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Module 1: Research Surrounding Ethnography

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Ethnographic Case Studies

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So far, in this module, we have been discussing the various questions that we should consider
as we design our research. Let us now bring in examples of some research projects, and how
they addressed some of these questions. The first of our questions was about the nature of
knowledge that we are seeking. We know that in order to articulate this, we need to define a
research question.
Our first example focuses on the research question framed by a design team working on a
healthcare project. This process helped them understand the nature of the problem their
design was trying to address.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:46)

The state of Bihar has a vast and dense network of public health centres. The government
employs many healthcare workers who go from village to village, administering vaccines to
new-born children and pregnant women. However, the frequency and regularity of
vaccination is low, and many people do not get their regular dosage of vaccines. An
international NGO working on improving healthcare services in developing countries wanted
to work on this problem.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:20)

They approached a design consulting firm based in New Delhi, the Center for Knowledge
Societies or CKS, and asked them to design interventions for improving vaccination services
in the state. Let us pause a moment to reflect on the nature of this problem.

(Refer Slide Time: 01:39)

In your opinion, what is the challenge that the team at CKS has to address? Select an
answer from the options on the screen.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:05)

Let us discuss your answers. Some of you may have selected option a). This may or may not
be correct. We cannot tell unless we actually look into the matter. The same is true for option
b). There may be sufficient healthcare services in the state, but people may not be accessing
them for reasons we are unaware of. Some of you might have selected option c).
It is true that the frequency of vaccinations is low. That is the problem that the NGO wanted
to address. But this is only a symptom of the problem. What causes low frequency of
vaccination when there are enough vaccines and a large network of healthcare services? This

is the questions that the designers and researchers at CKS had to address.
The team at CKS realised that the brief they had been given was too vast and vague for them
to address directly or effectively. So they carried out some groundwork.
They began by reading up on vaccination in poorer districts of India. They interviewed
experts in public healthcare and maternal and child health. They visited rural and peri-urban
public healthcare centres from where public vaccination drives are managed and deployed.
They conducted observations and interviews with ground-level healthcare workers to
understand the scenarios in which they work. All of these inputs helped them to understand
the nature of the problem. And thus, they were able to go beyond the brief they had been
(Refer Slide Time: 03:55)

The research question they came up with was, "where are the missing children?" which
translated into "where are the children who are not being vaccinated?"

(Refer Slide Time: 4:02)

This question was broken down by the team into a set of sub-questions.And by exploring
these sub-questions, the team was able to understand the causes and the factors, that is, the
'why's and the 'how's of low vaccination rates in the state.
And this study led them to design interventions that addressed the causes of low
immunisation.
For those of you who might be interested in learning more about the research and design
process that the team followed, and the interventions that they designed, you can access their
report here. And as always, there is a quiz to help you revise and reflect on what you learnt.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:53)

Let us move ahead now, to another aspect of designing our research. One of the questions we
had posed to ourselves was: how do we know if ethnography is the method we need for our
study? Let us take two examples here, each from application-focused fields: design and brand
strategy. In the first example, a designer decides to use ethnography as part of a toy design
project.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:11)

Designer Neha Parekh was given a brief to design a low-cost toy that would appeal to lower-
middle-class and middle-class children of primary school age, living in cities. As you can see,

this brief does not suggest very much! Neha decided to redefine the brief.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:30)

She started with expanding the focus of her study, from looking at toys, to explore, all 'play-

like activities' among children. Before she got down to designing, she wanted to understand
what playing means to children.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:46)

What are the multiple ways in which children play?
How do they invent play-like activities?
In what all ways do they enjoy playing? As you can tell, her questions revolved around an
activity and the perceptions associated with that activity
(Refer Slide Time: 06:03)

You may recall that these are two of the areas where an ethnographic study is most suitable.
Moreover, it was important for Neha to investigate the subject of play by observing it as it

happened. And so, she chose ethnography as her primary research method.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:23)

She and her team spent time with children in their homes, and in playgrounds. They observed
them as they played games, invented new ones, and interacted with playmates. The
ethnographic method enabled her to carry out observations of the activity of 'play', and these
observations fed into her understanding of the activity, its many aspects, and the meanings it
held for children. This helped her identify aspects of playing that she might not have
otherwise thought of.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:55)

Such as, the role of play in building relationships among children, and between children and
adults; the many ways in which children used their bodies and imaginations to create fun
situations; and the desire of parents for toys and games to be educational for their child.
These insights eventually led her and her team to design several new games and toys.The
second example towards this question is from the field of brand strategy.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:28)

Satish Krishnamurthy, a brand strategist at Sideways Consulting, was asked to come up with
a branding and marketing strategy for a new fin-tech app that would allow small shop owners
to accept cashless and card-less payments from their customers. While the question itself was
quite pointed, it required him to understand a rather large set of activities.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:52)

He needed to understand the various kinds of financial transactions that take place in different
kinds of small retail shops. This was quite a huge range of transactions to understand. And
given that personalised fin-tech apps are relatively new, there wasn't much existing research
that he could fall back on. Without the support of existing research, he would have to learn
for himself, through on-ground engagements and observation. So he chose ethnography as the
research method. Let us pause here a moment.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:32)

You might remember, we had listed out four broad areas that are suitable for exploration
through ethnography. In choosing ethnography, Satish would be exploring one of these. Was
Satish's research about any of these four areas? If yes, which ones?
(Refer Slide Time: 09:00)

Some of you might have said that none of these areas necessarily falls in the domain of
Satish's brief. Others may have selected option c). But the brief given to Satish is all about
financial activities.
What is the social activity here? Some of you have selected option b). But does Satish need to
focus on interactions between shop owners and their customers?
Well, options b) and c) are correct. Let us understand how. Satish's research is about the
financial activities of people in retail stores. He needs to understand what kinds of
transactions take place at these shops, and, what is the nature of those transactions. Using
ethnographic methods, he can observe these activities. And importantly, buying and selling is
as much a social activity as it is a financial one.
A lot of what happens in a shop is social. People exchange greetings, ask questions to each
other. Shopkeepers often advise customers and influence their buying decisions. And there is
bargaining and haggling too. All of these are social activities and interactions. And they can
be observed closely by using ethnographic methods.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:20)

And did some of you select option a)? Is this a situation where Satish is trying to understand
people's perception of monetary transactions in a shop? Let us see. By using ethnography,
Satish was able to observe transactions at the shops, in the context in which they were carried
out. He followed up these observations with interviews with shopkeepers and attendants.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:45)

This helped him make sense of the shopkeepers' business and their relationships with their
customers. He was able to understand what they thought of as a profitable and efficient
transaction. And what kinds of transactions were unprofitable for them. In short, he learnt of
the shopkeepers' perceptions of their customers, their transactions, and their business.
So yes, this was a study where the researcher attempted to understand people's perception of
phenomena they were involved in. And so, ethnography was the correct choice here. All of
these insights and learnings fed into the strategy he finally designed for the fin-tech company.
He outlined kinds of businesses and shops the app should cater to, and what existing
challenges it should try to address.
We hope that these examples give a fair idea of how we may articulate our research question,
and where we may use ethnography as our research method. In our next section, we will take
some more examples, addressing other questions on our list.
We move ahead to another set of case studies, the question that this address is that of Existing
Knowledge.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:13)

How can we bring existing knowledge into our research? And how does this enrich our research
design and fieldwork? Let us refer to an example we used before- that of CKS.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:27)

The team had started with a brief to address low rates of immunisation among young children, in
Bihar.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:35)

This brief referred to many subjects: rural healthcare, immunisation, perceptions of health and
illness, childhood illnesses, and infant mortality. The designers and researchers working on the
project had to plan their secondary research to make sure they were efficient while doing justice
to the task. So they carefully designed the kind of material they needed to study.

(Refer Slide Time: 01:01)

They referred to qualitative and quantitative studies on development indices in different parts of
the country. From there, they learnt about the nature and spread of illnesses among infants and
children. This informed them about the problem they were supposed to address. They referred to
reports that described ongoing interventions in policy and design of healthcare services. From
these reports, they were able to foresee some of the challenges that they might face. And also
learnt of important principles that others had followed in addressing similar briefs.
This proved valuable in designing their project. Some of these reports they referred to were about
projects that had used alternative medicine, or community systems, to improve the health of rural
populations. Ideas such as these broadened the team's understanding of what may be possible in
their own project. In this manner, before going for fieldwork, the team was equipped with
considerable knowledge.
And this helped them frame their research question, design their fieldwork, and articulate the
objectives of their design intervention. Their readings had alerted them on what to observe on
field. And their improved understanding of ground-level situations helped them have more
relevant conversations with their participants.
Let us take one more example. A design student interned with an NGO that ran rescue and
rehabilitation programs and shelters for children living on the street. Each of these programs and

shelters had an open door policy which meant that children could come and go as they pleased.
However, the organisation wanted children to stay at the shelter for longer. This way, they could
be better cared for, kept safe from some of the dangers of the street, and eventually be motivated
to enrol into schools.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:04)

The task of the design student was to learn if there could be a more effective way of engaging
with the children, that would make them stay on in the shelter, and to help design the interactions
between the organisation and the children. The subject was new to the student. She began
fieldwork without doing her secondary research. She did not build sufficient background
knowledge on the subject.
As a result, she entered the field with many assumptions, several of them unacknowledged. She
assumed that since material care like medicines, food, shelter was being provided by the NGO,
then those who needed it would come to access it on their own. She was surprised to observe that
often, children who needed medical care would refuse the healthcare services offered at the
shelter. Or that children often chose to forage for food on the streets or the railway platform,
rather than come to the shelter.

(Refer Slide Time: 04:03)

Let's pause and think for a moment. What mistake was she making in her understanding of her
participants and context? It is quite obvious that she made a mistake in skipping the literature
review or secondary research. But how did this error affect her understanding of the children and
their relationship with the NGO? It is likely that the notions she went with were relevant to her
context. But not in the context of her participants.
She had not familiarised herself sufficiently with the psychological and social context of the
'street' and the people who live there. So she was unprepared for the behaviours and choices, she
saw her participants making. The difficulty she faced in comprehending the behaviour of her
participants had a strong impact on her work. It led her to question the very purpose of the
NGO's operations and her own project.
She wondered if it was the manner of the childcare workers that kept the children away, even
though the organisation offered material care to them. It was then that she reverted to reading and
talking to people who were familiar with the subject. From these, she learned that children living
on the street have a very complex relationship with the very idea of care. Children living on the
street are often marginalised and ill-treated by adults from mainstream society.
This makes them apprehensive about accepting care from adults who do not belong to the
community of street-dwellers. This is because, in the child's view, these people are members of

the same society that mistreats them. This shift in her understanding came from secondary
research. And it led her to shift the very focus of her project.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:56)

Her project now became about designing activities that could facilitate fun, equality and sharing
between children and child care workers. Each of these examples show the value of secondary
research. Bringing existing knowledge to bear upon the design of our study can help us better
understand our participants, their perceptions and their context.
In the case of design projects, it can help us define the purpose and scope of our interventions. In
the next section, we will discuss some examples that show us how we may plan our primary
research.The examples in this section refer to an important - and exciting - question on our list. This
question is most relevant to how we plan our fieldwork: what people, locations and activities to
engage with, and what tools and methods to use. You might remember that there are two aspects
to this question.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:26)

The first one is: Who are our participants, and what are the activities and sites of our
research?
(Refer Slide Time: 00:36)

For this, let us return to Neha Parekh's project on designing a low-cost toy for children.

We learnt earlier how and why Neha settled on the ethnographic approach for research into play
and play-like activities. In designing her research she chose to look at the various locations
outside of schools where children carried out such activities
(Refer Slide Time: 00:58)

This brought within her ambit, homes, playgrounds, common areas such as corridors and
stairwells in apartment buildings, and neighbourhood parking lots.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:08)

And, who do you think were the participants in her research? Think for a minute and note
down your answers. All of you may have guessed that the children playing in these places
became the participants of her research. But those of you who recalled our earlier discussion on
the diversity of participant groups may have a more detailed answer.
Let us have an overview of Neha's various participant groups. Check how many of these you
thought of. Besides the children, Neha's participants included people who were influencers and
collaborators in playing. These were the playmates of her primary participants - friends from
school, tuition and neighbourhoods.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:50)

Among playmates, she also included adults -like parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles,
neighbours, and so on. And older children who some of the kids looked up to. Neha also included
in her research people who might not play with the children but who either supported or inhibited
the children's play.

(Refer Slide Time: 02:11)

So she interviewed the children's primary caretakers - mothers, fathers, grandparents and other
adults. Each of them shared their observations with her. I hope you thought of these different sets
of people as participants in a toy design project. Now reflect on this again and ask yourselves
why these various people may be considered as participants in a study and how does it help the
researcher?
By speaking to these people and observing these spaces, Neha identified particular times of the
day, which were interesting with respect to children's play patterns. (Refer Slide Time: 02:49)

These included the hours after school and before dinner. And during school vacations, the
afternoon time, when adults rested and children were restless. These places, people, activities and
times defined the design of Neha's primary research.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:10)

We see that there were many diverse locations, ranging from the intimate to the public, that
formed the context of this research. There was also a great diversity in her participant groups.
Her brief had been to design for primary school-age children from the urban middle class.
However, she was aware that this was not a homogenous group.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:34)

She wanted to understand the differences in play patterns among children of different genders,
ages, economic classes, and with different family compositions.
Some of her participants lived with grandparents and parents. Some were single children living
only with their parents. Others were surrounded by siblings and cousins. Children of different
age groups revealed different patterns of play and choices of games - both made up and bought
from a store. (Refer Slide Time: 04:03)

Children from different genders often chose games that were specific to their genders. And just
as often, they also broke out of those choices to play games that were traditionally considered
unsuitable for them. Children living within large families were influenced by several different
adults - their parents, grandparents, and older siblings. And children who did not have siblings
often sought others to join in their games. This resulted in elders or children from the
neighbourhood becoming their playmates.

(Refer Slide Time: 04:37)

And so, in looking at a diverse range of participants and locations, Neha learned about the many
different ways in which children understood and invented 'play'.
She learnt of the wide range of factors that matter to children in 'making play', and how they
access play and enjoyment in different situations. There is one other kind of diversity that we
need to talk about. We had talked about the importance of looking at the same site or location
across different times of the day. Often a space changes drastically as the day progresses. We find
such an example in several cities in India India but let's go to Ahmedabad and look at Rani no
Hajiro, a locality in the old city.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:17)

During the day, it is a bustling jewellery market and also a parking lot.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:33)

In the night, after the market closes, the space transforms. The closed shutters of the jewellery
shops become backdrops for street food stalls, and the parking lot transforms into open-air
eateries. It becomes a khau galli, a food court of sorts, with groups of people thronging the
various stalls for late-night food and revelry.
In this manner, one particular site may be many different sites. It may host a wide range of
people and activities and change meaning as its purpose changes. Neha's project and the
example of Rani no Hajiro, gives us an idea about how we may plan our fieldwork to learn from
a variety of people, places and activities.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:23)

Now we come to the second part of our question: how to learn from these people, sites and
activities? We had earlier spoken about the tools and methods we may use for learning from our
participants. Let us discuss a bit more about that. Our choices of tools and methods to observe
and record is based on a number of different factors ranging from the comfort of our participants
to the availability of time and resources for the study.
Among these parameters is the nature of information that we wish to access. Let us take an
example to show how different tools and methods can be used together to create rich and detailed
ethnographies. Say we are conducting a study of the economic conditions of small scale farmers.
We want to learn about the impact of changing economic policies on their lives and livelihoods.
We could learn from the farmers and farm workers by having conversations with them.
We could listen to them speaking about their ways of living, and about the changes that have
come about over the years. We learn from them through listening to heir narratives and observing
their expressions. Here, audio or video recording becomes a great way to ensure that we present
their narratives in their voices. Their words, the tone and sound of their voice, the phrases they
use, all of these may be recorded and represented using audio-visual tools.
To make these narratives more accessible for those who may not understand the language of our
participants, we can provide translations. In addition to spoken narratives, we could learn a lot by
observing the objects that make up their environment. Household objects and gadgets purchased

in times of prosperity tell the story of those times.
The changes in built structures indicate the changes in economic conditions and aspirations.
Similarly, farm equipment may tell the story of how farming activities have changed over time.
By using visual recording techniques such as photography, drawing, or video, we can present the
rich stories that these objects and environments tell.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:42)

Let us do a small activity here. Here are pictures from a kitchen in a household. The pictures tell
us something very particular about the household, and about the members of the house
(Refer Slide Time: 08:53)

Can you note down what you learn from these pictures about the people who use this kitchen?
(Refer Slide Time: 09:00)

? A little bit of background information may help: these are images from an ethnographic
research into kitchens and practices of cooking. The household is that of a middle class, urban,
nuclear family.
So, what did you learn from these images? Some of you might have noted the wide hatch that
connects the kitchen with the sitting room area. You might have guessed that it ensures
convenience and ease of serving food. That is certainly so. Another image is of a number of
vegetables, chopped, and stored in the fridge. You might guess that this is to make the task of
cooking easier and quicker. Again, to make the process more convenient. These answers are
certainly correct. But there is more here than meets the eye. Let us look at these images again.
The hatch in the image is much bigger than what is required for passing trays of food. Why does
it need to be so big? The researcher asked this question to Akhila, whose kitchen it was. She
explained that when she is preparing a meal for her family, or for guests, she ends us being stuck
inside the kitchen while people chat away in the sitting room. So, when remodelling their home,
she asked for the wall between the kitchen and sitting room to be opened up. Through this wide
hatch, she could freely interact with people while she cooked.
And the chopped vegetables have a similar purpose. Chopping vegetables can be the most
time-consuming part of cooking. And for someone who is cooking three meals a day, every day,
that takes up a lot of time. So, once or twice a week, she chops all the vegetables she might need

for all meals and stores them away. When she has to cook any meal, she can simply take out the
chopped vegetable, toss it in the pan, and have a meal ready in no time.
Akhila has designed her kitchen space and practices to minimise the time she spends in the
kitchen. This, of course, tells us about how efficiency and time are important for her. But it also
points to the tediousness of the task of daily cooking. This is not something we could have
understood if we hadn't experienced the space and seen her cooking practices. Nor would we
have understood it completely if we hadn't spoken to her.
Observation and interviews are both important in ethnographic research. Each adds a new layer
of understanding to our knowledge of our participants. Together these pieces of audio and visual
information can help us construct a richer understanding and a textured description of our
participants' lives. These were examples from different projects, showing us how we can plan
our fieldwork. One of the key factors, as you can tell, is diversity.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:57)

We learn from a diverse set of the people, places and activities. And we try to use a variety of
tools and methods.The greater the variety, the richer our research is likely to be. Having
identified who we want to learn from, we need to figure out how we may access them. Towards
this, we do some homework; we gather some knowledge of our participants' culture and society
before we approach them. We will share some examples of this in the next section.