Ethnographic methods are well suited to the task of studying the ways in which human beings record, collect and share the stories of individuals. Ethnographic research is a qualitative method by which researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment. Ethnography was popularised by anthropology but is used across a wide range of social sciences. It is also suitable for the English as a foreign language classroom to initiate the discourse between cultures and individuals – a discourse that uses English as a means of communication.
Risks and assets of ethnographic research
In ethnographic research, the researcher is an observer who relies on a variety of instruments, such as interviews, artifact analysis, surveys and observation. These instruments aim to illustrate a holistic and systematic portrait of an individual or a group of individuals embedded within a larger cultural context. But the researcher can also be an active participant in this group. The line between the two can blur. Both the asset and risk of ethnographic research is its assumption that research can be a subjective endeavor.
Ethnographic research methods
The process of ethnographic research in the classroom is one in which students can follow a path of increasingly complex levels of interaction and inquiry with unfamiliar cultures.
- Artifact analysis allows students to get an idea of the value that certain objects, events or media hold in a culture.
- Document analysis not only decodes information, but it also determines the original purpose and target audience of select materials.
Since both artifact and document analysis rely on selecting, rather than producing, material, they suit initial stages of ethnographic fieldwork. In due course, students should be encouraged to interact directly with different cultures outside of the classroom.
- Fieldwork blends direct observation and participation. There are numerous events, festivals, spokespersons and museums that students can visit in person or online – a great deal of museums have digitized their collections or offer online walk-throughs.
Various tools for conducting fieldwork can be used here:
- Thick description which asks students to give an in-depth interpretation of the behavior of individuals while providing a detailed description of the surrounding context.
- Surveys using open-ended and/or closed-ended questions. Semi-structured interviews using previously prepared questions can be a useful start. Skype and Zoom (https://zoom.us/) allow video calls to be recorded.
- Photography, videography and audio recordings.
Such qualitative research may guide future quantitative research, or the opposite can occur. Statistics can provide quantitative evidence and it can guide future ethnographic research. More tools mean more varied sources and thus a more holistic and systematic portrait of the group being researched. Ultimately, the aim of ethnographic methods is to allow students to participate in and collaborate with unfamiliar cultures.
Exploring the Afrochella festival in Ghana
The EFL classroom should take the chance to explore and cooperate with cultures beyond the native English-speaking countries that are traditionally taught such as the US or the UK. The Afrochella festival in Ghana (https://afrochella.com/) is just one example of an event in a country that (also) communicates in English. Afrochella builds upon the successful model of the Californian Coachella festival, namely the integration of different cultural events within a music festival, such as fashion, social activism, food and art. The task for the students is to design a promotional flyer for the festival that makes readers interested in West African culture and way(s) of life (worksheet 1).
Creating research questions
To prepare, students need to find out about the festival and collect as many details as possible. So as a first step...
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