What Is Ethnography?

What It Is and How To Do It

A woman writes jottings in a notebook while conducting ethnography.
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Ethnography is defined as both a social science research method and its final written product. As a method, ethnographic observation involves embedding oneself deeply and over the long-term in a field site of study in order to systemically document the everyday lives, behaviors, and interactions of a community of people. As a written product, an ethnography is a richly descriptive account of the social life and culture of the group studied.

Key Takeaways: Ethnography

  • Ethnography refers to the practice of conducting a long-term, detailed study of a community.
  • A written report based on this type of detailed observation of a community is also referred to as an ethnography.
  • Conducting an ethnography allows researchers to obtain a great detail of information about the group they are studying; however, this research method is also time- and labor-intensive.

Overview

Ethnography was developed by anthropologists, most famously, by Bronislaw Malinowki in the early 20th century. But simultaneously, early sociologists in the U.S. (many affiliated with the Chicago School) adopted the method as well, as they pioneered the field of urban sociology. Since then, ethnography has been a staple of sociological research methods, and many sociologists have contributed to developing the method and formalizing it in books that offer methodological instruction.

The goal of an ethnographer is to develop a rich understanding of how and why people think, behave, and interact as they do in a given community or organization (the field of study), and most importantly, to understand these things from the standpoint of those studied (known as an "emic perspective" or "insider standpoint"). Thus, the goal of ethnography is not just to develop an understanding of practices and interactions, but also what those things mean to the population studied. Importantly, the ethnographer also works to situate what they find in historical and local context, and to identify the connections between their findings and the larger social forces and structures of society.

How Sociologists Conduct Ethnographic Research

Any field site can serve as a setting for ethnographic research. For example, sociologists have conducted this kind of research in schools, churches, rural and urban communities, around particular street corners, within corporations, and even at bars, drag clubs, and strip clubs.

To conduct ethnographic research and produce an ethnography, researchers typically embed themselves in their chosen field site over a long period of time. They do this so that they can develop a robust dataset composed of systematic observations, interviews, and historical and investigative research, which requires repeated, careful observations of the same people and settings. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred to this process as generating "thick description," which means a description that digs below the surface by asking questions that begin with the following: who, what, where, when, and how.

From a methodological standpoint, one of the important goals of an ethnographer is to have as little impact on the field site and people studied as possible, so as to collect data that is as unbiased as possible. Developing trust is an important part of this process, as those observed must feel comfortable having the ethnographer present in order to behave and interact as they normally would.

Pros of Conducting Ethnographic Research

One advantage of ethnographic research is that it provides insight into aspects of social life, including perception and values, which other research methods are unable to capture. Ethnography can illuminate that which is taken for granted and which goes unspoken within a community. It also allows the researcher to develop a rich and valuable understanding of the cultural meaning of practices and interactions. Additionally, the detailed observations conducted in ethnographic research can also disprove negative biases or stereotypes about the population in question.

Cons of Conducting Ethnographic Research

One disadvantage of ethnographic research is that it can sometimes be difficult to gain access to and establish trust within a desired field site. It can also be difficult for researchers to dedicate the time required to conduct a rigorous ethnography, given limits on research funding and their other professional commitments (e.g. teaching).

Ethnographic research also has the potential for bias on the part of the researcher, which could skew the data and insights gained from it. Additionally, due to the intimate nature of the research, there is the potential for ethical and interpersonal issues and conflicts to arise. Finally, the storytelling nature of an ethnography can seem to bias the interpretation of the data.

Notable Ethnographers and Works

  • Street Corner Society, William F. Whyte
  • Black MetropolisSt. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Jr.
  • Slim's Table, Mitchell Duneier
  • Home Bound, Yen Le Espiritu
  • Punished, Victor Rios
  • Academic Profiling, Gilda Ochoa
  • Learning to Labour, Paul Willis
  • Women Without Class, Julie Bettie
  • Code of the Street, Elijah Anderson

You can learn more about ethnography by reading books on the method, such as Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson et al., and Analyzing Social Settings by Lofland and Lofland, as well as by reading the latest articles in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.