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The Keys to Conducting Ethnographic Research: Part 2

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.


Balancing personal and professional obligations leave most people with very full lives. Some think research requires an extensive time commitment or formal training and so they are hesitant to add it to their ministry toolkit. Despite the initial learning curve, ethnographic research practices can be easily acquired and integrated in a daily ministry routine. Information can be collected when meeting up with friends at a coffee shop, using public transportation, or walking down the street.

Practical ethnographic research essentially involves learning how to cultivate a greater awareness of people and their surroundings. It entails intentional observation, learning to ask pertinent questions, and developing a practice of good listening. Applying these principles can lead to a more informed and effective ministry.

Intentional Observation

Keen observation opens up powerful doors for cultural understanding. Although people perceive the world through their senses, they tend to look at something and not really see it, hear sounds but not always listen or comprehend. Without intentional effort to develop new practices of gathering information, important details easily get lost, particularly when a subject is already familiar. Good observation is built on learning to see a community from a new perspective.

Observation is an ongoing part of the research process. Although it is commonly defined as an act of seeing or taking something in with the eyes, for our purposes it is defined more broadly. Observation involves using all five senses to take in details related to the use of space, human interaction, and behavior patterns.

In my research classes, students regularly conduct observation exercises. Sometimes they are assigned a specific question to answer and other times they are asked to simply record everything they see in a particular context. They are usually instructed to go alone, turn off their phone, and write down everything they experience without filtering their observations.

After an hour or so they generally have 8-9 pages of content. Only when finished with the exercise do they analyze what they wrote to gain a more complete picture of their experience. This interaction between researcher and community is often eye opening. Even though they have been there for many years, some students report feeling like they had just started living in their neighborhood as a result of what they observe.

“Practical ethnographic research essentially involves learning how to cultivate a greater awareness of people and their surroundings.”

Observation can also be used to compare cultural changes in a location over a specific period of time. On a summer evening after moving to a city in Asia, I decided to sit in one of the public squares and watch people enjoying time with their family and friends. I soon noticed that most small children that night were accompanied by what appeared to be a female relative or friend. It stood out to me because in my country of origin it is normal to see both men and women spending time with children of that age.

Ten years later I went back to the city square to repeat the same exercise and had a different experience. This time small children were often accompanied by what appeared to be both female and male relatives. I began to reflect on this and wondered what had changed over the past ten years? Why was it now more acceptable for men to accompany young children on outings of this nature?

This may seem like an insignificant observation, but upon further research I came to understand that important shifts had occurred in family dynamics related to the role of men. Several friends explained to me that men were now expected to share a greater responsibility in child rearing than they were in the past. These expectations had changed many aspects of marriage and family life in the community.

One of the best things about this part of the research process is that it does not require any special skills or relationships and can be done almost anywhere. All that is required is an inquisitive nature, a little bit of time, and a willingness to go where people congregate.

Asking Good Questions

Some would say that America has lost the art of conversation, that process of being emotionally present with other people in an exchange of ideas, feelings, or beliefs. Conversation is an interactive communication style that involves asking good questions and learning to listen well. It is a dance of give and take as both the speaker and listener learn to interpret the underlying meaning behind both verbal and non-verbal communication.

“Ethnographic research is a tremendous way to better understand how God is at work in the life of a person or a community.”

Understanding a community requires meaningful conversations. Demographic data and statistics may provide a skeletal understanding of a place, but informal and formal interviews open the door to its heart and soul. Asking clear and open-ended questions often elicits information the researcher may not have ever thought to ask.

So when preparing for a conversation, keep in mind the primary research question but don’t be rigid with the direction of the interview. The key is to ask questions that will get others talking about their own experiences, their observations, and issues they care about. Although I always have a list of questions prepared for an interview, I often find that some of the most informative discussions occur when I let the other person guide the discussion and take us down uncharted pathways. If a person believes his or her insights are valued and a question piques their interest, it is amazing how much a person will share.

Having a comfortable and relaxing place is an important part of creating space for connection and discussion. Man-on-the-street interviews allow you the opportunity to engage a wide variety of people, if they are willing to stop and talk. However, most people are too rushed to give you much time or they are apprehensive about talking to a stranger. For quick one sentence responses this interview style can work well.

For deeper conversations and reflection, however, other formats are more conducive. Whenever possible, let the person being interviewed designate the space to meet. The individual will usually ask to talk in a place where he or she is most comfortable, which ultimately facilitates a more relaxed discussion.


Active listening is essential in building trust and rapport throughout the research process. This connection is cultivated when interest and concern is demonstrated for the person being interviewed. Listening well specifically involves paying attention to what is said, how it is said, and what is left unsaid in a discussion.

Both verbal and non-verbal clues provide key insights regarding how a person thinks or feels about a particular subject. Good listening and observation skills include paying attention to small details such as intonation, word choice, or how a person uses silence in response to a question. Nonverbal responses such as a person looking away or fidgeting can demonstrate a level of discomfort, for example, in the direction the conversation is going. When different types of clues are analyzed together it often provides a clearer picture of what is happening in the interview.

Cultural background influences communication preferences and so be aware of any potential areas of miscommunication that may also occur due to cross-cultural differences. In some cultures, for example, active listening is expressed by making eye-contact and nodding the head in agreement. In other cultures, eye contact, particularly with an elder, would be considered highly disrespectful.

Good listening is not only an advantageous research technique it is also a viable ministry unto itself. In one research project, I initially had difficulty getting people to talk with me. Only a few close friends agreed to help because of our close relationship. After conducting a few initial interviews with my friends, I left town for a few weeks. When I returned, I was perplexed by the dramatic increase in the number of people who wanted to be interviewed. I asked some of these individuals why they were initially resistant but now were so eager. The majority wanted to meet me because their friends had told them I asked questions about their lives that no one had taken time to ask before. They felt heard and valued because I cared enough to listen to their experiences and perspectives.


Ethnographic research is a tremendous way to better understand how God is at work in the life of a person or a community. When you apply practical skills to various contexts, new insights emerge which help to create better ministry programs and connections for the gospel. With a little preparation and thought, you can engage people around you in new and exciting ways.


Lisa Hoff is 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 teaches courses at Gateway related to cultural diversity, intercultural communication, and community research.


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