Can research be classified as an ethnography if it employs only an aspect of the ethnographic approach? For example immersion in a group but by multiple people, or observation of day to day experiences (but by subjects and not researchers), or virtual observation of day to day expereince rather than face to face observation?

I have recently been delving into ethnography as we are busy conceptualising the next phase of our research project and are keen to dig deeper into students psyche to find out more about the how and why of their technology use. What has interested me is how people have "expropriated" the term ethnography and adapted it. Strictly speaking ethnography is a description and interpretation of a cultural or social group or system. It involves prolonged observation of a group in which a researcher is immersed in the day to day lives of the people (Creswell 1998).

One fabulous example utilising a cultural anthropology approach to ethnography  to investigate cultural difference in the use of mobile technology comes from Genevieve Bell.   She’s a social anthropologist who works for Intel to inform the design of their products through better understanding of how people from different parts of the world actually use technology.

Also in a very traditionally ethnographic mould are Julie Angers and Krisanna Machtmes who report on an Ethnographic Case Study where they examined the beliefs and practices of 3 teachers integrating technology in their classrooms. The authors chose a case study method as they wanted to deliberately cover contextual conditions  and include not just observation but exploration of actions and events.

However the approach (and project) which has most captured my interest in all this reading is  Ethnographic Action Research which has been utilised in development projects by Jo Tacchi , Marcus Foth and Greg Hearn.  It aims to combine participatory techniques and ethnographic approach into an action research framework.  What they did was train a EAR researcher in each Centre (usually local people with no research background) . These researchers kept in contact with the main team through various social networking and communication tools and then used  ethnographic  techniques including self documentation mechanisms, interviews, observations to undertake the research.  What has also impressed me with these authors is the transparency of their research. Their Ethnographic Action Research training Handbook is online 

And then there is Digital Ethnography which I first came across when a colleague of ours Chris Jones from the Open University started using something called the Day Experience method to scaffold other quantitative and qualitative research he was doing on students access to and use of ICTs. It was originally adapted by Matthew Riddle who has also usefully released a resources kit  about the method. Interestingly neither Jones nor Riddle describe this has a ethnographic approach but a design anthropologist Tim Plowman and Davis Masten have proposed using the digital and wireless communication revolutions as platforms for rethinking ethnographic principles, methodologies, and analysis. Which brings me back to my original question. When is ethnography not an ethnography.  


Angers, J & Machtmes, K. (2005). An ethnographic case study of beliefs, context factors and practices of teachers integrating technology. The qualitative report 10:4 pp 771-794

Bell, G. (2006). The age of the thumb: A cultural reading of mobile technologies from Asia. Knowledge, technology and Policy 19: 2 pp 41-57

Masten, D & Plowman, T, (2003). Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience. Design management Journal 14:2 pp 75-81

Riddle, M and Arnold, M (2007). The day experience method: A resource kit.

Tacchi, J, Foth, M and Hearn, G. (2009). Action research practices and media for development. IJEDICT 5:2