Rapid Ethnographic Assessment


Rapid Ethnographic Assessment: A method designed to quickly and efficiently gather ethnographic data using the triangulation of quantitative and qualitative measures, or the triangulation of several qualitative approaches, which employs an iterative process for data interpretation and analysis. Rapid ethnographic assessment is used in a variety of situations to gain ethnographic data. The method grew from targeted health research design and is now used to assess a variety of social contexts.

Relevant Characteristics

Rapid ethnographic assessment techniques are commonly used in health, development, agricultural, and heritage programs. [1] . [2] The method is usually associated with agencies and/or situations in which research must be completed quickly regarding a pressing concern. Outcomes for this research are targeted at gaining sociocultural data to provide a human-centered approach to solving existing issues. Anthropologists have used rapid ethnographic techniques to assess international development programs and tourist programs. Anthropologists also have a history of working with REA techniques in interdisciplinary teams, especially with experts in public health and heritage management.


1. REA was born of a need to complete ethnographic research quickly and efficiently. The method is used to assess a specific question and/or theme in a rapid timeframe.

2. The method focuses on gaining an understanding of a situation from human perspectives.

3. Throughout, there is a large concentration on triangulation of various methods (REA is a set of methods)

4. REA relies on local informants and encourages community participation.

5. Usually includes more than one researcher (interdisciplinary).

6. Requires an iterative research and analysis process.
The main goals for the REA method are to gain a suite of data to address a problem or concern quickly and efficiently. Within this, the project must work to gain information from community informants, and to great goal of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment is to provide iterative approaches to data collection and interpretation. Research in a team-based environment is thus a key component of many REA methods.

Rapid assessment methods have been used both within the United States and internationally. It has been used by agencies such as “United States Agency for International Development, United Nations University, United Nations International Children’s Education Fund, and the World Health Organization” (Taplin et al. 2002: 81). Rapid ethnographic methods can extend beyond these sectors, and are widely applicable to several situations. Situations most often associated with REA techniques include disease management and response, environmental impact analysis, disaster management and response, community programs, and international development. Rapid Ethnographic Assessment models grew from two different main areas, public health and rural agricultural development projects. Further, they grew out of a rise in the availability and practicality consultancy hires in service agencies, which allow for the hire of expert researchers without requiring the payment of a full-time salary.[3] [4]
REA focuses on targeted, community-based engagements. There are variable sample sizes based on the research question, the working environment, funding, and the size of the research team. Certainly, one of the greatest elements related to sample size for REA engagements is lack of time—which is central to the method/design. REA users can account for time constraints and complete an adequate project by assessing the number of researchers in the research team, the labor/manpower available from community members, as well as the length and depth of their methods. REA is constrained by feasibility. It is a method that should be used to gain data surrounding a specific topic, not a large amount of data. Gaining random samples can be difficult, but researchers can use purposive sample methods which help to garner perspectives from a variety of constituents in a project. Further, researchers can work to make sure that the several methods used compliment and correlate with one another. This way, researchers can gain a maximum number of perspectives in a limited time frame.

Common combinations for this method include interviews, focus groups, surveys, and observation. REA can also include mapping or other qualitative methods such as pile sorts, free listing, or photo methods. There are several variations of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment (REA). Rapid Assessment (RA) is used by UNICEF for HIV/AIDS work, Participatory rural appraisal (PRA) is commonly used in agricultural studies, Rapid Assessment, Response, and Evaluation (RARE) is used widely in public health, Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure (REAP) has been used in studies of National parks and other U.S.-based programs, Focused Ethnographic Study (FES) is used by the World Health Program, and Participatory Rapid Assessment (PRA) is commonly used in social and ethnic studies. Each of these are examples of iterations of rapid assessment that are directly related to a field of interest.

“Method Made Easy”

  1. Identify problem or area of interest.
  2. Gather existing data and/or build from existing understandings of the research context.
  3. Define a targeted research question/theme.
  4. Assemble a research team which includes (ideally) multidisciplinary researchers as well as key informant community members.
  5. Design and implement a suite of methods that includes quantitative and qualitative data collection techniques, or the triangulation of several qualitative measures.
  6. Continuously assess design and ensure iterative process for data collection and data analysis.
  7. Complete the project within time frame (usually 3-7 weeks or up to 4 months).
Common Components of REA Approaches:
  • Behavioral Observation Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Free Lists
  • Key informant Interviews
  • Participatory Mapping
  • Participatory Transects/Transect Walks
  • Pile Sorts
  • Vignettes/Scenarios (i.e. asking respondents do describe their likely actions in a hypothetical scenario) [5] [6]


Certainly, one of the greatest advantages of REA methods is the fact that the method can be used to complete research very quickly to gather ethnographic data in short time periods. When carefully designed, REA procedures are replicable, and highly useful in practical situations. Cost efficiency—both in terms of training costs as well as research costs is another clear advantage.

REA draws from a variety of perspectives and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and academic/professional links. It also incorporates participant perspectives, and as a rule seeks to engage community members in a participatory way. The findings from REA projects translate well to policy because of the timeliness of the data collected. Further, the use several data methods, which can allow for both qualitative and quantitative representations of data, the inclusion of several disciplinary backgrounds, and the focus community perspectives which are inherent in the research design are attractive in policy and applied audiences. Multiple researchers and multidisciplinary teams serve to reduce observer bias, which is also a benefit in both policy and academic-oriented situations. [7] REA often addresses a need to gain sociocultural understanding through ethnographic data collection outside of academia.


Limitations of REA are also related to the time constraints of the method. REA should be completed using prior knowledge from key informants and community members, as well as prior research, as a touchstone. Without this prior knowledge/touchstone data REA endeavors can fully miss the mark, and even be harmful. REA relies heavily on key informant data. Thus, the receptiveness of the community, as well as the quality of key informant perspectives directly impact the validity and reliability of REA work.

REA practitioners find it difficult to gain a significant sample, as the time factor requires that researchers sacrifice the ability to test for statistical significance in favor of rapid information gathering. REA techniques are critiqued for having decreased reliability and validity when compared with traditional, longer-term ethnographic approaches. Practical concerns for researchers include a need to understand various methods. Also, as the method usually requires a team of researchers, planning, analysis, and method, research design can be difficult to maneuver without proper planning and collaboration.


Analysis of REA data will include several techniques/methods. Usually, an REA framework will include qualitative and quantitative data collection. Thus, the researcher(s) will most likely employ both statistical (SPSS, SAS) as well as qualitative data software (Anthropac, AtlasTI). The most important component of data analysis for REA includes triangulating data (comparing that which is found from the several different methods for overall themes and comparability), ensuring that community voices are heard through key informants, and allowing for interdisciplinary collaborative analysis. The analysis of REA data is iterative, and may require a re-draw of themes, findings, and theory.

Method in Context

REA techniques and methods are highly relative to the situation being studied, the team of researchers conducting the evaluation, and the influence of local key informants. This method is sometimes criticized for being less valid and less reliable than traditional ethnography. The time factor of REA makes it very difficult to gain complex data and to understand the intricacies of varying social contexts and subcultures. REA is a problematized method within the discipline of anthropology for that reason. Harris et al. note that “conclusions from RAP may not have external validity” and that the “amount of time spent in the field may threaten the accuracy and reliability of conclusions drawn.”[8] However, others highlight the usefulness of REA, despite these concerns. As Bernard puts it, “the point here is that if you have a clear question and a few, clearly defined variables you can produce quality work in a lot less time than you would imagine” (Bernard 2010:265).

Taplin et al.’s 2002 article which uses REA to understand tourists perceptions of visitors to National Parks in Philadelphia, is an excellent example of rapid ethnographic methods in context. They outline the REAP model, or Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure model, which is used in this case to gain data on community values and ethnicity/identity related to the park’s current model in order to better serve specific cultural groups through park features and attractions. The authors do an excellent job of elucidating the evolution of the REAP method, its uses, and its historical problems and pitfalls. The authors use a combination of several methods, to complete their research, including interviews, transect walks, focus groups, and behavior mapping. They also clearly outline the methods, duration of the method data collection, the product, and the take-aways from each method choice[9] .

Overall, REA methods are an excellent tool for research when designed to meet specific research needs. While REA is certainly not a replacement for longer ethnographic studies, the timely and critical social and cultural data gained by REA approaches is extremely relevant in today’s charged and ever-changing research environment.

Online Resources

Batelle Business REA Handout:

Family Health International Rapid Assessment Guide:

National Park Service Park Ethnography Program:

Further Reading

Bloom, Fredrick et al.
2003 Philadelphia’s Syphilis Outbreak in Gay Men: An Application of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment for Public Health in the U.S. Practicing Anthropology 25(4):28-32.

Cornwall, Andrea and Rachel Jewkes
1995 What is Participatory Research? Social Science and Medicine 41(12):1666-1676.

Griffith, David
2009 Procedures to the Study of Tobacco Farm Workers. in Invisible Anthropologists: Engaged Anthropology in Immigrant Communities. Alayne Unterberger, ed. Indianapolis: Wiley-Blackwell.

Manderson, Lenore and Peter Aaby
1992 An Epidemic in the Field? Rapid Assessment Procedures and Health Research. Social Science and Medicine 35(7):839-850.

Scrimshaw, Susan and Elena Hurtado
1987 Rapid assessment procedures for nutrition and primary health care:Anthropological approaches to improving programme effectiveness. Tokyo: United Nations University Volume 11.

Vlassoff. Carol and Marcel Tanner
1992 The relevance of rapid assessment to health research and interventions. Health Policy and Planning 7(1): 1-9.


  1. ^

    Taplin, Dana E. et al. (2002) Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Parks. Human Organization 61(1):80-93.
  2. ^ Trotter, Robert T. et al. (2001) A Methodological Model for Rapid Assessment, Response, and Evaluation: The RARE Program in Public Health. Field Methods 13(2):137-159.
  3. ^

    Beebe, James (2001) Rapid Assessment Process: An Introduction. California: AltaMira Press.
  4. ^ Taplin, Dana H. et al. (2002) Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Parks. Human Organization 61(1):80-93.
  5. ^ Bernard, Russel H. (2011) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Anthropology. California: AltaMira Press.
  6. ^ Taplin, Dana H. et al. (2002) Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Parks. Human Organization 61(1):80-93.
  7. ^

    Harris, Kari Jo et al. (1997) Rapid Assessment Procedures: A Review and Critique. Human Organization. 56:375-378.
  8. ^

    Harris, Kari Jo et al. (1997) Rapid Assessment Procedures: A Review and Critique. Human Organization. 56:375-378.
  9. ^

    Taplin, Dana H. et al. (2002) Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Parks. Human Organization 61(1):80-93.