Qualitative Research in Ethnography and Policymaking

Introduction

Qualitative research is a popular alternative to quantitative methods; it is widely used in social research, as well as in psychology and anthropology. Whereas quantitative research methods allow uncovering the general trends and tendencies, a qualitative methodology can be used to explain and provide a basis for certain patterns and notions. There are five primary methods of qualitative research, as outlined by Creswell (2014): narrative research, phenomenological research, grounded theory, case studies, and ethnography.

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The latter is widely considered to be useful in explaining and reporting different social processes that occur within groups of people, as it involves studying subjects in their natural circumstances. Ethnography may include methods such as covert observation or face-to-face interviews (Creswell, 2014). One type of ethnographic research is ethnographic immersion, when the researcher observes people from the inside of their habitat.

Observing people covertly in their natural surroundings offers researchers a chance to examine their true behavior and routines, which eliminates the bias that may occur in interviews – for instance, if people are trying to make a good impression or conceal certain details about their lives. However, the ethical nature of such observations is widely questioned, creating additional concerns for scholars. This essay will seek to explain the particular challenges of qualitative research and ethnography in particular, as well as explore how this method can be used to support public policy and decision-making.

The Researcher’s Role

In quantitative research, the role of researchers is clear: obtain data, analyze it, and compose a report. In qualitative research, however, the researcher’s role is frequently questioned (Sanjari, Bahramnezhad, Fomani, Shoghi, & Cheraghi, 2014). According to Sanjari et al. (2014), this is due to the fact that in qualitative research, a human being is part of all stages of the study. In qualitative research, all information is obtained and analyzed subjectively, from the point of view of the researcher.

This creates unique challenges for researchers, such as eliminating bias and maintaining a neutral stance during the observation, analysis, and reporting processes. For instance, in grounded theory, the researcher’s views and prejudices can directly affect the results obtained as a result of the study and the conclusions reached (Sanjari et al., 2014).

In phenomenology, on the other hand, the researcher’s personal views and experiences become the prism through which he or she perceives – and, therefore, explores – the social phenomenon studied. Another strand of issues related to qualitative research is ethical. As human subjects become the primary sources of information, and in many cases, the information they share can be quite personal, ethical issues such as privacy and anonymity become among the key concerns for researchers. Thus, ensuring that the research is conducted in accordance with ethical standards and regulations also becomes part of the researcher’s role in qualitative research.

The researcher’s role in ethnography also involves these ethical and personal considerations. In ethnographic research, the researcher’s main function is to understand and analyze the studied culture (Sanjari et al., 2014). Ethnographers also have to become immersed in the studied culture to ensure a comprehensive understanding of it. Ethnography first appeared in sociology and anthropology, which means that ethical considerations that generally apply to human subjects persist in this type of research.

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However, fulfilling the ethical requirements in certain types of ethnographic studies is difficult. For example, covert observations make it impossible for the researcher to obtain informed consent to data collection. Another unique issue presented by ethnographic research is the possible consequences of the researcher’s presence in the studied culture (Sanjari et al., 2014). Studying certain groups, including criminals or active military, and the cultural immersion associated with such research presents a threat to the life and health of the researcher.

On the other hand, the investigator’s presence in small tribal groups of Africa or South America can disrupt the social order and functioning of the groups. In order to respond to these issues and to minimize the probable consequences, it is essential for the researcher to obtain extensive training, such as health and safety training, as well as to build a comprehensive knowledge of the group that will be studied prior to immersing in its culture. Finally, it is widely accepted that, throughout the study and observation, the researcher should not get involved with the subjects and should maintain “a detached and neutral stance toward results and their consequences” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2015, p. 20).

Alice Goffman’s Work

Alice Goffman’s work on the poor African-American community in Philadelphia is an example of ethnographic research. The study included six years of observations, which also makes it longitudinal research (Goffman, 2009). The researcher focused, in particular, on the effects and consequences of increased policing and supervision in poor Black neighborhoods. Part of Goffman’s study involved observing people in the street and taking notes about her friends; the absence of informed consent is somewhat balanced by the researcher’s refusal to share identifying information, such as name and address.

She was able to immerse in the studied community effectively: “Goffman became such a part of the fabric of the community that she was harassed by the police, witnessed someone getting pistol-whipped, was even set up on a blind date” (Kotlowitz, 2014, para. 1). Goffman was part of the neighborhood that she studied, and she was close friends with many of the subjects discussed. This makes us question the objectivity of her conclusions and recollections; she clearly takes a protective stance, claiming that increased neighborhood policing makes young men feel hunted.

Kumar (2014) notes that, too, stating that even after the ethnography was finished and Goffman went to study for Ph.D. at Princeton, she avoided white males who might fit a cop’s profile. The researcher’s thorough involvement with the studied culture does not meet the recommendations to remain detached and avoid communication with the subjects, meaning that the researcher’s stance is not neutral. Nevertheless, reviewers argue that this is an advantage of the study rather than a limitation.

For instance, Schuessler (2014) points out that such a deep level of immersion is plausible and distinguished Goffman’s work from other ethnographic studies carried out by white researchers in black communities. Building close connections with young men on the run also allowed the researcher to examine the differences between those involved in criminal activity and those who try to distance themselves from the darker sides of the community.

Wilson (2014) found this part of the work particularly revealing, although the critic does not agree with Goffman’s conclusions: “This part of the book cries out for a deeper interrogation of how individual agency engages with a restricted range of social and structural constraints” (p. 826). Overall, even though Goffman does not necessarily maintain a neutral stance, her involvement adds to the depth of research, allowing her to offer another perspective on the ethnography of poor Black communities. The approach taken by Goffman is thus more efficient than the traditional approach to ethnography.

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The findings offered by Goffman reveal the negative impact of increased community policing on the lives of young Black men living in the studied community. Goffman (2009) shows that increased and, at some points, excessive supervision does not necessarily prevent crime, but nevertheless disrupts the lives of young men and even children: “Children learn at an early age to watch out for the police and to prepare to run […] When Chuck, Mike, and Steve assembled outside, the first topic of the day was frequently who had been taken into custody the night before” (p. 343). The researcher provides little quantitative information instead of focusing on the personal experiences of those she knew or observed.

She describes how the threat of imprisonment is an integral part of every young person’s life, how excessive force is used against minor offenders, and how difficult it is for a young Black man to escape the justice system once he has entered it for the first time. Goffman (2009) also provides extracts from conversations and interviews that offer other perspectives on the issues described. For instance, she included the words of 19-year-old Chuck to his 12-year-old brother, revealing the law enforcement’s inability to distinguish between the real offenders and bypassers: “Because whoever they are looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten, they’ll probably book you” (Goffman, 2009, p. 344).

The researcher also has also interviewed those on the other side of the law, including prosecutors, lawyers, and probation officers. However, the extracts from their interviews are not provided in the article. Overall, Goffman’s ethnographic research offers a unique perspective on the issue of excessive community policing in poor Black neighborhoods. The ethnographic design of the study allowed her to immerse in the studied culture and to provide unique depth, using stories and personal experiences of the subjects to draw conclusions. Undoubtedly, it would be impossible to obtain a similar depth of research and analysis with quantitative study design, as the numbers and percentage shares would not allow gaining sufficient insight into the culture.

Conclusion: Ethnography and Public Policy

Overall, qualitative research and, in particular, ethnographic studies allow getting a significant insight into the issues and struggles that are pertaining to the chosen community. Whereas quantitative research shows the statistical information, qualitative studies provide a thorough explanation for the obtained figures.

For instance, a quantitative study of the effects of increased supervision and policing in poor Black communities would probably show the age distribution of those booked into the police stations, as well as the statistical data on the different types of offenses and sentences. Goffman’s study, on the other hand, portrays real-life examples that show the negative influence of excessive policing, as well as other issues that undermine the effectiveness of the justice system, such as the increased use of force and ungrounded arrests.

When it comes to public policy and decision-making, qualitative research such as ethnography may serve to outline issues that would not be visible in qualitative studies. However, using ethnography as the sole source of information would not be effective due to the possibility of bias and their low statistical coverage. Thus, community research aimed at informing public policy and decision-making should include both qualitative and quantitative studies to provide comprehensive data, as well as valuable insight.

References

Creswell, J. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Goffman, A. (2009). On the run: Wanted men in a Philadelphia ghetto. American Sociological Review 74(2), 339-357.

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Kotlowitz, A. (2014). Deep cover: Alice Goffman’s ‘on the run’. The New York Times. Web.

Kumar, P. (2014). Life, prison and the pursuit of happiness. LA Review of Books. Web.

LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (2015). Ethics in ethnography: A mixed methods approach. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Sanjari, M., Bahramnezhad, F., Fomani, F. K., Shoghi, M., & Cheraghi, M. A. (2014). Ethical challenges of researchers in qualitative studies: The necessity to develop a specific guideline. Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, 7(1), 14-20.

Schuessler, J. (2014). Fieldwork of total immersion: Alice Goffman’s ‘on the run’ studies policing in a poor urban neighborhood. The New York Times. Web.

Wilson, W.J. (2014). The travails of urban field research. Contemporary Sociology, 43(6), 824-828.

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