair. When others placed themselves next to them, they often received a questionable look from the person already sitting. I observed that people, who were standing alone at the end of the platform, moved further away when someone else approached them. In general, the space of others was respected. There was hardly any body contact, except when people trespassed each other.

Third observation: when the train arrived.

When the train arrived, people started to line up in front of the gradually opening doors. They waited until the passengers in the train exited and than got in the train cabins as soon as the last person was out. While getting in the train, I could observe some collisions between individuals. When this occurred, people didn’t look at each other but continued walking. Elderly men often let women go in first, especially when they were old, giving them enough time to get in the train in a civilized fashion. At numerous occasions trains simply contained too many passengers. In this case, all unwritten rules of behavior and politeness seemed to be forgotten. The individual’s only concern was to get in the train, without respecting others, like the weak or old. Individuals who got off the train walked straight out of the underground station, mostly very fast and often carrying a bag in their right hand.

General observation: How people behaved.

In general it was fascinating to observe that the individuals seemed to stand alone on the platform, ignoring the things going on around them. They almost seemed alienated from the reality taking place far underground. Meaning individuals often seemed to find themselves in a trance like condition or state. It felt like many would wonder of into a different world just to escape from the daily routine.

Personal questions while taking notes:

* Do some individuals like to be surrounded by others because they feel safe or less observed when they become a member of the mass?

* Do people place their bags on the neighboring chair because they want to prevent that another individuals come too close to them and intrudes their space?

* Do individuals avoid eye contact because they fear the attention of another persons? Or because they don’t want to get involved in a conversation? Do people fear intimacy? Are they afraid that one might discover their weaknesses?

* Do people engage in a certain activity, like reading, to demonstrate publically their disinterest in their environment?

Similarities & differences between participant observation & interviewing

There is a difference between being interviewed and being the interviewee, which should be clarified before beginning to compare the two techniques of gathering data. Being interviewed implies a certain activeness, while the interviewee themselves play rather a passive role.

Similarities: The differentiation between the interviewed an the interviewee comes into play now. There is a similarity between an interviewee and a participant observer. Both are confronted with information emerging either from listening, in the case of an interview, or from observing visually (defining the activity of an observer). The interviewee as well as the participant observer is mainly concerned with collecting as much information as possible and structuring them after either the interview or the observations gathered. Another similarity is referred to the course of the interview and the observations. Through an unstructured interview (very open), unexpected issues can be revealed by the interviewed person. The same can happen within the activity of the participant observer. The impossibility to influence the course of an observation is a known fact. Therefore nothing can be taken for granted, and the unexpected can always occur.

Differences: The most obvious difference concerns the number of people being involved in

both of the techniques. An interview requires the participation of at least two people, while a participant observer, observes and takes notes by him-/herself. Participant observations, as the term implies, are solely referred to the activity of observing. There is no real physical (if it happens: unintentionally) or verbal encounter between an observer and the observed. While as in an interview two or more people communicate with each other. In addition, in an interview, individuals exchange ideas and get to know each other (involuntarily) in the course of the interview. It is a logical effect, since the interviewed individual reveals personal ideas and feelings during the interview. Unlike in an interview, a participant observer can only assume what people around him/her must be like and what they might feel about a certain idea or issue. Furthermore it is rather unlikely that an observer gets involved in a conversation with a stranger, since it is not a priority to the observer.

Moreover, interviewing includes the possibility to inquire when questions are misunderstood, but when observing, there is no space for questions. One has to ask oneself why certain things happen and why people behave in a certain manner. Another important point concerns the way people relate to each other in an interview. Interviewing requires a certain sensitivity, especially from the side of the interviewee, since it is easily possible that a person feels offended or attacked by certain questions. An observer doesn’t have to worry about sensitivity, because he/she takes personal notes without involving other individuals. Clarity is another point worth mentioning, which influences interviewing but not the activity of a participant observer.

A participant observer is free in taking notes and structuring its observations. It is different in an interview, because the interview must be structured, in order to be understandable for others. Furthermore it is an important quality for the interviewers that questions lead to certain goal. Meaning that there has to be a specific topic, which lays the foundation for an interview. When observing it is not essential to follow a specific topic, since the impressions are of importance (impressions are random, therefore it is not possible to structure them before beginning with the observations). An interview is in a sense predictable. In the means of participant observations, one has no influence on the course of events happening at a specific place nor is it possible to have expectations. Interviewing requires preparation, whilst observing solely requires the attention span. The results of observations are open and can be abstract, whilst the course of an interview is generally predictable and the results are mostly concrete.


To conclude the assignment, I want to express certain thoughts on the overall experience provided by the workshop. All in all it was a valuable experience, because I discovered numerous aspects of life, which I normally would have ignored. I became aware of the fact that we perceive very little of what is going on around us in the environment. In order to participate in individual’s daily routine, I had to take a closer look at myself. I learned much about the behavior of people in a specific situation and about the relation of individuals to each other. We live in close proximity to each other and therefore we sometimes depend upon others (in critical situations or crisis) although we might not recognize it frequently.

Nonetheless we have to realize that we are very much alike, fearing the same fears and being unsecured about similar issues. The most important educational information, learned during the workshop, was that it is very important to question oneself before criticizing other individuals. At the end of the workshop, while revising my notes, I realized that I often criticized or felt an antipathy against specific people, and examining myself as a person, I sometimes recognized that I was very similar as the mentally criticized individuals. Therefore I am very grateful to have realized my own mistakes (prejudice) and consequently will in the future benefit from this past experience.

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