Ethnographic Case Study Research Methods

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The authors present how to construct a mini-ethnographic case study design with the benefit of an ethnographic approach bounded within a case study protocol that is more feasible for a student researcher with limited time and finances. The novice researcher should choose a design that enables one to best answer the research question. Secondly, one should choose the design that assists the researcher in reaching data saturation. Finally, the novice researcher must choose the design in which one can complete the study within a reasonable time frame with minimal cost. This is particularly important for student researchers. One can blend study designs to be able to use the best of each design that can mitigate the limitations of each as well. The authors are experienced ethnographers who currently chair dissertation committees where a student has chosen a mini-ethnographic case study design.


Culture, Ethnography, Mini-Ethnography, Case Study Design, Triangulation, Data Saturation

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Patricia Fusch is contributing faculty in the DBA and Ph.D. in Management programs at Walden University. Her research focuses on leadership, manufacturing, women in business; ethnographic design, case study design, change management initiatives, focus group facilitation, and organizational development. Dr. Fusch has experience as a performance improvement consultant in the public and private sector. Her publications can be found in The Qualitative Report, The International Journal of Applied Management and Technology, and in The Journal of Social Change. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to:

Dr. Gene Fusch is the Lead Methodologist in the Walden University DBA program. His career has spanned both the education and business arenas. As an educator, he has chaired doctoral committees and helped numerous executive-level students pursue their learning goals. In addition to teaching, Dr. Fusch was the project manager for the National Resource Center for Materials Science Education; principal investigator for a National Science Foundation project in composites manufacturing for the marine and aerospace industries; site director and professor for several Southern Illinois University extension programs; and associate dean of technology for Bellingham Technical College. He has written articles for several peer-reviewed and professional publications on performance, human resource development, and return-on-investment strategies. He also co-authored a management book on organizational performance interventions. Dr. Fusch has worked with numerous organizations as a leadership and organizational performance consultant. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to:

Dr. Lawrence R. Ness is contributing faculty at Walden University and specializes in the areas of IT Management, Business Administration, and Doctoral Research. His research focuses on information technology management strategies towards increased effectiveness and business alignment. Dr. Ness has extensive corporate experience in the area of information technology management and has successfully chaired over 70 doctoral dissertation graduates. Dr. Ness is Founder of Dissertation101 Mentoring Services, LLC. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: or at

Recommended APA Citation

Fusch, P. I., Fusch, G. E., & Ness, L. R. (2017). How to Conduct a Mini-Ethnographic Case Study: A Guide for Novice Researchers. The Qualitative Report, 22(3), 923-941. Retrieved from

Case study research is used when the research topic has to be defined broadly, the research needs to cover several variables and not just isolated ones, or the research has to rely on multiple sources of evidence. In the context of the Global Impact Study, it is useful to note that case studies of specific programs, projects, initiatives, or sites, have become integral to evaluation research to analyze the implementation processes and outcomes.

Unlike an approach that may disembody and obscure, the case study method includes the context as a major part of a study. Case studies can be as explanatory, exploratory, or descriptive. Explanatory case studies present data bearing on cause-and-effect relationships, exploratory case studies attempt to define the questions and hypotheses of a subsequent study, and descriptive case studies present complete descriptions of phenomena within their context.

The ethnographic approach

Studying a case poses challenges since it involves more variables than data points. Some approaches are more suitable than others. The choice of an approach will depend not only on the context but also on the research objective. Research approaches can also complement each other.

Ethnography literally means to “write (or represent) a culture.” Ethnographers look for patterns, describe local relationships (formal and informal), understandings and meanings (tacit and explicit), and try to make sense of a place and a case in relation to the entire social setting and all social relationships. They also contextualize these in wider contexts (e.g., the wider economy, government policies, etc.). While a full-fledged ethnography typically demands long-term engagement in the field, ethnographic case studies can be conducted over shorter spans of time to explore narrower fields of interest to help generate hypotheses. But the critical feature of ethnography — seeking to contextualize the problem in wider contexts — also extends to ethnographic case studies.

Data collection techniques in ethnographic case study research

Ethnography is an approach to research and not a specific data collection technique. It is a multiple technique approach — an ethnographer can adapt and use a mix of methods appropriate to a situation. Frequently, though, ethnographers rely on participant observation to gather data. As a participant observer, the ethnographer is socially and physically immersed in the case to accumulate local knowledge. Yet, in doing so, the ethnographer must be constantly self-critical and reflexive to ensure an analytical description and interpretation of the case.

Research and data collection takes the form of diverse experiences, encounters, relationships, observations, and conversations. This research approach does not allow for fully structured interviews. While the researcher broadly knows the issues to be answered, it is only as the conversations and interviews progress that the next question emerges. Thus, data is collected through “chains of conversations.” Similarly, the researcher begins by identifying key informants. Since the reliability and veracity of the key informants is crucial for the ethnography, every observation made by key informants is triangulated by ethnographers with inputs from others in order to assess accuracy. Talking to the key informants points the researcher to people who may provide further information.

In this way, the collection of data progresses through observations and chains of conversations and informants, and the emphasis on sampling is not adequacy in a statistical or numerical sense but in identifying events and people that contribute to the narrative. This narrative, however, can be subject to testing before it is accepted. In addition, the participants in the case study can be asked for their feedback on any research output so that factual errors may be corrected and differences of interpretation may be appended to the research report.

Using ethnographic case studies for the Global Impact Study

Ethnographic case studies that focus on the social context for information demand, and different uses of information in the three countries should be relevant. Since the goal of the research at this stage is to develop research questions and hypotheses, the case studies should be exploratory and descriptive.

Ethnographic case studies can be used along with other research approaches. For instance, the specific sites for case studies can be chosen on the basis of the census which should identify the different types of information access points (urban/rural, cybercafe/library/school etc.). This need not be a sequential activity — i.e. the case studies can proceed without having to wait for all the census details.

Ideally, ethnographic studies could be conducted at the half dozen locations where the information ecology approach is being deployed. Studying these locations should provide insights into the relationship between users (by age/gender, etc.), uses (commercial, personal, educational, etc.), physical settings (where is the information accessed in the location, where is it used) and activities (when is information accessed and in what situations is information needed) in different contexts. This can be undertaken with participant observation and unstructured interviews. Lest there be any misunderstanding, this activity is not meant to be exhaustive. The purpose is to use preliminary observations and notes from the various cases in each country to identify relationships which, in turn, help generate testable/answerable research hypotheses and questions.

A full-fledged ethnography is not required at this stage. That can be undertaken once the research questions are identified. The full-fledged ethnography can also be combined with other research approaches. For instance, if a controlled experiment is undertaken in a couple or more access centers in the next phase of the study, backing up the study with ethnography at the experimental sites will generate many valuable insights.

ethnographic case study

About the author

Balaji Parthasarathy

Balaji Parthasarathy is a co-Principal Investigator of the Infomediary in-depth study along with Ricardo Ramirez and Andy Gordon. He is also ICICI Associate Professor at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. His teaching and research interests focus on the relationship between technological innovation, economic globalization, and social change. Within this broad focus, his work follows two threads. One thread examines the impacts of public policies and firm strategies on the organization of production in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. Another thread deals with ICTs for development (ICTD). His research includes studies of e-governance projects in India, studies of ICT deployment to enhance agricultural productivity, and analyses of the institutional aspects of the globalization of electronic waste.

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