Common Questions About Ethnographic Evaluation: Practical Implementation

Q: What’s the relationship between ethnography and more quantitative forms of evaluation?
A: Ethnography is often used in tandem with quantitative approaches. For example, some evaluators use ethnography to figure out the best questions to ask on their quantitative surveys. “We use ethnography to get beyond the obvious questions that project planners might come up with,” says a regular user of the approach. An evaluator: “In building theories, it’s often better to start with qualitative ethnography, then move toward the more quantitative — learning how to word the questions, how to ask the questions.”

Q: If ethnographic research is supposed to shift organically as understanding evolves, how do you plan in advance?
A: Problems can arise if a foundation isn’t willing to be flexible. Says a program officer: “The measurable outcomes folks — the people who need to know up front exactly where it is headed — can get pretty antsy.” It comes down to balance, according to most of the grantmakers interviewed for this guide — balance between being intentional about your direction and being willing to change direc- tion as new knowledge is developed.

Q: It sounds as if ethnographic research takes a long time. Does it?
A: It does. One philanthropic initiative planned for ethnographic studies that would last three months. “Three months was laughable,” says the ethnographer. “It took a year.”
Although it is sometimes possible to get in and get out quickly, most of the people we talked to felt that what gets sacrificed in too rapid a process is understanding. “You just can’t jump in for a week or two,” says a researcher.

Q: So, where do I find an ethnographer when I need one?
A: Ethnographers are often based at universities in departments of anthropology, sociology, or folklore. Alternatively, many independent evaluation organizations employ ethnographers; some maintain relationships, formal or informal, with universities. Foundation program officers shouldn’t expect to have to screen, hire, and deploy field ethnographers directly. A typical approach would be to work with a principal researcher or ethnographer, who advises on how ethnography might fit within a larger research, planning, or assessment effort and selects and manages field ethnographers.

Q: What useful products can come out of an ethnographic study?
A: Ethnography is story writing, and all ethnographies produce reports. Dissemination of those reports should be carefully planned. In one initiative, some grantees felt that the final product wasn’t designed to be as useful as possible: “I think you learn something from it the way you learn from a good article in The Atlantic Monthly, but I don’t know how many people have sat down to study it.” Often the most important products of ethnography are insights that emerge during the course of the work — insights that may provoke
shifts in strategy. In a project designed to encourage government innovation, for example, ethnography showed that people don’t trust government spokespeople when they describe how change will improve how government does business. The grantmaker and grantee realized that they needed to recruit people from outside government to deliver that message.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Getting Inside the Story.