African American Heritage & Ethnography Key Concepts: What is Ethnography?

What is ethnography?

African American family member talks to Chief Ethnographer and Park Ethnographer about the significance of Magnolia Plantation landscape to his family.

In cultural anthropology, ethnography refers to the description of cultures derived from the anthropologist’s personal observation and participation in the day-to-day life of the cultural group being described. The anthropologist validates his or her observations through information provided by members of the cultural group that explain their particular systems of meaning, ways of organizing their society and their material culture.

The Ethnography Program of the National Park Service, is concerned with the peoples associated with parks, with their cultural systems or ways of life, and with the related technology, sites, structures, other material features and natural resources that they value (National Park Service 1997:157).

What is “culture”?

Culture is a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society. It has patterned and predictable form and content to a degree—yet is variable from individual to individual within a given society. Culture is changeable over time. In fact, one of culture’s most predictable aspects is its constant state of change. It changes because people learn culture.

Culture can be further broken down into the following essential features:

Culture takes diverse forms across time and space.

This diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities of the groups and societies making up humankind. As a source of exchange, innovation, and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations.

Each unit in this course will explore, describe, and explain African American cultural heritage in terms of the essential features of culture.

Aspects of African American Cultural Heritage

Systems of Meaning Social Order Material Culture Change
  • Language, spoken & written
  • Performances
  • Ceremonies, sacred and secular
  • Celebrations
  • Visual arts
  • Family
  • Kinship
  • Community
  • Settlement patterns
  • Social institutions (e.g., church, schools, health care)
  • Subsistence
  • Foodways
  • Crafts
  • Architecture
  • Work roles/ Occupation
  • Technology
  • Acculturation
  • Accommodation
  • Assimilation
  • Cultural resistance
  • Counter-cultural resistance

Learn more about culture and culture change.