Escape from the Laboratory: Ethnographic Methods in the Study of Elder and Family Court Mediation
The randomized control trial and pre/post research designs are commonly used in applied research and provide common standards for mediation evaluation research. These approaches have many benefits, particularly for evaluating whether mediation as an experimental intervention works or not.
Scholars and practitioners, however, want to know not only whether mediation can work as expected but also how it works in a range of real-world contexts over time. In these contexts, ideal experimental conditions are less likely to occur. Challenges include such circumstances as the following: the number of cases suitable for statistical comparison is insufficient; researchers lack control over how mediation is implemented; researchers lack clear, objective variables to measure; and the variability of mediation outcomes when studied over time makes it difficult to draw conclusions about them.
My research has involved each of these challenges, and I have used ethnographic research as a way to evaluate mediation in these contexts. In this article, I explain ethnographic methods and present two studies as examples of mediation evaluation research that began with a standard program evaluation design, and then incorporated ethnography to allow more complete data collection and analysis. My purpose here is not to argue that experimental methods in mediation evaluation research should be displaced but rather to demonstrate how ethnographic methods can be used when the conditions necessary for standard evaluation cannot be met. The two studies used as examples are from an elder mediation study in Ghana and a family court mediation study in the United States.