Adaptable ethnographic methodology in a post-disaster changing landscape

Cashel Mall, one of the four case study sites, during a fieldwork day

How adaptable has to be an ethnographic methodology when everything around it is quickly changing?

The change from building science to social sciences was a challenge from the start. Learning about ethnography, running a fieldwork pilot, getting into participant observation – which resulted in nearly four full notebooks of 100 pages each – and doing 86 in-depth interviews was a lot. Then the time would come for the subsequent steps of transcribing interviews, coding and memoing notes and transcriptions. All under control until here, but there were more challenges ahead.

My research is about adaptation, and I somehow had to mirror it as my case study is a post-earthquake environment. I had to constantly adapt to be able to carry on. Over the 18 months of field work sites opened, others closed, some were gone forever and others were fixed, renovated and came back to life. In the middle of the turmoil I was investigating how the urban environment affects daily lives and climate experience. Considering the city’s context, there were times when studying climate felt like an unimportant issue.

At the start of this work I had in mind that a research methodology had to be like a cake recipe. It is not enough to say ‘add eggs’, you need to say how many and what size, otherwise the instruction for the cake making is not reproducible and the result will be different. But what if the site and especially its context is not reproducible in itself? What if the environment where the fieldwork takes place is a constant changing one? This made me aware of the methodological challenges in post-disaster environments in general, and perhaps this is also important regarding climate change and consequent sociocultural adaptation uncertainties.

All this ‘methodological process’ will be presented at the end of this month  at the CELA 2014 Conference. My supervisor, Simon Swaffield, will present it and I am looking forward to the comments that will come from our presentation.

I am also interested in knowing about what were your major methodological challenges. What area are you studying?

2 thoughts on “Adaptable ethnographic methodology in a post-disaster changing landscape”

  1. 86 in-depth interviews sounds terrifying – the thought of transcribing it all is the most scary.
    I just wondered if you could perhaps suggest a few pointers for ethnographic studies – given that you’ve gone through the process – particularly how to effectively maintain a field diary (if such a thing is possible!), for example perhaps by making a proforma or something else? (Or can you not yet reveal it until the forum is over?/have you already written about this?)

  2. Hi cyanideandcoffee,
    Yes, 86 in-depth interviews is a lot and I transcribed all of them by myself as well. It is not a pleasant task, but it is worth doing. Having all the transcriptions to go back to, double check details and choose quotes from was very helpful. I have not used Nvivo for this research, but think it is a good idea.

    I was completely new in this field and my ‘guide’ was the book “Analyzing Social Settings: a guide to qualitative observation and analysis”, by Lofland, Snow and Lofland ( I followed their advice for pretty much every step of the research and think it is a great guide.

    Along the process I had both a research journal and a field journal. In the field journal I wrote all the details of the specific site activity during the field work days. I also had a ‘post-interview field note form’ which I filled for each interviewee just after the interview. This had questions related to where they chose to sit (if it was in the sun, in the shade etc.), if they had hot or cold drinks, how they were dressed and so forth. All related to their behaviour in relation to climate as my research is about this theme.

    I am finishing the methodology chapter this week and, as I mentioned in the text above, we will present the research methodology in a conference this month. I might put the presentation on SlideShare after it is presented. Will let you know.

    I intend to write a full blog post about the methodology I adopted and another one about the analysis. Might do in the next couple of weeks, let me know if there’s anything else you’d like me to cover in these posts.

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