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5: Other Analysis Strategies: Typologies, Sociograms, and Metaphors
Berg (2002), the researchers examined 452 photographs of
graffiti created by gangs in a city in southern California.
After carefully examining each photo for patterns of similarity or dissimilarity, they sorted the pictures into five
groups: (1) Publicity Graffiti (spreading the gang’s name),
(2) Roll Call Graffiti (listing the names of the members of
the gang), (3) Territorial Graffiti (the name of the gang in
specific locations identifying turf), (4) Threatening Graffiti
(specific threats toward other gangs or individuals), and
(5) Sympathetic Graffiti (condolences to gang members and
their families upon deaths).
Typically, researchers follow a basic three-step guideline for developing typologies. First, they assess the collected material and then seek out mutually exclusive
categories. Second, researchers make sure that all of the elements being classified have been accounted for (an exhaustive grouping of elements). Third, researchers examine the
categories and their contents and make theoretically meaningful appraisals. The use of mutually exclusive categories
assures that every element being considered appears only
in a single category. But, to be exhaustive, each element
needs to be placed into one or another of these categories.
Ideally, one can achieve both of these traits, though frequently the data does not divide so neatly. A theoretically
meaningful appraisal does not necessarily mean that you
link your observations to lofty theories such as Durkheim’s
theory of anomie. Rather, it simply means that there is an
attempt to attach some social meaning to the way things
fall into categories in your typology.
Although typologies may seem like oversimplification
of social life, this is actually their beauty. They permit the
researcher to present data in an organized and simple fashion, allowing the reader to better understand the explanations offered as interpretation and analysis of the typology
scheme. A major goal of typologies, then, is to provide
additional understanding of the material collected during
the course of the research.
Sociograms are part of a larger group of techniques known as
sociometry. These procedures allow the researcher to make
assessments about the degree of affinity or disdain that members of a group have toward one another. Thus, they allow
you to consider friendship patterns, social networks, work
relationships, and social distance in general. Sociometry
can be described as a means of assessing group relational
structures such as hierarchies, friendship networks, and
cliques. Sociograms, then, are graphic displays of how close
people are to one another based on responses to a sociometric test. A sociometric test typically includes three basic
1. Specific number of choices are used (varying with the
size of the group).
Ethnographic Field Strategies 127
2. Specific number of choices are allowed (varying
according to the functions and/or activities of the
3. Levels of preference are assigned to each choice.
positive peer nominations The early users of
sociometric tests typically employed a peer nomination
version of this test. In this procedure, the group members were asked to name three or more peers whom they
liked the most, or whom they best liked working with,
or who were their best friends (depending on the kind
of group). A group member’s score was then computed
as the number of nominations he or she received from
other members of the group. This version of the sociometric test is called positive peer nominations. As users of
sociometric tests refined these procedures, adaptations
neGative peer nominations One such adaptation
to peer nominations initially was introduced by Dunnington
(1957) and again by Moore and Updergraff (1964). This
adaptation involved a request for negative nominations.
In other words, in addition to asking for three especially
liked peers, a second request was made that members
identify the three peers least liked (or least desirable
to work with). This strategy was used to identify two
groups of peers—namely, a popular group (high frequency
of positive nominations) and a disliked or rejected group
(high frequency of negative nominations). Subsequent research in which juveniles are identified as members of
these groups indicates that rejected children often are
more aggressive and likely to engage in antisocial behavior (Dodge, Cole, & Brakke, 1982; Hartup, Glazer, &
Charlesworth, 1967). This suggests significant utility for
those interested in studying delinquents, youth movements,
school cliques, and even gang structures.
Another adaptation that
has come into common use is the peer rating procedure, a
sociometric test similar in many ways to the nomination
procedure. Group members respond to the usual sociometric questions (Who do you like to work with? Be with?
etc.) for every other member of the group. Each group
member is given a list containing the names of all group
members and asked to rate every other member using a
five-point Likert-like scale. The scale for these five points
is typically a graduated series of statements that moves
from expressions of favor to expressions of disfavor for
members of the group. An example of this sort of scale is
shown in Figure 6.1. As in traditional Likert scales, you
assess the mean rating score for each person. A mean rating in the low range indicates that the group member is
not well liked by others in the group. A mean rating in the
high range indicates that the group member is well liked.
As Jennings (1948) warned, however, identification of this
peer ratinG proceDures
128 Chapter 6
Figure 6.1 A Sample Sociometric Assessment
Directions: On a separate sheet, write the name of everyone in your group or organization. Read the
following paragraphs and place their corresponding numbers in front of every name for which they apply.
You may use the number 1 only once, and please place only a single number by each name. By your own
name, please place a zero.
My Very Best Friend
1. I would like to have this person as one of my very best friends. I would like to spend a great deal of
time with this person. I think I could tell some of my problems and concerns to this person, and I would
do everything I could to help this person with his or her problems and concerns. I will give a number 1
to my very best friend.
My Other Friend(s)
2. I would enjoy working and doing things with this person. I would invite this person to a party in my home,
and I would enjoy going places with this person and our other friends. I would like to talk and do a variety
of things with this person and to be with this person often. I want this person to be one of my friends.
I will give a number 2 to every person who is my friend.
I Do Not Know This Person
3. I do not know this person very well. Maybe I would like this person if I got to know him or her; maybe
I would not. I do not know whether I would like to spend time or work with this person. I will place a
number 3 in front of the name of every person I do not know very well.
I Do Not Care for This Person
4. I will greet this person when I see him or her around school or in a store, but I do not enjoy being around
this person. I might spend some time with this person–if I had nothing to do, or I had a social obligation
to attend where this person also was in attendance. I do not care for this person very much. I will place
a number 4 in front of the name of every person I do not care for very much.
I Dislike This Person
5. I speak to this person only when it is necessary. I do not like to work or spend time with this person.
I avoid serving on the same groups or committees with this person. I will place a number 5 in front of
the name of every person I do not like.
sociometric pattern is not the completion of the research
but only the beginning. The use of mathematics to locate
sociometric stars, then, should not be overemphasized.
It is a convenient tool but not the substantive result of
Once you have identified the social relations and
social structures that exist, you still must examine the
incumbents of positions in this structure. Assisted by the
sociometric information, you are better equipped to locate
appropriate guides, informants, and gatekeepers of the
group. Thus, you might begin an investigation with a
sociometric survey and then pursue the research through
other ethnographic field techniques, interviews, or even
unobtrusive measures. Sociometric choice tests, then, provide yet another line of action you can use in a triangulated research design.
Alternatively, one might use sociograms after analyzing the fieldwork observations. As an observer, you
may have notes about how specific people interact with
one another. Once you have examined the patterns of
influence, respect, leadership, boundary maintenance, and
other forms of social functions within a group, you can
compare your observations with group members’ assessments of each other’s roles.
mappinG anD the creation of socioGrams
Another way you can create sociograms is to do them in
the field. In this case, you use direct observations of individuals and objects as they are arranged in the setting.
Essentially, this involves the creation of social/environmental maps and, from these, sociograms.
This strategy of sociometric mapping depends on a
fairly stable setting, and as such, it is not always applicable.
Often, this type of sociometric mapping is used in socialpsychological applications of organizational research. For
example, how executives place themselves around a meeting table may be mapped and may delineate power and
informal influence structures. By knowing this information, a researcher (or executive) can interrupt or weaken
the amount of influence emanating from certain segments
of the members. For instance, by placing himself or herself
or a nonmember of some informal influence clique among
several actual members, he or she can affect the ability of
those members to wield influence and authority during a
Similarly, knowledge about sociometric body language and even furniture placement can influence interactions. For example, when you enter someone’s office,
how is it arranged? Is there a chair near the desk, inviting you to sit near the desk’s occupant? Or is the chair
far from the desk, perhaps across the room, requiring a
guest to physically move it to be near the desk’s occupant? Usually, when you move furniture in another
person’s office, you must first ask permission. Thus,
tacitly, you hold a subordinate role in the relationship.
Alternately, you might choose to stand while the other
party sits. This, of course, immediately shifts the power
structure to the seated occupant of the office because he
or she is able to leave you standing or suggest you pull
up a chair.
The arrangement of people and objects in a setting may
have an impact on interactions and relationships. This, in
turn, can be a useful tool in research. This type of applied
sociometric strategy frequently begins with a mapping of
the setting. This sort of mapping is also useful in other
types of institutional investigations. For example, it could
prove useful in a study of how inmates use environmental
space in a prison or a study of the effect of environmental
design on inmates. Alternatively, it might prove fruitful in
an examination of how children use and perhaps territorially divide playground space. It might even be useful in
a study of a game arcade located in some mall or in similar studies of leisure-time activities in amusement parks.
Again, sociometric strategies are extremely flexible. They
are limited only by your imagination.
To describe how you might develop the sort of sociometric maps just discussed, let us assume an investigator
wants to study some group of youths in a particular neighborhood. One way to begin this task is to create a drawing or map of the setting. All the stable physical elements
observed in the setting (e.g., access ways, trees and shrubs,
buildings, stores, street lamps) should be included in this
map. The original version of the map should be saved and
copied so that every time the researcher enters the field, he
or she can work on a fresh map.
While in the field, the researcher can add symbols
to represent individuals, dyads (groups of two), triads
(groups of three), gender, leadership roles, and so forth.
Over time, and by assessing the successive annotated
maps and actual field notes, the researcher will be able to
identify the stars and any satellite cliques that constitute
the groups under study. Stars will become apparent over
time when you use observation to create a sociogram.
Typically, you find only one or two stars in a given group.
Even when you locate several stars, typically one will
demonstrate himself or herself to hold some degree of
Ethnographic Field Strategies 129
influence over the others. William Foote Whyte (1993a,
pp. 293–294) has described the sociometric process that he
used to identify informal authority relations in his classic
work Street Corner Society:
In the case of the Nortons, I determined that Doc was
the leader through the following types of observations.
Before he arrived at his corner, I would see small groups
of 2 or 3 conversing. When Doc arrived, the small groups
would dissolve and a larger group would form around
him. When another member spoke to the group but then
noticed that Doc was not listening, he would stop and
then try again to get Doc’s attention. Doc often, but not
always, was the one to suggest a change in group activity. When another member made a proposal for action not
endorsed by Doc, no activity change followed. Only if Doc
made or approved the proposal did I observe a change in
Satellite cliques are sometimes mistaken as representing a
star and his or her followers. In fact, satellite cliques usually
contain several members influenced by what appears to be
a single individual. However, this individual frequently is
himself or herself influenced by a more centralized star.
Sociometric maps also can assist the investigator in
understanding how a group uses its environmental space
and maintains territorial control over areas, the locus of
control in various power and influence arrangements, and
the social space (proximity) between different members
and nonmembers of the group(s).
Another analytic strategy is to use metaphors (Bailey,
1996, 2006; Becker, 1998). Metaphors are descriptions that
reveal aspects of the subject through comparison with
other subjects, such as Max Weber’s famous term (in
Parsons’ English translation) “the iron cage” for bureaucracy. Identifying a metaphor that fits some aspect of your
setting or your study population can help you see things in
a different way. Begin by asking, “What does this situation
or circumstance seem to be?” “What else is it like?” “What
does it remind me of?” Trying to come up with an appropriate metaphor is a good exercise for reflecting on the
material and data you have already collected and begun to
interpret and analyze. It also will require you to consider
this data from different conceptual angles than you might
otherwise have used.
For example, some critics suggest that police arrest
suspects, only to have the courts let them go (on bail,
for example) by using the phrase revolving door justice.
Metaphors provide an avenue to see important elements of
social support, interaction, networking, relationships, and
a variety of other socially significant factors, and allow the
researcher to represent action when theorizing about various explanations or relationships.
130 Chapter 6
Of course, metaphors are more literary than scientific.
One should not, for example, use the term revolving door
justice unless there has been some actual change in court
practices that has resulted in an unusual number of arrestees being released. A good metaphor may be worth more
than many pages of description, but a careless one is just
6.6: Disengaging: Getting
outline two operations that form part of the process
of disengaging from a field research setting
Although it is certainly possible to maintain complete professional distance when distributing questionnaires to anonymous subjects, it is not as easy during ethnography. Because
relationships are virtually the stock and trade of a good ethnographer, care must be taken when leaving the field.
Exiting any field setting involves at least two separate
operations: first, the physical removal of the researchers
from the research setting and, second, emotional disengagement from the relationships developed during the
field experience. In some situations, getting out is described
as a kind of mechanical operation, devoid of any (personal) emotional attachments on the part of the ethnographer. Concern is sometimes shown, and efforts made, to
avoid distressing a research community. However, negative repercussions can occur in the forms of possible effects
on the group(s) as a whole or with the possible reception future field investigators might expect (Morris, 2006;
Shaffir, Stebbins, & Turowetz, 1980).
Even when the emotions of field relationships are mentioned, they are frequently described exclusively as concern
over the perspective of the inhabitant of the natural setting.
For example, Shaffir et al. (1980, p. 259) state the following:
Personal commitments to those we study often accompany
our research activity. Subjects often expect us to continue to
live up to such commitments permanently. On completing
the research, however, our commitment subsides and is
often quickly overshadowed by other considerations shaping our day-to-day lives. When our subjects become aware
of our diminished interest in their lives and situations, they
may come to feel cheated—manipulated and duped.
The point is not to underplay the possible emotional
harm a callous investigator might cause a research group,
but it should be noted that relationships are two-way
streets. Subjects make personal emotional commitments,
and so, too, do many researchers—even without actually
bonding (Nagy Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006). Often, when
researchers leave the field, they have developed feelings
for their subjects. These feelings may not always be positive but are nonetheless psychologically affecting.
Ethnographers can certainly absent themselves from
the field and simply dismiss the subjects from their minds,
but it is likely that the ethnographers will continue to hold
at least some proprietary interest in the welfare of the
subjects. For example, during the course of conducting
the research discussed in Carpenter and colleagues (1988),
the ethnographers commonly spoke about “their” kids
with almost parental concern or, on occasion, with almost
parental pride in certain accomplishments.
A strong commitment and attachment developed
between many of the youthful subjects and the ethnographers. When it came time to leave the field, the ethnographers informally continued to keep an eye on many of
the subjects for over a year. This essentially amounted
to asking about specific kids when they accidentally ran
into mutual acquaintances or getting involved in the lives
of these special kids when their paths crossed by chance
(e.g., in a supermarket or shopping mall). Other field
investigators have indicated similar prolonged interest in
research subjects, even many years after physically leaving
the setting. Letkemann (1980, p. 300), for instance, indicates that even 10 years after exiting the field, and more
than 800 miles away from the site, he continued to stay
informed about the welfare of his subjects.
Because of the uniqueness of every field situation,
there are different nuances to exiting. Ethnographers, however, must always be mindful that the time will come to
leave—at least physically. Toward this end, researchers
must prepare both the community members and themselves for the exit. Perhaps a quick exit will work in some
cases (Rains, 1971), whereas a more gradual drifting off
may be required in other circumstances (Glaser & Strauss,
1967). Unfortunately, these research-related decisions are
not easily made.
The challenges associated with disengaging depend,
of course, on how engaged you were to begin with.
Earlier, I mentioned William Foote Whyte’s early ethnographic classic, Street Corner Society. For his part, Whyte
later reflected that he had violated several basic tenants
of good fieldwork during his time in the field, becoming more actively involved in the lives of his subjects
than he should have been. Though openly identified as a
researcher, Whyte also became a participant and occasionally an active one.
I suppose no one goes to live in a slum district for three
and a half years unless he is concerned about the problems
facing the people there. In that case it is difficult to remain
solely a passive observer. One time I gave in to the urge to
do something. I tried to tell myself that I was simply testing
out some of the things I had learned about the structure of
corner gangs, but I knew really that this was not the main
purpose. (Whyte, 1993b, p. 337)
Whyte conducted his research long before the new ethnography and participatory action research. He lived in
Boston’s North End in the 1930s, befriended a “club” of
guys, and followed them around for several years before
publishing his book in the 1940s. Many years later, after
the book had become a staple of social research and
run through multiple editions, the sons of the person
Whyte had called Doc claimed that Whyte had exploited
Doc, manipulated his story, and not shared the profits.
Ethnographers in the new mode criticized Whyte for
not having had his subjects review his findings before
he published—an excellent practice to follow if you
can today, but unknown in the time of Whyte’s work.
Nonetheless, he had become an active member of a gang,
after which he left the field, left the neighborhood, and
published his book. Although he remained on good terms
with some of his subjects, bowled with them once in a
while, and shared some of his writing with them, it seems
that in the long run Whyte’s subjects did not all fully
understand where their lives fit in the story of his professional work.
6.7: Reflectivity and
analyze the relevance of reflexivity as used
Access and ethical concerns underscore that ethnography
requires a reflective concern on the part of the researcher,
or what some scholars refer to as reflexivity (Boyle, 1994;
Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). This reflexive characteristic implies that the researcher understands that he or
she is part of the social world(s) that he or she investigates. Ethnography involves activities that fall somewhere
between rigorous, dare I say, positivist approaches and
more naturalistic reflections of the actual social worlds of
the people being studied. Good ethnography requires that
the researcher avoid simply accepting everything at face
value but, instead, consider the material as raw data that
may require corroboration or verification. We need good
data, but we also need to avoid the temptation to imagine that we can observe “facts” without some process of
shared interpretation. Ethnography is not about observing,
but about understanding.
Ethnography, then, becomes a process of gathering
systematic observations, partly through participation
and partly through various types of conversational interviews (Werner & Schoepfle, 1987). Yet, it may additionally require the use of photography, mapping, archival
searches, and even assorted documents. Ethnographic
analysis involves finding, interpreting, and explaining
the patterns that emerge from all of these data sources.
As previously noted, the researcher must see as an insider
and think as an outsider.
Ethnographic Field Strategies 131
Reflexivity further implies a shift in the way we understand data and their collection. To accomplish this, the
researcher must make use of an internal dialogue that
repeatedly examines what the researcher knows and how the
researcher came to know this. To be reflexive is to have an ongoing conversation with yourself. The reflexive ethnographer
does not merely report findings as facts but actively constructs
interpretations of experiences in the field and then questions how these interpretations actually arose (Hertz, 1997;
Saukko, 2003; Van Maanen, 1988). The ideal result from this
process is reflexive knowledge: information that provides
insights into the workings of the world and insights on how
that knowledge came to be. Along similar lines to reflectivity
is an approach known as critical ethnography.
6.8: Critical Ethnography
recall that the major elements in criticalethnography is addressing concerns on power
and control structures
When one hears the term critical in reference to the social
sciences, many people immediately think of the Marxist
critical perspective, and, indeed, some feminist literature
employs such an orientation. But for most critical ethnographers, the term refers to a more general kind of advocacy
orientation of the investigator’s. This orientation is often
attributed to a response to the contemporary trends in
society with particular regard to power, prestige, privilege,
and authority (Carspecken, 1996; Creswell, 2007; Madison,
2005). These structural attributes of society are viewed as
marginalizing individuals who may be from various less
influential classes, genders, educational levels, or even
races. Thus, critical ethnography is an orientation where
the researcher has a concern about social inequalities and
directs his or her efforts toward positive change. Notions
like “positive” change make some researchers nervous,
implying as it does that the researcher brings a value system to bear on the research. But we do that anyway. Why
study social problems, for example, if we have no concern
to alleviate them? Theory, from this perspective, should do
more than merely describe social life; it should advance or
advocate for positive social change (Madison, 2005). For
instance, critical ethnographers have studied classrooms in
terms of an instructor’s emphasis on encouraging males in
the class to excel in sports or engineering while not similarly emphasizing this orientation for females in the class.
The research question itself may be a matter of counting
cases or observing patterns. Nonetheless, the motive for
doing so includes the assumption that teachers who are
made aware of such patterns are less likely to reproduce
them. Thus, the major elements in a critical ethnography
include an advocacy, or value-laden approach, that seeks
132 Chapter 6
to empower participants (and sometimes constituents represented by these participants) by challenging the status
quo and addressing various concerns about power and
Thomas (1993) has suggested that critical ethnography
and conventional ethnography are not incompatible and
that, in fact, both share several important characteristics.
For example, both rely on various types of qualitative data
(interviews, focus groups, observations, etc.) and interpretations of these data using the same set of tools and
procedures. Throughout the analysis of data, both critical
and conventional ethnographic strategies adhere to the
symbolic interactionist paradigm and potentially to the
development of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967;
Strauss, 1987). And both ought to be driven by the researchers’ interests in the significance of the research question.
Notwithstanding their similarities, there are also several
important characteristics that distinguish critical from conventional ethnography.
At the most general level of distinction, conventional
ethnography refers to the tradition of cultural descriptions
and the analysis of various meanings or shared meanings
through the interpretation of meaning. Much of this tradition derives from scholars of the “first world” visiting
“remote” locations in order to explain how “the other”
lives in the language of the home audience. Critical ethnography, on the other hand, refers to a much more reflective
approach through which the researcher chooses between
various alternatives and makes value-laden judgments of
meanings and methods in a conscious effort to challenge
research, policy, and other forms of human activity. In
essence, conventional approaches to ethnography may
be said to examine and describe what is, whereas critical
ethnographic approaches ask the question what could be
Consider Javier Auyero and Maria Fernandez Berti’s
years of extensive fieldwork in a shantytown on the fringes
of Buenos Aires. In his discussion of the structural and cultural dimensions of violence in the neighborhood, Auyero
(2015, p. 170) aims to “unearth and illuminate the political
dimensions of the widespread, seemingly nonpolitical,
interpersonal violence in contemporary Buenos Aires.” On
the face of it, this seems like a worthy topic for an ethnographer, as violence has immediate consequences for people
in this community, and the subject really concerns all of us
at some level. But Auyero and Fernandez Berti’s motivation to adopt this methodological approach involves more
than just an investigation of a social issue on the ground
where it can be most easily seen. “In Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, public discourse about urban violence tends to be dominated by those occupying privileged
positions in the social structure. . . . inhabitants of the urban
margins are hardly ever heard from in debates about public safety,” Auyero observes (2015, p. 178). This deep study
brings voices and perspectives that are normally excluded
into the study of the violence surrounding their own lives.
Thus, critical ethnography is not criticism, such as one
might offer to a colleague who always interrupts others. Nor
should one confuse critical ethnography with the specific
critique of capitalist or materialist society (e.g., a Marxian
perspective). Critical ethnography is conventional ethnography, but with a clear purpose, and which intentionally seeks
positive change and empowerment for participants.
6.8.1: The Attitude of the
The researcher’s frame of mind when entering a natural setting is crucial to the eventual results of a study. If
you strike the wrong attitude, you might well destroy
the possibility of ever learning about the observed participants and their perceptions. According to David Matza
(1969), one must enter appreciating the situations rather
than intending to correct them. This sort of neutral posture
allows researchers to understand what is going on around
them rather than become either advocates or critics of the
events they witness. In addition, appreciation does not
require the interviewers to agree with or even to accept the
perceptions of their subjects but to merely offer empathy.
Although many students might think it is unnecessary
to suggest that ethnographers should conduct research
with an appreciative attitude, in actuality, it is one of the
important recommendations that we can offer.
In Chapter 2, I had suggested that it would be difficult
and impractical for a black researcher to study a white
power movement, at least in terms of conducting observations and interviews. But does that mean that any white
researcher can easily do so? To openly enter a field research
site, such as an organization, a community, or a social movement, means that the researcher must define himself or
herself to the subjects, up to a point. To conduct interviews,
or even lengthy conversations, one needs to develop some
kind of rapport with the subjects. Clearly, in a politically
charged environment or a controversial cause, the subjects
are likely to look for clues as to the researcher’s attitude
toward them. Ideally, researchers should be able to openly
and honestly present themselves as neither an advocate for
the group nor an opponent. At the very least we need to be
honestly curious about the subjects’ views and willing to
consider them seriously. This is what empathy offers. We
can want to hear what people are saying without needing
to endorse it. And it is generally far better from both ethical
and practical perspectives to state that you don’t see things
the same way than to pretend to be “one of them.” Clearly,
if you were to plan a study to determine what’s wrong with
some group or other, people would be suspicious of your
ability to properly conduct your research.
At a casual glance, this idea of value neutrality in
the field might appear to contradict the assumptions of
critical ethnography. It does not, but it calls attention to
an important distinction between attitude and values.
If, for example, I undertook field research in classrooms
due to a critical concern about the education system,
that should not imply that I am a critic of teachers. In
fact, I might hope that my research could assist teachers
in their work. I can be neutral about any given classroom, positive about the role of education, and critical
of the institutions through which it is administered. My
research question is guided by my values, while my
research action is guided by my research design. The
next question, then, is which of these guides my writing
when the study is complete.
6.8.2: The Researcher’s Voice
Many researchers—both quantitative and qualitative alike—
recommend that social science research maintain a valueneutral position. From this perspective, social scientists are
expected to study the world around them as external investigators. This means neither imposing their own views nor
taking any stands on social or political issues. This style of
research tends to lend itself to a fairly positivist approach.
A number of social researchers have argued against this
façade of value neutrality. Among the more vocal have been
feminist researchers (Hertz, 1997; Nagy Hesse-Biber, Leavy,
& Yaiser, 2004; Reinharz, 1992; Ribbens & Edwards, 1998).
Feminist-inspired sociologists have worked out a research
orientation that is comfortable for both the researcher and
the subjects. It tends to involve strategies that listen more
and talk less, that humanize the research process, and
that insist that the ethnographic researcher become both
involved with his or her subjects and reflexive about his or
her own thoughts. Some recent researchers have also sought
to encourage the writing of self-reflective or autoethnographies, similar in concept to more traditional autobiographies
(Ellis & Bochner, 1996; Tedlock, 2003).
Objectively, social scientists should recognize that
research is seldom, if ever, really value neutral. After all,
the selection of a research topic typically derives from
some researcher-oriented position. As previously implied
in this chapter, topic selection occurs because of an interest
in the subject matter, because it is a politically advantageous area to receive grant monies, because of some inner
humanistic drive toward some social problem, or because
one has personal experiences or what Lofland (1996, p. 44)
calls “deep familiarity” with the subject area. The fact is
that research is seldom undertaken for a neutral reason.
Furthermore, all humans residing in and among social
groups are the product of those social groups. This means
that various values, moral attitudes, and beliefs orient
people in a particular manner.
Ethnographic Field Strategies 133
For instance, a person’s selection of certain terms
indicates the kind of influences that a person’s social
groups have on him or her. In research on illegal drug use,
for example, researchers typically refer to the subjects as
drug “abusers.” While one might argue that illegal drug
use is abuse, that sort of technical explanation would also
need to encompass other forms of abuse, such as abuse of
prescription medicines, misuse of over-the-counter drugs,
and possibly abuse of alcohol. In fact, most of these studies concentrate on “street” drugs, and the term abuse is
adopted normatively; researchers say abuse because it is
normal to think of drug use this way. In adopting this
technically imprecise term, researchers reproduce a value
system that defines their subjects in a particular way
prior to even entering the field. Reading this work, it is
more difficult to empathize with, or otherwise understand,
the research subjects. Yet, when we write about families,
teachers, police, veterans, or just about anyone else, we
do not burden them with demeaning labels. Other valueladen descriptives one might encounter include “unwed
mother,” “extremist,” and “illegal immigrant.”
More recently, and again following from feminist
researchers’ lead, my writing has begun to incorporate
the use of first person singular. In other words, I use the
word I. (More accurately, we use I, since this book has
two authors each of whom wrote this way, separately.)
Particularly when writing ethnographic reports, it began
to be apparent (to me) that using the first person singular was more direct. Rather than saying, “The researcher
began to recognize blah, blah, blah . . . .,” it seemed more
forthright to simply say, “I began to recognize . . . .” In this
manner, a researcher can take both ownership and responsibility for what is being stated. Furthermore, one’s writing
style becomes far less cumbersome and often eliminates
passive and convoluted sentences.
Maintaining the façade of neutrality prevents a
researcher from ever examining his or her own cultural
assumptions (Rubin & Rubin, 1995) or personal experiences. Subjective disclosures by researchers allow the
reader to better understand why a research area has been
selected, how it was studied, and by whom. If a nurse
studies cancer patients and explains that his or her selection of this topic resulted after a family member developed
the disease, this does not diminish the quality of the
research. It does, however, offer a keener insight about
who is doing the research and why. It may even provide
the reader with greater understanding about why certain
types of questions were investigated, while others were
not. We certainly would not accuse the researcher of
“taking sides” in such a study. Yet, when I undertook a
study of community organizing in response to HIV/AIDS,
I was routinely asked what my interest in the topic was,
as though the validity or reliability of the work would
depend on my biographical relation to it. In contrast, I am
134 Chapter 6
sometimes asked how I came to move from that area to my
present work on nationalism, but questions of that form
do not require me to provide a justification for my choices.
Nationalism is not a suspicious topic.
Similarly, when a researcher reveals that he or she
was tempted to, or did, intervene in the lives of his or
her subjects, the reader gets a different image of both the
researcher and the research. It is likely that anyone who
has ever undertaken drug research among children, at
the very least, has been tempted to try to convince some
child that using heroin or crack cocaine is not a good thing
to do. From a strictly positivist value-neutral position,
of course, one cannot do this. This activity is the work of
social workers and not social scientists. From a softer, more
humane perspective, however, it seems a reasonable activity along with the fieldwork. Having the researcher reveal
that he or she did try to intervene or even the inner battle
the researcher may have had resisting intervening is an
important piece of information. This information allows
the reader to better understand the true face of both the
researcher and the study results.
Finally, presenting subjective disclosures, or giving
voice to the researcher, provides insights into the world
of research for the reader. Rather than merely heaping results, findings, and even analysis upon the reader,
the researcher can share a small portion of the research
experience. Frequently, qualitative studies report in considerable detail the autobiographical motivations that led
investigators to conduct their research as they did. These
disclosures not only help to orient the reader to the
researcher’s perspective but also clearly articulate the
interests—what some might call biases—of the researcher.
It reminds readers that there is no “pure” research, and
that we take up the questions we do because of human
interests and concerns.
Certainly, there is something romantic and exciting
about the image of an ethnographer spending time with
potentially dangerous people in interesting, albeit grimy,
bars, gambling houses, various hidden erotic worlds
(see, e.g., Ferrell & Hamm, 1998; Lee, 2001; Tewksbury,
1995). Ethnography can be, as Lofland and Lofland (1984)
describe it, an “adventure.” Yet, it is also work; rigorous,
time consuming, and often boring, tedious work.
Many researchers study certain settings simply
because of their convenience or special ease of accessibility.
Later, they endeavor to justify their choice on the basis of
some grand ideal or spurious theoretical grounds (Punch,
1986). It is similar to a kind of verbal exchange that Harry
Wolcott uses at the beginning of his second chapter in his
book on ethnography (Wolcott, 2008, p. 15):
Where are you going to do
I don’t know yet.
What are you going to study?
That depends on where I go.
The logic here, I would hazard, is that some researchers
may have specific purpose in their research settings and the
explorations of certain groups, while others seem to kind of
float more like flotsam and jetsam, landing wherever they
may and then trying to figure out what they have.
What many of these researchers apparently fail to recognize is that everyday realities are heavily influenced by
human feelings, and the presentation of these feelings is
legitimate! One may choose a research setting or group to
research, then, for a number of both objective and/or subjective reasons; but regardless of the subjective emotional
feelings or objective intellectual or analytic motivations, all
The omission of the ethnographers’ feelings for and
about their research inevitably creates what Johnson (1975,
p. 145) described as “the fieldworker as an iron-willed,
steel-nerved, cunning Machiavellian manipulator of the
symbolic tools of everyday discourse.” Including some
indication of why researchers have undertaken a particular
project along with the methodological procedure provides
a means for making the research come alive, to become
interesting to the reading audience. Research is interesting,
as Lofland et al. (2006, p. 136) indicate, when the separation
of cognitive and emotional aspects of research is an attempt
to avoid distortion in the research; nonetheless, cognitions
are an integral aspect to meaning. Further, researchers tend
to separate these two elements for two reasons: First, it
tends to simplify the expository task, and, second, it is consistent with recent or rediscovered elements of reflectivity
by social scientists and recognition that emotion is a central
aspect to human life.
Unfortunately, in their attempt to objectify their
research efforts, many investigators ignore, omit, or conceal
their feelings as such emotions are not typically considered
capable of independent verification by others. Yet, it is
important to remember that overrationalized, highly objectified, nearly sterile methodological accounts of fieldwork
efforts are not complete descriptions of the research enterprise. Mentions of researchers’ personal feelings are not
wholly absent from the research literature, but they are still
6.9: Why It Works
outline the uniqueness of ethnography with
respect to other forms of research
Ethnography is great! Almost every other form of
research involves researchers bringing subjects into artificial settings, offices, labs, and so on, or asking subjects
to supply information about their lives in formats that
we have defined for our own use. Fieldwork brings the
researcher into the “natural habitat” of the study subjects.
It allows us to immerse ourselves in the environment in
which our research questions play out. And, while every
data-collection method provides information that we did
not previously have, ethnography is truly centered on us,
the researchers, learning from our experience in the field.
We can come away with a new perspective on our lives
and work, which is taught to us by the people we have
6.10: Why It Fails
6.10 Give potential causes behind the failure
of ethnographic field strategies
There are so many ways in which fieldwork can let us
down. First, we may spend time at a field site hoping to
observe actions and encounters of a particular kind, and
not find them. We might head out looking for a crowded
and contentious sports event hoping to see rival fans interact, only to find a quiet and unenthusiastic group watching an uneventful game with no great commitment. It’s
not as though we can schedule the fans to meet us there
and show us what they’ve got.
If our subject population may sometimes fail to fall
in line with our desires, other variables can be worse. You
might schedule a summer of attending outdoor rock festivals (for some legitimate reason) only to have the rainiest
summer in years cancel most of your events. You could
plan on immersing yourself in a candidate’s campaign for
local office only to see the candidate drop out after the first
negative poll. Bad luck happens.
At least in these cases, you know that your data is
lacking. But, what if you become associated with an unreliable guide. You may spend months collecting copious
amounts of data without ever realizing that people are
avoiding you or your guide, or hiding crucial topics from
Ethnographic Field Strategies 135
you because of the fear that you will share too much with
your guide. Such limitations are not necessarily visible
to the researcher. Furthermore, you might simply fail to
achieve a useful rapport with your subjects no matter who
has endorsed you. In such cases, you will never really
become an insider or gain the perspective of the other.
Finally, there is the march of time. Fieldwork research
can be a long, slow process of immersion. You might one
day have a great research question and a terrific field site
in which to study it, with easy access for you. You might
spend six months of a planned 10-month data-collection
phase working, visiting, and hanging out in your chosen
community. Then, suddenly, something happens in the
world that throws your question into a new and unintended light. You might be studying questions about
financial planning when suddenly the market crashes.
You could be examining the rise of a new political movement when unexpectedly someone tries to shoot one of
the movement’s lead figures. Or, you might be doing
something as simple as yet another drinking on campus
study when three popular students are hurt or killed in
a drunk driving accident. From that point onward, your
questions will have an entirely new meaning. Therefore,
the data collected after the incident cannot be combined
with the data collected before it. And that means, your
research project is over.
Of course, if you’re quick, and lucky, you can turn
your fieldwork study into a new project focused on the
impact of the incident in question. But that’s not exactly
the kind of plan B we can plan for in advance.
Trying iT OuT
Access the Facebook profiles of 30 people you know. Develop
a typology for these profiles. The typology can be based on any
criteria you find interesting or relevant, but look at the guidelines
for developing typologies first. Then identify the challenges you
faced in developing the typology. Ensure that no real identities are
shown when you report your findings.
Participatory Action Research
After studying this chapter, you should be able to:
7.1 Describe the three basic phases of the action
Contrast the role of the researcher in action
research settings vis-à-vis more traditional
Describe three distinct types of action
Explain how photovoice is used in
7.2 Identify how the researcher partners with
the research population to get the research
7.3 Explain why the research stakeholders
need to be involved in the data-collection
7.4 Describe the process of analyzing and
interpreting the information gathered in
7.5 Identify methods of sharing information
with research stakeholders.
7.10 Illustrate the action research framework.
7.11 Identify reasons behind the effectiveness
of the action research methodology.
7.12 Identify risk factors in participatory
research that may cause it to fail.
7.6 Differentiate between scenarios where action
research is applicable and where it is not.
Up to this point in the book, we have covered a lot of
ground about how you plan and carry out research projects. What we have not addressed is the larger goal
behind research: effecting change. As much fun as conducting research can be, it would be nice to imagine that
it makes a difference.
Let’s imagine that you have been called to assist a
neighborhood walk-in clinic that is interested in conducting an evaluation of its service-delivery system. Or, let us
assume that an office of juvenile probation is interested
in assessing its effectiveness at reintegrating its clients
into a secure and healthy life. The actual problems are not
known, so careful initial assessment on your part will be
necessary. You are aware that understanding the clients’
situations, needs, and responsibilities will emerge slowly
during the course of the project. Time, however, is limited,
so identifying some time-efficient research methods is
essential. As well, you have agreed with the sponsoring
agency that it is critical to include client-based perspectives in your study. It’s not enough to know whether the
agency is operating effectively. We have to know how well
it works for the people it serves or manages.
About now, you are probably thinking back to your
studies on research methods and perhaps to earlier
chapters in this book. What type of a research design will
permit you to examine a variety of yet undetermined
situational and conditionally based issues? At this point,
you really don’t have much more than a general idea
about the research. As Chapter 2 indicates, design is the
necessary place to begin, but how do you proceed? A trip
to the library to consult pertinent literature is helpful for
general and background information, but the literature
will not provide much insight about specific conditions
and situations facing the clients at the clinic you have
been asked to evaluate. There is, however, a methodological approach designed for such situations: participatory
The practice of action research has been a fairly common
mode of investigation in educational research, especially
among researchers interested in classroom teaching practices and teacher education (see, e.g., Bray, Lee, Smith, &
Yorks, 2000; Brown & Dowling, 1998; Burnaford, Fischer,
& Hobson, 2001; Calhoun, 1994; Hendericks, 2008; Kemmis
& McTaggart, 1988; Stringer, 2004, 2007a). Many sources
credit Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) with coining the term action
research in about 1934 (Mills, 2000). According to Lewin,
action research is a process that “gives credence to the
development of powers of reflective thought, discussion,
decision and action by ordinary people participating in
collective research on ‘private troubles’ that they have
in common” (Adelman, 1993, p. 8). In its present use,
action research is one of the few research approaches that
embrace principles of participation, reflections, empowerment, and emancipation of people and groups interested in improving their social situation or condition. The
essence of the practice is to involve the members of your
research setting in all stages of the research from formulating the questions to making sense of the results. We call
these people the stakeholders because they are the ones who
most have something at stake in whatever social system
we are evaluating.
Action research or participatory action research can
be defined as a kind of collective self-reflective enquiry
undertaken by participants in social relationship with
one another in order to improve some condition or situation with which they are involved. These participants
include both the researcher and those stakeholders normally referred to in nonaction research as the research
“subjects.” Thus, it is a highly collaborative, reflective,
experiential, and participatory mode of research in which
all individuals involved in the study, researcher and subjects alike, are deliberate and contributing actors in the
research enterprise (Gabel, 1995; Stringer & Dwyer, 2005;
Action research also shares certain goals and characteristics with public sociology, which has garnered many
adherents. And participatory action research has become
a more common methodological framework employed in
nursing research studies (e.g., Holter & Schwartz-Barcott,
1993; Jenkins et al., 2005; Polit & Beck, 2007; Stringer &
Genat, 2003) or other settings in which the subjects have a
clear and immediate stake in the findings.
Participatory Action Research 137
Action research has a wide range of applications in
classrooms, schools, hospitals, justice agencies, and community contexts. The following commonalities draw these
disciplines together in the conducting of action research:
• A highly rigorous, yet reflective or interpretive, approach to empirical research
• The active engagement of individuals traditionally
known as subjects as participants and contributors in
the research enterprise
• The integration of some practical outcomes related to
the actual lives of participants in this research project
• A spiraling of steps, each of which is composed of
some type of planning, action, and evaluation
Drawing on various traditions from which action
research originates, a number of assumptions or values
can be outlined. These include the following:
• The democratization of knowledge production and use
• Ethical fairness in the benefits of the knowledge generation process
• An ecological stance toward society and nature
• Appreciation of the capacity of humans to reflect,
learn, and change
• A commitment to positive social change
Akihiro Ogawa (2009), in his study of civil society
in Japan, for example, conducted interviews, participatory observation, and archival research within and among
Japanese nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in order to understand the goals, means, and limitations of these NPOs in
relation to national governmental policies. His underlying
interest, however, was in the idea of civil society in a contemporary democracy. Given this focus, Ogawa felt that
it was necessary to collaborate with his research subjects,
helping them to identify and solve the problems that he
was studying. “By underlying my research with public
interest anthropology, I become committed to the democratization of knowledge in research and practice,” he wrote.
“… My ultimate objectives as an anthropologist in doing
this type of research are to help empower ordinary people
and to forward the democratization of society by practicing
action-oriented social research” (Ogawa, 2009, p. 19).
Action research targets two primary tasks. First, it is
intended to uncover or produce information and knowledge that will be directly useful to a group of people
(through research, education, and sociopolitical action).
Second, it is meant to enlighten and empower the average
person in the group, motivating each individual to take up
and use the information gathered in the research (Johnson,
2008; Reason, 1994).