YouTube logo

Ethnography skills 4/5 (1)

Enhancing observational skills for the design

Keywords: qualitative data; ethnography; observation; understanding communities.

Aims and Rationale

This activity is designed to enhance students’ observational skills, which is crucial to carrying out an authentic ethnography. In fact, good observational skills are useful to better understand either a community of users or even a subculture. Indirectly, students will learn when to use qualitative data and how to retrieve important information through the use of their personal and detailed interpretations.

Ethnography is widely used in HCI and when analysing the relationship between ICH and communities. It is also a common approach to ICH research.

Learning Outcomes and Associated Areas of Knowledge

Recognise the different ways in which ethnography can support bottom-up approaches to ICH using digital technology

Identify the different uses for qualitative data in the area of ICH

21st Century skills

  • Critical Thinking
  • Scientific Literacy
  • Research Skills and Practices


Projector screen and PC with Internet connection capable of showing audio-visual clips from YouTube.

Students could also Bring Their Own Device (BYOD) if they have a relevant data connection.

The timings of this activity could be ‘flipped’ in that students could be asked to watch the clip at home and then come prepared to do the activity in-class.

How to

Begin by showing the class some visual media demonstrating an interaction holding different levels of complexity of meaning. It is important that the interaction shown has at least an apparent meaning (that the students can describe) and more hidden symbolisms that can be understood only by being part or knowing of that particular subculture.

We chose this scene from the 1972 movie The Godfather. The mafia moral code offers a good opportunity for a variety of interpretations that goes deeper of that the actual shown interaction.

Then, students were asked first to describe the scene, and secondly to interpret what happened. The following list of questions may help in steer the discussion:

What happened? Describe the scene.

A man is asking a favour to the mafia.

Are the participants differentiated from each other?

The rigid hierarchical structure is evident and recognised by the main asking the favour, who prostrates himself.

Is there conflict or agreement?

The tone goes from the former to the latter after the man asking the favour strikes the right notes.

What is the cultural context?

A mafia boss is being asked a favour of a criminal nature from a person who doesn’t have any other option to solve his problem.

What are the behaviours that define the situation the most?

This will encourage students’ subjective answers and will give away the level of depth reached by students’ observations.

Is there any non-verbal activity that you consider significant?

It is likely that the Godfather petting the cat will be picked up her. That action suggests the distance in authority between the two men within the interaction.


Becoming a proficient ethnographer or qualitative researcher requires years of training and experience. Therefore, expecting the students to master these skills in a short time would be setting them up to fail. Alternatively, explaining one or more concept related to ethnography and qualitative data to students which that may not have encountered before gives them the opportunity to test out and experiment with these approaches.

Assessment for Learning

The learning outcomes and skills associated with this activity can be assessed during and after the main observation activity. During the activity, the questions used in conjunction with The Godfather will enable them to experiment with observations and interpretations in the context of the classroom.

After the activity, you may want to encourage the students to further apply their developing skills in a real-world context outside the classroom. For example, by applying ethnographic note-taking to the practical activity of engaging with communities in the area of ICH. Students could work with a community identified by you or by them. Their family community may provide a simple yet powerful opportunity to practice and develop.

Assessment 'How to'

In preparation for this activity, study and analyse the proposed scene yourself to help you familiarise yourself with the level of descriptions and interpretations provided by the students.

You can propose similar exercises to see whether the students develop their observation skills and report significant details and interpretations. Students will see how most interactions can have deeper meanings that go beyond the appearances once having adopted an emic perspective.

This observational exercise could be run as a follow-up part of the interactive lecture on Data gathering.

Please rate this activity:

Download Word File of activity in English
Download Word File of activity in Arabic
Student Assignment Editable Word File


  • Stress the importance between observation and interpretation.
  • Use a video with apparent and more hidden symbolisms.