Ethnography and phenomenology

Ethnography and phenomenology both have roots in grounded theory. What aspects of the data collection and analysis procedures might prompt psychological researchers to act as Frost (2011) suggests and discount ethnography as a research approach? Why? [300 words, 3 References, 3 in text Citations. Strong academic scholarly writing required. No water down ESL writing]

See Attachment for material/note as well as: Frost, N. (2011). Qualitative research methods in psychology: Combining core approaches. McGraw-Hill Companies

PSY-850 Lecture 4

Read chapters 3 and 4.


Differentiate between ethnography and phenomenology.

Contrast data collection and analysis methods employed in ethnography and phenomenology.

Approaches to Qualitative Research: Ethnography and Phenomenology


Ethnographic studies are considered a special case of phenomenological study when the phenomenon observed is a specific culture (Geertz, 1973). Their use ranges from the study of remote primitive cultures by participant-observers to urban marketing studies of the nature of demand for products using focus groups.


The ethnographic approach studies the social interactions of a group to learn the mechanisms by which individuals develop understanding of their everyday life-world. This is the identification of the ways and means used to create dynamic social equilibrium in their group (Garfinkel, 1967). These ways and means enable group members to have fairly accurate expectations of others’ behavior and a basis for comprehending expected and unexpected behavior. The product of an ethnographic study is an explicit description of these ways and means.

With this knowledge, researchers can begin to understand how the group’s members make sense of the world in which they exist. If successful, it may be possible to determine what events (e.g., the immigration of foreigners or the gain of a new local industry) and conditions (e.g., prolonged drought or growth in incomes over a couple of decades) to which the group may adapt well and to what they may have difficulty adapting. Two key variables here are the expectation (from fully expected to unexpected) and the comprehensibility (from fully comprehensible to incomprehensible).

Thus, the idea of making sense of everyday life is decomposed into two properties (expectation and comprehensibility) that give a richer description of what ethnographers seek. This is an example of increasing the richness of a description, another goal of ethnographic studies (Geertz, 1973). Another example is a study of fire prevention strategies for the National Science Foundation, where Armstrong and Vaughn (1974) replaced housing stock (number of residential units) in New York City with average persons per unit and total population. The data from two sources instead of one were used, enriching the study by this same method of decomposition.

Increasing descriptive variables, where logical, is only one way of enriching a study. There is no simple or formulaic way to achieve richness, but Geertz (1973) provides excellent and detailed guidelines. Review of data, reconsideration of findings, discussions of meaning, or use of the Delphi procedure (Dalkey, 1969) can all be used. Delphis are not just for ethical review, but for study of any complex issue.

Denzin and Lincoln (2005) recommend certain actions of the ethnographer:

  1. Combine symbolic meanings with patterns of interaction.
  2. Observe the world from the point of view of the subject, while maintaining the distinction between everyday and scientific perceptions of reality.
  3. Link the group’s symbols and their meanings with their social relationships.
  4. Record all behavior.
  1. Focus on phases of process, change, and stability.
  2. Interpret behaviors through the lens of symbolic interactionism
  3. Use concepts that would avoid imprecise, ambiguous, or highly arguable explanations.

Regarding item 6 above, Herbert Blumer (1969) set out the three basic premises of the symbolic interaction perspective:

  • People base their actions on the meanings they give to the objects of those actions.
  • The meanings a person gives to objects originate in that person’s social interactions.
  • These meanings are interpreted and modified by the person through their actions on those objects.

Richardson (2000) gives criteria for evaluating an ethnographic study, which could be applied to any qualitative study:

  1. Substantive contribution to understanding of social life
  2. Aesthetic merit
  3. Reflexivity
  4. Emotional and intellectual impact
  5. Credible expression of a reality

Roots in Phenomenology

A review issue in the Journal of Consciousness Studies presents papers on the difficulties of understanding consciousness and the communication of direct experience (O’Hara & Scutt, 1995; Varela, 1996). It is that interpersonal communication which the ethnographer seeks to understand and summarize in ethnographic studies.

A new development in the phenomenology of psychology is the embodied cognition (EC) movement, which posits that the mind is inextricable from the entire body (Borghi & Cimatti, 2010;  Glenberg, Havas, Becker, & Rinck, 2005; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). This is a much broader association than the classic mind-body problem because it encompasses the entire body, not just the brain. The insights from the EC movement cue the researcher to pay attention to the entire set of participant actions, not just the words uttered: volume, intonation, accent, body language, affect, frequency of repetitive motions, and socio-physical setting.

Data Collection and Coding

The same methods for data collection used by other qualitative approaches are used in ethnographic research. Table 1 presents these methods. Technology now makes surreptitious recording of sound and video inexpensive and rapid. This may be highly unethical, though it can reduce intrusiveness greatly. In any case, the investigator must avoid misleading participants. This makes researcher reflexivity (Young, n.d.) essential to published reports as well as to the design and analysis of studies. For more detailed discussion of technique and considerations, see Beebe and Cummings (1995), Kwan-Gett (1995), and LeCompte and Goetz (1982).

Table 1

Types of Data Collection

Research type Data collection
Participant and non-participant observation Watching or being part of a social context
Semi-structured interviews Open and closed questions that cover identified topics
Unstructured interviews Open questions that enable a free development of conversation
Collected material Anything from artifacts to letters, books or reports


Note. Adapted from “Ethnographic data collection.” By D. Straker, 2012. Retrieved from


The ordinary language philosophy of John Searle (1975) is important to understanding others’ speech, particularly when more is meant than is said. Expectation and comprehensibility are factors in the communication of unspoken meanings. Spoken at a dinner table during a meal, “Where is the butter?” implies a desire to have the butter as well as to locate it. Sarcasm and irony are examples of meaning beyond the words spoken, as is much humor. Illocution (suggesting, warning, promising, or requesting) is an important dynamic in any language. One cannot understand the function of a statement if not aware of and knowledgeable about illocution in that language.


Coding is the process of reducing textual information to variables and values, making the search for patterns and relationships easier (Atkinson & Hammersley, 2007; Gobo, 2008). Variables should be mutually exclusive, each representing something different than all the others. The values of each variable should be exhaustive; each possible level of a variable should be identified, even if a level does not appear in the sample texts. The coding process is often done iteratively; the more one learns, the better one may recognize coherent categories, variables, and values. When there are over a hundred respondents, a factor analysis of the codings may develop categories that are not accessible by unaided review, but are immediately recognizable once identified.


When coding, omissions can be as revealing as occurrences. One must consider whether the researcher is likely to clearly interpret a speaker’s intentions, or more likely to guess at unspoken intentions. The speaker or the investigator may also have a personal interest in the value of a particular variable. It is helpful to pay attention to these properties as the coding process unfolds. Here, reflexivity of the investigator becomes doubly important because it can influence interpretations of shades of meaning, among other things (Young, n.d.). Coding may improve if participants are included in the process.


Coding spoken and written language can be assisted by content analysis (Krippendorff & Bock, 2008; Stemler, 2001). Software for content analysis is cited in Hill (2008) and Romppel (2012). Of the software items mentioned in both sources, ATLAS.ti is one of the most widely used. Anyone intending to become an expert in ethnographic research must become competent at content analysis.


Basit (2003) considers manual versus electronic coding, while Johnson and Christenson (2007) discuss coding using rich samples of text collected during a real study. The general consensus is that if one has the time and money, electronic content analysis is a powerful and useful assistant in coding ethnographic data. However, it is never a replacement for iterative review of data and manual coding of findings by researchers.



Some knowledge of the related fields of ordinary language philosophy, content analysis, ethics and reflexivity, and symbolic interactionism are helpful to ethnographers. For a very large study with hundreds of respondents, the mathematical technique of factor analysis may identify patterns and relationships that cannot be detected by the unaided human mind.



Armstrong, P., & Vaughn, R. (1974). Fire research needs: Evaluation of intervention strategies. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.


Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice (3rd edition).London, England: Tavistock Publications.


Basit, T.N. (2003). Manual or electronic? The role of coding in qualitative data analysis. Educational Research, 45(2), 143-154.


Beebe, L.M., & Cummings, C.P. (1995). Natural speech act data versus written questionnaire data: How data collection method affects speech act performance. In Glass, S.M., & Neu, J. (Eds.), Speech acts across cultures. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter & Co.


Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Borghi, A. M, & Cimatti, F. (2010). Embodied cognition and beyond: Acting and sensing the body. Neuropsychologia, 48(3), 763-773.


Dalkey, N. C. (1969). The Delphi method: An experimental study of group opinion. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.


Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (2005). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.


Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Geertz, C. (1973). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays (pp. 3-30). New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.


Glenberg, A. M., Havas, D., Becker, R., & Rinck, M. (2005). Grounding language in bodily states: The case for emotion. In R. Zwaan and D. Pecher (Eds.), The grounding of cognition: The role of perception and action in memory, language, and thinking. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


Gobo, G. (2008). Doing ethnography. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.


Hill, K.G. (2008). Software for content analysis: Links to external sites. Retrieved from


Johnson, R.B., & Christensen, L. (2007). Educational research: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed approaches (3rd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.


Krippendorff, K., & Bock, M.A. (Eds.). (2008). The content analysis reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Kwan-Gett, T. (1995, November). Collecting ethnographic data: The ethnographic interview. Lecture presented at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle WA. Retrieved from


LeCompte, M.D., & Goetz, J.P. (1982). Ethnographic data collection in evaluation research. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 4(3),387-400.


O’Hara K., & Scutt T. (1995). There is no hard problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3(3), 290-302.


Richardson, L. (2000). Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), 253-255.


Romppel, M. (2012). Resources related to content analysis and text analysis: Qualitative analysis. Retrieved from


Searle, J. R. (1975). A taxonomy of illocutionary acts. In K. Günderson (Ed.), Language, mind, and knowledge (pp. 344-369). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.


Stemler, S. (2001). An overview of content analysis. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(17).