Ethnography – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

May 2, 2006

Ethnography – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 The ever faithful Wikipedia, quoted here in full, so i never have to go and find it again!



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Ethnography (from the Greek ethnos = nation and graphein = writing) refers to the qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnography is a holistic research method founded in the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing and colonial office reports. Several academic traditions, in particular the constructivist and relativist paradigms, claim ethnography as a valid research method.





Cultural anthropology

Cultural 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 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead, or Naven by Gregory Bateson. Cultural anthropologists today place such a high value on actually doing ethnographic research that ethnology—the comparative synthesis of ethnographic information—is rarely the foundation for a career.

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.

Cultural anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz, study and interpret cultural diversity through ethnography based on field work. It provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life. Ethnographers are participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought.


Other related fields

Sociology and cultural studies also produce ethnography. Urban sociology and the Chicago School in particular are associated with ethnographic research, although some of the most well-known examples (including Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by Clair Drake) were influenced by an anthropologist, Lloyd Warner, who happened to be in the sociology department at Chicago. Symbolic interactionism 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. But even though many sub-fields and theoretical perspectives within sociology use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.

Education, Ethnomusicology, and Folklore are others fields which have made extensive use of ethnography. The American anthropologist George Spindler (Stanford University) was a pioneer in applying ethnographic methodology to the classroom. James Spradley is another well-known ethnographer, especially for his book, The Ethnographic Interview, published in 1979.

Ethnography has been used to study business settings. Groups of workers, managers and so on are different social categories participating in common social systems. Each group shows different characteristic attitudes, behavior patterns and values.

Increasingly, universities (such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) are using ethnography as a technique to encourage undergraduate research in the humanities. For example, the Ethnography of the University (EOTU) program sponsors undergraduate research on UIUC and archives it in web-accessible form for the UIUC community. EOTU also functions as a learning group for students, staff, and faculty interested in what it means to conduct research on universities as institutions.

Anthropologists like Daniel Miller and Mary Douglas have used ethnographic data to answer academic questions about consumers and consumption. Businesses, too, have found ethnography helpful to understand how people use products and services. Ethnography for new product development (sometimes called 'design ethnography') and ethnography to understand consumers and consumption are growing rapidly. The recent Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference, co-sponsored by Intel and Microsoft, is evidence of this. Ethnography's systematic and holistic approach to real-life experience is valued by product developers, who use the method to understand unstated desires or cultural practices that surround products. Where focus groups fail to inform marketers about what people really do, ethnography links what people say to what they actually do—avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported, focus-group data.



  1. Direct, firsthand observation of daily behavior. This can include participant observation.
  2. Conversation with different levels of formality. This can involve small talk to long interviews.
  3. The genealogical method. This is a set of procedures by which ethnographers discover and record connections of kinship, descent and marriage using diagrams and symbols.
  4. Detailed work with key consultants about particular areas of community life.
  5. In-depth interviewing.
  6. Discovery of local beliefs and perceptions.
  7. Problem-oriented research.
  8. Longitudinal research. This is continuous long-term study of an area or site.
  9. Team research.


See also

  • Virtual Ethnography: a form of ethnography that involves conducting ethnographic studies on the Internet.



  • Agar, Michael (1996) The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. Academic Press.
  • Douglas, Mary (1996) The World of Goods: Toward and Anthropology of Consumption. Routledge, London.
  • Erickson, Ken C. and Donald D. Stull (1997) Doing Team Ethnography : Warnings and Advice. Sage, Beverly Hills.
  • Miller, Daniel (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Blackwell, London.
  • Kottak, Conrad Phillip (2005) Window on Humanity : A Concise Introduction to General Anthropology, (pages 34-44). McGraw Hill, New York.
  • Kottak, Conrad Phillip (2005) Window on Humanity : A Concise Introduction to General Anthropology, (pages 2-3, 16-17, 34-44). McGraw Hill, New York.


External links


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