Ethnographic Research at UMass Amherst

Ethnographic Research at UMass Amherst

(adapted with gratitude from the University of Connecticut)

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research does not always fit neatly into the confines of an IRB application due to its unique characteristics. However, ethnographic research still requires IRB review under the federal regulations, in order to ensure that participants are treated ethically.

The IRB recognizes that ethnographic research has the following special characteristics (Arwood, T., and McGough, H., 2007 PRIM&R SBER Conference):

  • It is experiential
  • It is interactive
  • It is not easily bounded by time and place
  • It is often exploratory
  • It morphs easily and often (new questions emerge during research)
  • The boundaries between normal activities and communication and data collection are blurred

This document is intended as a guide for ethnographic researchers to navigate our Kuai Protocol application form.

Study Procedures

In this section, please provide an overview of how you will go about conducting your ethnography. We recognize that research plans are flexible and may change once you are in the field, but in general, please describe:

  • The kinds of methods, in addition to ethnography, that you will be using in the field (e.g. participant observation, interviews, focus groups, etc.)
  • What will be observed (individual behaviors, community practices, societal norms, etc.) to help the IRB get a sense of what will be analyzed about the participants.
  • How you will decide who to focus on in the community (what criteria you will use to determine the number and demographics of participants, how you will determine when data collection is complete, etc.)
  • Describe where the research will be conducted, and why this setting was chosen. If you have conducted research at this site or with this population previously, briefly describe this.
  • Describe whether local governmental or community permission is required to conduct research at this site – if so, please describe how you will obtain this permission. If there is formal documentation of the permission, please attach it to the attachments section of Kuali.
  • Some countries, and some communities, have their own ethical review requirements, or their own IRBs. Additionally, many countries have the expectation that foreign scholars will collaborate with local scholars and institutions. Explain whether this applies to your research, and if local IRB or other types of ethical review board approval will be obtained.

Subject Population

We recognize that it is not always possible to know ahead of time which or how many people will be involved in the research. In this section, please describe your anticipated participant population to the best of your ability. Specifically:

  • Describe the kinds of people who will be involved in the research – if there are different groups or categories of people, describe the groups and the approximate number of participants anticipated to be enrolled in each group.
  • If the exact number of people to be enrolled are unknown, provide a range.
    • If you find that you are going to exceed this estimate once you’re in the field, please submit a revision to your protocol. These are processed quickly.
  • With regard to “recruitment”, please explain how you’ll introduce yourself as a researcher to potential participants. If you already know the participants, please explain the circumstances. If you’ll be introducing yourself to a group or a community, or if there are culturally specific norms to obtaining consent, please detail this here.


The American Anthropological Association describes that, “unlike experiments and trials in clinical settings, which have clear beginnings and endings, ethnographic research generally is ongoing, at times sporadic, and takes place in dynamic, natural settings, often where participants are able to decline to participate at any point in the process. Just as in daily life, in these natural settings of research there may be a high probability of risk, but the magnitude of such harm, like uncertainty, mild embarrassment or boredom, is usually low” (

The major risks of harm in an ethnographic research project usually involve the risk of invasion of privacy, stigmatization, or breach of confidentiality. When describing risks to participants in an ethnographic setting, please consider the following:

  • Identify the risks of harm that may result from this research. Harm may happen to individuals, or to the groups or communities to which they belong. Examples include:
    • Physical risk – This is usually not a risk in ethnographic research, but could be a risk if you are asking participants to engage in a physical activity, such as a walking tour
    • Psychological risk – Participants may experience stress, discomfort, embarrassment, guilt, etc. when thinking and talking about experiences and opinions about particular topics.
    • Social risk – Participants may encounter stigma or condemnation by their peers. There may be a social risk to the entire community or group.
    • Economic risk – This is not usually a risk in ethnographic research, unless your study takes participants away from profitable activity.
  • Describe the steps you will take to minimize the risks of harm. If harm occurs, what plans to you have to manage it?
  • The potential social risks, particularly in the event of a breach of confidentiality (e.g. disruption of family and personal relationships, embarrassment, uncertainty, discomfort)
  • In politically volatile regions, consider the potential risks to participants of being involved in the research project, and the steps that you will take to protect them.
  • If there are different risks of harm for different groups of participants, please describe the risks for each group. Often this cannot be known in advance of entering the field; if you find once you arrive in the field that the original risks you have indicated are inaccurate, or that new risks have emerged, please inform us as soon as possible by submitting a revision to your protocol.


  • If participants will not directly benefit from participation in the research, please state this.
  • Describe any direct benefits that participants will receive from participation in the research. Please note that compensation is not considered a benefit of participation.
  • You may also state the anticipated benefits of the research for the community you will study, for your field, or for society in general.

Attribution and Confidentiality

While the IRB generally strives to protect the confidentiality of research participants’ data, this is not always the goal in ethnographic research. Sometimes participants desire attribution for their words and ideas. When filling out your Kuali application, please address the following:

  • Describe how you will ascertain how the people in this setting feel about the fact that you will write articles about them. Will you consult with the people from whom you collected data before you publish? Will you allow them to read over your work and provide input on whether they feel they are represented accurately?
  • Sometimes, even with pseudonyms, it may be possible to reidentify participants based on contextual factors. If this is the case, due to the location or characteristics of the group you are studying, be sure to disclose this possibility fully in the informed consent.
  • If some of the participants in your research would prefer to have attribution in subsequent publications, explain how you will provide this option to them, and how this may affect those who do not desire attribution with regard to limits of confidentiality.
  • Are any portions of the research material you may collect not publicly available and expected by community standards to be private? If so, please describe which materials are private, and explain:
    • How you will store the private information or materials – both while you are in the field and after you leave the field – so that the confidentiality of the data is protected
    • Whether you will retain information that could lead to identification of the research site and explain any negative consequences this could have
    • If you will record any direct participant identifiers (names, contact information) that could be linked to the private research material.
  • If you will record identifiers, please explain why and describe how you will protect against disclosure of this information, or explain why it is not necessary. If you will retain identifiers linked to data, explain:
    • How long identifiers will be kept
    • How confidentiality will be maintained during this period
    • Who will have access to the data (sponsors, advisors, government agencies, etc.)
    • In each case, explain whether they will have access to study data with identifiers or only to coded data with no access to the identifying study code. If identifiers will be maintained indefinitely, explain why (e.g. you intend to recontact participants or communicate with them over a long period of time, the data is identifiable by nature, etc.)
    • How you will protect the data from a breach of confidentiality
  • If you will retain data that may place participants at risk for criminal or civil liability or be damaging to their financial standing, employability, or reputation, please explain. It may be advisable to obtain a federal Certificate of Confidentiality in this case.

Consent Process in Ethnographies

The three key components of informed consent for any research project are communication of information, comprehension of information, and voluntary participation. Since ethnographies often span years and involve ever-evolving relationships, informed consent often becomes more of a long-term process than a one-time event. As such, please consider and describe the following as you write your protocol:

  • How will you inform people about your research and obtain their consent to participate? If you are introducing yourself to a group, and asking permission to observe them / record field notes, describe how you will allow people in the group to decline to participate.
  • Please let us know of any culturally specific considerations to the consent process (e.g. if it is inappropriate to obtain a signature and it would be better to get “verbal” consent, if it is appropriate in a community to obtain permission from a group of elders before approaching individuals in the group, etc.) and how you will incorporate these considerations into your consent process
  • In the case of a long-term or multi-stage project, consider how you will you work to continually obtain consent from participants – in particular, how you might provide opportunities for people to withdraw from the project entirely, or withdraw particular conversations or interactions from being included as data

Please note that if obtaining a signature on an informed consent document is not appropriate for your participant population (e.g. if participants are not literate, if signing documents is viewed with distrust, etc.), the regulations do provide the option to waive the signature requirement and instead obtain consent verbally. If this is the case for your research, select “alteration” from the informed consent section of Kuali, and answer the questions that follow. If you have questions about the best way to obtain informed consent from your participant population, please feel free to call our office to discuss the particulars of your project.

We understand that the typical informed consent template may not be appropriate for ethnographies, and encourage researchers to craft the consent document to fit the needs of the community (e.g. a letter, an oral script, etc.) The consent process is flexible, but generally must include a communication of the following elements:

  • Statement that the project involves research
  • Explanation of why you are conducting the research
  • Expected duration of participation (if relevant, you can mention that there are different phases to the research project, and that participants will be re-consented during subsequent phases)
  • What participants will be asked to do
  • A description of any risks or potential benefits to participants or others
  • A discussion of confidentiality or attribution
  • Explanation of compensation, if any
  • Explanation that participation is voluntary, and participants may discontinue involvement at any time
  • An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects' rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject

If your informed consent document or information sheet needs to be translated into another language, please attach a translated copy to the informed consent section of the protocol once all rounds of comments are complete and the document is finalized.

Assent Process in Ethnographies

If you will be collecting data on children as part of your ethnography, please describe the assent process that you will use to make sure that the children wish to participate. Please also describe how you will obtain parental permission. Please inform us of any cultural considerations with regard to parental permission (e.g. who is the most appropriate person to provide permission for a minor to participate in the research? What is the age of majority in the location where you are conducting research?)

Audio/Photo/Video Use

Some ethnographies involve audio recording participants (during interviews, focus groups, etc.) or taking photo or video images of people.

Our general guidance on audio/visual data collection is available here:

However, there are a few additional considerations when these methods are used as part of an ethnography:

  • Is the consent process for the use of this data continuous? A participant may consent to being audio recorded initially, but later change their mind – is there a mechanism for this?
  • If you are photographing or video recording community events, how will you ensure that only those people who agree to being photographed or video recorded are included in the pictures/footage?
  • If data collection persists over several years, is there a way to check back in with participants to see whether they have changed their mind about the use of their images or video recording?

Ethnographic Interviews

We recognize that ethnographic interviews almost always involve conversation and improvisation. As best you can, please provide us with a rough outline of the kinds of questions that you will be asking of participants. This does not need to be a comprehensive interview schedule, but rather a list of the themes you hope to address, and a representative sampling of the kinds of questions that you will ask. This can be included in the attachments section of Kuali. If you find, once you are in the field, that the focus of your research project has changed and you are asking new questions about different themes, please submit a revision to your protocol.


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