Ethnography: A SIMPLE explanation

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(Last updated on: 04/11/2021)

Ethnography is a term that many students and researchers will come across. Associated with cultural and social anthropology, ethnography involves the study of people. Whilst the term ethnography might sound complicated (and many research books will explain it in a complicated way!), it doesn’t have to be. In this article I teach you what ethnography is and how ethnographic research takes place. Read on to learn more…

What is ethnography?

Originally, ethnography is the study of cultures. Human cultures and civilisations, that is, not the microbiological kind! It is a branch of anthropology, and the name comes from the Greek word ethnos meaning folk/people/nation.

Ethnography

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology says: Ethnographic fieldwork is the method that defines social anthropology. The key word here is fieldwork. Anthropology is an academic discipline that constructs its intellectual imaginings upon empirical-based knowledge about human worlds. Ethnography is the practice developed in order to bring about that knowledge according to certain methodological principles, the most important of which is participant-observation ethnographic fieldwork. Current understandings of both anthropology and ethnography are the result of years of debate and practice.

While anthropologists are endlessly debating the premises for their understanding of different societies, they mostly agree that anthropology has nothing to offer the world without ethnographic fieldwork. At the same time, ethnography is just an empty practice without a concern for the disciplinary debates in anthropology departments and publications. It is therefore wrong to separate them; they are part and parcel of each other. Anthropology and ethnography are so intertwined that together they have become a basic premise for the anthropological epistemology.

Ethnography as a research type

It is also widely applied as a research type. It is used in social research, where researchers will examine the behaviour of participants while in a social situation in order to understand why people may or do behave in a certain way. This method of participant observation comes from ethnography as a study, and is now a research method in its own right. While it has its origin in social and cultural anthropology since the early twentieth century it has since spread to other social science disciplines – especially sociology.

This article looks at ethnography as a research type, and will hopefully give you a simple explanation which can easily be applied to your own studies.

Ethnography definition

SAGE defines ethnography as: a qualitative research method in which a researcher—an ethnographer—studies a particular social/cultural group with the aim to better understand it. Ethnography is both a process (e.g., one does ethnography) and a product (e.g., one writes an ethnography). In doing ethnography, an ethnographer actively participates in the group in order to gain an insider’s perspective of the group and to have experiences similar to the group members. In writing ethnography, an ethnographer creates an account of the group based on this participation, interviews with group members, and an analysis of group documents and artifacts. This entry offers an overview of ethnography and the ethnographic research process, including negotiating access, data collection, analysis, and writing.

This is a well rounded and fairly simple definition of ethnography.

When to use ethnographic research 

Ethnography can be used to investigate many different groups of people, situations and more. As it allows for in-depth, first-hand observation and knowledge gathering, it can (and should) be used in a huge variety of settings for many different purposes.

Ethnography

For example, researchers might use ethnography when researching childhood development and behaviour. By un-invasively observing children – whether in a home, educational, or play setting – they are able to examine behaviours. Noting down preferences, abilities, habits and so on enables researchers to create a well-rounded picture of a child or group of children. Replicating this research with different children can aid with research into certain disorders, behaviours and more.

Another (extreme) example of ethnography would be joining a cult or infiltrating an organised crime gang in order to understand their inner workings. By getting involved in day-to-day activities, living alongside group members and observing literally everything, researchers are able to gain a much more in-depth understanding of how the group operates. In the case of criminal gangs, this sort of research can lead to crime prevention!

Ethnography is used for market research, policymaking, scientific and medical research and guidelines and more.

Why choose ethnography 

Using ethnography as your research method ultimately leads to more in-depth and personal (or personable!) research. Because you’re almost embedded in the research yourself, and spending so much time and energy on collating your findings, you are able to draw on and discuss your personal experiences when writing up your findings. It’s not all about just making observations; ethnography also attempts to explain whatever you have observed in a structured and narrative way. You may obviously supplement your ethnographic research with theory, but you’ll mostly be working with your own direct experience and intuitions. These may even contradict the assumptions that you brought with you into the research in the first place…

Advantages of ethnography 

There are many incredible benefits of using ethnographic research. These include:

  • Getting a realistic picture of a group or situation
  • You can use it to make more accurate predictions 
  • Access to valuable insight you may not be able to get otherwise 
  • No need to create a false environment 
  • You can understand your subjects more
  • There is more available data

Disadvantages of ethnography 

There are, of course, some disadvantages of ethnography too!

  • It is time-consuming
  • You can become vulnerable during observations
  • Situations you observe may be triggering or unsafe
  • Subjects may object to being observed in this way
  • Subjects may act differently because they know they’re being observed 
  • Research cannot be replicated 

The ethnographic process

The research process of ethnography has a basic outline that will be followed. Of course, individual research projects may deviate from this but generally, this is how it works…

  • Researchers will find a group to observe 
  • Researchers will begin observations 
  • Observations will continue for a specified length of time while researchers make and collect field notes
  • When observations are over, the research must be compiled – from the field notes as well as additional external research
  • Writing up the ethnography itself – as a book, article, essay, thesis and so on, or even created as a documentary or podcast

Writing up your research

As mentioned, the product of your research can come in a few different forms. Whichever you choose, you’ll notice that it won’t follow the typical structure of a scientific paper. However, as with all academic texts, it does need an introduction and conclusion no matter which form it takes. You may choose to use a traditional structure, especially if you have utilised other forms of research during your overall study. But you don’t have to, which is why ethnography can be more fun than other research!

Your written ethnography should give an authoritative and informative account of the social setting you were observing. Whether it’s a tribal community, a school classroom, a group of football fans and so on, the write-up is the same. You’ll want to convince your reader that YOUR observations (and how you interpret them) are in fact representative of reality.

Remember, because of the personal nature of the work, you can inject your opinions, feelings and thoughts throughout your writing. The use of the first person ‘I’ is absolutely warranted – and welcomed – when writing up ethnographic research.

Advice for ethnography 

When you’re deciding to undertake ethnographic research, there is so much to consider. Below you’ll find some advice to help you make the most of this method, and get better results from your research!

Diversity matters

Whether it’s your research team, or the people you are observing, ensure a diverse background as far as possible. In terms of race, age and gender try to vary these. Obviously if you were observing, say, a group of middle-aged male white supremacists… this would be difficult. But use your common sense and diversify wherever you can.

Don’t start your research with an answer in mind

If the point of your research is to find a solution to an issue, try not to let this cloud your judgement from the offset. Go in with an open a mind as possible, and let your data and findings guide you to a solution naturally. As the Interaction Design Foundation says, “This doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce solutions in ethnographic research (user testing is important, after all), but it does mean introducing those ideas at an appropriate time once you’ve had a chance to observe your users, without bias.”

Let the people explain

If the situation allows for it, speak to your subjects and find out why they do XYZ. This can be incredibly beneficial as it gives you a further insight into the workings of the culture you are observing. It also stops you from using your own bias or, perhaps, giving misinformation in your findings.

Examine the environment too

You should always be keeping an eye on the environment your subjects are in. Context ALWAYS matters, and it can be ever-changing. If this is likely to have an impact on your findings, keep this in mind!

Further reading

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