The Library

Narrative & The Ethnographic Inquiry

November 22, 2011  ·  By Zhen Goh

The Cognitive Edge approach borrows features from the Anthropological method of the ethnographic interview, where researchers seek to understand the informant’s culture, and how their cultural universe informs meaning, through a series of carefully constructed questions (Spradley, 1979). Typically, these interviews take place either one-on-one or in focus group discussions. The questions in the ethnographic interview are often designed to encourage the participants to provide descriptive accounts. Researchers are taught to ask probing questions that encourage rich description and insightful recounts; the buzz words are often: “describe”, “in your experience”, “how”, and “could you explain”. These descriptions are ways for the informant to describe their specific culture - culture here referring to “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour” (Spradley, 1972).

Spradley (1972) in his seminal work on “Culture and Cognition” pointed out that descriptive interviews are important in understanding the different perceptions that are ongoing between and within cultures, at any given moment. They are gateways to a vast reservoir of tacit cultural knowledge that is commonly hidden from plain view, but nonetheless, is of fundamental importance as we constantly make use of this to generate other behaviour and interpret experience.


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