Ethnography is not a qualitative method

Eventually I hope to fashion into a post the notes I am collecting at the moment on whether or not the qual/quant/ mixed methods divide is itself a specific approach to research, rather than a valid way to describe the spectrum of social research. This post is just a few links and quotes that support my idea that ethnography cannot really* be described as a qualitative research method (and I am not just talking about work in cultural materialism).

Starting with Ingold’s speech, ‘Anthropology is not ethnography’ (2008) in. Proceedings of the British Academy 154:69-92.

“Nothing has been more damaging to ethnography than its representation under the guise of the ‘ethnographic method’. Of course, ethnography has its methods, but it is not a method. It is not, in other words, a set of formal procedural means designed to satisfy the ends of anthropological inquiry. It is a practice in its own right, a practice of verbal description.”

An interesting online resource about a project researching the online world does not buy into the idea that ethnography does not include numbers.

“Put in other words, the quality/quantity dichotomy often obscures legitimate concerns that researchers are drawn to designs that oversimplify social reality and take little notice of the sense and meaning of situations from the standpoint of the actor. Still, the idea of an interpretive social science that, where appropriate and with the necessary caution, also makes use of statistical methods, is not a novel one: even Max Weber (the father of systematic, interpretive methods in social sciences) advocated an epistemological approach where quantitative measurements were not excluded a-priori and where scientific explanation (Erklären) and interpretive understanding (Verstehen) could support each other [Weber, 1922].”

Some other online resources seem to take it as a defining feature of ethnography that it exists across the qualitative-quantitative spectrum.

“While particularly suited to exploratory research, ethnography draws on a wide range of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, moving from “learning” to “testing” (Agar, 1996) while research problems, perspectives, and theories emerge and shift. “

Hopefully before too long I will post some more serious references.

* Well, ‘really’ every discipline can make terms mean whatever they want as long as everybody understands you are talking about completely different things. However, the argument has been made that anthropologists are uniquely positioned to make use of ethnographic research methods.


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