Meaningful time and Ethnography

This week I was teaching a couple of research workshops; one about undertaking ethnographic research. This is the acompanying blog post, focussing on one of the key points of our debate: time–time spend conducting fieldwork.

Time and Ethnography

One of the terms I started using when speaking about time in undertaking fieldwork, is that of spending meaningful time. But what exactly is meaningful time? In my opinion meaningful time is time that allows patterns to emerge, that enables the researcher to virtually turn over stones and poke at dark corners; meaningful time is time that enables the researcher to take a step back and question assumptions. The key for being satisfied with stopping fieldwork is that patterns, and deviations from patterns, were observed.

V&A Dundee photo taken looking through the buildings which looks like two up side down stairs meeting above ground building an arch

Jeffrey and Troman (2004) explore the notion of time and patterns more closely. While no one can tell an ethnographer when they are ‘done’ with their fieldwork the ‘time modes’ the authors have defined provide a helpful guidance, and supplement our seminar discussions well. I particularly like how these different modes demonstrate the potential for ethnography even within limited timeframes.

A compressed time mode

A compressed modeinvolves a short period of intense ethnographic research in which researchers inhabit aresearch site almost permanently for anything from a few days to a month.

(Jeffrey & Troman, 2004, p.538)

A selective intermittent time mode

This mode is one where the length of time spent doing the research is longer, forexample, from three months to two years, but with a very flexible approach to the frequency of site visits. The frequency depends on the researcher selecting particular foci as the research develops and selecting the relevant events.

(Jeffrey & Troman, 2004, p.540)

A recurrent time mode

A recurrent research mode is one where temporal phases formalize the research methodology. These research projects may aim to gain a picture by sampling the same temporal phases, e.g. beginnings and ends of terms, school celebratory periods such as Christmas, examination periods, inspections.

(Jeffrey & Troman, 2004, p.542)

Fieldwork needs to take place over a period of time so that contradictory situations can emerge (Jeffrey & Troman, 2004) and this can happen within a day, a week or might need months. As with any research approach it depends on what you need/want to explore.

What is it you try to understand?

Which questions to answer?


Jeffrey, B. and G. Troman (2004). “Time for ethnography.”  30(4):535-548.

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