The Benefits of Collaborative Ethnography

Collaborative ethnography is a qualitative research method, which involves the interactive study of the way in which people perceive, describe, understand and explain the world. Unlike other research methods, in collaborative ethnography, the researchers and the collaborators (co-writers, research subjects, people within the communities) have a special relationship which requires constant mutual and collaboartive engagement throughout the entirety of the study. Here, collaborators not only become part of the research, but they also contribute to the study by working together with the ethnographer through collective intellectual effort (Lassiter, 2005) to achieve greater understanding of themselves and their social environments. As Luke Lassiter writes:

‘Collaborative ethnography invites commentary from out consultants and seeks to make that commentary overtly part of the ethnographic text as it develops. In turn, this negotiation is reintegrated back into the fieldwork process itself. Importantly, the process yields texts that are co-conceived or cowritten with local communities of collaborators and consider multiple audiences outside the confines of academic discourse, including local constituencies.’

It goes without saying that collaborators have more of an influential and significant role in this type of research. Collaborative ethnography can be used to consult with the research subjects to determine urgent social issues and research topics. As Lassiter writes ‘instead of beginning with theoretical problems, the ethnographer can begin with informant-expressed needs, then develop a research agenda to relate these topics to the enduring concerns within social science’. Thus, according to Lassiter, research subjects can influence ethnographic priorities, as they may be in a better position to clearly identify urgent research topics.

As collaborative ethnography enables the subjects of the study to contribute to the process, it is an effective research method that yields more accurate findings of social environments. Indeed, unlike purely scientific and quantitative research methods, collaborative ethnography enables a deeper and more contextualised understanding of the relevant issues, allowing the ethnographer to delve into the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ of social issues.

In fact, last week I was involved in my very first collaborative ethnography project, which involved the study of the experiences and memories of television use in previous generations. This was a collaborative project because all the students enrolled in this subject were required to conduct similar interviews with people on their experiences of having a television. This exercise gave me the opportunity to interview my dad and have an interesting discussion about how the introduction of the television impacted his childhood and family household when he was in India as an 11-year old boy. The great aspect about this exercise was that I could let my dad reign the conversation and share special stories which shaped his experience of the television. Unlike quantitative research which would only provide black and white numerical analysis, this exercise not only enabled me to understand that the television had a significant impact in my father’s childhood, but it also helped me to understand how and why the television had such an impact.

Furthermore, not only was the exercise a great experience for me, but it also helped my dad reflect upon his past and understand how the development of such media technologies have shaped his life. This reflects Lassiter’s assertion that ethnography not only benefits the ethnographer, but it can also be a useful and rewarding process for the research subject.

While on a smaller scale this ethnographic process revealed personal and individual stories, on a greater scale, the process also unveiled distinct patterns, themes and trends. For example, similar to my findings, ebonyblanch and  also found watching television was something you did as a family in the early days. These findings resonated through class discussion, with many students revealing that in quite a few households, the television was a ‘family affair’ and brought the family together.

Thus ethnographic research is a great method to cover the gaps that quantitative research methods usually leave behind. However, ethnographic research is a more time consuming and expensive process which is perhaps why many researchers prefer other research methods.


Lassiter, E L. 2005. ‘Defining Collaborative Ethnography’. An Excerpt from the Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. [ONLINE]. University of Chicago Press. Available at: Accessed 19 August 2015.


2 thoughts on “The Benefits of Collaborative Ethnography

  1. Ethnographic research is definitely very important to be able to gain greater insight into research, it’s a shame that the majority of the time people do seem to stray away from this method because of the time. Only gathering quantitative results generally leaves out depth of knowledge and we are left with only half of the information which can lead to people mis-interpreting the message.

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