Coinciding with the signposting in your textbook, here you will find a combination of links to selected external sites, downloadable documents featuring case studies and extra examples, as well as author-created group activities


Core characteristics of ethnographic research listed by Massey and Walford (1998)

Massey and Walford (1998) suggest that a study needs to contain seven core elements in order to be termed ‘ethnographic’:

  1. That it involves the study of a particular culture, or way of life made up of ‘certain values, practices, relationships and identifications’ (Massey and Walford, 1998: 5).
  2. It uses more than one method of data collection in order to generate different kinds of data.
  3. Iit involves a personal and ‘long-term’ engagement with the participants.
  4. It recognises the researcher as the primary source of data, and an integral and unavoidable feature of the research process, who needs to be continually reflexive.
  5. The accounts from the participants are given a high status, but as the researcher’s own constructed account has the highest authority there is an expectation that he/she will reveal the principles of selection that have led to particular statements and claims.
  6. There is an ongoing cycle where hypotheses and theories are modified in the light of further data and theoretical readings and interpretations.
  7. Finally, it has the intention to provide a set of understandings of a specific culture, people, or setting, rather than produce findings that can be generalised beyond the study itself.



Evans-Pritchard’s research about the Nuer.



An example of a study that has used ‘full’ participation

A good example of full participation in the research context comes from John Hockey’s study about the first-year training of British army recruits in the 1970s. Hockey joined up as a recruit and spent a year researching and living the life of a young army trainee (Hockey, 1986).

Hockey, J. (1986) Squaddies: Portrait of a Subculture. Exeter: Exeter University Press.

An article that discusses auto-ethnography in the field of education is from Walford:

Walford, G. (2004) ‘Finding the limits: auto-ethnography and being an Oxford University Proctor’, Qualitative Research, 4 (3): 403–17.

A classic example of covert participant observation comes from Humphreys’ study in the 1960s of impersonal sexual acts of homosexuals in public toilets. See Swain’s Chapter 5 on ethics for more examples of covert research.

Humphreys, L. (1970) Tearoom Trade: A Study of Homosexual Encounters in Public Places. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.



Examples of fieldnotes from Rebecca O’Connell and Jon Swain

From Rebecca O’Connell

This is an example of my fieldnotes, written up from the ‘scratch notes’ and ‘jottings’ made in my field diary.

In the first extract, the trainer is ‘educating’ childminders about ‘behaviour management’. The use of irony by the childminder in the second note indicates an awareness of a contradiction – between the official discourse and everyday practice; between what is said and what is done. Taken together, the two extracts illustrate a larger argument made in the thesis, that part of the so-called ‘professionalisation’ of childminders is about teaching and learning to use the ‘right’ vocabulary to speak to ‘authority’ (namely, Ofsted inspectors; O’Connell, 2011). I also like that I am present ‘in’ the second note and the importance of the researcher as catalyst for the expression of such reflections, rather than as a negative presence inflicting ‘observer effects’ on an otherwise ‘natural’ situation. The role of the fieldnote book itself – as a tool and a prop (or a prompt) in the research encounter – is also highlighted:

 Wendy [the trainer] asked about naughty chairs and time out. She said that it is ‘very popular with TV experts’ to have a ‘naughty place’. But she doesn’t agree with it because she thinks it can be humiliating – ‘it marks them out as a naughty child’. She recalled her own childhood and being made to stand in the corner of the classroom. Other people remembered similar experiences. ‘You sit on the naughty chair because you are being naughty.’ ‘Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate.’ Wendy thinks it is better to use ‘time out’ as a distraction – ‘you sit there till you feel better and until you want to join in the game. Why don’t you sit and play with the Lego – you’re too tired.’ [FN 07.03.05]

 T [hit someone] again. ‘No.’ Gill said. ‘Time out.’ And she sat him on a chair where he sat and yelled. She told him he can sit there till he thinks about what he’s done and is going to be nice to people. M [his playmate] stood and watched him and was about to go up when Gill said ‘No, M is not going to help you.’

Then she went over to him and sat at his level and said, ‘Are you going to hit people? Or are you going to be good?’ ‘OK then,’ and she told him to be good or else he’ll have to come back and sit on the ‘time out chair’.

[Gill] looked over to me with a wry smile and said, ‘Did you notice it’s a ‘time out chair’?’ And I laughed and so did she. I said I had ‘written that down’. [FN 23.11.04]

From Jon Swain

This is an example from my field diary (below), which is taken from observations made on a whole-school assembly at one of the schools I was using in my research. It is early on in my fieldwork and, like all observations, the page begins with a note of the time, date and context:

Highwoods Assembly, Monday morning, 9.25. (21.9.98) In gym. Whole school assembly [the only time in the week that the whole [of] the school comes together

I follow the class in. The entrance by the pupils is quite noisy, there is a lot of chatting. We’re the last class in. The teachers are already there, they sit at the front and down one side of the hall. On show, watching the pupils. Hall/gym looks rather old, made of wood, a bit dilapidated. The deputy head [Mr Hudson] stands up and gives three short claps. The children stop pretty much at once – almost instant control. The children sit in long rows with in their classes and age groups; youngest at the front, eldest in back row (as usual). All girls and all boys sit together in single sex groups – I can’t see any on their own. All in perfect uniform. Assembly taken by deputy head. Begins with sports reports. Teachers stand up, one at a time and deliver their reports. All men wear suits or jackets with ties. PE teachers are in tracksuits. In order, they go netball As, netball Bs, rugby As, rugby Bs, etc. There’s quite a few of them. The reports are often highly individualised, referring to pupils by name who have performed particularly well. (Themes of effort, individual/collective skill). The pupils seem to listen attentively. Very little fidgeting. Next, Mr M. reads out detention list for those who have conduct marks. It’s very public. About 8 names on it, one girl’s name. They have to see him after assembly. (Find out more about how system works, etc.) Next, Mr M. tells school about a wasps’ nest. Some boys have been playing with a wasps’ nest and one has been badly stung. They were in the wrong place (wrong time as well). Next, he tells them of a boy from another school who has been run over by a car and killed. Warns school about crossing road in the proper place. Gives warning that any pupil caught crossing road at the wrong place (i.e. not on the pelican crossing), will be banned from going over to senior school to play ‘fives’. Next, a short prayer. Pupils close eyes, some teachers as well (not me, obviously). It’s about thanking God for looking after me (pretty standard). Finally, there are a few messages from the teachers which they stand up and deliver. They’re about lunchtime/after-school clubs, choir, etc. Pupils are dismissed by their class. Year 8 are first. No music or singing. I follow my class out. Assembly has lasted about 20 minutes. Bell goes for first lesson as we leave.

Sometimes, further thoughts and/or interpretations can be triggered by entries into the field diary, and be written about retrospectively. For instance, I wrote a further analysis of the assemblies I saw in each school but did not have space to include this in the main text. The example below is about the first assembly I saw at another one of the three schools I used in my research:

Great emphasis is placed on the manner the pupils enter and leave the hall, and is again about how schools attempt to regulate and control embodiment and spatiality. The pupils enter and sit down quietly, waiting to be addressed with their eyes facing the front. Mrs Flowers homilies usually take the form of stories/discourses containing a moral message: most of the pupils seem to be engaged; there is little fidgeting but I cannot say the same for the teachers. When assembly is finished, the pupils are required to remain seated in their line until their class is given permission to stand and walk out quietly without talking.



An example of the PRA approach: Alison Clark, ‘Mosaic Approach’

The ‘Mosaic Approach’ to listening to young children was developed by Alison Clark and Peter Moss in the IoE’s Thomas Coram Research Unit. It is a participatory research approach, which aims to facilitate ‘knowledge production’, rather than being aimed at ‘knowledge gathering’ (Veale, 2005: 254). The widely disseminated approach, which has become a very important means of engaging with young children, draws on the ethnographic tools of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA; Chambers, 1994).

As introduced above, the PRA, which itself grew from Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) methods of applied anthropologists (e.g. Chambers, 1980) raises the status of both the methods of communicating and local knowledge held by members of a community.

RRA began and continues as a better way for outsiders to learn. In answering the question – whose knowledge counts? – it sought, and continues to seek, to enable outsiders to gain information and insight from local people and about local conditions, and to do this in a more cost-effective and timely manner.(Ibid., 1994: 957)

Whilst an RRA is intended for learning by outsiders, a PRA is intended to enable local people to conduct their own analysis, and often to plan and take action (ibid.: 958). The methods in this ethnographic toolkit include mapping and modelling, transect walks, matrix scoring, seasonal calendars, trend and change analysis, well-being and wealth ranking and grouping, and analytical diagramming. For example:

  • Participatory mapping and modelling: In which local people use the ground, floor or paper to make social, demographic, health, natural resource (soils, trees and forests, water resources, etc.), service and opportunity, or farm maps, or construct three-dimensional models of their land (Hahn, 1991; Mascarenhas and Kumar, 1991).
  • Transect walks: Walking with or by local people through an area, observing, asking, listening, discussing, identifying different zones, soils, land uses, vegetation, crops, livestock, local and introduced technologies, etc.; seeking problems, solutions and opportunities; and mapping and diagramming the zones, resources and findings (Mascarenhas, 1990); general types of transect walk include slope, combing and loop. A sea-bottom transect has been conducted in the Philippines (J. Mascarenhas, personal communication).

Early PRA applications included natural resources management, agriculture, poverty and social programs, and health and food security.

Alison Clark and Peter Moss adopted and adapted the PRA methods to consult with and learn from young children. Their project involved young children (age 3.5–5 years) and early years practitioners in the process of designing their early childhood space (a nursery) and Clark and Moss combined observation with other participatory methods with children. The methods included photography, tours, map making, interviews, model making, and a ‘magic carpet’ activity in which the children took a magic carpet journey to a different place to compare their own photographs with those of another nursery, far away (in Reggio Emilia). Each activity was analysed and codes related to design issues were identified. Comparisons across the different sets of data identified common themes that formed the basis for further discussions with architects, parents and practitioners. Four of the themes discussed were: personal markers, scale and perspective, visibility, and privacy.

One striking finding concerned children’s perspectives. Clark tells the story of how, initially, some adults had been sceptical about giving the young children cameras. Indeed, when the images were returned – many of them being of the ceiling, the sky and the floor – some saw this as evidence of the children’s lack of competence. However, discussion of the photographs and analysis alongside the other data revealed that the photographs were not accidental. Rather, they demonstrated a mundane truth that was previously obscure to the adults: by virtue of their smaller size, and being surrounded by adults, children are closer to the floor and spend a lot of time looking up. This revelation, one of the study’s many interesting findings, led the architects to place more emphasis on the floors and ceilings of the newly designed building:

In response to the photographs of the sky, ceiling and floor surfaces, the architects designed ‘island-like’ floor patterns, and a unique ceiling with a ‘Swiss cheese’ pattern and floating ‘clouds’ to mimic the sky. The architects worked closely with the engineers to create a special lighting scheme that enhanced the ceiling design (Clark, 2007: 16).

The Living Spaces study demonstrates the effectiveness of using methods from the ethnographic repertoire to make children’s lives more visible to architects. As one architect reported, ‘This process has allowed the architects to move beyond the preconceptions of children’s design (i.e. bright colours, spatial and functional organisation) to a new level of thinking about designing for children’ (Jennifer Singer, quoted in Clark, 2007: 39). Like ethnography more broadly, there is an emphasis on the ‘emic’, or insider perspective, and a concern to understand the ‘native’s point of view’, in this case supported by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which was ratified by the UK in 1991. The Mosaic Approach has been widely disseminated and is now regularly used in consulting with children about matters that affect them.



Website of the Association of Social Anthropologists:



Insider research

Link to Karen O’Reilly’s study:




Longitudinal research

Link to John Bynner’s study: