More than numbers: Ethnography or phenomenology?

What kind of qualitative researcher do you want to be? Going back to the previous blog, maybe you want to work on the research question ‘what is it like to be a teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy?’ Now, there are multiple ways to approach this question in qualitative research. Two of these approaches are ethnography and phenomenology.

Now phenomenology is a theoretical approach in which the researcher considers the individual’s experiences, perceptions and behaviours. The phenomenological researcher is most interested in the ‘lived experience’ of that individual – their experiences of their imagination, the outside world, and social interaction. They might chose to explore how an individual assigns meaning or interprets the things they experience. In our research question, they might think about the way a teenager with DMD thinks about the progression of their disease, or how their sense of personal identity changes over time.

Meanwhile, a contrasting view is in ethnography. Here, researchers consider that the individual does not exist alone, but is influenced by society and will, in some ways, be constrained by their position within that society. For example, the decisions that we make are, in a way, limited by what society has taught us is socially acceptable and therefore we would not even consider certain choices. These cultural values and assumptions of ‘normality’ are particularly important to the ethnographic researcher. Thus, our research question into DMD, might be shaped to consider the social roles and expectations of young men with DMD.

So, what does it matter whether you use phenomenology or ethnography? Well, not only does this shape the questions asked in the research, but also the way it is performed. If you are most interested in an individual’s account of an experience (phenomenology), you might use in-depth semi-structured interviews to obtain that information. Meanwhile, if you want to know about experiences within society, or cultural values, you might also use interviews but probably include very different questions. Or you might use a focus group to hear how a group of teenagers discuss the issue, or even use a period of observation, for example in school or on a respite holiday, to gain that data.

So you see, it is important before you start, to think about what kind of qualitative researcher you might be?*

*Disclaimer – you might be one kind of researcher for one piece of research and one kind of researcher for another…. Some might claim this is due to social influences…

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