The Role of the Ethnographic Researchers
In ethnographic research, researchers have a key place. In order to understand the daily life of a studied culture, researchers cannot carry out their research in laboratories or rely on proving assumptions, hypotheses or doctrine. They have to join the natural environment they are investigating, remain there for some time, establish participant observations, interview people who are part of the society, hold formal and informal conversations with them, and document most of that is said and observed (Alpert 2006; Genzuk 2003; Gordon et al. 2001; Shlasky and Alpert 2007).
As a first step, ethnographic researchers must get permission to access a society being studied so as to collect data in the most convenient and appropriate way possible. Researchers who enter the research arena encounter study subjects, their perceptions and understanding of the world, and they must possess social creativity. Researchers who come from a similar world of action and activities, who clearly see what is done and why, in cultures and society different to their own, will have easier access (Trahar 2009). They need to learn in advance about local culture and identify its views, opinions and perceptions in order to enter it smoothly and choose what is appropriate to the purpose of their research. They have to establish close and ongoing relationships with research population and learn from them their thoughts and world views, their place in society and the significance they attribute to their lives and what is going on around them. This task is not likely to be easy, as often research population are afraid of direct and unmediated communication with researchers during a study (Mutzafi-Haller 2012; Reeves et al. 2008).
Studies have shown that research population prefer to establish contacts with researchers who come from similar categories to themselves, and perceive those who resemble them with regard to their social identity as less threatening. Researchers who are perceived as unknown and different are viewed with suspicion by participants. Those who are seen as at least somewhat similar hold similar values and norms and their behaviour is somewhat like their own. As such, researchers’ belonging, their roles and place, are extremely important in ethnographic research (Harrington 2003; Heyl 2001). Researchers’ identity, origins and professional background are significant in social processes needed by the research, and researchers who come from similar professions or society are perceived as authoritative and reliable, able to listen, allow expression and better understand the relationships in which they are involved.
During research, researchers must maintain reliable and participatory relationships with research population, and prevent, as much as possible, any opposition or restraint on their part. They must carry out extensive documentation about what occurs and behaviours, a process that sometimes arouses suspicion and makes it more difficult for participants to cooperate. Therefore, their role is to recruit participants who will cooperate with and trust them, and to develop significant dialogue and interpersonal relationships with sensitivity, flexibility and care. Creating a healthy interaction such as this between subjects and researchers is gradual and takes time (Harrington 2003). However, researchers remain on the fence as external observers of events, who do not try to interfere with or influence events or change participants’ behaviours. Researchers must choose what they observe and what interests them, according to the aims of their research; to understand phenomena they witness without influencing them at all (Alpert 2006).
As it is difficult to predict events and happenings, researchers must take the unexpected into account, be flexible, patient and consistent in their work, in case data collection is disrupted by local events or social, political or other changes (Reeves et al. 2008).
Ethnographers gather their information using different research tools, such as observations, interviews, structured and informal conversations, document analysis and others (Gordon et al. 2001; Stemler 2001). Data is collected from a number of information sources and in a variety of ways, such as observing processes and interpersonal interactions, listening to what people say and discuss, examining phenomena, texts and customs as they happen, documenting interviews with participants, analysing documents, journal, photographs and certificates and examining objects and accessories (Genzuk 2003; Karnieli 2008; Shlasky and Alpert 2007).
Owing to the vast complexities of natural social life, Reeves et al. (2008) suggested a number of dimensions that ethnographers must consider in order to get a comprehensive collection of information:
Dimension examining where research took place: examination and detailed description of the physical space and place where research was carried out; Dimension examining participants/subjects: description of the range of people active in the surrounding and involved in the activities under investigation; Dimension examining activities: description and documentation of the activities that transpired during and at location of research;
Dimension examining objects: detailed descriptions of objects, physical elements found in the research space;
Dimension examining actions: description of individual actions performed by each and every participant;
Dimension examining occurrences: description of events and activities in which some of the participants are involved;
Dimension examining time: measure frequency and duration of happenings; Dimension examining aims: description and documentation of aims that participants stated they wished to achieve or reached successfully;
Dimension examining emotions: detailed description of emotions felt by participants as expressed by what they say and do (Reeves et al. 2008).
After research is carried out, the work of ethnographers focuses on developing conclusions emerging from the research and putting together reasons and explanations that led to them. To do this, ethnographers arrange findings according to their point of view and invite readers to see things as they analysed them, and their interpretations will refer to their world views and their credo (Sabar-Ben Yehoshua 2016). In the writing process, researchers present their interpretations through descriptions, summaries, quotes, arguments and theories. Simultaneously to summarizing a research process, researchers will describe what they themselves learned from what they saw taking place, heard from conversations with interviewees or others, and their experiences in the research field (Alpert 2016). Alpert (Ibid.) defined writing a research report as follows: writing moves on a continuum between personal discovery and public argument and is realized through narrative forms that consolidate into general arguments and critical theories.
The two principal ethnographic research tools are interviews and observations.