What to Observe

Researchers should pay special attention to the three following aspects: social structures, the “take for granted” interpretations and explanations, and finally, the context of the action.

Social Structures

  • Could be interpreted as social conventions, which may not be directly observable but embedded in social practices, routines and beliefs (e.g. rituals and ceremonies) in daily lives of people
  • Researchers should always pay attention to the details as these provide clues for further understanding

 How (Gobo 2008):

  1. Identifying certain activities to focus on
    You may target some of the group activities in the field, for example, a school society meeting, sport events, a class field trip to the museum etc.
  2. Starting from a key-concept
    You can also try to first make sense of a key-concept in the field. For example, when studying the socialization among university freshers in Hong Kong, the researcher may think about ‘what does the term “dem-beat” mean during the orientation camps?’ and ‘Does the practice of “dem-beat” mean differently after the orientation camps?’.
  3. Following an object
    You could study the daily practices of the subject (probably a person with certain special roles in the field), and use his or her behaviours and experiences to make sense of the context of observation.

“Taken for granted” interpretations and explanations

  • Signs could have different meanings in different cultural and social contexts, so be aware of this during observation



The word “football” means different kinds of sport in United States (American football), Europe (soccer), Australia (Australian football) etc.

Observation can generate a description of what is happening in a daily scene but we may not comprehend the actions. To understand the observed data, you can listen to the interactions of actors, such as how subjects talk, respond, and give comments to one another.

Context of the action

Without context, it is impossible to make sense of the observed data, as social practices happen in different situations with different backgrounds. For instance, the action of nodding your head does not indicate “yes” everywhere, the same action can be an indication of “no” in countries like Greece, Iran and Syria etc.



In theory, all topics can be studied using ethnography but not all settings are accessible to everyone, especially the gender and age barrier.



A female researcher wants to conduct an ethnographic research on a male football team. Do you think she can easily observe the team members’ behaviours and interactions on and off the football pitch? It could be challenging as the she cannot have access to certain places, like the male changing room. Besides, the footballers may behave differently with the presence of female

After all, the feasibility of ethnographic research depends on the research topic and not all people are eligible to conduct ethnographic researches.


 Know More

Gobo, G. (2008). Introducing Qualitative Methods: Doing ethnography: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9780857028976.d6

Atkinson, P. & Hammersley, M. (1994). ''Ethnography and participant observation.'' In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 248-261). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.