08 January 2018

Ethnography, Case-Study Research, and Program Evaluation (Oh my!)

What is Case-Study research? What about Program Evaluation? What role can Ethnography play in these other approaches to social research?

As an anthropologist, "Program Evaluation" and "Case-Study Research" were familiar terms to me. But these were not methodological approaches or reporting styles that I had received formal training in. I had a vague idea of what both of these terms meant and how they might apply to my research. In fact, I had never thought much about what these kinds of approaches would look like combined with ethnography, or how ethnography might be used to do this kind of research... until recently.

Between September and December 2017, I had the opportunity to learn more about these research approaches in my role as a research associate with the Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation (OCWI). OCWI was launching a new series of case-studies on programs and practices in Ontario that demonstrated an innovative approach to workforce development. Based on rigorous research, and in keeping with OCWI's mandate, a case-study should evaluate the program or practice, and based on this evidence, explain how "these practices can be transferred, scaled up, and made relevant for the broader workforce development sector." The research associate supervising these case-studies envisioned using ethnography to help ground the impacts of the case-study project or practice in the everyday lives of community stakeholders.

One of the great strengths of ethnography is the iterative nature of our approach to social research, allowing you to shape your research questions and follow up on leads that you didn't expect. So,  what does it mean to bring an ethnographic research approach and perspective into a project where the framework is very clearly defined through case-study research? How can ethnographic insights provide meaningful metrics in evaluating a program or process or practice?

As we have noted elsewhere on the blog, it is important (and expected) that anthropologists learn to speak the langauge of their research participants. For an anthropologist venturing into the realm of interdisciplinary, alt-ac research, it is also important to learn to speak the langauge of our employers and their stakeholders.

This is where I chose to start this project: by learning to speak the language of case-study research and program evaluation. As a social research professional, I quickly found that these other approaches are really more like dialects than completely different languages.

For a basic introduction to Program Evaluation, check out these Open Learning modules on Interdisciplinary Program Evaluation from Ryerson University:
  • Module 1: The Basics of Program Evaluation
  • Module 2: Logic Models
  • Module 3: Qualitative Tools in Program Evaluation
  • Module 4: Performance Management
After reviewing these different modules (described as covering about "10-15% of a a one-semester undergraduate, graduate or certificate course"), I had a much better idea of how a program evaluation project is framed. Knowing that program evaluation was a key component of this case-study project, these modules helped orient me in many ways to the task of this case-study project. I could see what ethnographic research could contribute in this type of study, better consider what kinds of questions I should pursue as the project developed, and how I would need to frame my results in my report.

Next Monday, check back for more in our "Ethnography & ..." series exploring the connections between Ethnography and Case-Study research through this project.

Quick links: