Understanding Collaborative Ethnography

Collaborative ethnography, what on Earth does it mean? Let’s start by trying to deconstruct it and hopefully we’ll all be a little bit wiser by the end of this.

  • Ethnography is the study of people and cultures from the point of view of the subject – although the definition varies somewhat from the points of different ethnographers.

Ethnography is best when it is collaborative as it allows the researcher and their subject/s to connect (thus collaborative ethnography is born!) This form of research, as defined by Luke Eric Lassiter (2005), means that the researcher and the collaborator equally contribute throughout the research process, allowing an authentic dynamic. It warrants all parties involved to gain a greater understanding of the culture or social environment in question.

Collaborative ethnography is useful when examining contemporary media because it is possible to explore concepts in more depth. As I discovered when conducting an interview for my previous blog! It involves, as Lassister (2005) discusses, more than just collaborating on a single thing but continuously collaborating throughout all the different stages during the research process, “from fieldwork to writing and back again.” (Lassiter, 2005)


Lassiter’s (2005) definition of ethnographic collaboration differs from many prior views ethnographers have had. Previously “ethnographers have emphasized collaborative relationships between professional researchers, not necessarily between researchers and their collaborators.” (Lassiter, 2005) Collaboration becomes a more inherent process of a researcher intertwining with the local community as “active collaborators”.

In my last BCM240 blog I used collaborative ethnography to explore memories of television by collaborating with an individual from an older generation. Granted, it’s pretty easy to collaborate on something when that person is your dad, and someone I feel comfortable talking to. By using this method to analyse contemporary media use in the home it allows the researcher (as well as, possibly, the collaborator) to better understand it and make sense of it. For my interview with my dad, we discussed and thought about how television has changed, comparing our childhood memories, the interview was not so much like an interview and much more like a conversation between two equals, again this was easy because I have a comfortable relationship with the collaborator. Undertaking the collaborative ethnography process with a stranger would require the researcher to develop a relationship, gain trust and establish a mutual understanding with the individual or community participating. Often when collaborative ethnography occurs the collaborator has a genuine interest in helping the researcher – and vice versa – with the topic they are being interviewed about.

In many other research processes, the researcher becomes the superior and the subject is the inferior. However, collaborative ethnography calls for an equal balance between the two and rather than the researcher always being the more knowledgeable one the collaborator often ends up teaching the researcher something.

Essentially, collaborative ethnography allows for a collective effort from the researcher and the local community that are contributing to the research. Collaborative ethnography is often most beneficial when exploring more sensitive issues. Although looking at memories of television was not the most sensitive topic it still included delving into a person’s emotional history.

Honestly, before now I’d never even heard of ethnographic collaboration, or much less knew what it meant. But having read Lassiter’s reflection of the research he undertook, it seems to be a much more interesting form of research which truly values those who the researcher is collaborating with. Lassiter (2005) wrote that the “emergent and collective push for a collaborative ethnography is part of a much larger and time-honored effort to construct a more equitable social science.”

One of his examples of collaborative ethnography is when he was studying Narcotics Anonymous (NA), where he met Mike who agreed to help with the research. Lassiter says that he “began to realize that for Mike, choosing to do ethnography with me meant much more than providing a ‘better understanding of culture.'” Mike genuinely wanted to help Lassiter understand NA and also provide his story so that it might help others in his situation. Lassiter says that Mike taught him to serve others through his work. This idea of research helping both the researcher, the collaborator and the wider public is an example of how collaborative ethnography has the ability to benefit people.

Where quantative research focuses on a larger mass of subjects to gather data, collaborative ethnography is a qualative form of interactive research that supports a greater understanding of peoples and cultures. When looking into aspects of contemporary media use in the home this form of research is good to find the underlying reasons for people’s technology patterns and movements.


Lassiter, L., 2005. The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography. Chapter 2, Defining Collaborative Ethnography Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.15 – 24.


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