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How social scientists use ethnography

Updated Tuesday, 12th April 2011

Daniel Miller's work on Trinidadian viewers of a TV soap shows how social scientists can use ethnography.

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From his early work on ‘The Young and the Restless’, which examined the sense that was made of this US soap in Trinidad, a country very different from that in which it is set, Daniel Miller’s work has been ethnographic – a research approach that is rooted in anthropology.

Commonly understood as a reaction to positivism, ethnography is a qualitative approach that involves immersion of the researcher in the everyday life of the people and setting of study, over an extended period of time – maybe for a year, though increasingly ethnographic studies are conducted over much shorter time-spans.

Port Of Spain Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Lidian Neeleman | Dreamstime.com

It includes observation, semi-structured (open-ended) interviews and the collection of documents and other artefacts. Nowadays such rich and diverse research materials are commonly gathered together and analysed using a software package such as Nvivo – which allows the researcher to link data and allocate it to categories.

Whilst ethnography often involves elements of quantification (the frequency or regularity of the occurrence of a particular phenomenon), at its heart is the qualitative matter of understanding the significance or meaning that actors attach to dimensions of their social lives. It is a research approach that resembles closely how we make sense of the world in our everyday lives.

Rather than imposing the researcher’s pre-determined categories, as is the case with, for example, questionnaire surveys, ethnographers look at the world as social actors experience it, and reflect on what they are observing or participating in – a process that involves at the same time both empathy and distance.

Daniel Miller and his work

 

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