Published: 05.01.2023

When discussing ethnography, we generally think of anthropology. However, current public policy combines methods from various disciplines from our complicated world. There is no fixed methodology or a single solution to our rapidly-evolving problems. As society changes, the issues follow in its transformation. Ethnography offers us a lens to observe and understand human’s behaviors. 

We may be able to identify “what” the problem is, but do we understand “how” the problem came to be? Does our solution only focus on fixing the problems, or can it change the conditions that caused the problems in the first place? 

It cannot be denied that ethnography is a delicate and time-consuming process. The qualitative process requires lots of conversations and a good deal of time. Due to the time and resource constraints of policy work, rapid ethnography was therefore created. It helps reduce the time needed to extract data while keeping to the spirit of anthropological research. 

“Ethnography is trying to understand human beings and their conditions without judgment

helps extract information that quantifiable data sometimes miss.”

How to conduct a rapid ethnographic study?

One of the key findings UNDP’s Asia Pacific Innovation Center took from a rapid ethnographic study about circular economy approach to address waste in Metro-Manila in 2021 is the necessity of an ‘ethnographic mindset’ in researchers. This mindset is based on the following.

  • Be open-minded: Focus on observation without judgment 
  • Observe: The researcher is aware of the situation and what is happening around them. 
  • Try to empathize with another person: Understand the feelings and connect with the other person. This allows for a transparent and ethical exchange of ideas. 

The factor that distinguishes rapid ethnography from its traditional counterpart is its timeframe. UNDP’s researchers suggest that the preparation and conducting process will take 3 months, split into the following:  

  • 1 month of preparation (research team formation, developing interview questions, locations, and list of interviewees)
  • 1 month of research
  • 1 month of data analyst 

UNDP states that 10-15 interviews is an appropriate amount. Preferably, the interviewees should be diverse and come from marginalized groups. The researchers in the Metro Manila area interviewed 23 people. This is further separated into residents, government officials, civil society organizations, start-ups, businesses, students, and circular economy actors. The interviews were spread over a 3 week period. 

The next crucial element is the interview questions. These will allow us to better understand the interviewees, their thoughts and what influenced their mindset. For example:

  • What does the interviewee think about our research?
    • Do they think it’s necessary? Why?
    • In the interviewee’s opinion, do they see the connection between our research and other issues? Or are there issues they cannot see a connection with?
  • What are the interviewees’ behaviors? For example, the UNDP’s research tried to determine the interviewees’ consumption and recycling habits.
    • What are the positive and negative impacts of their actions?
    • What are the factors that influence their decisions to do / not do something?
    • What are incentives for them to do / not do something? 

We can see that these questions do not immediately identify the issue or the cause of it. Instead, it allows the participants to share their lived experiences. Consequently, people will share the reasoning behind their actions. The focus on people’s perspective is what is often absent from traditional research, which often focuses on solving or identifying the issues. For example, in Thai demographic studies, the interest is mainly on the low birth rate and policies to increase fertility (i.e. China’s Three Child Policy). The rising number of women in the workforce is often cited as the main reason why people are reluctant to start a family. 

Even though the research is done with good intentions, when women’s freedom to work is deemed the cause of the ‘problem,’ is it unfairly shifting the blame on women? The rigid framing of ‘problems / solutions’ closes off the opportunity to ask “why do people not want to follow our desires?” To illustrate, see the formation of “6B4T” feminist movement in China. The group rebels against the patriarchy, refuses societal expectations placed upon women like motherhood and marriage, which forces women to take an inferior position to men. For 6B4T, marriage is not just a tool to increase the population/labor pool.  We cannot overlook that in a patriarchal society, marriage is one of the mechanisms used to keep women under control and tie their value to giving birth. This is the reason why some Chinese women are intensely against childbearing.

Additionally, we lose the opportunity to ask ourselves “does our desires cause issues for others?” For example, we view the lack of children as an issue, but have we considered how raising a child in a society filled with gender inequality and lacking child support policies can lead to lost opportunities to the pregnant person? If we look back at research and policy proposals about incentive for having children, we can see that limited time and financial power is the key factor behind why many chose to be childfree. Thus, the method to increase fertility rates is a better social welfare system, which helps transform Thailand into a place where you would want to raise a child. 

Economic factors are only a part of these complex issues. We have not acknowledged other cultural beliefs that can cause marriage to feel like a cage. We have not delved into disabilities, citizenship, ethnicities and gender diversity, which all influences an individual’s choice to have children. We still view the population as a huge homogenous mass, instead of millions of people with different lived experiences, social status and obstacles. 

While we are busying ourselves with publishing research and policies, the details of these diverse lives may fall through the cracks and become forgotten. The policies become top-down affairs and a chasm is created between the policy makers and the people affected by the issues. Is it time to perceive humans in a more complex way and create policies that reflect and support these complexities? Not policies that try to force the change we want, while leaving so many people behind.  

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