This resource is a multi-week group assignment to practice a range of qualitative research methods. The assignment is to conduct preliminary research about an issue affecting the university community, in order to identify research and policy priorities about that topic. We developed this assignment as a group project for a ten-week course on community-based research at the University of California, Irvine, but it could be adapted as a shorter or longer-term project for similar courses on ethnographic methods, qualitative research, or applied anthropology.

In small groups of about six, students conducted informal research about issue or problem that affects their shared community: the college or university. Through a series of in-class and take-home activities over several weeks, students gain experience in various stages of the ethnographic research process. In particular, this sequence of assignments highlights the iterative, reflexive, and collaborative aspects of ethnographic research.

The modules are as follows: First, students identify a university-based research topic and community of concern. Second, they practice writing and revising research questions about that topic or group. These research questions are then used to guide an instructor-facilitated focus group. During the focus group, students record data using a variety of different note-taking techniques. After the focus group, students practice coding their data in class. These assignments together provide scaffolding for the final assignment, in which students conduct and analyze an individual interview and present their findings to the group.

Framing the university as “the community” or “the field site” can help unsettle students’ preconceptions about the imagined sites and subjects of anthropological inquiry as “elsewhere.” It also introduces the conceptual and ethical challenges of defining “community” in community-based research. In our experience, it led to fruitful discussions about issues of authority and representation in ethnographic practice, and about the role of researchers’ personal experiences and values in motivating particular research questions.

The project builds students’ practical research skills through experiential learning, preparing them for a variety of academic and professional opportunities. After the course, one student reported how helpful the activity had been in preparing her to carry out an undergraduate thesis project on health care access among older college students. Another student wrote to tell us that she draws upon her experience from the class to conduct stakeholder focus groups in her new job at a large non-profit organization.

In this document, we suggest four potential module topics, activities, and assignments to be carried out sequentially over several weeks, along with examples from our students’ group project. These meetings and assignments can complement additional course content, including readings and lectures about research ethics, methods, and/or ethnographic case studies. In our class, students engaged in Think-Pair-Share activities as well as wrote weekly reflective journal entries on the research process and its connection to course readings.

Instructor’s notes from a focus group with first-generation university students about their pre-college motivations to pursue a college education.
Instructor’s notes from a focus group with first-generation university students about their current motivation to continue their college education.

Teaching Resource Contributed By: Kathryn Cox and Connie McGuire, PhD, University of California, Irvine

Kathryn Cox is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research and teaching interests include environmental health, ethnographic methods, and anthropologies of medicine and science. Her dissertation research examines how environmental health scientists operationalize problems of race and justice in public health research in Southern California.

Connie McGuire, PhD, is the Director of Community Relationships with the Engagement Initiative at the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California, Irvine where she conducts, studies, and teaches about community-engaged research. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist with specializations in Latin American and Feminist Studies.