Community meeting, Oussouye, Senegal, December 2017 Image by Deborah Mindry


What methods do ethnographers use to gather qualitative data?

Anthropologists use a holistic approach to understand how social and cultural context shapes what is happening on the ground. As an anthropologist, I am committed to listening to and working with communities, vulnerable and marginalized groups, institutions, and organizations. My work frequently focuses on supporting and facilitating social change in culturally meaningful ways that can ensure sustainable and lasting change through community investment and engagement. I use a vast array of tools to help understand varied concerns and perspectives. Doing qualitative research is a process of exploration, learning, and engagement which requires that I adjust the questions I am asking and the methods I am using. It always entails engagement with the community/ies I am working with, continually testing what we think we know and resetting goals.  To do good ethnographic work and gather useful qualitative data you need to be flexible and creative.

I use a number of different strategies and tools to find out what we want to know, understand what is needed, and test out ways of making change. I begin with observing the group, community or organization of interest; seeing how it operates in the day to day. I look at the processes in place that facilitate smooth, and not so smooth, relationships and operations. At times I need to insert myself as a participant in some reasonable role in the community; asking questions of people to understand what I am observing; taking notes about the places, spaces, people and activities I meet and experience.

Community based participatory research is an invaluable means of engaging key stakeholders in researching and designing interventions. Locals can assist in gathering information using diary format to record what they see or hear. Mobile phones or iPads can also be useful tools in certain settings to take photographs, audio or video record, conduct surveys, and take notes.

Once I have a good sense of the environment, the people and the issues I work with the key stakeholders to devise focus group and/or individual interview guides to ask more focused questions and systematically gather relevant information. Analysis of this data can then be used to design survey instruments, mobile phone apps, and other interventions to facilitate meaningful and sustainable changes. Though I seek to understand insider perspectives, as an outsider I can bring creative new approaches to the problem at hand and facilitate the design of interventions that are both respectful of the social norms and are sustainable solutions to addressing entrenched problems.

The work is not complete here. It requires ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the new interventions to assess what is working and what needs to be adjusted and changed. We might find that certain people are being unintentionally marginalized and we have to work with them to ensure their inclusion. We are constantly learning as we engage in facilitating change.

It is exciting work that can be truly fulfilling when I work collaboratively with communities and organizations.