African American Heritage & Ethnography Ethnographic Research Center

What is Ethnographic Research?

Anthropologists, ethnographers, and other social scientists may engage in something called ethnography. Ethnography, simply stated, is the study of people in their own environment through the use of methods such as participant observation and face-to-face interviewing. As anthropologist H. Sidky suggests, ethnography documents cultural similarities and differences through empirical fieldwork and can help with scientific generalizations about human behavior and the operation of social and cultural systems (2004:9). Because anthropology as a discipline is holistic (meaning it looks at the past, present and future of a community across time and space), ethnography as a first hand, detailed account of a given community or society attempts to get a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances of the people being studied. Ethnographers, then, look at and record a people’s way of life as seen by both the people and the anthropologist; they take an emic (folk or inside) and etic (analytic or outside) approach to describing communities and cultures.

Classic ethnographic research involves a detailed description of the whole of a culture outside of the country of origin of the researcher. Traditionally those engaging in ethnographic research spend years in the place of study, also known as the “field.” As a result of the time spent living among communities, ethnographers have been able to produce thick written cultural descriptions known as ethnographies that communicate the information found in the field.

Contemporary ethnographic research has the added dimension of not only looking at people outside of the county of origin of the researcher, but also seeks to better understand those who reside within the county of origin. Contemporary ethnographic research looks at what may be considered ordinary or mundane to those living within a community, for example shopping malls, corporations, towns, cities, cyberspace, garbage, libraries, parks, etc. Contemporary ethnographic research also differs from classic ethnographic research in that researchers may have limited amounts of time in which to conduct research. This, however, does not detract from the quality of work produced.

Ethnographic accounts, classic and contemporary, are both descriptive and interpretive; descriptive, because detail is so crucial, and interpretive because the ethnographer must determine the significance of what he or she observes without gathering broad, statistical information. Clifford Geertz is famous for coining the term “thick description” in discussing the methodology of the ethnographer. In essence, ethnography is done to get the story of a people from those people and has been referred to as “culture writing.”

A researcher who has been trained in ethnographic field methods and theoretical perspectives, then, carries out ethnographic research. Before going to the actual place of study, those engaging in ethnographic studies conduct library and other archival research to learn some of what is already known about the place and people they are interested in so as not to enter the “field” unprepared. The researcher then spends time with the group of people under study to get a sense of how they live, their beliefs and rituals, and their interactions with each other and those around them. Traditional ethnographic research usually requires at least a year in the field to get a clear understanding of the group; however, rapid ethnographic assessments, like many of the ethnographic studies carried out by the National Park Service, are also conducted.

Try It Yourself

Why do people see things differently?
The importance of ethnographic research

Apple Example

Thomas Kuhn suggests that what people see depends on what “previous visual and conceptual experience has taught” them. This suggests that what we look at and what we see are two different things. Anthropologists Anne Campbell of Washington State University and Patricia C. Rice of West Virginia University give an excellent example of how what we look at and what we see can be different things, depending on who perceives a situation or thing.

Try this:

  • gather two to three people and mentally place an apple on a table in front of the group.
  • Without any prior discussion, each group member should take a moment to individually write down what it is he or she sees.
  • After a few minutes, compare notes. What do you find? Did everyone see the same thing? What color was the apple? Are there specific colors given to the apple? What about the type of apple on the table, did anyone acknowledge if there was a difference between a golden delicious and a Macintosh? What about the size of the apple? Did anyone include size as a characteristic of the apple?

What this example shows is that no two people see the same thing. We may understand what an apple is, but in terms of describing it and “seeing” it much of our sight comes from pervious “visual-conceptual” experiences. Someone knowledgeable in produce may know that there are many types of apples, just as someone interested in quantities of food may take note of the size of the apple.

To learn more about why people may see things differently, read “Why Do Anthropological Experts Disagree?