When it comes to understanding the concept of ethnographic research, it is both clear and complex. It’s a qualitative method of understanding the social world—learning how societies and individuals operate through the analysis of interviews and observations—rather than a more quantitative (i.e. numbers) approach that relies more on sources such as demographic data.
While ethnographic research offers unique insights that a numeric data source cannot, it can also result in limitations. Therefore, let’s consider a few lessons from Nate Silver’s bestselling book, The Signal and the Noise, to better understand the challenges and opportunities posed by ethnographic research.
Who Is Conducting the Research?
One of the essential points that Silver makes throughout his book is that research is conducted by people, and they will impact findings at every stage of the game. This couldn’t be more applicable than it is in ethnographic research because the field is literally defined as people studying people.
A researcher can influence how a study is developed—who will be surveyed and what questions will be asked. Even how the questions will be asked can make a difference. The researcher’s background, from their personal history to their professional expertise, will influence what data they think is significant, how they interpret that significance, and so on.
That’s why it is crucial to choose researchers who are experts in their field—experts who can ensure that their agendas and personal preferences don’t interfere with what their clients need to accomplish.
Do You Have High-Quality Data?
Silver’s book’s title poses the crucial question: Is the data signal, i.e., useful, or is it noise—unhelpful distraction? For ethnographic research, whether it’s interviews or observations, consider if the data sources are trustworthy and representative of the population you want to analyze. One way to achieve this is by having a large enough sample size of participants that patterns in their response occur, revealing which are good exemplars or outliers.
What If You Have No Data?
If you’re researching a new issue or depending on the type of information you’re seeking, it may not be possible to have direct data. For example, in Silver’s book, he discussed how the U.S. Geological Society is trying to predict earthquakes, but there’s never been a successful prediction of earthquakes. What should researchers do going forward? In cases such as these, it’s essential to have a solid theory underpinning the work, so researchers can fill in the gaps with meaningful analysis while identifying the weakness of their conclusions.
Books like Silver’s can help you comprehend general issues of ethnographic surveys, but for a deeper dive into how to best understand your audience, contact the team members at Ebony Marketing Systems. We are experts at designing communication strategies and conducting research that reaches people in a new way. For more information, call us at (718)742-0006 or send us a message today.