Why Use Ethnography? To Tell a Deeper, More Authentic Community Story

A large regional foundation used ethnography as one component of the evaluation of a five-year initiative to engage young people as leaders in improving community health outcomes. “We wanted to get around the limitations of pencil and paper” methods of evaluation, says a program officer. “Otherwise, you end up hearing only from the most literate people. So much gets lost in translation with traditional evaluative methods. We wanted to get around barriers to participation like language and literacy.”

The ethnographers helped to document a key point of learning from the initiative, that “twelve-year-olds have a level of concern and desire to work for their communities that is almost completely disregarded by almost every institution.” Ethnography demonstrated that these young people, when asked to accept responsibility in the initiative, did well. Ethnography also documented, with great richness of detail, another key outcome in the community’s dynamic: the “depth and breadth of social networks” that were being built, “who was connecting with whom, who was bringing in whom, and how.”

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This takeaway was derived from Getting Inside the Story.