Listening deeply and treading carefully: why ethnography matters

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In policy, people and communities are often portrayed as problems or statistics. Dr Hannah Green discusses how ethnography allows us to understand a richer narrative.

We couldn’t have agreed more with Dr Reuben Andersson’s recent thought piece for Radio 4, sharing his experiences of carrying out ethnography and its continued relevance in the world. In this he writes:

“Ethnography is research on the slow boil – something that’s getting harder to justify at a time when our public debate increasingly favours the quick flash in the pan. Yet amid calls for more media soundbites, ready-made research metrics and pre-cooked policy ‘solutions’, this is precisely why we need it more than ever.”

Ethnography is a research method which is gaining attention; both in academia and as part of the way we understand society and form policy responses which are relevant in an increasingly complex world. At The Young Foundation we use ethnography to deeply understand the experiences of the people and communities we work with. It is only from this point of understanding that we are then able to act, and support others to take action.

Our Amplify work in Wales, Leeds, Northern Ireland and Sheffield, as well as research projects in Essex and Corby, have demonstrated the power of listening deeply and treading carefully. It requires taking a longer-term approach to research to understand a place from the point of view of those living there. Ethnography allows us to uncover alternative narratives and ways of understanding society which cannot be uncovered by a survey or quantitative data set alone. As highlighted by Dr Andersson:

“Rather than dig for killer facts, good ethnographers aim to uncover something deeper about how a society or subculture works – and it does so by changing perspective to that of the insider.”

In this way we are able to recognise people and communities; not as passive recipients, but as active participants with knowledge and expertise that should help to drive decision making processes and change in their own communities.

In policy, people and communities are often portrayed as problems or statistics, divorced from their contexts, daily lives, landscapes, histories and cultures.

Ethnography allows us to display a richer narrative, one which doesn’t overlook the problems that people face every day but also recognises the strengths that exist in communities and the actions that these same people are taking  to create change.

This methodology has the potential to change the big story of a place because it continually compares, questions and challenges this story with new insights and voices which were previously under-heard at best, unheard at worst. By bringing these voices together we create a platform for community-led innovation and wider system change.


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