(Greek ἔθνος ethnos
= people and γράφειν graphein
= writing) is a genre of writing that uses fieldwork
to provide a descriptive study of human societies. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic
research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing
and colonial office reports. Several academic traditions, in particular the constructivist
paradigms, employ ethnographic research as a crucial research method. Many cultural anthropologists
consider ethnography the essence of the discipline.
Cultural and social anthropology
and social anthropology
were developed around ethnographic research and their canonical texts which are mostly ethnographies: e.g. Argonauts of the Western Pacific
(1922) by Bronisław Malinowski
, Coming of Age in Samoa
(1928) by Margaret Mead
, The Nuer
(1940) by E. E. Evans-Pritchard
, or Naven
(1958) by Gregory Bateson
. Cultural & social anthropologists today place such a high value on actually doing ethnographic research that ethnology
—the comparative synthesis of ethnographic information—is rarely the foundation for a career.
Within cultural anthropology, there are several sub-genres of ethnography. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing "bi-confessional" ethnographies that intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research. Famous examples include Tristes Tropiques
by Claude Lévi-Strauss
, The High Valley
by Kenneth Read, and The Savage and the Innocent
by David Maybury-Lewis
, as well as the mildly fictionalized Return to Laughter
by Elenore Smith Bowen (Laura Bohannan
). Later "reflexive" ethnographies refined the technique to translate cultural differences by representing their effects on the ethnographer. Famous examples include "Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight" by Clifford Geertz
, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco
by Paul Rabinow
, The Headman and I
by Jean-Paul Dumont, and Tuhami
by Vincent Crapanzano
. In the 1980s, the rhetoric of ethnography was subjected to intense scrutiny within the discipline, under the general influence of literary theory and post-colonial
thought. "Experimental" ethnographies that reveal the ferment of the discipline include Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man
by Michael Taussig
, Debating Muslims
by Michael F. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, A Space on the Side of the Road
by Kathleen Stewart
, and Advocacy after Bhopal
by Kim Fortun.
Cultural anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz and Xavier Andrade, study and interpret cultural diversity through ethnography based on field work. It provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life. Ethnographers are participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought.
Other related fields
Psychology, economics, sociology
, geography and cultural studies
also produce ethnography. Urban sociology
and the Chicago School
in particular are associated with ethnographic research, although some of the most well-known examples (including Street Corner Society
by William Foote Whyte
and Black Metropolis
by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Caton) were influenced by an anthropologist, Lloyd Warner
, who happened to be in the sociology department at Chicago, and by sociologist Robert Park whose earlier career had included journalism. Symbolic interactionism
developed from the same tradition and yielded several excellent sociological ethnographies, including Shared Fantasy
by Gary Alan Fine
, which documents the early history of fantasy role-playing games
. But even though many sub-fields and theoretical perspectives within sociology use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non
of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.
Education, Ethnomusicology, Performance Studies, Folklore, and Linguistics are others fields which have made extensive use of ethnography. The American anthropologist George Spindler (Stanford University) was a pioneer in applying ethnographic methodology to the classroom. James Spradley is another well-known ethnographer, especially for his book, The Ethnographic Interview, published in 1979.
Ethnographic methods have been used to study business settings. Groups of workers, managers and so on are different social categories participating in common social systems. Each group shows different characteristic attitudes, behavior patterns and values.
Anthropologists like Daniel Miller and Mary Douglas have used ethnographic data to answer academic questions about consumers and consumption. In this sense, Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson describe design ethnography as being "a way of understanding the particulars of daily life in such a way as to increase the success probability of a new product or service or, more appropriately, to reduce the probability of failure specifically due to a lack of understanding of the basic behaviors and frameworks of consumers."
Businesses, too, have found ethnographers helpful for understanding how people use products and services, as indicated in the increasing use of ethnographic methods to understand consumers and consumption, or for new product development (such as video ethnography). The recent Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference is evidence of this. Ethnographers' systematic and holistic approach to real-life experience is valued by product developers, who use the method to understand unstated desires or cultural practices that surround products. Where focus groups fail to inform marketers about what people really do, ethnography links what people say to what they actually do—avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported, focus-group data.
- Direct, first-hand observation of daily behavior. This can include participant observation.
- Conversation with different levels of formality. This can involve small talk to long interviews.
- The genealogical method. This is a set of procedures by which ethnographers discover and record connections of kinship, descent and marriage using diagrams and symbols.
- Detailed work with key consultants about particular areas of community life.
- In-depth interviewing.
- Discovery of local beliefs and perceptions.
- Problem-oriented research.
- Longitudinal research. This is continuous long-term study of an area or site.
- Team research.
- Case studies
Not all of these techniques are used by ethnographers, but interviews and participant observation are the most widely used.
Gary Alan Fine
argues that the nature of ethnographic inquiry demands that researchers deviate from formal and idealistic rules or ethics that have come to be widely accepted in qualitative and quantitative approaches to research. Many of these ethical assumptions are rooted in positivist and post-positivist epistemologies
that have adapted over time, but nonetheless are apparent and must be accounted for in all research paradigms. These ethical dilemmas are evident throughout the entire process of conducting ethnographies, including the design, implementation, and reporting of an ethnographic study. Essentially, Fine maintains that researchers are typically not as ethical as they claim or assume to be — and that “each job includes ways of doing things that would be inappropriate for others to know”.
Fine is not necessarily casting blame or pointing his finger at ethnographic researchers, but rather is attempting to show that researchers often make idealized ethical claims and standards which in actuality are inherently based on partial truths and self-deceptions. Fine also acknowledges that many of these partial truths and self-deceptions are unavoidable. He maintains that “illusions” are essential to maintain an occupational reputation and avoid potentially more caustic consequences. He claims, “Ethnographers cannot help but lie, but in lying, we reveal truths that escape those who are not so bold”. Based on these assertions, Fine establishes three conceptual clusters in which ethnographic ethical dilemmas can be situated: “Classic Virtues,” “Technical Skills,” and “Ethnographic Self.”
Much debate surrounding the issue of ethics arose after the ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon conducted his ethnographic fieldwork with the Yanomamo people of South America.
- “The kindly ethnographer” – Most ethnographers present themselves as being more sympathetic than they actually are, which aids in the research process, but is also deceptive. The identity that we present to subjects is different from who we are in other circumstances.
- “The friendly ethnographer” – Ethnographers operate under the assumption that they should not dislike anyone. In actuality, when hated individuals are found within research, ethnographers often crop them out of the findings.
- “The honest ethnographer” – If research participants know the research goals, their responses will likely be skewed. Therefore, ethnographers often conceal what they know in order to increase the likelihood of acceptance.
- “The Precise Ethnographer” – Ethnographers often create the illusion that field notes are data and reflect what “really” happened. They engage in the opposite of plagiarism, giving credit to those undeserving by not using precise words but rather loose interpretations and paraphrasing. Researchers take near-fictions and turn them into claims of fact. The closest ethnographers can ever really get to reality is an approximate truth.
- “The Observant Ethnographer” – Readers of ethnography are often led to assume the report of a scene is complete – that little of importance was missed. In reality, an ethnographer will always miss some aspect because they are not omniscient. Everything is open to multiple interpretations and misunderstandings. The ability of the ethnographer to take notes and observe varies, and therefore, what is depicted in ethnography is not the whole picture.
- “The Unobtrusive Ethnographer” – As a “participant” in the scene, the researcher will always have an effect on the communication that occurs within the research site. The degree to which one is an “active member” affects the extent to which sympathetic understanding is possible.
The Ethnographic Self
- “The Candid Ethnographer” – Where the researcher situates themselves within the ethnography is ethically problematic. There is an illusion that everything reported has actually happened because the researcher has been directly exposed to it.
- “The Chaste Ethnographer” – When ethnographers participate within the field, they invariably develop relationships with research subjects/participants. These relationships are sometimes not accounted for within the reporting of the ethnography despite the fact that they seemingly would influence the research findings.
- “The Fair Ethnographer” – Fine claims that objectivity is an illusion and that everything in ethnography is known from a perspective. Therefore, it is unethical for a researcher to report fairness in their findings.
- “The Literary Ethnographer” – Representation is a balancing act of determining what to “show” through poetic/prosaic language and style versus what to “tell” via straightforward, ‘factual’ reporting. The idiosyncratic skill of the ethnographer influences the face-value of the research.
- Agar, Michael (1996) The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. Academic Press.
- Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood (1996) The World of Goods: Toward and Anthropology of Consumption. Routledge, London.
- Erickson, Ken C. and Donald D. Stull (1997) Doing Team Ethnography : Warnings and Advice. Sage, Beverly Hills.
- Fine, G. A. (1993). Ten lies of ethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 22, p. 267-294.
- Hymes, Dell. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Kottak, Conrad Phillip (2005) Window on Humanity : A Concise Introduction to General Anthropology, (pages 2-3, 16-17, 34-44). McGraw Hill, New York.
- Miller, Daniel (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Blackwell, London.
- Spradley, James P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.
- Salvador, Tony; Genevieve Bell; and Ken Anderson (1999) Design Ethnography. Design Management Journal.
- "On Ethnography" by Shirley Brice Heath & Brian Street, with Molly Mills.
- The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz.
- Genzuk, Michael (2003) A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research
- Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History - Over 160,000 objects from Pacific, North American, African, Asian ethnographic collections with images and detailed description, linked to the original catalogue pages, field notebooks, and photographs are available online.
- Ethnography.com A community based Ethnography website for academic and professional ethnographers and interested parties
- Digital Ethnography A published article in a Chicago newspaper discussing KSU Professor Michael Wesch's term Digital Ethnography
- University of Pennsylvania's "What is Ethnography?" Penn's Public Interest Anthropology Web Site
- American Ethnography -- Definitions: What is Ethnography? A collection of quotes about ethnography (Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, ...)