African American Heritage & Ethnography Ethnographic Research Center: Why is Ethnographic Research conducted?

Why is Ethnographic Research conducted?

Suppose you were given five (5) minutes to think about and write down three to four problems facing America today. What would you record? Anthropologist Aaron Podolefsk (2004) often asks this question of his students at the University of Northern Iowa and he finds that many of the issues that the students consider problems facing America are social problems, issues that requires change in social behavior or social policy. The question asked by Podolefsky attempts to go below the surface of the responses presented, for example AIDS, unemployment, gender, and the global economy, to understand the origin of the perceived problems.

Ethnographic research, in much the same way, gets below the surface and challenges assumptions made regarding a variety of topics. In challenging basic assumptions, doing ethnographic research is like peeling an onion. As you peel back the layers of an onion, you discover there is yet more to be seen.

How does ethnographic research challenge assumptions? It describes a specific group of people and their interactions with each other and those not part of the group. Ethnographic research is conducted to contest and/or sustain stereotypes of particular groups by telling the stories of the lived experiences of individuals. This type of research is also helpful in addressing stereotypes that are embedded within a society such as ideas about people based on their racial background, gender, or how much money they make. “Poor people are lazy” is an example of a stereotype. These kinds of ideas affect the way in which poor people may be treated by others, laws that may be passed, and housing availability. Therefore they are ideologies, or ways of thinking, with great power. Ethnographic research may be done to challenge or “contest” the truth of such ideas. Note, however, that these experiences occur within time and space. As such, they are constantly changing. Thus, history and context (interrelated issues, settings, environment and social relationships) play important roles in the lives of individuals in determining the webs of significance.

Ethnographic research is also done in an attempt to discover patterns in human behavior. Those engaging in ethnographic research are looking at society and cultures as integrated systems with interrelationships existing between communities and structures within and around them. In doing research that is detailed, descriptive and interpretive, ethnographers are better able to “see” the community through the eyes of those who live in the community. Ethnographers understand the danger in looking too closely at the part and not the whole.

As visitors to the national parks or Park employees, it is important to note that each individual, each group of people, have vested interest in national park sites. Their interest and interpretation of park and park histories are often influenced by past histories and meanings associated with both tangible and intangible resources. With the aid of ethnographic research, the importance of these interpretations and practices associated with the national parks can be better understood.

Part and not the whole

James Peacock illustrates the dangers of only looking at parts of a situation and not the whole. He gives the example of a factory worker who at the end of each day leaves the factory with an empty wheelbarrow. Each day a security guard checks to make sure that there is nothing in the wheelbarrow and then allows the worker to leave. Several months later it was discovered that the worker was stealing wheelbarrows the whole time! No one noticed that the worker never began the day with a wheelbarrow!

To learn more about thinking holistically, see Peters-Golden.