Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Ethnography and Case Study: A Comparative Analysis

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Ethnography and Case Study: A Comparative Analysis

Article excerpt


The purpose of the present paper is to describe the unique characteristics of ethnographic and case study research. The central difference between ethnography and case study lies in the study's intention. Ethnography is inward looking, aiming to uncover the tacit knowledge of culture participants. Case study is outward looking, aiming to delineate the nature of phenomena through detailed investigation of individual cases and their contexts. Some practical and theoretical applications of case study research are described. The comparative analysis of ethnography and case study is developed with illustrative examples from education, psychology, and sociology.


A recurring theme of student questions in our graduate classes on qualitative research methodologies involves the differences between types of qualitative research. We describe ethnography, case study, narrative, phenomenology, and action research as qualitative frameworks that use common data collection methods but are distinguishable according to individual characteristics. Nevertheless, the distinction between these qualitative approaches is not so apparent. The most poorly understood term seems to be 'ethnography'. Ogbu, Sato and Kim (1997) attribute the confusion and the misuse of the term 'ethnography' to the sudden rise in the employment of ethnographic methods as a fad in educational research.

Regardless of the reason for the confusion, the most difficult distinction for our students is that between 'ethnography' and 'case study'. Ethnography centers on culture (but so can a case study); case studies investigate an instance of some phenomenon in depth, in order to shed light on the phenomenon (but some ethnographies seem to do this, too). In an ethnographic study, the researcher does in-depth investigation of a unit--be it a tribe, a street gang, or a classroom. In a case study, the researcher may study one individual, but the 'case' may also be a tribe, a street gang, a classroom, or a society. The terms ethnography and case study are used almost interchangeably in many social science research journals. Taft (1997), in fact, discusses ethnography as a case study method (p. 74).

In view of the confusion between these terms, we will attempt to explore the various aspects of ethnography and case study, to elaborate on their boundaries, and to offer a distinction between them.


Ethnography is defined concisely by Fetterman (1998) as "the art and science of describing a group or culture (p.1)." Goetz and LeCompte (1984) say that ethnographies are "analytic descriptions or reconstructions of intact cultural scenes and groups ... (that) recreate for the reader the shared beliefs, practices, artifacts, folk knowledge and behaviors of some group of people" (p.2). Ethnography describes the behaviors, values, beliefs, and practices of the participants in a given cultural setting. However, as Wolcott (1985) writes in his classic article on ethnographic intent, description is not enough to constitute ethnography because "Culture is not lying about, waiting patiently to be discovered; rather, it must be inferred from the words, and actions of members of the group under study ... (p. 192)." Ethnography involves cultural analysis. Analyzing a culture means not simply recounting behaviors and events, but inferring the cultural roles that guide behaviors and events. The intention of ethnography is to capture the everyday, the unwritten laws, conventions and customs that govern the behavior of persons and sub-groups within a culture. Patton (1990) sets a more ambitious challenge for ethnography. He claims that an ethnomethodologist needs to "elucidate what a complete stranger would have to learn to become a routinely functioning member of a group, a program, or a culture" (p. 74). In order to accomplish this goal, Patton argues, the researcher should not be satisfied with in-depth interviews and observations but should perform "ethnomethodological experiments" that "violate the scene" or purposely "shake up" the taken for granted behaviors in that culture, in order to illuminate the roles that lie beneath behavior. …

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