Ethnographic Research

Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences.  Data are collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function. Ethnographers observe life as it happens instead of trying to manipulate it in a lab.  Because of the unpredictability of life, ethnographers often find is challenging to nail down their projects in a protocol for the Board to review.  Nevertheless, the Board needs a good explanation of a study in order to approve it.  Helping the Board to understand the parameters of the study, the situations in which the participants will be contacted and will participate, and the risks involved will allow them to approve studies where some flexibility is needed. 

Study Procedures

The following sections generalize typical situations in an ethnographic study. However, your study may not fit these models exactly, so please contact our staff if you have questions about what is appropriate, etc. The Board expects you to interact with your participants in a way that is natural, polite, and culturally appropriate. Discuss the cultural context and how that shapes your methodology, demonstrating that you are aware of your participants' particular needs and sensitive to the way that they navigate their world.  

Interviews and observations are common methods for data collection in an ethnographic study; please see Interviews and Observations for more information. 

Study Participants

As an ethnographer becomes integrated in a community, he or she will talk to many people in order to become familiar with their way of life and to refine the research ideas. Not everyone that an ethnographer interacts with is necessarily a participant in the research study. Participation depends on the type of information that is collected and how the data are recorded. If you are recording information that is specific to a person and about that person’s experiences and opinions, and if that information can be identified with a specific person(whether anonymous or not), that person becomes a participant in the study. For example, talking to an individual on the bus about general bus policies and atmosphere would not qualify the conversation as part of the human subjects aspect of your research.  Talking to that same individual about their specific experiences as a passenger on the bus and recording that information in your notes qualifies that individual as a participant in the study. Depending on whether you gather identifying information about the person and the potential to harm the person will determine what level of consent information you should provide and how it should be documented. Understanding when a person becomes a participant will help you to understand when you should obtain consent from that person or when an interaction can be defined as just a casual conversation. For specific examples of when a casual conversation becomes an interview, please see Interviews for more information.    


Ethnographers are often involved with their participants on a very intimate level and can collect sensitive data about them, thus it is important to recognize areas and situations that may be risky for participants and develop procedures for reducing risk. Participants in ethnographic studies may be at risk for legal, social, economic, psychological, and physical harms. A well-designed consent process can be an easy way to reduce risk in a study. For participants where consent has limitations (i.e. childrenprisoners, other vulnerable participants), additional requirements may be made in order to facilitate the consent process, such as providing a minor with an assent form and obtaining parental consent (though it may be necessary to modify this process so that it is culturally appropriate). Some participants may be highly sensitive to risk because of who they are and the situation in which they live and you may need to make additional accommodations for participants where the potential for harm is high. Often a participant’s potential for harm doesn’t end when your interaction is over; protecting the materials you collect will continue to protect your participants from harm. Loss of confidentiality is a risk that participants may face when participating in an ethnographic study; in some cases, participants may not be interested in keeping their information confidential but it is important to maintain a clear dialog with participants so that they understand the implications of sharing their data with you. Identifying the needs of your participants and modifying your approach in order to accommodate those needs will help to protect participants from incurring harm as a result of participating in your study.

Participant Recruitment

Before you include participants in your study, you will need to identify who is eligible to participate. Often in ethnographic studies it is important to integrate into the community and tap into the community’s network in order to identify potential participants. You may use word-of-mouth methods to reach your participants or more formal methods such as advertisements, flyers, emails, phone calls, etc (please include samples of your recruitment materials with your study). When you describe your procedures in your protocol, it is important to include information about how you will navigate the community you will study and access eligible participants.

The consent process begins as soon as you share information about the study, so it is important that when you contact participants, you are providing them with accurate information about participating in the study. Participants should know early on in the process that you are researcher and you are asking them to participate in a study, and you shouldn’t provide information that is misleading or inappropriately enticing. For further guidance on recruiting participants, see Participant Recruitment.

Modifying the Informed Consent Process for Ethnographic Studies

The consent process outlined in the Basic Consent section describes the baseline expectation for obtaining consent from participants, as described in the federal regulations. However, this scenario does not always fit every research study nor is it adequate for providing informed consent to all participants, and there is some flexibility in modifying the informed consent process. The Oral Consent section describes how to conduct an oral consent procedure, which modifies the consent procedure to accommodate participants where presenting a written consent form would be inappropriate. If you feel that it is necessary to provide your participants with a modified informed consent process, it is important that you provide a complete and accurate description of the process, and provide justification as to why the process is necessary and will provide the best informed consent opportunity for your participants. Including information about cultural norms, language issues, and other important factors will help the Board to understand your population and why it is necessary to approach the population in the manner in which you recommend. As you develop your procedure, it is important that you consider not only the informed consent meeting, but also the recruitment process and how you will document consent.