Synopsis eight: research methods, participant-observation studies and ethnography

Researchers sometimes find the most effective way to learn about a phenomenon is to actually observe it in a natural environment, or even take part in it. Usually this "field work" is used in three situations:

1. A survey or lab experiment would not be practical.

2. The area is so new that no theory or study has been established, and baseline information needs to be collected.

3. The researcher wants to develop grounded theory--a theory of immediate relevance to a specific field setting.

Researchers doing field work place themselves on a continuum between complete observer and complete participant. As a complete observer, sometimes they examine accretions (deposits left by some action, such a garbage) or erosion (wear patterns on objects, such as floor tiles). Sometimes they simply go to a site and observe, while hiding their identity as a researcher. At the other end is the researcher who joins in on the activity. In this case, a researcher may or may not reveal his or her purpose.

Critics of ethnographic studies are concerned with reliability and objectivity. Ethnographic researchers contend that reliability can be achieved through careful and thorough record-keeping. They admit that sometimes objectivity is sacrificed when researchers participate, but contend that despite the drawbacks, field work offers a more natural setting than contrived surveys or lab settings.

Most researchers agree that one can't rely on ethnography alone to draw comprehensive conclusions about a phenomenon. Many researchers triangulate by also using other research methods to gather data.