The term ethnography is batted about a fair bit. I’ve got an interest in ethnographic research but wouldn’t describe myself as an expert. One thing that I’ve noticed is that different people use the term in very different ways and the people who describe themselves as “ethnographers” seem to be no exception in this. So I thought I’d use this post to set out what I understand by the term and see if I can crowdsource a bit of ethnographic wisdom.
In essence when people talk about ethnographies they are usually describing fairly holistic and long term qualitative research. The techniques employed by ethnographers to find stuff out are usually grouped under the term “fieldwork” and seem to be pretty diverse and include such things as:
Participant observation, especially seeking to notice things like patterns, common behaviours and rituals. Participant observation also seeks to notice the gaps between what people say and what they do. Sometimes some of this observation might be recorded using photos, videos, research diaries and other means.
Network analysis (such as observing and recording the relationships that exist within a community or a family)
Topographic observation and analysis
Examination of documents and written and print culture
Observation and analysis of material culture
The important thing is that research takes place in the field (where people are) rather than in the lab (where you bring people to look at them).
The analysis of fieldwork results in the production of a (usually written) document which is also called an ethnography. One of the key tasks for this written document is to notice and report on the ways in which people make meaning out of their environments and their lives. The purpose is not just to record the things that people do, but rather to explore how and why they do them. Ethnography also seeks to notice the assumptions and received wisdom that underpins a culture. What is it that is too obvious to be said?
Ethnographers seem to take a range of different perspectives about their role as a researcher. For some the ethnographer’s role is to watch and observe, record and analyse, but not to intervene and change. Others however critique this idea and note that the process of research is an active intervention into what is being researched. This can then lead to the idea of participant research or co-ownership of research between the participant and those who are researched.
Ethnography has been accused of imperialist urges and of legitimising the idea that other (non-European) cultures are alien and strange. However some ethnographic researchers would argue that they try and investigate a wide range of different cultures including those of the dominant and mainstream cultures. Many ethnographers conduct research in the communities that they themselves live or lived in. Furthermore there is recognition that ethnography is not the objective recording of the research subjects, but rather a record of an interaction between different participants and the cultural values that they bring with them. Even more than that it is the interaction between the ethnographer themselves and their experiences and this has lead some ethnographers to argue that ethnographies need to be written up in ways that emphasise their biographical elements.
So have I got it about right? What else to I need to know/think about? What should I read (see my CiteULike ethnography tag)?