Ethnography is one of the frequently used research methods in different fields, including education, medicine, health care, and management. Its distinctive feature is the possibility to learn the world from the point of view of direct participants and social relationships that they can develop. In this paper, an article written by Xu Wang in 2013 will be analyzed to recognize the essential elements of ethnography, its sensitivities, and ethical considerations. In addition, it is necessary to identify if the chosen research design is appropriate for investigating the mental problems of homeless youth. In ethnographic research, such factors like contact opportunities, researcher’s impression, students’ presentation, and the possibility to differentiate falsehood from reality by means of informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, and exploitation play an important role. Wang’s discussion turns out to be a significant contribution to a better understanding of ethnography and its worth in the development of researcher-participants contact through cooperative field relations, inter-cultural aspects, and ethically approved behaviors.
Essential Elements of Ethnography
Ethnographies are used in research to identify and introduce a story of a particular community. Wang (2013) described the experiment in one of the international schools in mainland China where nine participants, including teachers and students from the same naturally bounded organization, were invited. As an ethnographer, Wang (2013) focused on two main tasks – the establishment of favorable field relationships and the promotion of ethical and research validity. These are the major elements of ethnography that cannot be ignored in the study. Field relationships may be developed in a variety of way and related to effective interactions between the researcher and the researched (Wang, 2013). In the article, the author worked within the same geographical location, and organizational norms were properly discussed. However, organizational practices differed because of the necessity to work with different participants. There were students with their own interests, needs, and knowledge, and there were teachers with their knowledge, hierarchy, and expectations. Therefore, it was important to enhance an inter-cultural understanding, promote the production of knowledge, and obtain informal access to the field.
At the same time, ethnography is the study where ethical consideration must be properly identified and explained. According to Wax (as cited in Wang, 2013), the transformation of “ethics of obligation” into “ethics of aspiration” could result in mutual care, respect, and trust. To achieve these benefits, ethnographers have to succeed in developing informed consent to all the participants, maintaining anonymity and confidentiality, supporting appropriate exploitation of information, and contributing to the authenticity of data analysis. These details define the true nature of ethnography and make this research design unique and helpful from multiple perspectives.
Sensitivities in Ethnography
The experience of Wang helps to understand better the sensitivities that may be associated with conducting ethnographic research. For example, when it is expected to establish cooperative field relations between a researcher and a participant, much attention should be paid to three things. They include the opportunities of contact, impressions a researcher makes on participants, and the way of how participants present themselves and their knowledge (Wang, 2013). This task can challenge the researcher because observations and interviews cause emotional bonds between the researcher and the participants. It becomes hard to make sure if all information is fully informed and comfortable to disclose feelings and knowledge. Another example of sensitivity is based on the conditions under which data is gathered. When much time is spent with the same people and at the same location, there is a threat of questioning the rights to privacy and anonymity. The participants may understand who gives a particular answer, or why some people favor a particular condition. There is also a threat of mixing up falsehood information and reality. The researcher fails to gather planned data thus weakening the validity of the analysis.
To avoid unfair or biased results of data analysis, triangulation and respondent validation are offered to researchers. Triangulation is used to combine different sets of data sources, and validation includes the comparison of interpretations developed by the participants and the researcher (Wang, 2013). Regarding the goals of these two methods of analysis, ethnography sensitivity is also promoted by the researcher’s personal (subjective) representation of participants or intimate friendship with the participants. The inability to guarantee the same interpretations developed by the researcher and participants weakens the quality of information obtained through ethnographies.
Ethics in ethnographic research defines the quality of relationships the participants and the researcher are able to develop. To develop an ethically successful investigation, the researcher must know the people with whom he or she should cooperate, gain their trust and respect, and ensure that they have enough information about the study. Wang (2013) underlined such considerations as informed consent, exploitation, data analysis authenticity, confidentiality, and anonymity. Each factor has its own impact on research and helps to establish specific rules and standards in cooperating with people.
Informed consent is an important process in gathering ethnographic information. It is used to provide potential participants with information about their rights and responsibilities during the study. The researcher explains the goals of the project and the worth of people’s participation in it. It is ethically correct to offer the participants a chance to withdraw from research at any time they want without explaining their true reasons or concerns. Anonymity and confidentiality are the two crucial ethical aspects that cannot be ignored. When people join the study, they want to be confident that their personal information like names, places for living, and other details never become public. Exploitation of information is another factor in ethnographic research that determines the level of relationships between the researcher and the researched. For example, a teacher or a leader of a company does not want to diminish their roles in the study and underline that they are the authorities in their facilities, and the researcher should respect such a position. Finally, the analysis of information should not be biased or subjective, and it is recommended to consider different opinions to make the last conclusion.
Appropriateness to the Topic of Interest
The topic of interest is the investigation of mental health problems among homeless youth. There are many studies the authors of which recognize homeless among young people as a serious social and health concern because of the impossibility to prevent and control adverse consequences of problematic housing on mental conditions (Morton, 2018). However, the number of homeless people continues growing, which prove the necessity to improve investigations and choose different perspectives to gather opinions and knowledge about this problem. Therefore, an idea to develop ethnographic research on this topic seems to be effective and appropriate because of three powerful reasons.
First of all, ethnography allows gathering public opinion and communicating with homeless young people directly. This data can be helpful in terms of understanding the causes and the conditions under which mental problems occur or the reasons why treatment is not always possible. Secondly, this type of study is based on the creation of favorable relationships with participants. The researcher can not only observe homeless living but also interview the youth and obtain direct answers to properly constructed questions. Finally, an enhanced inter-cultural understanding of the participants, their needs and expectations introduce a unique opportunity to identify new aspects of mental health problems among young adult patients.
Ethnography is based on qualitative research that promotes the evaluation of human behaviors within a specific context. It is possible to join the chosen community and explain the need for such an investigation for further improvements in the quality of life. As soon as informed consent is explained, homeless youth can recognize their priorities and make a final decision about their further participation. In addition, anonymity and confidentiality help to disclose all personal information and focus on the aspects that cover the topic.
In general, ethnography has a number of advantages due to which researchers prefer this type of research to other available studies. The quality of researcher-participant relationships determines the value of information on the chosen topic. Mental health of homeless youth is a serious public concern. If communication with this group of people is possible, the researcher should use this chance and discover some new characteristics of the problem. To achieve the desired outcomes and positive results, the researcher must evaluate behavioral norms, ethical considerations, and personal issues before applying for approval and inviting people.
Morton, M. H., Dworsky, A., Matjasko, J. L., Curry, S. R., Schlueter, D., Chávez, R., & Farrell, A. F. (2018). Prevalence and correlates of youth homelessness in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62(1), 14-21. Web.
Wang, X. (2013). The construction of researcher–researched relationships in school ethnography: Doing research, participating in the field and reflecting on ethical dilemmas. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(7), 763-779. Web.