What is ethnography?

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.
  • Interviews
  • 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
  • Historical analysis

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)?


  1. A couple of things come to mind. Firstly that anthropology, the discipline most commonly associated with ethnography, is about the pursuit of human universals; things that can be said of all peoples, and that perhaps making comparisons between ethnographies tells us more than any single work does in isolation. Secondly for me, this dovetails with ideas about participant observation as we get to explore our own culture through the act of watching and recording others. I like this as it???s pretty honest and believe that social anthropologists have long been good at recognising the impact their observations have on events, with some, like Nigel Barley, turning this into literary success beyond academia. Ps – As first year anthropology students in the 1980???s we all watched the fantastic ???ethnographic??? film ???Trobriand Cricket??? where the islanders had adapted the game to meet local requirements. Villages would pick their own totems, such as the airplane which people mimicked in dance anytime anyone was caught out. Chants like ???my hands stick like PK chewing gum??? were also used, again with each village creating their own victory songs. I remember one clip where the team mascot dressed up as an American tourist over-enthusiastically taking pictures of the game with a fake wooden camera while wearing sunglasses and check shirt. A foreshortened version can be found here, but am not sure if this helps your current mission or not… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk9_EqPh7YE

  2. Thanks Andrew. The film is brilliant. I think that it kind of fits with what I’m trying to talk about in terms of online ethnography. I’ll probably post some more stuff along these lines soon.

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