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Is Ethnography a Suitable method for Research on Residential Satisfaction and Community Participation

Ethnography within its wider field of research is described as the study of people’s behaviour in terms of social contexts, with emphasis on interaction in everyday situations (Lindsay, 1997). It is further defined as research that constitutes the art and science of describing a group or culture (Fetterman, 1989).

However, the specific definition that will be used throughout this work, is that of its role within qualitative research, which is summarised by Wainwright (1997) in his paper in The Qualitative Report, stating that ethnography can be distinguished as: … he attempt to obtain an in-depth understanding of the meanings and ‘definitions of the situation’ presented by informants, rather than the quantitative ‘measurement’ of their characteristics or behaviour’; pp1. The technique of ethnography is a holistic approach, in order to achieve a complete and comprehensive picture of a social group (Fetterman, 1989).

There are two main techniques within ethnography, that is firstly, interviews, and secondly, observational methods of participant and non-participant forms (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984; Hammersley, 1990; Lindsay, 1997; Wainwright, 1997). This discussion aims to analyse ethnography as a method of qualitative research and discuss its usefulness in a research question based around residential satisfaction and community participation.

This will be achieved by analysing the main advantages and disadvantages of both methods of ethnography; that of interviews and observation techniques, with a holistic approach. Hereafter, assessment of the direct usefulness of the method relating explicitly to the two research variables of residential satisfaction and community participation. An overall critique summary and conclusion will follow this, on ethnography’s context and suitability in such a study. The first form of ethnographic research is interviews.

These are where a respondent is asked a number of questions by the interviewer, and the interviewer records the answers. Interviews can be of the in depth conversational type, which are like guided conversations, where the interviewer converses with the respondent; or the second type, which is a semi-structured interview in a format similar to an oral questionnaire. There is also a immense range of varying techniques within both of these forms, an example being closed or open ended questions (Lindsay, 1997; Wainwright, 1997).

When comparing the advantages of interviews with the method of observational research, it is obvious that interviews are far cheaper and much faster in generating data, being able to be completed in an hour or so. Hence, respondent numbers are usually higher than a research based upon observational techniques (Haralambos, 1986). Interviews also have the advantage of enabling the interviewer to examine quite complex issues, in a great depth of understanding as the interviewer is actually asking the respondent and receiving specific answers.

Answers are available to compare with the interviewers personal observations, rather than just having simply observations (Hammersley, 1990; Hammersley, 1992). The main disadvantages of interviews is the problem of ‘interviewer bias’ where the interviewer influences and directs the answer given by the respondent by his presence, or inadequate interviewing skills, in the fact that particular answers may be expected and this may transmit to the respondent and influence his or her reply (Haralambos, 1986; Lindsay, 1997).

Additionally, difficulties also arise from the effect that discussions are artificial situations, especially when comparing this method with observational techniques. Respondents frequently tell researchers what they think they want to hear, and also what might be more acceptable than what actually goes on or is true (Lindsay, 1997). Another disadvantage of interviews as a technique of ethnography are that they tend to be a relatively expensive.

However, this cost may be far lower than observational studies, especially those of more involved participant observation. The second major technique in ethnography are observational methods of research originate from social researchers views that to fully understand and comprehend social activities and groups, it is necessary to join them, and see things from within. Researchers using this technique tend to place less on stricter scientific methods and statistics and more on their own personal observations.

The two approaches are participant observation, and non-participant observation (Lindsay, 1997; Wainwright, 1997). Participant observation is one aspect of observational ethnography. As the traditional method of field anthropology, participant observation is where the researcher has access to a community and spends time living within it, joining the group as a full member, participating in activities and is accepted by the group (Lindsay, 1997). The second form of observational qualitative research is non-participant observation.

This is where the observer does not infiltrate the group itself, or join in with group activities, but watches their behaviour, by various means such as following the group around, and asking them questions. A technique frequently used within this research is film, photographic, audio or video methods for recording information (Lindsay, 1997). The benefits that observational studies have over interviews in general, are that they are particularly useful in gaining in depth information, below the surface of peoples answers, to the motives behind them, and why people actually behave they way they do.

Moreover, this type of research gives detailed information especially where the interviewer wants to grasp respondents experiences from a bottom-up approach, and it is a useful method in situations where interviews or questionnaires are deemed unsuitable, such as football matches (Lindsay, 1997). Nevertheless, participant and non-participant observational qualitative ethnographic researches have there own specific benefits and downfalls.

The advantages that participation observation has, is that as a group member, the observer is able to have deep contact with the group, as a confidante and hence enables a fuller understanding of motives behind group action or behaviour and a greater profundity of information generated, compared to surface answers that interviewing and non-participant observation generate (Fetterman, 1989; Wainwright, 1997). In terms of the disadvantages and difficulties that participant observation holds to qualitative research, is the very question of the role and objectivity of the observer within the group itself as a member, and observer.

As Lindsay (1997) summarises quite nicely: ‘It has always posed the greatest problems of intersubjectivity’; pp62. with any bias making the whole observation quite dubious. As Wainwright (1997) highlights, another bias of the observer, the group itself may be influenced by the very presence of the observer, thus altering their normal set of behaviour. Ethical questions arise more frequently with this form of research (Lindsay, 1997), and the community you are studying might put you yourself in ethical difficulties.

An example of this would be deviant or criminal behaviour, although it must be pointed out that even within interviews, respondents who are unclear about researchers roles, do inform researcher of criminal activity and this equally draws into question the researchers own morality and respondent confidentiality issues (Lindsay, 1997). Additionally, there is the difficulty of the lack of generated statistical information that is produced as a confirmation to the observers study.

A high level of commitment required for the research in comparison to other studies, as it is in the form of a longitudinal study, and therefore creates a very time consuming entity (Lindsay, 1997). Non participant observation has many similar advantages of participation observation. The main accretions for using non participant observational ethnographical techniques, are that groups who are difficult to study in any other technique may be considered by the researcher, for instance when it is undesirable to interact with individuals, non participant observation means this is not necessary.

Another benefit, is that the researcher exerts a minimal influence on the groups actions, and it is perceived that the results in being able to study a groups ‘normal’ behaviour, without any outside influences from the researcher ( Haralambos, 1986). However, other advantages are less significant than participant observation as the studies are not in so much detail. These forms the main disadvantages, in that results can be considered only superficially, as a consequence of the observer not joining group activities and therefore only getting the outside view, as it is all based upon observation.

Other downfalls, are that the method also lacks statistical support evidence for any outcomes of the research ( Haralambos, 1986; Wainwright, 1997). The various aspects for and against quantitative ethnographic research have now been discussed in a generalised sense, therefore the question that now follows is whether this form of research is valid for the specific variables of residential satisfaction and how it affects community participation.

However, the suitability of the method depends on several factors, namely the major determinants comprising the purpose of the research; who the data and information is required by; what scale is it applied to, and many other related aspects. The aims and objectives of the research study on residential satisfaction and community participation is to discover whether the prior has an effect on the latter, in short, does the extent of residential satisfaction have an impact or significance on the magnitude of community participation.

The focus group is a limited community of individuals who will be either questioned, observed, or both on the extent of how residentially satisfied they are, followed by further research on the extent that they participate towards their community (Lindsay, 1997). Undertaking such a study as this is rife with difficulties and questionable validity. Firstly, it is difficult to state a specific physical boundary in studies relating to community, as these will often be fuzzy, with no clear limits. Community is the whole psychology of a group, rather than just a place in the physical sense.

Haralambos, 1986; Lindsay, 1997). Ethnography, concerns studies at small scales, almost case study level. This is quite appropriate for studies regarding community, as although no physical boundaries exist, in general if you are talking about a communities based around a physical area, ignoring those such as the ‘gay community’ or ‘academic community’, the micro level that the research produces is quite suitable, as generalisations are not valid. This links with the detailed nature of ethnographic research as a close up view of the social unit (Fetterman, 1989).

An immediate union with ethnographic research and research based around community studies, is the in-depth nature of the interview and observation techniques. These are inherently important in such research studies, as no two communities are the same, they all possess differing factors that form a uniqueness. The ethnographer is often characterised by their ability to keep an open mind, and to note biases and preconceived notions about how people behave or what they think, just like any other researcher in any other fields.

The very notion of the choice of problem, the people to study, and where the geographical area is in itself biased, giving the researcher two possible options, to a ‘typical site’ or produce a multi-site study, or as some academics have suggested from everyday life experiences, where the researcher has literally found him or herself in a certain location to study a circumstance. However, the function of biases is both positive and negative (Fetterman, 1989; Wainwright, 1997).

Quantitative research also appears to be the most obvious form of community research, due to the nature of the variables of residential satisfaction and community participation. To attempt to quantify such a subjective pair of variables must be perceived as questionable, due to the inherent nature of ambiguity within studies concerning communities. An additional factor that effects the suitability of ethnography as a method to research the two specific variables regarding residential satisfaction and community participation are that ethnographic research methods relate directly to the rigor of the interviewer themselves.

Their gender, ethnicity, status characteristics, and even attitudes are all part of the research process, (Wainwright, 1997). Through looking at the main methods of ethnography and their advantages and disadvantages it is can be critically summarised that ethnography constitutes a very valid method of qualitative research, and despite its long list of downfalls and disadvantages, ethnography can produce extremely detailed results of localised studies.

It is particularly useful in reflecting people’s ideas, rather than generalised quantitative study for reflecting the wider picture or generalising on ideas. Ethnography is in-depth research, similar to case study material, and therefore if research on residential satisfaction was based around a small scale community, then the research would be appropriate. The main downfall of using ethnography is the questions that is poses regarding the validity of the research (Hammersley, 1990).

Nonetheless, its validity, from the last 10 years is becoming more accepted and stronger in academic and scientific circles (Wainwright, 1997). Notoriously, ethnographic research depends on a variety of factors. It is exceptionally broad in its nature and the main conclusive findings are the subjective, ambiguous nature to the study, means that there is no right or wrong answers in whether ethnography is valid, relevant or appropriate in a study relating to how residential satisfaction influences community participation.

Community studies and ethnography produces such a vast range of factors that must be considered, those of the purpose of the study; the scale of the community; type of community; the type of respondents relating to the status of the researcher; how the community itself is chosen in the first place, and a whole range of other inter-related questions.

As Hammersley (1992) resolves, it depends on the particular set of circumstances. Ethnography in its very nature is ambiguous and very subjective. It does hold some form of relevance in sociological studies, although still, scientists will always question its relevance due to its qualitative nature (Hammersley, 1992; Wainwright, 1997).

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