The Disadvantages of Ethnographic Research

The Disadvantages of Ethnographic Research

While completing my PhD, I studied the Occupy movement while participating in the leftist protest movement in New York. My goal was to understand the relationship between social movements and the state and capitalism, so I dedicated my fieldwork to the movement. Ethnographic research has several advantages, but it is also limited by time, ethics, and cost. The disadvantages are many and varied, and you should consider all of these factors when choosing an ethnography method.


When it comes to conducting qualitative research, ethnographic research is an excellent option. It uses an approach that links people’s words with their actions. The research process is a far cry from self-reported focus groups, which suffer from the limitations inherent in children and adults. For example, Xerox recently called in ethnographic researchers to study the cost of parking in Los Angeles. Their findings revealed that parking spaces in the area were in short supply and too expensive. The company was losing $1 million a day.

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Ethnographic studies are costly and time-consuming, and often require cooperation from organisations and community members. The scope of the research must be determined beforehand, and the method used must be appropriate for the context. Most ethnographic research draws heavily on participant observation, triangulating these findings with interviews and informal conversations. This method is especially valuable in developing a framework for working with local communities and transferring research skills back to them.


While time is one of the main disadvantages of ethnographic research, the benefits outweigh this shortcoming. In addition to the richer output, ethnographic studies can uncover relevant issues and attitudes about users. However, time is a disadvantage, especially if the researcher is not located in the same location as the respondents. In addition, some research methods may be better suited for certain projects, such as product development. However, if time is an issue, ethnographic research may not be the most effective solution.

Short-term studies may not be representative of the population at large, and the group studied is not representative of the wider population. This bias may affect the analysis of the observations. Additionally, building trust with participants requires time. The disadvantage of short-term observational studies is that it is difficult to develop trust. Despite this, ethnographies are able to be evaluated for certain variables, which allow them to yield testable explanations.

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The ethical code underlying ethnographic research is complex and a point of contention. In general, it is premised on the unequal relationship between researchers and people. As such, the ethical code often invokes rhetoric that stresses objectivity, lack of bias, and scientific truth. But this approach obscures the politics of knowledge production. In fact, some ethnographers advocate a more “negotiable” ethical code based on a mutual understanding of the aims of the research and the rights of those who are studied.

In some cases, long fieldwork periods are problematic. While ethnographers may be able to observe a group’s culture, they may be unaccustomed to the local environment and to the presence of unfamiliar faces. In such cases, their presence may diminish the distance between them and the participants, reducing their awareness. Time constraints and pressure to collect ‘good data’ can also negatively impact a researcher’s well-being.

Short-term studies

While there are many advantages of ethnographic research, short-term studies have some drawbacks. For example, the methods are capital-intensive and can be subject to experimental bias. In addition, the number of participants may be too small, which can lead to false assumptions about the research group’s disposition. The quantity of data may also not be properly processed. In addition, some respondents may feel psychological triggers and pull out of the research if it involves topics that they are uncomfortable with. Also, some participants may require constant reassurance.

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Lastly, ethnographic research is prone to bias. Those who are biased may not communicate well with their subjects. Ethical issues may also arise, so ethnographers should consider this when choosing their subjects. Moreover, they are studying delicate cultures, subcultures, or labour groups and must be extremely careful to avoid damaging individual participants. However, the disadvantages of ethnography are worth considering when deciding upon a methodology.

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