Ethnography is often both iterative and inductive in the way it proceeds. I summarise this approach as iterative-inductive. But what does this mean?
In deductive research, the researcher comes up with a hypothesis based on what he or she thinks is already known (or based on a theory about the given thing) and then the real world is explored, and data are collected, in order to test the hypothesis. A hypothesis (a suggestion that needs testing) looks something like this: ‘I hypothesise that girls do better at school than boys because they have a better attitude to studying.’ This is something that can then be examined by, for example, asking girls and boys about their attitudes, or by observing them, or by doing a survey, and then looking to see if a good attitude to schoolwork correlates with good attainment.
An inductive approach, on the other hand, is where the researcher begins with as few preconceptions about what he or she is studying as possible. Here theories are devised to explain what is seen rather than the other way around. Some people talk of this as starting out with a blank sheet. Ethnographers tend to believe that if they begin their work with theories to test they will end up only seeing things through that specific lens, or focus. They will not learn as much as about the group or phenomenon as if they begin with a more open mind. Also, ethnographers are less likely to be looking for patterns and regularities and more likely to be interested in the messy, complex worlds they participate in and observe. So, if an ethnographer is interested in girls and schoolwork, she will probably want to understand all about a schoolgirl’s daily life, friendships, and home life (if possible); attitudes to school will also be learned about but in this case within the wider context of the school children’s communities and families.
However, it is somewhat naïve to think an ethnographer can be entirely inductive; and anyway it would be impossible to achieve. Everyone starts their research with some ideas about what they are interested in, and everyone leaves some people or some focus, or some group out of the picture. In the example I have been using, an ethnographer may not be able to go into people’s homes and do participant observation, or may exclude boys from the study (doing research in a girls school, perhaps). She may have some ideas about why she thinks girls do better at school, and/or she may have certain people like a teacher or supervisor advising her about what she should be studying. This is better understood if you understand reflexivity.
What an ethnographer does, instead, is accept that to an extent he has some preconceptions, some goals and theories, and practical limitations to his work, but he tries to minimize the effect of these, or to work with them as advantages. While trying to keep as open a mind as possible, to see the complex nature of the world around him, and not to close his mind to things that would otherwise surprise him, he also draws on the theories and concepts from his studies as they become useful. This involves a constant to and fro (an iteration), of participating, observing, writing, reflecting, reading, thinking, talking, listening, participating, in a circular rather than a linear way. Ethnography is therefore both iterative and inductive; more like a voyage of discovery than an examination.
Have a look at my books on ethnography for more discussion of this approach.