What is an Ethnographic Interview?

An ethnographic interview is a research method used to study the culture and social practices of a particular group of people.

A question within an ethnographic interview may involve asking for more information related to religious or cultural practices that the client observes.

Ethnographic interviews were initially introduced in the field of anthropology and other social sciences; however, it has gained more recent attention in the field of speech-language pathology and other related services (e.g., OT, PT, etc.) that place emphasis on cultural competencies and cultural responsiveness.

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Here are some examples of questions/statements you might find in an ethnographic interview:

"Tell me what mealtime looks like to you and your family."

"What languages are spoken in your home? What is your preferred language to communicate?"

"How do you usually like to greet a friend or family member?"

In the context of speech therapy, ethnographic interviews can be valuable in several ways. These include:

  • Building a positive rapport: We know as therapists that rapport and building a strong connection can significantly impact the way therapy is delivered and received. When we show an interest in the client’s cultural background, language preferences, and communication needs, we are more likely to establish a more collaborative relationship with the client and family. This type of relationship can positively impact carryover and comfortability when asking clinically-related questions or for more support.
  • Reducing existing biases: Research demonstrates that implicit bias is pervasive throughout the education and healthcare systems (Arora, 2017). In the field of speech-language pathology, this is evident in the “normative sample” referenced in many formal diagnostic assessments. Ethnographic interviewing can challenge any existing unconscious attitudes or beliefs and create a more inclusive approach to screening and assessment.
  • Developing culturally responsive interventions: Answers obtained from ethnographic interviews can give us valuable insights into our client’s cultural backgrounds and nuances of their communication styles (if any). By gathering this information, we can be more deliberate in creating more culturally responsive interventions.
  • Identifying speech and language differences vs. disorders: Ethnographic interviews should collect information about the client's language(s) spoken and the contexts in which different language(s) may be used. This also includes any cultural or social factors that may affect the way language is communicated. With regard to speech sound production, it is important that as the therapist we are aware of any dialectical differences that may be present and that they are appropriately identified as such (versus being identified as a disorder).

Traditional Interviews vs. Ethnographic Interviews

The primary differences between ethnographic and traditional interviews are the types of questions asked and how the information obtained will be used. It is important to note that information gathered from traditional interviews is important; however, it can leave many significant gaps in the client’s case history if we entirely exclude ethnographic information.

Traditional interviewing usually focuses on obtaining specific information about the client’s clinical background and communication skills (e.g., date of birth, age of first words spoken, primary modes of communication, etc.). Based on this information, the therapist may use standardized assessment techniques to develop a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Conversely, ethnographic interviewing aims to gain a deeper understanding of the client’s cultural background, beliefs, and practices related to communication. Questions asked in ethnographic interviews tend to be more open-ended to provide a wider breadth of information related to the client’s personal experiences, perspectives, and values. This can help with selecting the most appropriate formal and/or informal measures used to evaluate the client and (if warranted) move forward with treatment.

In summary, ethnographic interviews can provide a more client-centered approach that actively considers the client's culture and value systems. When combining ethnographic information with traditional interview questions, SLPs can develop a broader understanding of their clients, their needs, and personalize treatment to benefit the individuals they serve.

References & Resources:


SLP Nerdcast Episode - Beyond Bilingualism: the role of culture in speech-language pathology  






Chat GPT, personal communication, February 23, 2023