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Quick Ethnography

reviewed by Maryann Dickar - 2003

coverTitle: Quick Ethnography
Author(s): W. Penn Handwerker
Publisher: Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA
ISBN: 0759100594, Pages: , Year: 2001
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Quick Ethnography is full of valuable advice and is an efficient method for developing, executing and analyzing ethnographic field projects.  Handwerker draws on his extensive expertise to demonstrate how ethnographers can avoid some of the inefficiencies and pitfalls that have hampered their work.  He uses his own research projects as models to demonstrate his method providing concrete examples to help readers grasp the techniques and their purposes.  It is always useful when an experienced researcher opens up his practice to others, and that is a great strength of this book.


The underlying principle of Quick Ethnography (QE) is to use time in the field most efficiently to create the most effective and accurate studies.  This method relies on both qualitative and quantitative methods to gather data (interviews, focus groups, surveys, lickert scales, etc.), and employs an impressively broad range of numerical and statistical techniques such as scatter-plot analysis, Lexis diagrams, bootstrap, jackknife, permutation tests, multiple regression models, zero-order analysis and Ordinary Least Squares regression, to analyze that data.  Though neophyte ethnographers will benefit greatly from much of Handwerker’s general advice, the text is not written for beginners as he assumes readers have mastered most of these methods.  He does explain some of the more novel methods he employs, like pile-sorts, in greater detail as these are techniques developed specifically for QE.  Pile-sorts involve having participants sort cards with variables on them along continua created by the researcher.  In addition to pulling together such a broad repertoire for quantitative data analysis, Handwerker spells out broad principles, which would make many ethnographic studies more efficient, even if researchers do not follow his entire model for analysis.   


He begins by laying down a set of ground rules that are crucial, obvious and often ignored.  Prior to beginning field research ethnographers should create a clear vision of where they want to go, how to get there, and how to avoid getting lost as well as insuring that they use their time to greatest advantage while they are in the field.  Towards this goal, he elaborates on two Field Preparation Rules and two Fieldwork Rules.  These rules recognize the messiness of field research with a touch of humor that reminds us that this method was forged in the field.  For example, his Field Preparation Rules are: “All ways to think about the world of experience contain errors, but you have to start somewhere (p. 37)”; and “Murphy’s Law understates the facts; it will go wrong even when it can’t (p. 71).”  


These rules acknowledge that confusion, false assumptions, and mistakes are part of ethnographic work and should therefore be anticipated in the project design.  Toward that end, he suggests using iterative data collection.  As early interviews offer new insights or dispel assumptions, researchers should use further interviews and focus groups to clarify and fine-tune their questions.  Building iterations into a study ensures that data become more focused and useful as the study progresses. This is one example of the solid advice found in Quick Ethnography.


In addition to these rules, Handwerker defines three phases of a research project—building a foundation, building a database and fine-tuning findings.   Recognizing these stages, though in QE they overlap, is a useful clarification of the research process.  In the first phase, the researcher sets up official meetings and makes initial field contacts. Here, the researcher should use formal interviews to get at assumptions informants make about their world.  Also, in this phase, the researcher should examine aggregate and historical data to contextualize the community being studied.  Additionally, the researcher would put together a research team and use this process, as well as all interactions, as sources of data.


The second phase involves building the database.  Structured interviews, surveys, lickert-scales and pile-sorts enable the researcher to identify the properties of cultural experience and to locate similarities and differences amongst informants.  During this phase, the researcher should also make comparisons, find relationships between variables and informants, and test hypotheses and assess the effects of random-error. 


The final phase involves fine-tuning the project.  As researchers document the construct validity of the culture or cultures they study, they must explore intracultural and intercultural variation.  In this section, (chapters 7 and 8) Handwerker raises interesting issues about what constitutes a culture, how we define boundaries between cultures, and he raises many useful questions about the nature of communities.  He also argues that many researchers conflate community and culture.  Researchers must ask, if all participants in a community share the same culture.  Are there multiple cultures in any community?  What shapes the different cultures?  How do we draw lines between them?  How can we tell what are variations within a culture and what are distinct cultures?  These questions are important, and Handwerker offers some techniques to tease out these differences.   Handwerker’s examination of these issues is interesting though researchers will have to decide for themselves if his methods like scatter plot analysis, surveys built around lickert and binary scales and pile-sort data will get at all the nuances in a meaningful way.  


Quick Ethnography offers useful rules of thumb as well as a sophisticated system of numerical and statistical techniques to interpret a wide variety of data.  However, the notion of “quick” is a misnomer.  Handwerker assumes researchers will have connections to establish themselves in the field quickly. He also assumes they will have the resources to support a research team and knowledge of and access to a long list of computer programs to facilitate this analysis.  Many researchers do not have such luxuries and do much of their data collection themselves.   The “quick” of QE is more available to very experienced and well-funded researchers.  For this reason, I think a more appropriate name for the general system Handwerker spells out would be Efficient Ethnography. 


Handwerker’s method is complex, thorough, and detailed.  It is not “quick” and easy, as the name suggests.  Focusing on quickness takes away from the thoroughness of this system and distracts us from QE’s great underlying principle: efficiency.


Emphasizing quickness also raises ethical concerns as well.  Gaining access to communities and building the trust to get inside a culture takes time and should not be rushed.  Given that the relationship of researcher and subject often contains significant power imbalances, how do we know our data are not saturated by this relationship?  How does our own historical relationship to our subjects shape their responses to us?   Handwerker does not examine ethical questions endemic to ethnographic research that warrant further discussion.  His focus is exclusively on describing a specific method for collecting and analyzing data, but do the ethical questions we must ask arise only before we enter the field?  Are they then resolved or must we continuously attend to these concerns while we collect data and while we analyze it?  Given the thoroughness of this method, it is disappointing that some of these issues disappeared completely.


Handwerker’s method offers valuable advice and a wide variety of techniques to develop high quality scholarship with greater efficiency.  However, the researcher who employs QE must remember that we cannot sacrifice respectful and ethical ethnography for speed and efficiency.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 120-123
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10996, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 11:21:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Maryann Dickar
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    MARYANN DICKAR is the Program Director of NYU’s Alternative Certification Initiative as well as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning. She conducts research on how new teachers develop, the connection between teacher education and teacher practice and on school culture. She is particularly interested in urban education and examines the roles of race, class, and gender in shaping school experiences for students and teachers. She has published articles on the impact of race on teaching practice.
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