An Introduction to Ethnography

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                           An Introduction to Ethnography

       Ethnography is the descriptive study of a particular human society or the

process of making such a study.              Based almost entirely on fieldwork,

ethnography requires the immersion of the ethnographer in the culture and

everyday life of the people who are the subject of the study (

       Ethnography typically involves the study of a small group of subjects in

their own environment and attempts to gain a detailed understanding of the

circumstances of the few subjects being studied. ―Ethnographic accounts are

both descriptive and interpretive:      descriptive because detail is critical and

interpretive because the ethnographer must determine the significance of

observations without gathering broad, statistical information.‖        Clifford Geertz

coined the term ―thick description‖ to convey the methodology of the

ethnographer (―What is Culture?‖).

       To conduct their research, ethnographers, also called fieldworkers, often

live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable

amount of time with them.          While in the field, ethnographers engage in

―participant-observation‖ which means that they participate as much as possible

in local daily life, while also making careful observations. An ethnographer might

partake in important ceremonies and rituals of a culture or might share in

ordinary activities such as meal preparation and consumption. This technique is

intended to provide an ―emic‖ perspective or native’s point of view, without

imposing the observer’s conceptual framework. The emic viewpoint, which may

differ from the ―etic‖ or outsider’s perspective on daily life, is a unique and critical

component of ethnographic research.         In addition, ethnographers use a

technique known as triangulation to identify multiple data sources, such as

fieldnotes, interviews, and site documents, which work together to support their

research claims (―What is Ethnography?‖).

      Ethnography is a qualitative research method and product and may be

distinguished from three other methods of investigating and writing: quantitative

research, public policy research, and journalism. Quantitative research usually

involves a larger number of cases in less depth, measuring frequency or using

statistics. Public policy research generally provides information that may be used

by policy makers to decide how specific behaviors might be understood in terms

of social outcomes.    Journalism attempts to provide objective outsider news

information in a timely manner for a designated target audience (―What is


      As a qualitative research method, ethnography offers several advantages.

First, ethnographies can account for the complexity of group behaviors, reveal

interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions, and

provide context for behaviors. In addition, ethnographies can reveal qualities of

group experience in a way that other research methods cannot. They can help

determine future questions and types of follow-up research. By expanding the

range of knowledge and understanding of the world, researchers often are able

to understand why behaviors occur, rather than just noting the occurrence. For

example, a quantitative study may find that students who are taught composition

using a process method receive higher grades on papers than students taught

using a product method. However, a qualitative study might reveal why many

composition instructors continue to use the product method even though they are

aware of the benefits of the process method (―Qualitative Observational

Research,‖ 2003).

       Ethnographic research has several disadvantages to consider as well.

Ethnography is time consuming and requires a well-trained researcher. It takes

time to build trust with informants in order to facilitate full and honest discourse.

Short-term studies are at a particular disadvantage in this regard. Bias on the

part of the researcher can affect both the design of the study and the collection

and interpretation of data. Too little data may lead to false assumptions about

behavior patterns, while large quantities of data may not be processed effectively

(―Qualitative Observational Research,‖ 2003).

       One of the primary tools of ethnographic study is the use of fieldnotes.

Some observers begin with a blank notebook and write down everything that

takes place. Others may use audio or video tapes. Still others begin with a list of

behavior categories to note. Fieldnotes should be written as soon as possible

after leaving the fieldsite to minimize the possibility of forgetting important details.

Fieldnotes should include the following information:        date, time and place of

observation; specific facts and details of site activities; sensory impressions such

as sights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes; specific words, phrases, summaries of

conversations and insider language; questions about people or behaviors for

future investigations; and page numbers to help keep observations in order

(Chiseri-Strater, 1997, p. 73).

       While methods of writing fieldnotes can be very personal, they generally

are divided into four components, which should be kept distinct from one another

in some way. Jottings are the brief words or phrases written down while at the

fieldsite. Usually recorded in a small notebook, jottings are intended to serve as

reminders for more complete notes to be written later.         A description of the

event—a meal, a ritual, a meeting—including specific details as well as general

information is an integral part of the fieldnotes. An analysis of the observation

may help to identify themes, questions for subsequent visits, and preliminary

connections. Finally, a reflection on the research from a personal point of view

should be included.     Personal reflections, while important, should be clearly

separate from description and analysis (―What is Ethnography?‖).

       Interviews can be very valuable in fulfilling the main goal of ethnography:

gaining an insider’s perspective. While participant-observation yields information

about behavior in action, interviews provide an opportunity to learn how people

reflect directly on behavior, circumstances, identity, and events.         Since an

important part of the interview is establishing rapport with the informant, good

listening skills are essential. To facilitate truthful responses, the interview should

be informal or conversational in nature and employ open-ended questions. If

possible, obtain permission from the informant to tape the interview (―What is


       Researchers may also utilize site documents such as newsletters, course

materials, and student samples, as well as artifacts, to provide background and

supplemental    data    (―Qualitative   Observational   Research,‖     2003).      An

ethnographer studying how third graders learn science in a classroom setting

might want to collect the state-mandated science curriculum requirements and

examples of student work.      Teacher lesson plans and grade level textbooks

might also be useful (―What is Ethnography?‖).

       Since ethnographic research requires observation and interaction of real

human beings, certain ethical issues merit consideration. Do participants have

full knowledge of what is involved? Can the study hurt participants? Is the

researcher being truthful in presenting data? Will the study intrude too much into

group behaviors? (―Qualitative Observational Research,‖ 2003).

       Traditionally, ethnography has been a research method used by

anthropologists and sociologists. An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs

in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties is one example of this application.

However, the ability to deliver deep insights into the contexts of ordinary life has

led to a more widespread application within the commercial world. Ethnography

can offer insights into consumer practices, language, myths, and aspirations.

Historically associated with generating cross-cultural understanding, ethnography

makes it possible to design and develop products and services that fit into

people’s lives (―Ethnography – An ABC‖).

       Sachs Insights is one of a growing number of firms that specialize in

ethnographic studies to aid market research and product development. In their

study titled Seeing Digital: How Gen Y Teenagers Use the Web, they write:

       To understand the innovative ways in which Gen Y teens use
       the Internet, and how it affects their relationships with brands,
       we spoke with high school and college students who are avid
       fans of the Internet and other digital devices like MP3 players,

      PDAs, digital cameras and video game consoles. We spoke
      with them from ―mission control‖—their bedrooms—and had
      a first hand look at the lives of these digital whiz kids. We
      went shopping with them online, and checked out how the
      many devices in their bedroom all work together to create a
      sense of self.

The resulting in-depth portrait of how these digital whiz kids communicate,

entertain, and create their self-identity revealed new opportunities for brands to

thrive in this market (―Ethnography,‖ 2002).

      In summary, the term ethnography may be loosely applied to any

qualitative research project where the desired outcome is a thick description.

The ethnographer goes beyond reporting facts and attempts to generate an

understanding of culture.     Ethnographers utilize the participant-observation

method, recording fieldnotes, conducting interviews, and collecting additional

data to supplement their research. While traditional ethnographic studies have

focused on anthropology and sociology, this research method has been applied

to market research and development as well.


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Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth & Sunstein, Bonnie. (1997). FieldWorking: Reading

      and writing research. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Blair Press.

Ethnographic Research. (n.d.). Retrieved February 9, 2003, from

Ethnography. (2002). Sachs insights services. Retrieved February 3, 2003, from

Ethnography – an ABC. (n.d.). Ideas bazaar. Retrieved February 2, 2003,


What is culture? (n.d.). Learning commons. Retrieved February 9, 2003, from


What is ethnography? (n.d.). Public interest anthropology at Penn. Retrieved

      February 9, 2003, from

Steps and methods used in qualitative observational research. (2003). In

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