Doing Microethnography

Microethnography is a powerful method of research for studying practices in dynamic social systems where interactions reproduce unexplored or poorly understood conditions. It is a powerful intervention for discovering, making visible, or getting at what is happening as it happens in the interactions. Analyzing moment-to-moment interactions enables a better understanding of practices and expectations in order to create spaces to transform meaning and activities that maintain the status quo. But what is it and how does it differ from traditional ethnography?

First, microethnography is NOT simply a small group of in-depth interviews. While the sample is generally small and the timelines compressed, there are process behind doing it well and producing something useful for the client,. Microethnography is the study of a smaller experience or a slice of everyday reality. Microethnography is the process of data collection, content analysis, and comparative analysis of everyday situations for the purpose of formulating insights. It is tight, focused and targeted.

Like traditional ethnography, microethnographic research that attends to big social issues through careful examination of “small” communicative behaviors, tying them back to specific business and design needs. The research and/or research teams study the audible and visible details of human interaction and activity, as these occur naturally within specific contexts or institutions. Microanalysis may be coupled with statistical data to form a more complete understanding of the question at hand, but microethnography always employs ethnographic methods such as informant interviews and participant observations, all in an effort to better understand practices and problems.

Microethnographic methods provide qualitative, observational, cross-cultural, and ethnographic data, giving researchers the potential to 1) examine consumers, users, etc. across their community contexts, explicitly addressing class, power, and cultural structures of that community and 2) explain disproportional uses and buying patterns among subgroups.

While it also takes observation and environment in to account, microethnography focuses largely on how people use language and other forms of communication to negotiate consent with attention given to social, cultural, and political processes. Informed by critical discourse analysis, it emphasizes how the uses of language simultaneously shape local social interactions and reproduce patterns of social relations in society. The central difference between microethnography and in-depth interviewing ultimately is the analytical process and the phases that make up the research itself.

Data collection and analysis for microethnography typically takes place in six stages:

  • Stage One: Data Collection for the Primary Record – This consists largely of passive observation in the settings/contexts in which an activity occurs. It is meant to give a grounding in the activities occurring with objects, people and brands to create not only data points, but the right questions.
  • Stage Two: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Primary Record – This consists of rough, unstructured, brief interviews and information gleaned for intercepted conversation. Initial meaning reconstruction, horizon analysis, and validity reconstruction take place at this stage through the review of transcripts and videotape.
  • Stage Three: Dialogical Data Generation – During this phase the research relies on a mix of in-depth interviews and feedback interviews with participants. A series of hypotheses are in place and pinpointed concepts are addressed with the participants.
  • Stage Four: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Interviews – Once interviews are conducted, a second phase of meaning reconstruction and stage horizon analysis are conducted to uncover contradictions and pattern of practice and meaning. Out of this process, specific design and business needs are aligned.
  • Stage Five: High-level Coding – At this stage linguistic and behavioral matches are made. Out of this analysis, the multidisciplinary team begins to create new product or branding concepts and build out how they would actually function and gain traction with customers or users.
  • Stage Six: Final Reconstructive Analysis – This is the stage when we put new concepts and old to use. During this phase, new design or branding ideas are presented to participants, who work directly with the research and design team to generate co-created ideas and concepts.
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6 thoughts on “Doing Microethnography

  1. Excellent article, as usually, clarifying the difference between quality ethnography and other practices that aims to resemble it. I wonder what is “horizon analysis”. I´ve nerver heard of or read about it before. Could you give a hint about this topic?

    • It’s derived from finance analysis. Analysis of the discounted return on an investment over one or more time frames (called horizons) that differ from the investment’s actual maturity. For example, one might calculate the yield on a 10-year bond over its first year or first five years. Horizon analysis is done to see if an investment can or will perform well enough to meet one’s investment goals over a given time. In the case of a microethnography, the ”investment” is language based, where concepts, utterances or specific words are measured against probability of recurring use and relevance to the goals of the project. So initial coding leads to making the decision about which concepts will yield the most information for the topic at hand.

    • Not knowing the subject of the thesis, I’m not sure. But I would say that I tend to lean toward a structuralist approach, though it’s not a particularly fashionable theoretical model these days. That said, my mind tends to look for dualities and oppositional structures. Conflict theory is another I tend to employ.

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