Now that you’ve waded through some of the issues surrounding interest, access, and ethics, it’s time to pinpoint that perfect site. You may have sites in mind for your research, but you must also frame what you want to know. Is there something about the site or community that is worth finding out? As Harry F. Wolcott says in Ethnography: A Way of Seeing, “Ethnography begins with a researcher’s ability to frame an appropriate question or to recognize what contribution ethnography can make toward understanding some larger issue” (242). As a researcher and writer, then, you must examine the potential significance of your site. That significance can be personal (local) or public (global), but you have to consciously and actively raise questions about what that significance might be.
In a research proposal, the researcher identifies a research site and articulates a particular thought process and plan. First, you need to brainstorm and theorize about the value of your research, what your questions are, and what other, broader ideas your research might be connected to. The research proposal also asks you to create a plan for your data collection. As is the case with most research connected to people and community, things may not always go according to your plan and you may learn things (hopefully) other than things you imagine you will learn, but the proposal is a very important piece of the process. The proposal asks to you question what you know, what you don’t know, what you hope to know and creates a pathway for your research.
The format of your ethnographic inquiry proposal follows what is generally understood as a proposal format, something that you can adapt to a variety of contexts, academic and otherwise. The central elements include:
- a discussion of what you hope to accomplish with background information
- an explanation of why the research is important to you (local) and how you have framed the central questions or lines of inquiry for your research
- a detailed of your research plan — when and where you will conduct research
- a description of the methodology for your research — how you will collect data
- a discussion of how your research or idea or plan connects to the wider community (global) and what others have written, said, or done before you.
The purpose of writing a research proposal is that it will help you clarify your own ideas and questions. If the proposal is assigned as a part of a class, it will also help your teacher provide guidance on how to gather data from your site. Even if you haven’t been assigned a formal proposal, we advise that you walk through the steps in this section and at least sketch out the trajectory of a proposal so that you have a better idea of the focus of your own research.
Students often initially struggle with the discussion sections of their research proposals. They select interesting sites, know why they are interested, and are able to describe research plans and methodologies, but often wonder how to think about their lines of inquiry and clearly state how their research connects to the wider world. As a means of guiding, but not prescribing, ways to think about your research site, you can use some of the following questions as food for thought for potential inquiry before moving into the writing of your actual research proposal.
In communities that bring together people of seemingly similar backgrounds:
How are groups are formed? What the boundaries of the community? What purpose does the community serves. What issues of power, class, gender, generation, ethnicity, identity, values, etc. exist in the community?
In communities that bring together people of different backgrounds:
Why is it so important that people from different backgrounds come together? Why are you so personally interested? Are there subgroups within the community? Is the organization more or less accepting of different cultures than more homogenous organizations/classes/places?
In communities of family, home, circle of friends, or neighborhood:
Are you willing to go in with an open mind and brave heart – look critically and not be scared or intimidated? Why should others be interested in your family or group of friends? Why is this group so important to you?
In communities connected to churches or societies:
What brings people together? How is the group subdivided? How do those subgroups function? What activities have come out of this group? What does the group do for its members? What does it do for the larger society?
In communities connected to US subcultures:
How are you going to get in? Why do you care so much about this community? You are interested, or intrigued, or want to belong to, or admire this group, but why will others? What do you think you will find?