The ethnographic case study approach

by , July 23, 2008

Category: Infomediaries, News

Case study research is used when the research topic has to be defined broadly, the research needs to cover several variables and not just isolated ones, or the research has to rely on multiple sources of evidence. In the context of the Global Impact Study, it is useful to note that case studies of specific programs, projects, initiatives, or sites, have become integral to evaluation research to analyze the implementation processes and outcomes.

Unlike an approach that may disembody and obscure, the case study method includes the context as a major part of a study. Case studies can be as explanatory, exploratory, or descriptive. Explanatory case studies present data bearing on cause-and-effect relationships, exploratory case studies attempt to define the questions and hypotheses of a subsequent study, and descriptive case studies present complete descriptions of phenomena within their context.

The ethnographic approach

Studying a case poses challenges since it involves more variables than data points. Some approaches are more suitable than others. The choice of an approach will depend not only on the context but also on the research objective. Research approaches can also complement each other.

Ethnography literally means to “write (or represent) a culture.” Ethnographers look for patterns, describe local relationships (formal and informal), understandings and meanings (tacit and explicit), and try to make sense of a place and a case in relation to the entire social setting and all social relationships. They also contextualize these in wider contexts (e.g., the wider economy, government policies, etc.). While a full-fledged ethnography typically demands long-term engagement in the field, ethnographic case studies can be conducted over shorter spans of time to explore narrower fields of interest to help generate hypotheses. But the critical feature of ethnography — seeking to contextualize the problem in wider contexts — also extends to ethnographic case studies.

Data collection techniques in ethnographic case study research

Ethnography is an approach to research and not a specific data collection technique. It is a multiple technique approach — an ethnographer can adapt and use a mix of methods appropriate to a situation. Frequently, though, ethnographers rely on participant observation to gather data. As a participant observer, the ethnographer is socially and physically immersed in the case to accumulate local knowledge. Yet, in doing so, the ethnographer must be constantly self-critical and reflexive to ensure an analytical description and interpretation of the case.

Research and data collection takes the form of diverse experiences, encounters, relationships, observations, and conversations. This research approach does not allow for fully structured interviews. While the researcher broadly knows the issues to be answered, it is only as the conversations and interviews progress that the next question emerges. Thus, data is collected through “chains of conversations.” Similarly, the researcher begins by identifying key informants. Since the reliability and veracity of the key informants is crucial for the ethnography, every observation made by key informants is triangulated by ethnographers with inputs from others in order to assess accuracy. Talking to the key informants points the researcher to people who may provide further information.

In this way, the collection of data progresses through observations and chains of conversations and informants, and the emphasis on sampling is not adequacy in a statistical or numerical sense but in identifying events and people that contribute to the narrative. This narrative, however, can be subject to testing before it is accepted. In addition, the participants in the case study can be asked for their feedback on any research output so that factual errors may be corrected and differences of interpretation may be appended to the research report.

Using ethnographic case studies for the Global Impact Study

Ethnographic case studies that focus on the social context for information demand, and different uses of information in the three countries should be relevant. Since the goal of the research at this stage is to develop research questions and hypotheses, the case studies should be exploratory and descriptive.

Ethnographic case studies can be used along with other research approaches. For instance, the specific sites for case studies can be chosen on the basis of the census which should identify the different types of information access points (urban/rural, cybercafe/library/school etc.). This need not be a sequential activity — i.e. the case studies can proceed without having to wait for all the census details.

Ideally, ethnographic studies could be conducted at the half dozen locations where the information ecology approach is being deployed. Studying these locations should provide insights into the relationship between users (by age/gender, etc.), uses (commercial, personal, educational, etc.), physical settings (where is the information accessed in the location, where is it used) and activities (when is information accessed and in what situations is information needed) in different contexts. This can be undertaken with participant observation and unstructured interviews. Lest there be any misunderstanding, this activity is not meant to be exhaustive. The purpose is to use preliminary observations and notes from the various cases in each country to identify relationships which, in turn, help generate testable/answerable research hypotheses and questions.

A full-fledged ethnography is not required at this stage. That can be undertaken once the research questions are identified. The full-fledged ethnography can also be combined with other research approaches. For instance, if a controlled experiment is undertaken in a couple or more access centers in the next phase of the study, backing up the study with ethnography at the experimental sites will generate many valuable insights.

About the author

Balaji Parthasarathy is a co-Principal Investigator of the Infomediary in-depth study along with Ricardo Ramirez and Andy Gordon. He is also ICICI Associate Professor at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. His teaching and research interests focus on the relationship between technological innovation, economic globalization, and social change. Within this broad focus, his work follows two threads. One thread examines the impacts of public policies and firm strategies on the organization of production in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. Another thread deals with ICTs for development (ICTD). His research includes studies of e-governance projects in India, studies of ICT deployment to enhance agricultural productivity, and analyses of the institutional aspects of the globalization of electronic waste.

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3 Responses to “The ethnographic case study approach”

  1. Swastik Says:

    Thank you very much for the concise explanations.


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