Workshopping Ethnographic Research Methods: A SGSAH Report

On 4th and 16th March 2021, Alastair Mackie and Amandine le Maire were involved in a Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities’ workshop for PhD students in arts and humanities disciplines on ethnographic research methods, organised by the University of Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt University. During the two online sessions, they introduced research methods that they used during fieldwork, in Scotland and Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya respectively. Between the sessions, the other participants went into the field to gain experience doing ethnographic fieldwork, which they reported on in the second session. Here follows a discussion of their experiences.

Alastair: Researching European Identity in the Scottish Independence Movement

I am doing research on the perception of European identity and meanings of Europe in the Scottish independence movement. I have done fieldwork with pro-independence groups across Scotland, and have tried to do a triangulation of semi-structured interviews, participant observation and focus groups in each location.

However, during my first excursions into the field, I got mixed results. The participant observation took place during events organised by members of the Scottish independence movement, such as marches or meetings. I quickly found this produced good contextual data, but that it was less useful in directly addressing my research questions. The other methods also did not go exactly as I had hoped: one of the focus groups turned into a divisive and heated discussion which resulted in several participants not being able to contribute as they had wished; and although the interviews produced very useful data, I found it difficult to challenge the participants on their view from my position as a researcher.

A supporter of Scottish independence is wrapped in a flag which blends the saltire and European stars at a pro-independence march in Aberdeen, August 2019.
Pro-independence march in Aberdeen, August 2019.

The solution to all three methods happened unexpectedly. When planning fieldwork in Orkney, a local contact suggested organising sessions with small groups of 3-4 people. Although I was first unsure about doing this because it did not fit my planned methods (too many participants for an interview but too few for a focus group), it turned out to be a highly effective field method. It had the best of both worlds: the intimacy of an interview, providing each participant with enough space to express their views, and the variety of a focus group, enabling different participants to challenge each other. It resulted in conversations during which participants were able to talk freely to each other about their thoughts and opinions on what are potentially controversial topics. Although most participants knew each other to varying degrees, many also told me after the sessions that they learnt a lot from each other. Indeed, during most of the sessions I just guided the conversations with occasional questions but then mostly observed the participants interview each other.

Thus, I felt I had finally achieved a way of doing participant observation which was useful to my research: participating in communities by providing a new space for community interaction, and then observing the community interact within that space. I learnt that although it is undeniably important to plan fieldwork, it is just as important to remain flexible in the field and to not be afraid of doing things differently.

Amandine: Deaf in Kakuma Refugee Camp: Methodological Considerations

Regarding the Kakuma Refugee Camp, the PhD project focuses on deaf people’s forced migration into the camp. Kakuma refugee camp counts over 197,000 registered refugees as its inhabitants, coming from 13 Sub-Saharan African countries. On my first day of fieldwork on 9 February 2018, my aim was to begin meeting the deaf people living in the camp. My main method used is ethnographic research, meaning I conducted participant observation in spaces where deaf people congregated. These spaces were typically within the deaf units, in the deaf refugees’ houses, in the adult learning places and generally where deaf people meet in the camp.

At the beginning it was at times difficult to identify the places where deaf refugees were gathering as a lot of them live quite far from each other in this large and sprawling camp. I first went to meet The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Handicap International now called Humanity and Inclusion (HI), both of which have been working with people with disabilities. I investigated these NGOs’ role in accommodating deaf spaces. HI took me by car to visit a cooking course funded by HI that six deaf refugees attended in the Kakuma town, a Turkana city near to the Kakuma refugee camp. The six deaf refugees led me to other places where deaf people were living and I started to get to know and trust one specific deaf refugee, Moses (name changed). Moses went on to become my key informant. Key informants often direct the ethnographer to situations, events, or people likely to be helpful in my ethnographic fieldwork (Byrman, 2012). Moses was a fountain of knowledge and was able to tell me a lot about deaf refugees living in the camp, help me find them and access events and activities that deaf people took part in throughout the camp.

A group of four women and one man sit in a circle talking to one another.
One of the houses in Kakuma Refugee Camp where deaf refugees are often gathering.

After a month, I found a few other places where small groups of deaf people meet each other on a regular basis. One of them is a shop owned by a deaf Somali woman where approximately 4 to 10 deaf refugees spend time together, talking with one another. The number of attendees varies depending on the day, and often the numbers are higher when they meet at lunch time or in the evening because the deaf Sudanese women will prepare food for them. When I discovered this place, I started spending a lot of time there.

In conclusion, the process of starting fieldwork is often long. For me, it took a lot of time to adapt and adjust to the new place as I was learning a new language, finding a network of people, contacting different NGOs and finding places relevant to my research.

Workshop Results

The photographer holds their journal up in front of the camera with a drawing of the tree in the distance on the journal page.
Drawings of the tree from Baxter Park from Katie Potapoff

Further confirming this variety of ethnographic methods, the participants of the workshop presented diverse results to their ethnographic explorations. As part of their practical task, the participants could either undertake an interview or do participant observation in an environment of their choice. Most of the participants in our group chose the latter, and we heard accounts of their observations in different places such as graveyards, parks, beaches and more.

During these participant observation sessions, some of them used fascinating ways of being immersed in the place.

A particularly creative approach to fieldwork was presented by a student who made drawings of her surroundings as a way of taking fieldnotes. Passers-by were interested in what she was doing and asked her about it, whereby she was able to engage them in conversation. Thus, the drawings were more than just fieldnotes but became a form of participant observation. Additionally, drawing the field meant she had to observe the field in great details, resulting in particularly thick descriptions. This way of co-creating data rather than collecting data in a traditional manner is an interesting approach to participant observation which is particularly applicable to the arts and humanities.

Alastair Mackie is a doctoral research student at the School of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Heriot-Watt University. He is a member of the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, as well as of the international doctoral research program “Transformations in European Societies”, a joint project of cultural studies institutes of several European universities. His doctoral research focusses on European identity and meanings of Europe in the Scottish independence movement. His research interests are Scottish-European political and cultural relations following the UK’s departure from the European Union, and the perception of supra-national identities within small states. He has previously studied Scottish Ethnology at Edinburgh University and Small State Studies at the University of Iceland.

Amandine le Maire is a PhD researcher from Belgium, based at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Amandine is part of a research project called MobileDeaf (Deaf mobilities across international borders: visualising intersectionality and translanguaging) supervised by Dr. Annelies Kusters. Her research interests are deaf space, relocation and displacement of deaf people. Her interest in relocation led to a PhD focusing on forced migration, more specifically on deaf refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. She is going a qualitative research on deaf refugees from different countries and with different linguistic backgrounds, investigating their lives and experiences in the camp.

If you’re interested in writing a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email

Feature Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s