Ethnographic Methods for Community Visioning

Karen Gaul, The Evergreen State College
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Rich narrative data we gather through ethnographic interviews can offer important insight into people's values, priorities and goals. Ethnographic methods can be applied in real community planning processes to "take the pulse" of the community, gather a variety of perspectives, and help to shape a planning process. This teaching model is based on work done at The Evergreen State College to help shape a Master Plan for the college's Organic Farm. (A similar approach is being used with the City of Olympia in their Imagine Olympia outreach process for writing a new comprehensive plan). A community planning process is undertaken by students to interview a variety of stakeholders, identify various positions and priorities with regard to the Organic Farm, and report back to the college. The project emphasizes student research as real, applied research; empowering and giving voice to various stakeholders; learning and applying ethnographic and other methods; and working cooperatively together as a consultancy team. Students will develop a wide range of skills that will be critical for future work.

Learning Goals

Sustainable communities are those that work together on issues of common concern. Ethnographic methods can serve as a backbone methodology for community envisioning processes.

The project emphasizes student research as real, applied research; empowering and giving voice to various stakeholders; learning and applying ethnographic and other methods; and working cooperatively together as a consultancy team. Students will develop a wide range of skills that will be critical for future work.

Context for Use

Ethnographic methods can be used in any community planning process whether on campus or in the broader community. Engaging invested parties before implementing change, gaining a wide variety of perspectives about a development process, and using those perspectives to determine the direction of change and growth can mean more of a sense of ownership, and less criticism after change is underway.

The Organic Farm at the Evergreen State College, for example, was at a crossroads. The college decided to offer a program/class that would enable students to do the work of collecting public opinions and perspectives that could inform the direction of growth and change at the Organic Farm.

This approach could be appropriate for any number of planning or community engagement processes.

Timeframe: This process could be used for a single assignment or, as in the case at Evergreen around the Farm planning, could be the topic of the entire class for one or more quarters. In this case, we had only a ten week quarter for this community planning process, and it was a relatively short window.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This process could potentially work in other disciplines or interdisciplinary programs or classes, but only those trained in ethnographic methods should teach these methods.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

Working as a "consulting group," the class identifies skill sets that each student brings and/or wants to strengthen (i.e., writing, photography, communication, GIS, etc); identifies tasks that need to be done; and breaks up into different working groups, including a student "steering committee." All students help to design interview, questionnaire and focus group questions and scripts. All participate in the interview process (as questioners, notetakers, recorders and/or transcribers), contribute to analysis, and help with background research.

Learning Activities

1. Information Gathering:
  • search college archives for history of the Organic Farm
  • speak with founding faculty
  • read the farm vision statement and the Campus Master Plan
  • guest visits from numerous key stakeholders
  • research of other college campus farms, farm to fork, and farm-network programs
2. Skills Building:
  • practicing taking minutes at all guest speakers, public events and so on (faculty read and offer feedback on their minutes so students get trained to carefully document their own process)
  • practice staying on task during work meetings (gently notice when students get caught up in their own views rather than the process of gathering other people's views)
  • learn use of audio and visual recording equipment, including a lab for sound recording, editing, transcribing and storing (such labs may be offered by your Media Services department)
  • learn how to store and manage data, and prepare it for archival storage (librarians or campus archivists can help direct students in preparing data for long-term storage)
  • learn how to document our own process (this is the specific task for some students.)
  • learn how to construct effective research questions (This can be time-consuming and challenging, but is a critical process)
  • learn to construct effective interview questions (All of these must feed into research question; teach about operationalizing more abstract values and ideas)
  • write a well-prepared Human Subjects Review application based on interview and focus group questions that have been carefully crafted and tested
  • learn how to apply particular methods for desired outcomes: archival research, literature review, questionnaire or survey, interviews, focus groups, and charrette.
  • spatial analysis and use of and construction of maps (use of GIS, use of existing images, where to find map resources, etc. Preparing information through maps and spatial images is critical for easy public understanding)
  • learn to code and analyze narrative data
  • learn to apply statistical analysis to survey data
  • begin drafting out descriptions of the project, history of the Farm, and scope of our work
3. Data Gathering and Analysis
  • set up interviews and focus groups with members of the on-campus and off-campus communities. Make thoughtful decisions about who the key stakeholders are and which should be invited for a guest talk, interviewed or included in a focus group
  • work with institutional research to devise a web-based survey or questionnaire
  • visibility: students partnered with another program, Green Studio, to tape out a design for a new classroom and lab at the Farm on Red Square on campus. At this event, our Community Planning students took street surveys, signed people up for interviews and focus groups, and let people know about our work
  • conduct interviews and focus groups
  • analyze responses for trends, shared concerns, priorities
  • begin to write up analysis
4. Charrette
  • identify key stakeholders to bring to the table for planning
  • share initial findings from focus groups, interviews and surveys (in our case, students had developed a documentary film clip (and later a longer film)
  • facilitate a process for group visioning, priorities setting, and next-steps planning based on information that has been gathered from the community
  • document this process and include in final report
5. Final Report
  • Includes executive summary, scope of the project, history of the farm, methodology, findings from interviews, focus groups and questionnaires, documentation of charrette process, conclusions and recommendations. This document is a critical resource for the college, and summarizes the perspectives of over three hundred on and off-campus participants.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is a very ambitious process to undertake in ten weeks. The list of possible stakeholder groups can rise very quickly to say, 30-50 different groups, with perhaps hundreds of people in any one of them. So it's important to help facilitate the setting of parameters for the process early and often. Also, the process can feel a bit chaotic for students who may be used to content-based courses, where what they need to learn is pretty clearly laid out. The outcome for this process is not known at the beginning of the term. There is a lot of uncertainty, but this is where learning and growth can really happen. In "real world" community planning or visioning, there is lack of clarity and uncertainty while we set up the process, gather data, and try to make sense of them.


  • The work of the program; demonstration of a good command of skills and concepts for conducting community outreach work for community planning process.
  • Portfolio assessment including weekly progress reports, minutes of key meetings and speakers, documentation of and samples of student research and writing contributions, documentation of their participation in the interview and focus group process.
  • Committed and professional approach to the work of the program.
  • Informal assessments or feedback mechanisms, such as "classroom assessment" strategies, e.g. one-minute papers, etc.
  • Students write minutes from each guest speaker, which are read initially by faculty, and then by peer reviewers.
  • Students choose various tasks (researching other campuses, other food to forks programs, other organic farm/campus programs, media (film and audio recording), spatial research [including GIS], and do this work. Some students serve as a Steering Committee. All students write weekly reports of their work in these various areas. Each keeps a portfolio of their work for the program. Portfolios are assessed at week 5 and 10. Students make note of who is involved in various sub-committee work.

References and Resources

Lennertz, Bill and Aarin Lutzenhiser. 2006. The Charrette Handbook: The Essential Guide for Accelerated, Collaborative Community Planning (American Planning Association).

Simon, Judith Sharken. 1999. The Wilder Nonprofit Field Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Groups (Fieldstone Alliance).

Schensul, Stephen, Jean Schensul, and Margaret Diane LeCompte.1999. Essential Ethnographic Methods: Observations, Interviews, and Questionnaires (Ethnographer's Toolkit) (Altamira Press).

Rubin, Herbert and Irene Rubin. 2005. Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data (Sage Publications).

Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher. 2000. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most (Sage Publications).

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. 1995. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing).