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Ethnography consists of a few different research methods, most notably participant observation, which involves the researcher immersing themselves and observing a particular social setting. Occasionally, if getting too immersed, the researcher can start utilizing alternative research methods such as informal interviews. The principal goal however, is to obtain an understanding and description of everyday life in a qualitative manner without recording detailed data which is analyzed in the future. Usually instead, the observer takes brief notes in a little field diary. Observers can uptake different roles depending on how involved they want to become in the setting. These include a complete observer; an observer as participant; a participant as an observer; and a complete participant. Hay (2005) defines ethnography as ‘a method in which the researcher studies a social group while being a part of that social group’. When discussing Marxist geographers and Marxism as an ideology, the main aim is to analyse the problem (crisis) and then proceed to try and find a solution or ‘attempt to change the world. This was the reason why in the 1970s, many positivist geographers changed their ways and begun to be more proactive rather than just explaining and documenting the world’s issues. Potentially, ethnographic methods of research are common amongst Marxist geographer’s due to the fact that they can view a situation as an outsider and try to find a solution, whereas a positivist may simply analyse, record data, and look at the situation from an objective point of view. This essay will highlight and aim to assess what the main strengths and weaknesses of ethnographic research methods are when talking about Marxist geography.
The first strength regarding ethnographic methods of research is that the researcher can get a real-life idea of what a certain situation is like. Despite an observation sometime turning into an informal interview or conversation, a formal interview is far more serious and the interviewee may feel inclined to give unnatural responses. The influential Marxist geographer David Harvey mentions that ethnography is completely different to any other qualitative method as the ‘ethnographer gains insight through an analysis of everyday activities.’ For a Marxist geographer who views situations from a subjective point of view, ethnographic methods and most particularly observation may be the perfect form of research as they can witness a certain social setting with a negative idea or problem already planted in their head and proceed to assess whether or not it is really the case and if it is resolvable. Moreover, in certain scenarios it is difficult to research quantitatively and thus a more descriptive approach is needed. ‘Ethnography, uniquely explores lived experiences in all its richness and complexity’. From this line and more specifically the words ‘richness’ and ‘complexity’, it is evident that another research method such as a survey would not be appropriate simply due to the information and results being too vague. Herbert in fact is one of the main advocates of ethnographic methods describing them as greatly ‘underused’. Despite Marxists viewing the world from certain standpoint, it is rare that researchers only use one research method to compile their work, often a combination of qualitative methods will be used, as well as quantitative measure to prove and give numerical information.
The primary weakness and main difficulty when discussing the use of ethnographic methods is that often they are hard to carry out. Certain groups can be hard to access and may not want intruders looking over them at all times; for whatever reason that may be. Groups of people in prisons, the army or navy, and pilots are just a few to name. In these cases, ‘covert participant observation’ must be utilized so that the people being researched do not know. In theory, this can be seen as unethical or dishonest, however it is sometimes necessary to gain an insight into ‘socio cultural spaces that would otherwise be denied’. Not to mention that fact that if a foreign group of people are planning to be observed, the language barrier can be a serious issue. The Criticism that positivists often have against Marxists is that in the end, they always end up explaining that capitalism and class struggles are the root of all the world’s problems- which to some can seem very narrow minded. As participant observation is not one of the easier research methods to carry out, frequently it is very time consuming and as a result only 1 or a few groups can be focused on. Often this leads to general presumptions being made which is why ethnographers turn to other research methods which provide them with solid proof to aim to back up their original ideas. Many geographers have in fact put forward the main criticism that ethnography leads to generalisations and cannot solely be used as a research method. This is potentially why Herbert (2005) made the statement that ‘geography has always neglected ethnography’; as it does not actually provide concrete answers. Relating it back to Marxist geographies, the reason it is popular amongst them is that their general procedure of research is: observe, analyse and aim to find a solution rather than find patterns and create laws- as a positivist would.
In theory, it is rare that an observer will look on and analyse a situation taking only a few notes without the slight bit of interaction with those being observed. This can often lead to interviews but not formal interviews as we know them, instead, simple more open discussions. Atkinson and Hammersley (2007) back up this point by mentioning that often the ‘line between participant research and informal interviews is hard to discern’ meaning that really, it is not only observation being used to research, but also dialogue. This is a strength as it causes for a more in depth understanding of what and who is being studied. Following on from the idea that ethnographic methods have strengths, they can also be seen as useful, informative and believable due to the fact that the researcher has been fully immersed in a completely new situation or way of life. They would have no reason to lie about their findings. This idea is expressed by Geertz when the statement is made that ‘anthropologists have the capacity to convince us about what they say as a result of them being penetrated in the situation’ (1988). As mentioned earlier, Herbert, makes countless points regarding how ethnographic methods are both better, and more useful than standard research techniques. He explains how the time spent, and the relationships built during the time spent observing, means that the ‘ethnographer gains insight through an analysis of everyday activities’ and that ethnography is a uniquely useful method for uncovering… sociospatial life’. The final strength is simply that ‘some types of research are only available through first hand research’ and that ‘one can gain access to practices as opposed to merely talk’. For Marxist geographers therefore, it is the in-depth immersion and experience which is entailed within ethnographic research methods which aids their understanding of various situations.
As mentioned earlier, the idea that ethnographic research methods only lead to generalisations leads on to the fact that many critics believe the unscientific nature renders the methods next to pointless. Walsh (2009) describes participant observation as ‘inherently unscientific’ insinuating that concrete answers are not given. To a certain extent I can understand why; with no quantitative data, no set questions and answers and only opinions to go by, the responses and analyses can seem dubious. Relating once again back to Herbert’s extensive writing about ethnography, he even acknowledges the fact that this is a weakness of ethnographic research methods putting forward the argument that ‘ethnography relies heavily on interpretation and is therefore overly subjective’. The key words here are ‘interpretation’ and ‘subjective’ meaning that the research and published results are possibly influenced by the views of the observer. This idea of ethnographic methods being subjective also makes sense given the fact that Marxist geographers tend to have a subjective standpoint. Rengert (1997) agrees with this critique of ethnography, saying that it is ‘the least scientific of research approaches since it contains a great deal of subjectivity’. In the case where participant observation is used, as mentioned in the afore paragraph, hypotheses, ideas and presumptions must be backed up with other, more solid research method results and data.
Summarising, Ethnographic research methods have both their strengths and weaknesses. For Marxist geographers, rather than positivists, ethnography is more appropriate as they view matters from a subjective point of view and are less interested in quantitative data and results. The main strengths of ethnography are that they give an in-depth picture of a social setting and are frequently backed up with other research methods. Moreover, the observation can sometimes turn into a casual conversation, enabling the researcher to gain more information. Results are also noted down so there is some hard evidence to remind the researcher of his or her findings. On the other hand, the main criticisms are that as a research method it is time consuming and often hard to access certain groups of people. The unscientific nature, generalisations, subjective and not concrete results also are not a positive aspect. The crux of the matter and the main debate boils down to the ideas of reliability and validity. Are the descriptions of the participant’s observations accurate? If they are, is there really any solid proof to demonstrate the ideas observed?
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