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The Keys to Conducting Ethnographic Research: Part 1

Editor's Note: On Monday, Sept 21, 2020, Lisa Hoff died tragically after a sudden illness. We are thankful that she shared her wisdom with us in two articles on ethnographic research.


It was a blustery January morning when I hailed a cab to take me across town. I had only been in the city for a few days and was anxious to meet people in the community and explore new neighborhoods. It was clear the driver knew the city well, so I asked him about an imposing building that caught my eye. He told me it was a church. I was surprised by his response because I had heard that few people in this area were familiar with Christianity.

When I asked him what they did at the church, he said they held lots of parties, including a big get together last month. I thought he was probably referring to a recent Christmas Eve service, so I asked if he knew about Christmas and that it was a celebration of Jesus’s birth. He said that he knew of Jesus and was familiar with the meaning of Christmas. I was encouraged by his response until he said “Yeah, I really love Jesus’s white beard and his red suit.” In that moment, my excitement waned as I realized that, to him, Jesus was really Santa Claus.

Informative Research

My initial discussion with the taxi driver seemed to indicate that he had at least a cursory exposure to Christianity. However, as the conversation progressed it became clear that his knowledge of Christmas and Jesus was not based on exposure to Scripture but on general observation or cultural interpretation. My follow-up questions provided an opportunity to assess his spiritual condition and learn more about his understanding of faith issues.

This conversation highlights the importance of conducting onsite research to better understand a city and her people. Gathering information through conversation and observation provides a deeper understanding into the worldview, values, and inner workings of a community. When ministry decisions are based on research findings rather than assumptions or personal preferences, there is greater potential for Kingdom impact.

Although some ministry leaders see research as unnecessary, cumbersome, and time consuming, when done well, it ultimately leads to a more efficient and effective ministry. Research does not need to be complicated, just organized and clear. To better understand a city, it is important to know how to ask good questions and have a grasp on the way a community defines and utilizes space.

Outsider and Insider Perspectives

Many are aware of the importance in doing preliminary research before visiting or moving to a new city. A person may scour the internet for information, read a few books, or even talk to people who have visited there before. All of this is helpful in preparation for engaging people and cultures who may not share the same belief system, values, or lifestyle.

There are limitations, however, to gathering information in this manner. Data is interpreted through the lens of those who collect it, analysis techniques vary, and resources do not always answer specific questions an individual may have about the needs of a community. Statistics and numbers can also be skewed because of undocumented or transient peoples or because there are government restrictions about what information is made public.

In a rapidly changing world, many printed resources become quickly outdated. This is particularly true regarding topics like urbanization, cultural change, and societal attitudes. It is therefore important for ministry leaders to know how to do onsite research to gain an understanding of a people or place. Observations and interviews can provide particularly valuable information on what influences a community to relate and act in a specific manner.

Good data gathering and analysis is comprised of both insider and outsider perspectives. Insiders are a part of the community and are familiar with the inner workings that motivate behavior and values. They have unique access to information but may also struggle to understand the bigger picture because they are deeply immersed in the culture.

Outsiders bring a greater emotional distance to a context and may be able to better identity more broad trends that are taking place. Because outsiders are not part of the societal fabric, they are often trusted with information that an individual may not feel comfortable sharing with a member of their own group.


Another way to learn about a community is through its use of space and place. Communal values and social practice are reflected in how people utilize their surroundings and the meaning they assign to it. On a recent trip to a European city, I walked into an unfamiliar restaurant and immediately knew that this was a gendered space meant only for men. No one had to tell me, all I had to do was observe that no women were present in this establishment that catered to immigrant workers from North Africa. Many times, limitations or boundaries on space and place are not articulated, just simply understood by insiders within the community.

Spaces are categorized as open, semi-accessible, or closed. Understanding these different categories can be instrumental in facilitating informed ministry research. In open spaces, like a city square, there is no permission needed to just sit, watch, and interact with people. If an individual is new to a community or has language challenges, this is an easy place to begin learning. Semi-accessible spaces are not open to everyone and require affiliation or payment for access. A fenced off community playground or a coffee shop are two examples of this. Closed spaces are the most restrictive and require a deeper level of relationship or a specific invitation to be there. These spaces include homes and offices which reflect more intimate or important aspects of people’s lives. In these locations, some individuals may feel more comfortable and willing to have personal conversations.


Onsite data collection can be done by anyone. All it requires is few basic research tools, a genuine desire to understand a community, and collecting relevant information. The result is a more well informed ministry that effectively meets the needs of people and expands God’s Kingdom around the world.


Lisa Hoff was an associate professor of intercultural studies at Gateway Seminary. Her doctoral studies focused on rapid urbanization and its influence on social dynamics. She lived in Asia for many years where she conducted urban ethnographic research projects. She taught courses at Gateway related to cultural diversity, intercultural communication, and community research.


This article was originally published by the CGCS.


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