Ethnography is the descriptive study of a human society, based on data obtained primarily from fieldwork. The ethnographer immerses himself or herself in the life of a social group in order to collect all the necessary data. Ideally, the ethnographic method should allow the researcher to completely understand another culture, and the behavior of the people who live in it. However, there are various difficulties involved in gathering authentic data in this way, due to the tendency of people to see and act from the perspective of their own culture. By making effort to divest themselves of self-centered thinking, ethnographers are able to gain deeper understanding of those formerly "alien" societies, and thus to bring the various cultures of the world into deeper understanding and more harmonious relationships.
Ethnography (from the Greek words ethnos = nation, and graphein = writing) refers to the qualitative research method of describing human social phenomena, based on data obtained primarily from fieldwork. The goal is a complete, accurate description of the culture being studied, on its own terms. Ethnography should not be confused with ethnology, which is the comparative study of cultures. Although ethnographic studies inevitably involve some comparisons with other cultures, their primary purpose is not comparison.
The roots of ethnographic studies are found in the reports of travelers and historians dating back to the Greek writer Heroditus, and more recently, of traders and colonial administrators. The inherent difficulty of ethnographic studies is immediately apparent in these reports, as the writers often misinterpreted for various reasons the activities they witnessed in foreign cultures.
Ethnography relies primarily on detailed descriptions of the social life and cultural phenomena of a particular group of people. Paul Leedy, a famous ethnographer, writes:
In an ethnography, the researcher looks at an entire group—more specifically, a group that shares a common culture—in depth. The researcher studies the group in its natural setting for a lengthy period of time, often several months or even years. The focus…is on the everyday behaviors of the people in the group, with an intent to identify cultural norms, beliefs, social structures, and other cultural patterns.
In order to collect valid data, ethnographers engage in participant observation—spending significant amounts of time with the people they study. They use observational methods, interviews with open-ended questions, audio and video recordings of behavior, and collect all other data relevant to the culture studied. Ethnographers engage in social events, rituals and customs, in order to understand the point of view of a person of that particular group. That "native's point of view" is called an emic perspective, as opposed to the etic perspective, or outsider's point of view. The ethnographer's goal is to achieve the emic perspective by acquiring data that are free of the observer's own concepts and assumptions.
Employing a holistic research method, ethnography is based on the idea that a system's properties cannot be accurately understood as the sum of its individual elements. Therefore, the ethnographer not only observes every individual aspect of the society, but also strives for complete immersion in order to experience the entire social context.
Cultural anthropology, one of the four fields of anthropology, grew up around the practice of ethnography. Its canonical texts are mostly ethnographies, e.g., Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski, The Nuer by Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, and Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead.
Within cultural anthropology, there are several sub-genres of ethnography. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing "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 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/post-structuralist 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.
Sociology and other cultural studies often use ethnographic methods. The sociology of urban cultures, and the Chicago school of sociology in particular, are associated with ethnographic research. Some of the most well-known examples include Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by Clair Drake. These works were influenced by Lloyd Warner, professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Chicago, who adapted research methods from cultural anthropology to sociological research. The symbolic interaction approach to sociological studies 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. Even though many sociologists use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.
Ethnography has been used extensively in a wide range of fields. In education, the American anthropologist George Spindler pioneered the application of ethnographic methodology to the classroom. In recent times, many businesses have invested large amounts of money in market research, where the ethnographic method is used to investigate the preferences of specific populations. The ethnographic method is also used extensively in psychological research, studies of folklore, ethnomusicology, politics, and other spheres of life.
Netnography is a new form of ethnography, which involves conducting ethnographic studies on the Internet.
Difficulties of ethnographic research
Since ethnographic research takes place in natural surroundings and aims to discover the local person's point of view, ethnographers mingle with local people and spend long periods of time with them. The inevitable consequence of this process is that two different cultures—one of the local people and the other of the ethnographer—meet and interact. Several different problems arise during this interaction:
- Observer bias: The researcher's own subjectivity may influence the objectivity of the data. In ethnographic research, the people being studied are described by the researcher through his own cultural thought system, using the researcher's own terminology. In a sense, they are "observer's actors" (see Galibert, 2004). One of the first to address this problem was E.E. Evans-Pritchard. He objected to the predominant view of anthropology as a "natural science" espoused by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, in which the observer directly contrasts his own culture with that of the people being studied. The result of such contrast was that other cultures were often measured with measuring tools from the researcher's culture. Evans-Pritchard claimed instead that anthropological research is not an exact science, but an "art," in which researchers need to put themselves in the "shoes" of the subjects, looking through their eyes.
- Impact of observer: The presence of the observer, and the interaction between the observer and the people being studied, may result in changes in the behavior of the people being studied. The mere act of introducing an outsider into a group, who then explains the behaviors and relationships within that group, requires a level of reflection that may lead to change.
- Manipulation by subjects: The people under observation, consciously or unconsciously, may act in order to please the researcher, or to better perform their supposed roles.
- Ethics: Often researchers are faced with ethical issues during their research. They have to decide whether or not to interfere when encountering behavior that is considered unethical in their own culture. In some cultures, incest or even cannibalism may be considered an acceptable form of behavior. Certain cultures may conduct rituals that involve physical injury to the person. In these cases the researcher is confronted with the dilemma of whether to interfere in the customs of a particular culture, or to leave it intact and allow behavior considered unethical in other cultures to continue. Researchers are also faced with the question of whether it is ethical to use deception to obtain accurate data. For example, a researcher may go undercover, infiltrating into a certain group of people, in order to gain better understanding of that group.
Importance of ethnography
The ethnographic method is becoming increasingly important in the modern world. It has closed the gap between cultures, enabling people to better understand the true meaning and value of different customs and practices in once distant cultures. In ethnographic research one must put aside one's own cultural views in order to enter into the mindset of the people under study. Only by putting ourselves into the "shoes" of others, can we understand the meaning of their thoughts and behavior, and so develop meaningful relationships with them.
- Galibert, C. 2004. “Some preliminary notes on actor–observer anthropology.” International Social Science Journal 56 (181): 455–467.
- Hamabata, M. M. 1990. Crested Kimono: Power and Love in the Japanese Business Family. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801423333
- Kutz, E., and H. Roskelly. 1991. An Unquiet Pedagogy. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers. ISBN 0867092777
- Leedy, P., and J. Ormrod. 2004. Practical Research. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0131108956
- Public Interest Anthropology at University of Pennsylvania. Methods: What is Ethnography? from: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/anthro/CPIA/METHODS/Ethnography.html
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