Ethnographic Research

Illustration of a human kneeling down and taking a photo of a dolphin swimming above


A highly immersive approach that relies on individual researchers to interact with participants in their natural environment in order to understand cultural phenomena from their point of view. It usually involves long-term participant-observation, where researchers combine participating in activities with observing how participants carry them out and think and speak about them, to generate deep knowledge about people’s behaviors, beliefs, relationships and practices. It aims for holistic analysis that takes historical, geographical and political contexts, social norms, cultural conventions and individual and collective values and practices into account.

Ethnographic researchers often speak the local language and have an extensive knowledge of the research context. Within development, because of compressed time scales, ethnography can become rapid ethnography that focuses on in-depth key informant interviews and uses multiple observers and focus groups. It is also important to distinguish ethnography as an immersive method that can be used by other research approaches from ethnographic research as a distinct research approach informed by anthropological social theory.

Primary objective

This approach is especially useful for research that requires deep contextual knowledge, explores difficult or sensitive topics and/or engages with marginalized populations, where getting participants to speak openly is more difficult. This may be because a particular topic is a sensitive one, or because some behaviors don’t always match up to self-reports of those behaviors. The building of rapport and trust between researcher and participants is essential for this approach, and provides space for participants to reflect on the differences between what they do and what they say they do.


Primary value

Explore problems from the participants’ point of view, in the physical/cultural context in which they occur.

Design, implementation and evaluation

Low value

Probe participants' perspectives on proposed interventions

Medium value

Understand underlying contextual/cultural drivers and barriers for uptake of a particular intervention.

Adoption & scale

Low value

Explore future users' perspectives on intervention

Unique attributes

Strength in exploring little known problems from research participants’ points of view, with particular attention to usually marginalized groups and holistic study of contextual factors.

Biased towards rich knowledge generation through unsolicited research insights that emerge organically from mutual interactions, guided by research objectives and researchers’ prompts.

Aims to understand deeply through researchers sharing living, working and other practices with research participants to get an intimate, embodied understanding of their lives.