Ethnography Case Study Narrative Phenomenology Grounded Theory Essay

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Ethnography, case study, narrative, phenomenology, grounded theory


The qualitative research format of the ethnography began in the discipline of anthropology. Ethnography "is a long-term investigation of a group (often a culture) that is based on immersion and, optimally, participation in that group" (Ethnography, 2013, Colorado State University Writing Guides.). The researcher embraces his or her outsider perspective and contrasts his or her own responses to participating in group rituals and actions with the reactions of the 'inside' representatives of a different culture. The potential subjects of ethnography may span from an obscure African tribe to a group of high school football players. One of the most famous ethnographies ever written was Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, although ethnographies are often criticized if they provide insufficient depth about the culture being studied and promote rather than prevent misunderstanding.

One example of ethnography might be a study of adolescents growing up within the Amish communities located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during their rumspringa, or period of adolescence when they are allowed to test the boundaries of their society before being baptized by the church. Many adolescents wear modern clothes, drive cars, and even experiment with drugs during this time (Rumspringa, 2013, Amish studies). The research problem might be: how does rumspringa act as a form of social release and/or control for Amish youths? The researcher might live amongst the community, participate in its rituals, or follow the young people as they went about their daily lives. The purpose of the study would be to illuminate what seems like a strange custom of this social group for the world and to foster greater understanding of Amish beliefs. Research questions might include: is rumspringa different for boys and girls? How has the practice changed over the course of the past several generations?

Case study

A case study is a detailed examination of a highly specific person, event, place, or idea. A "case is a bounded system (e.g., a person, a group, an activity, a process)" and the findings are not necessarily generalizable to other groups or individuals although the case study may be used to examine a particular phenomenon well-known to be pervasive in society (Johnson n.d.). Unlike ethnography, the researcher in a case study is rarely a participant and functions mainly as an observer.

For example, from the discipline of psychology, a 'case study' might be conducted upon a BPD (borderline personality disorder) patient or population (such as those patients participating in a support group). A research problem might be if CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) was an effective way to treat young adolescent girls with a diagnosis of BPD. The purpose would be study the changes in the girls in a support group for BPD patients that occurred as a result of the treatment. The research questions the study purported to answer would be as follows: Is CBT in a group format an effective way to treat adolescent girls with BPD? Do the girls show a measurable reduction in symptoms?

Narrative inquiry

While the ethnographic format dominates the discipline of anthropology and the case study format is often favored by clinicians in the field of psychology and medicine, the narrative inquiry approach is embraced by a wide variety of fields. "Narrative inquiry is the process of gathering information for the purpose of research through storytelling" (Narrative inquiry, 2013, Colorado State University Writing Guides). It is based upon the premise that human beings view their lives and experiences through stories and use narratives to shape their view of the world. Because narrative is such a powerful tool, it in turn affects how human beings see and perceive their lives. "Humans are storytelling organisms who, individually and collectively, lead storied lives. Thus, the study of narrative is the study of the ways humans experience the world" (Narrative inquiry, 2013, Colorado State University Writing Guides).

An example of narrative inquiry might be to ask a group of adolescent African-American girls to chronicle their experiences growing up today over the course of an entire school year. Some of the mediums used include "field notes, interviews, journals, letters, autobiographies, and orally told stories" (Narrative inquiry, 2013, Colorado State University Writing Guides). The researcher does not begin the research with a particular problem or focus, as in the case of a case study and there is less of a focus on a group vs. letting the individuals in question speak their minds. Rather, the purpose is to let people tell their stories. There is no specifically-stated problem, other than perhaps to illuminate the thought processes of a particular individual or group of people. Research questions might include: how do African-American girls perceive their femininity? What problems are they worried about in the future? Then, the researcher would construct a narrative of the girls' lives with a beginning, middle, and end with the subjects' cooperation.


As its name suggests, a phenomenology seeks to study a particular phenomenon. "A phenomenologist is concerned with understanding certain group behaviors from that group's point-of-view….Phenomenological inquiry requires that researchers go through a series of steps in which they try to eliminate their own assumptions and biases, examine the phenomenon without presuppositions, and describe the 'deep structure' of the phenomenon based on internal themes that are discovered" (Phenomenology, 2013, Colorado State University Writing Guides). Phenomenology seeks to delve beneath the surface structures of what can be immediately observed and also examines the symbolic language of particular groups or cultures. "What is the meaning, structure, and essence of the lived experience of this phenomenon by an individual or by many individuals?" (Johnson n.d.). An example of a phenomenology might encompass that of the experience of nurses on an understaffed hospital ward to study the concept of 'nurses eating their young' (the idea that nurses can treat new nurses very harshly and thus reduce retention rates of new graduates). Nursing has one of the highest rates of bullying of any profession, and the stresses of the workplace as well as insufficient administration policing of staff behavior are often blamed for the phenomenon. Nurses report experiences of "harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault…Students and new nurses are the most vulnerable, but any time you change positions, you are at risk. We are still trying to sabotage, especially when the female is younger, thinner, more beautiful and smarter. While nurses are caring to patients, they can be horrific to each other" (Hoffman 2013). Although there is a cultural dimension to a phenomenology, such as studying the symbolic ideation of a specific culture of a nation, people, workplace, or self-identified group, the focus is more on a specific idea rather than the culture as a whole.

The research problem designed to study this idea would be: what are the characteristics of the phenomenon of nurses 'eating their young.' The purpose would be to illuminate this phenomenon to reduce the likelihood of it occurring and reoccurring, which can ultimately compromise both patient care as well as the careers of young nurses. Research questions might include: how do nurses themselves understand the phrase 'nurses eat their young?' How does tension between older and new nurses become manifest? Also, how is the phenomenon perceived differently between old and young nurses?

Grounded theory

The grounded theory approach was the one which I selected for my own particular area of research on the subject of human trafficking. Grounded theory is an intensive inductive methodology: it studies a particular phenomenon (such as the victimization of women who are rendered subjects of human trafficking) and then constructs a theory from the raw data of interviews and observations. Data is usually 'coded' to allow for some degree of quantitative analysis of the different respondents, and often there is the aspiration that the research theory created can be of use to others. "The theories are 'grounded'…[continue]

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