A Guide to Conducting Ethnographic Research: A Review of Ethnography: Step-by-Step (3Rd Ed.) by David M. Fetterman

By Del Rio-Roberts, Maribel | The Qualitative Report, May 2010 | Go to article overview

A Guide to Conducting Ethnographic Research: A Review of Ethnography: Step-by-Step (3Rd Ed.) by David M. Fetterman


Del Rio-Roberts, Maribel, The Qualitative Report


Ethnography: Step-by-Step (3rd ed.) is a book that introduces novice researchers to the practice of ethnographic research. It provides an overview of ethnography, a discussion of methods and techniques utilized in the field, a guide to the use of ethnographic equipment, and basic tenets of the process of analyzing data. In addition, it provides important strategies for writing up the results and a valuable discussion of ethics. Key Words: Ethnography and Qualitative Research

In order to make qualitative research applicable to different fields of study, it is necessary to expose researchers to a variety of different methods available for conducting qualitative research. Ethnography is an approach that is particularly useful to anthropologists and sociologists. David Fetterman (2010) does a nice job in his book Ethnography: Step-by-Step (3rd ed.) of introducing the reader to the practice of ethnography and outlining the basic steps for novice researchers interested in ethnographic research.

Overall, Fetterman's (2010) writing style is clear and concise and engages the reader by making it easy for the reader to understand relatively dry material by incorporating vivid examples from his own work as well as the work of others in the field. In fact, one of the strengths of the text is Fetterman's illustration of the concepts throughout his discussion of the different aspects of ethnographic research and their applicability to your own research. Furthermore, the author includes inspirational quotes at the beginning of each chapter that I found quite enjoyable.

The first chapter of the book begins with an overview of ethnographic research and what type of research questions would be appropriate for this research approach, as well as the importance of having an underlying theory prior to beginning your ethnographic research. Subsequently, in Chapter 2 Fetterman (2010) goes on to discuss the major guiding principles in ethnography including culture, focus on holistic perspective, contextualization, the differences between the emic and etic perspectives, and the effects of inter-cultural and intra-cultural differences. In addition, he addresses the power of symbols and rituals, considering the appropriateness of a micro- or macrolevel focus, and the importance of operationalizing the conditions of the study. Fetterman emphasizes that ethnographic research with set time constraints set by funding agencies or groups are not truly ethnographic but rather simply using ethnographic techniques.

In order to appeal to the reader, Fetterman (2010) discusses the process of acquiring ethnographic knowledge and the cyclical steps involved in this process. I thoroughly enjoyed how the author related the ethnographic research cycle to the human life cycle, with each part of the research process linked to a stage in the human life cycle. For example, Fetterman correlates fieldwork to the stages of adolescence and adulthood; initially fieldwork is like adolescence for both the researcher and the project. Fetterman goes on to state that since the researcher must learn a new language, cultural information, and cultural practices, "this period is marked by tremendous excitement, frustration, and confusion. The ethnographer endures personal and professional turmoil as part of the learning experience" (p. 142).

I found Fetterman's (2010) description of the differences between survey questions and specific questions and the benefits and limitations of using each to be quite useful. He also makes a point to discuss the importance of silence in interviewing and how this process can also provide useful information when analyzed in its context. In his discussion of different data gathering techniques, I was surprised to learn that projective techniques are often used in ethnographic research. Although Fetterman cautions that information obtained via projective techniques should never stand alone, as a practicing clinical psychologist it concerns me that individuals that have not received adequate training on how to interpret these measures may be doing so inappropriately. …

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