Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative field research

Part 1:  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative field research, highlighting the ethical issues involved in using these methods.  Describe how reliability and validity relate to qualitative field research.  Are focus groups relevant in field research?  If yes, how?

Part 2: Describe and compare the 3 unobtrusive research designs:  content analysis, analysis of existing statistics, and historical/comparative analysis.  Outline the strengths and weaknesses of each and describe how reliability and validity relate to each.

Research Methods in Anthropology

Part 1:  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative field research, highlighting the ethical issues involved in using these methods.  Describe how reliability and validity relate to qualitative field research.  Are focus groups relevant in field research?  If yes, how?

Part 2: Describe and compare the 3 unobtrusive research designs:  content analysis, analysis of existing statistics, and historical/comparative analysis.  Outline the strengths and weaknesses of each and describe how reliability and validity relate to each.

Reading and Reference Links

In addition to the readings in Week 4 Learning Resources, read the following:

  • Chapters 12 and 13 in the Social Science Research Methods e-Text
  • For reference: Title: Research Methods in Anthropology: http://www.dphu.org/uploads/attachements/books/books_476_0.pdf(NOTE: This is a lengthy textbook and may take time to open.)

The article Participant Observation on the Wikipedia website is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Participant observation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Participant observation is one type of data collection method typically done in the qualitative research paradigm. It is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly cultural anthropology, less so in sociology, communication studies, human geography and social psychology. Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the United States, and in the later urban research of the Chicago School of sociology.


  • 1 History and development
  • 2 Method and practice
  • 2.1 Types of participant observation
  • 2.1.1 Impact of researcher involvement
  • 3 Ethical concerns
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

History and development

Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronisław Malinowski,[1] E.E. Evans-Pritchard,[2] and Margaret Mead [3] in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographicresearch by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part may the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied. The postmortem publication of Grenville Goodwin’s decade of work as a participant-observer with the Western Apache,[4] The Social Organization of the Western Apache, established Grenville Goodwin as a prominent figure in the field of ethnology.

Since the 1980s, some anthropologists and other social scientists have questioned the degree to which participant observation can give veridical insight into the minds of other people.[5] [6] At the same time, a more formalized qualitative research program known as grounded theory, initiated by Glaser and Strauss,[7] began gaining currency within American sociology and related fields such as public health. In response to these challenges, some ethnographers have refined their methods, either making them more amenable to formal hypothesis-testing and replicability, or framing their interpretations within a more carefully considered epistemology.[8]

The development of participant-observation as a research tool has therefore not been a haphazard process, but instead has practiced a great deal of self-criticism and review. It has as a result become specialized. Visual anthropology can be viewed as a subset of methods of participant-observation, as the central questions in that field have to do with how to take a camera into the field, while dealing with such issues as the observer effect.[9] Issues with entry into the field have evolved into a separate subfield. Clifford Geertz’s famous essay on how to approach the multi-faceted arena of human action from an observational point of view, in Interpretation of Cultures uses the simple example of a human wink, perceived in a cultural context far from home.

Method and practice

Such research involves a range of well-defined, though variable methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off or online, and life-histories. Although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Traditional participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years, and even generations. An extended research time period means that the researcher is able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the individuals, community, and/or population under study. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behavior) are more easily observed and interpreted over a longer period of time. A strength of observation and interaction over extended periods of time is that researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say—and often believe—should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people’s answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.[8]

In participant observation,a researcher’s discipline based interests and commitments shape which events he or she considers are important and relevant to the research inquiry.[10] According to Howell (1972), the four stages that most participant observation research studies are establishing rapport or getting to know the people, immersing oneself in the field, recording data and observations, and consolidating the information gathered.[11]

Howell’s (1972) [11] Participant Observation Phases Description
Establishing Rapport Get to know the members, visit the scene before study. Howell [11] states that it is important to become friends, or at least be accepted in the community, in order to obtain quality data.
In the Field Do as the locals do: It is important for the researcher to connect or show a connection with the population in order to be accepted as a member of the community. DeWalt & DeWalt (2011) [8] [11] call this form of rapport establishment as “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. Also mentioned by Howell, DeWalt & DeWalt state that the researcher must strive to fit in with the population of study through moderation of language and participation.[8] This sets the stage for how well the researcher blends in with the field and the quality of observable events he or she experiences.
Recording Observations and Data · field notes

· interviews

· reflexivity journals: Researchers are encouraged to record their personal thoughts and feelings about the subject of study. They are prompted to think about how their experiences, ethnicity, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors might influence their research, in this case what the researcher decides to record and observe (Ambert et al., 1995).[12] Researchers must be aware of these biases and enter the study with no misconceptions about not bringing in any subjectivities into the data collection process (Ambert et al., 1995; DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011; Richardson, 2000).[8] [12] [13]

Analyzing Data Thematic Analysis:organizing data according to recurrent themes found in interviews or other types of qualitative data collection and narrative analysis:categorizing information gathered through interviews, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story from data.

Types of participant observation

Participant observation is not simply showing up at a site and writing things down. On the contrary, participant observation is a complex method that has many components. One of the first things that a researcher or individual must do after deciding to conduct participant observations to gather data is decide what kind of participant observer he or she will be.Spradley [14] provides five different types of participant observations summarised below.

Participant Observation Type Chart. [8] [14] [15]

Type of Participant Observation Level of Involvement Limitations
Non-Participatory No contact with population or field of study unable to build rapport or ask questions as new information comes up.[8] [15]
Passive Participation Researcher is only in the bystander role limits ability to establish rapport and immersing oneself in the field.[8] [14] [15]
Moderate Participation Researcher maintains a balance between “insider” and “outsider” roles this allows a good combination of involvement and necessary detachment to remain objective.[8] [15]
Active Participation Researcher becomes a member of the group by fully embracing skills and customs for the sake of complete comprehension This method permits the researcher to become more involved in the population. There is a risk of “going native” as the researcher strives for an in-depth understanding of the population studied.[8] [14] [15]
Complete Participation Researcher is completely integrated in population of study beforehand (i.e. he or she is already a member of particular population studied). There is the risk of losing all levels of objectivity, thus risking what is analyzed and presented to the public.[8] [14] [15]

Limitations To Any Participant Observation

  • The recorded observations about a group of people or event is never going to be the full description.[15] [16] [17]
  • As mentioned before this is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is inevitably influenced by researchers’ personal beliefs of what is relevant and important.[15] [16] [17]
  • This is also plays out in the analysis of collected data; the researcher’s worldview invariably influences how he or she interprets and evaluates the data.[8] [14] [16] [17]

Impact of researcher involvement

Participant observation can only do so much for the researcher because the sole presence of the researcher in the field will influence the participants’ behavior (see:observer-expectancy effect).[18] Researchers engaging in this type of qualitative research method must be aware that participants may act differently or put up a facade that is in accordance to what they believe the researcher is studying.[18] This is why it is important to employ rigor in any qualitative research study. A useful method of rigor to employ is member-checking or triangulation.[19] [20]

While gathering data through participant observation, investigator triangulation would be a way to ensure that one researcher is not letting his or her biases or personal preferences in the way of observing and recording meaningful experiences.[20] As the name suggests, investigator triangulation involves multiple research team members gathering data about the same event, but this method ensures a variety of recorded observations due to the varying theoretical perspectives of each research team member.[20] In other words, triangulation, be it data, investigator, theory or methodological triangulation, is a form of cross-checking information.[19] [20]

Member checking is when the researcher asks for participant feedback on his or her recorded observations to ensure that the researcher is accurately depicting the participants’ experiences and the accuracy of conclusions drawn from the data.[20] This method can be used in participant observation studies or when conducting interviews.[20] Member-checking and triangulation are good methods to use when conducting participant observations, or any other form of qualitative research, because they increase data and research conclusion credibility and transferability. In quantitative research, credibility is liken to internal validity,[20] [21]or the knowledge that our findings are representative of reality, and transferability is similar to external validity or the extent to which the findings can be generalized across different populations, methods, and settings.[20] [21]

A variant of participant observation is observing participation, described by Marek M. Kaminski, who explored prison subculture as a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985.[22] “Observing” or “observant” participation has also been used to describe fieldwork in sexual minority subcultures by anthropologists and sociologists who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,[23] as well as amongst political activists and in protest events.[24] The different phrasing is meant to highlight the way in which their partial or full membership in the community/subculture that they are researching both allows a different sort of access to the community and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider. This is similar to considerations by anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod on “halfie anthropology”, or fieldwork by bicultural anthropologists on a culture to which they partially belong.[25]

Ethical concerns

As with any form of research dealing with human subjects, the researcher must ensure the ethical boundaries are never crossed by those conducting the subjects of study. The researcher must have clearly established boundaries before the onset of the study, and have guidelines in place should any issues cross the line of ethical behavior. One of the issues would be if the researcher is studying a population where illegal activities may occur or when working with minor children.[8] In participant observation, the ethical concern that is most salient is that of informed consent and voluntary participation.[8] There is the issue of deciding to obtain informed consent from every individual in the group of study, obtain the informed consent for participant observation from the person of leadership, or not inform anyone of one’s true purpose in fear of influencing the attitudes of members, thus skewing the observations recorded.[8] [15]

The decision is based on the nature of the study and the researcher’s own personal thoughts on the cost-benefit ratio of the situation. Participant observation also brings up the issue of voluntary participation in events the researcher observes and records.[15] There may be instances when members do not want to be a part of the study and request that all data collected pertinent to them be removed. In this case, the researcher is obligated to relinquish data that may identify the members in any way. Above anything else, it is the researcher’s responsibility that the participants of the study do not suffer any ill effects directly or indirectly from the study, participants are informed of their rights as subjects of the study, and that the group was justly chosen for study (The Belmont Report).[26]

The American Anthropological Association and The American Sociological Association both have comprehensive statements concerning the code of conduct for research.

See also

  • Creative participation
  • Field research
  • Interviewing in the qualitative paradigm
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Qualitative research
  • Educational psychology
  • Grounded theory
  • Person-centered ethnography
  • Clinical Ethnography
  • Naturalistic observation
  • Unobtrusive measures
  • Ethnobotany


  1. ^ Malinowski, Bronisław (1929) The sexual life of savages in north-western Melanesia: an ethnographic account of courtship, marriage and family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Halcyon House.
  2. ^ Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) The Nuer, a description of the modes livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  3. ^ Mead, Margaret (1928) Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: William Morrow & Co.
  4. ^ Spicer, Edward H.”Grenville Goodwin”, Arizona and the West, Vol. 3 No. 3, Autumn 1961, pp. 201-204
  5. ^ Geertz, Clifford (1984) “From the Native’s Point of View: on the nature of anthropological understanding,” in Culture Theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by R. A. Shweder and R. LeVine, pp. 123-136. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Rosaldo, Renato (1986) “From the door of his tent: the fieldworker and the inquisitor,” in Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  7. ^ Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.
  8. a b c   d   e   f   g   h   i   j   k   l   m   n   o  DeWalt, K. M., DeWalt, B. R., & Wayland, C. B. (1998). “Participant observation.” In H. R. Bernard (Ed.), Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology. Pp: 259-299. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  9. ^ Collier, John Jr and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, 1986.
  10. ^ Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2001). “Participant Observation and Fieldnotes.” In Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, & Lyn Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of Ethnography.pp: 356-357. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  11. a b c   d  Howell, Joseph T. (1972). Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. pp. 392–403. ISBN 0881335266.
  12. a b Ambert, A.; Adler, P.A., Adler, P., & Detzner, D.F. (1995). “Understanding and evaluating qualitative research”. Journal of Marriage and the Family (57): 879–893.
  13. ^ Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln, Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  14. a b c   d   e   f  Spradley, James P. (1980). Participant Observation. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt College Publishers. pp. 58–62. ISBN 003044501 Check |isbn= value (help).
  15. a b c   d   e   f   g   h   i   j  Schwartz, M.S.; Schwartz Green, C. (January 1955). “Problems in Participant Observation”. American Journal of Sociology 60 (4).
  16. a b c  Peshkin, A. (March 1993). “The Goodness of Qualitative Research”. Educational Researcher 22 (2): 23–29. doi:10.3102/0013189×022002023.
  17. a b c  Atkinson, Paul; Hammersley, Martyn (1994). “Ethnography and Participant Observation”. Handbook of Qualitative Research: 248–161.
  18. a b Douglas, Johnson, J.D. & J.M. (Eds.) (1977). Existential sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  19. a b Douglas, J.D. (1976). Investigative social research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  20. a b c   d   e   f   g   h  Lincoln & Guba, Y.S. & E.G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  21. a b Bannister, Burman, Parker, Taylor, & Tindall, P., E., I., M., & C. (1994). Qualitative research. In Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A research guide. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press. pp. 1–16.
  22. ^ Marek M. Kaminski. 2004. Games Prisoners Play. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7
  23. ^ Bolton, Ralph. (1995). “Tricks, friends and lovers: Erotic encounters in the field.” In D. Kulick & M. Wilson (Eds.), TabooPp: 140 – 167. London: Routledge.
  24. ^ S.Sullivan (2004). ‘We are heartbroken and furious!’ Rethinking violence and the (anti-)globalisation movements (#2), CSGR Working Paper no. 133/04 http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/csgr/research/abstracts/13304/
  25. ^ Abu‐Lughod, Lila (1988). “Fieldwork of a dutiful daughter.” In S. Altorki & C. Fawzi El-Solh (Eds.), Arab Women in the Field: Studying Your Own Society. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  26. ^ “The Belmont Report”.

External links

  • Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association
  • American Sociological Association Code of Ethics

Retrieved from “http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Participant_observation&oldid=606295454”


  • Evaluation methods
  • Research methods
  • Social anthropology
  • Qualitative research
  • Methods in sociology
  • Observation

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The chapter Anthropological Methods from the Wikibook Cultural Anthropology is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Cultural Anthropology/Anthropological Methods

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world


  • 1 Origins of Ethnography
  • 1.1 Ethnographic Analogy
  • 1.2 Effect of Capitalism and Colonialism
  • 1.3 Human Cultural Variation
  • 1.4 The Biology of Human Variation
  • 2 Fieldwork Methods
  • 2.1 Observational Methods
  • 2.2 Interviews and Questionnaires
  • 2.3 Participant Observation
  • 2.4 Reflexivity
  • 2.5 Life Histories
  • 2.6 Participatory Approach
  • 2.6.1 Participatory Action Research
  • 2.6.2 Philippe Bourgois in East Harlem
  • 3 Types of Analysis
  • 3.1 Qualitative vs. Quantitative Analysis
  • 3.2 Positivist Approach
  • 3.3 Ethnographic Analysis
  • 3.4 Domain analysis
  • 3.5 Taxonomic Analysis
  • 4 References

Origins of Ethnography

The route of first voyage of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method used in social sciences like Anthropology where researchers immerse themselves in other cultures for the purpose of recording information about their lifestyle for comparative research. Originally Anthropology was thought of as a science studying the “savage slot”. This meant that Anthropologists researched societies that had either already or soon would become dominated territories within the European Empire. Recording the lives and traditions of these so called savage people was beneficial to the people conquering them, such as, Christopher Columbus when he explored and conquered Hispaniola in the name of Spain. This aided them in conquering the savages because the conquistadors could more efficiently assimilate or eradicate the indigenous population. While unethical because they were only used as fuel for slaughter and slavery, these early documentations of human culture were integral to the beginnings of anthropology as we know it today.

Ethnographic Analogy

Here we see an old pick, not much different from those used today

We can infer the use of an ancient tool by seeing how similar-looking tools are used in existing or recent societies. By analogy we can hypothesize the same use for the old tool. Ethnographic Analogy is essentially interpreting archaeological data through the observation of analogous activities in existing societies.

Effect of Capitalism and Colonialism

While crews were out exploring trade routes and territories, and conquering people, mainland Europe developed a new way to think about the world economically. Replacing mercantilism, which is the idea that there is a set amount of wealth in the world and one nation’s gain must come at the loss of another, capitalism facilitates the belief that new wealth can be created through innovation and competition. Capitalism by definition is an economic system dominated by the supply-demand price mechanism called the market. Simply put, it is the idea that the world is a market and everything within the world, has or should have, its price. In response to that market and in service of it, an entire way of life grew and grew and changed the face of Europe as well as many other regions.

The birth of capitalism brought forth the need of a market and a new thought process to rule the new world, one which was very different from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle so common among indigenous peoples throughout other non-European places. Reducing the human life form to a price of how much labor can be produced from their commoditized life. Other cultures were forced into colonialism by European imperialists.

Colonialism refers to a social system in which political conquest by one society of another leads to cultural domination with enforced social change. While some cultures embraced the Colonialists empirical trade patterns,many indigenous peoples violently rebelled and attempted to regain their cultural independence and economic autonomy. Despite their best efforts to repel the colonialists and their economic imperialism, the indigenous peoples were unable to combat against the Europeans and their guns, deception, and disease. A great example of this happening is the way that Americans killed the natives and forced them onto reservations, even though they tried to control the land that they have had for generations, they were no match for the Europeans.

Human Cultural Variation

Even with all the trauma of colonization and capitalism, populations still had the willpower to grow and survive. After assimilation[1] or displacement a tribe or band did not stop in its cultural evolution. A defining characteristic of culture is to adapt to change. As more and more cultures divided and meshed together an outstanding number of subtle differences can be seen. One of man’s greatest past-times is classifying things and ideas, and now with all this wide variety of types of cultures of the world, a broad way of lumping societies together based on how they are alike and different. These categories are called typologies.

The evolutionary typology has much to do with the idea of uni-lineal cultural evolution, a nineteenth century theory that proposed that all cultures are thought to pass through or they die off, much like biological natural selection. On the opposite thought, the social structural typology states that some cultures are barbaric, and some were not, and that’s how they were. The only thing that changed much about them was their leaders and how power was divided among their group.

The Biology of Human Variation

Map of indigenous skin color distribution in the world based on Von Luschan’s chromatic scale.

The biological variations between humans are summarized in the evolutionary theories of macroevolution and microevolution. Macroevolution is the study of the emergence of new species and the diversification of species over millions of years, while microevolution is the concentration of study of evolutionary changes that occur in a given species over a few generations. A species is a population of organisms that can interbreed successfully and produce viable offspring. A cline is a genetic variation between populations of species that are reproductively isolated (such as skin color variation in humans). Human skin color variation is a selective adaptation that relates to the populations’ proximity to the equator. Populations of humans in equatorial regions have selective advantages because of their darker skin pigmentation and populations in more northern environments have less selective pressure to evolve darker pigmentation and have lighter skin. Other clines include differences in stature and hair type. Because of these differences within the human species, there is the idea that there are different races, which leads into racism. Although there is no biological support for race, culture has supported the ideas of race and racism beginning with the far-reaching exploration of sea-faring ships, which allowed landing parties to miss the range of gradual clinal variation visible when traveling by land.

Biological anthropologist, Frank Livingstone declared that, “There are no races, there are only clines.” Clinal variation explains why people who want to use the term “race” can’t define how many groups or races there are. The only group that can be described is the entire human race. Each cline is a map of the distribution of a single trait and while some traits overlap and can be compared, clinal analysis tests the biological concept of race and finds nothing in nature to match it.

Fieldwork Methods

Observational Methods

The least invasive of anthropological fieldwork methods, observational methods allow the researcher to gain valuable information about the group being studied without intruding on their privacy too much. The researcher observes the group or individuals, records their findings, reflects on the findings, as well as openly participating with the community. This can make or break the relationship as exampled in Eating Christmas in the Kalahari where Richard Borshay Lee was in a position of power but to keep his research untainted he felt it “was essential to not provide them with food”[1] It was a very common form of fieldwork during the first half of the 20th century before more progressive and participatory methods became popular. This method uses an eticperspective to simply observe the facets of cultures.

Interviews and Questionnaires

This group of methods focuses on community interaction through language. It usually entails many open ended interviews with participants who are members of a group being studied. The researcher strives to learn as much as they can about the history of the community as well as individuals in order to gain a full understanding of how their culture functions. Interviews can take place individually or with focus groups within the community based on age, status, gender, and other factors that contribute to differences within the community.

Often , this type of research strives to create an open dialogue, or dialectic, in which information flows back and forth between researcher and subject. This dialectic poses a challenge to the objectivity of socially produced data. The challenge is dealt with through reflection on the intersubjective creation of meaning, leading anthropologists to value reflexivity in their ethnographic writing. Because many anthropologists also hope to help the communities they work with to make change on their own terms within the confines of their own culture, in some cases objectivity is abandoned in favor of community based activism and social change.

Questionnaires may cause answers which lack background information or description. By creating multiple choice answers, subjects are limited to a small selection of responses. They cannot elaborate or explain their answers. Though questionnaires do generate quick, easy, and cheap responses, often of a large group of subjects, there is the risk that answers will lack depth or full truth.

Participant Observation

Participant Observation  is a anthropological fieldwork method for collected research. It requires that the anthropologist participate in the culture they are researching as well as simply observing it. The information gathered is then recorded and reflected upon to gain further insight into the culture being studied or the question being asked by the researcher.

Participant observation allows a deeper immersion into the culture studied, resulting in a deeper understanding of the culture. It allows the researcher to learn about the culture by speaking with those people within that culture. This develops a deeper rapport with the people of the culture which may result in them opening up more to the researcher, allowing the researcher to see and understand more than they might have as an outsider simply observing the culture.

Participant observation, while a more in-depth research method, isn’t perfect. Observed populations may alter their behavior around the researcher because they know that they are being studied, an effect that has been exhaustively documented and studied in psychological research. Thus, while this research method allows for a deeper immersion and understanding in the culture, it faces a very real set of challenges.


This method focuses on the awareness of the researcher and the effect they may be having on the research. It involves a constant awareness and assessment of the researcher’s own contribution to and influence on the researcher’s subjects and their findings. This principle was perhaps first thought of by William Thomas, as the “Thomas Theorem”. Reflexivity requires a researcher’s awareness of the effects that he/she might have on the information that is being recorded. Fieldwork in cultural anthropology is a reflexive experience. Anthropologists must constantly be aware that the information they are gathering may be skewed by their ethical opinions, or political standings. Even an anthropologists presence in that culture can effect the results they receive. Reflexive fieldwork must retain a respect for detailed, accurate information gathering, but it also pays precise attention to the ethical and political context of research, the background of the researchers, and the full cooperation of informants. Ethnographers have come to realize that the dependability of their knowledge of other cultures depends on clear recognition of the ethical and political aspects of fieldwork, and the acknowledgment of how these have created this knowledge.Information gathering that is involved with reflective fieldwork must be detailed and accurate. In our everyday lives reflexivity is needed in order to better understand other cultures and therefore better understand ourselves. It is important to put your own opinions and ways of life aside so you can open your mind to see how others live. However, it is oftentimes hard to notice whether or not you are using reflexivity. For example, when someone you know talks about their religion, you may immediately disagree with specific aspects of their religion because you have not lived your entire life believing it as they have.

Life Histories

Life history is a term used to describe when a person conveys their entire life experience, usually starting at childhood and continuing to the present. It is particularly useful in the field of cultural anthropology, as a researcher can get a general picture of the subject’s life in order to analyze their experiences in the context of a larger society. By gathering an array of life histories, an anthropological researcher can gain a better understanding of the culture in which they are studying. Sometimes life history can be documented through very extensive time periods to better understand a group of people. For example, an anthropologist studying the cause and effects of prostitution and drug dependence on young woman’s lives in urban areas might use the life histories of some of the people he/she meets. By analyzing the time in which the subjects became dependent on substances and comparing it to the time in which they began practicing prostitution, the anthropologist can begin to understand the situation of these young ladies as well as if one action caused the other. Life history can be used as a very important research component in understanding another culture or just another way of living. [2]

Participatory Approach

This method involves full participation of the researcher with their subjects or community they are studying. Obviously if the researcher is not originally part of the culture they can never be involved to the extent that a native would be, but this method strives to get as close to an emicperspective as possible. The researcher lives with the community, eats as they do, acts as they do and shares this life with the world through their ethnography. The emic approach of collecting data can serve as a more useful data collecting process, and the output data can be more precise than the etic approach on ethnography. From this method came the most common form of anthropological fieldwork method in the modern era:

Participatory Action Research

This specific method require a community commitment to change. It occurs in five steps:

  1. Education on the process or creating a dialogue
  2. Collective Investigation
  3. Collective Interpretation
  4. Collective Action
  5. Transformation: Self-Determination and Empowerment

Because of the intrinsic qualities of this type of research, ideally being conducted by people with close ties or membership of a community, it is usually very applicable to some situation in the community. The “research” is an analysis of the community’s behavior by community members. Not only are they by necessity motivated to work on the problem, but they will already have significant rapport with other community members to help address and analyze it.

The dynamic attributes of the process allow constant reevaluation and change. This cyclic tendency can develop into healthy adaptation patterns in the community without outside contributions or aid.

Philippe Bourgois in East Harlem

Under the viaduct in Harlem

An ideal example of the participatory method in fieldwork is Philippe Bourgois in East Harlem. As he describes in his book: In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio ^  he lived in East Harlem for a few months in 1985 in hopes of gaining an emic perspective of poverty in one of the world’s busiest cities:New York City. Soon he befriended some men in his neighborhood and quickly he had an in with the newly arising crack scene. He lived side by side with dealers, buyers, and users and gained extreme insight into their lives because he too was living life with them. He met them as a friend, not a researcher and was able to form a unique relationship with them. He did not fully participate in their lifestyle which left a small divide, but he was still able to gain a participatory approach to this subculture.

Types of Analysis

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative research asks where, when and what. Qualitative research asks how and why.

Quite simply, quantitative research is more interested in hard data procured through things like surveys, polls and censuses. It’s interested in the percentage of people interviewed that agree with one statement versus another or the number of people in a culture that belong to a certain organization, how many people in a country speak the native language versus how many are bilingual or only speak a foreign language. This method or research usually requires a large random sample group.

Qualitative research isn’t as cut and dry as quantitative. Qualitative research is in-depth research that seeks to understand why people do what they do in an attempt to understand culture. It often crosses disciplinary boundaries and strays from a single focused subject. This research method usually requires a smaller sample group.

Positivist Approach

Made popular during the late 18th century, this was the primary anthropological method used until the 1970s. It is based around the central idea of positivism, which is defined as a theory that theology and metaphysics are earlier imperfect modes of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations as verified by the scientific method.[2] The main goal of a positivist approach is to produce objective knowledge, which is knowledge about humanity that is true for all people in all times and places. The ideal positivist approach would occur with a physical scientist in a lab, producing concrete results. Anthropologists adapted this method to their own use by testing hypotheses in different cultures under similar conditions. This method was very successful in recording previously unknown data about different peoples, but it was often objective facts about a way of life in which the people of the culture at question were regarded more as lab subjects than actual human beings. Eventually this method was adapted into the reflexive method, to better demonstrate the relationships that exist within communities and the anthropologists own interactions with the informants.

The informants are “people in a particular culture who work with anthroplogists and provide them with insights about their way of life. They can also be called teachers or friends”[3]. There was a reconsideration of fieldwork that looked not only at the backgrounds of ethnographers way they shaped their fieldwork, but also began to pay more attention to the ethical and political dimensions of the relationship that the anthropologist developed with the people’s life he or her is studying, referred to as “informants”[4].

One highly recognized anthropologist who used a positivist approach was Margaret Mead in the 1930’s. She studied three different societies in Papua New Guinea in an effort to determine age and gender roles. She took the same approach to each culture and was able to draw several conclusions about the way that men and women interacted differently by using a positivist approach.

Ethnographic Analysis

Spradley describes ethnography as different from deductive types of social research in that the five steps of ethnographic research: selecting a problem, collecting data, analyzing data, formulating hypotheses, and writing. All five steps happen simultaneously (p. 93-94).

In his book, Spradley describes four types of ethnographic analysis that basically build on each other. The first type of analysis is domain analysis, which is “a search for the larger units of cultural knowledge” (p. 94). The other kinds of analysis are taxonomic analysis, componential analysis, and theme analysis.

All of Spradley’s theories about ethnographic analysis hinge on his belief that researchers should be searching for the meaning that participants make of their lives. These meanings are expressed through symbols, which can be words, but can also be nonverbal cues. However, because this book is about analyzing interviews, Spradley focuses on analyzing the spoken words of the participants. He explains that words are symbols that represent some kind of meaning for an individual, and each symbol has three parts: the symbol itself, what the symbol refers to, and the relationship between the symbol and the referent. Thus, the word computer can be a symbol. It refers to many things, including an individual’s own personal computer. Thus, a computer is a kind of computer in the mind, or the idea of a computer, and this shows the relationship between the symbol (computer) and the referent (an actual physical computer).

Domain analysis

Spradley defines a domain as the “symbolic category that includes other categories” (p. 100). A domain, then, is a collection of categories that share a certain kind of relationship. Computers is a domain that includes not only my laptop, but all the Dells, Toshibas, iMacs, and IBMs of the world. These all share the same relationship because they are all kinds of computers. Spradley explains that there are three elements of a domain. First, the cover term, which in my example is the word “computer”. Second, there are included terms, which are all the types of computers I just listed. Finally, there is the single, unifying semantic relationship, which is the idea that “X, Y, and Z are all kinds of A”.

When doing domain analysis, Spradley suggests first doing a practice run, which he calls preliminary searches. To do this, you select a portion of your data and search for names that participants give to things. You then identify whether any of these listed nouns might possibly be cover terms for domains. Finally, you can then search through your data for possible included terms that might fit under this domain you have identified.

Remember, this was just the warm-up. To actually do domain analysis, you look for relationships in the data, not names. Spradley is famous for his very useful list of possible relationships that may exist in your data:

  1. Strict inclusion (X is a kind of Y)
  2. Spatial (X is a place in Y, X is a part of Y)
  3. Cause-effect (X is a result of Y, X is a cause of Y)
  4. Rationale (X is a reason for doing Y)
  5. Location for action (X is a place for doing Y)
  6. Function (X is used for Y)
  7. Means-end (X is a way to do Y)
  8. Sequence (X is a step or stage in Y)
  9. Attribution (X is an attribute, or characteristic, of Y)

To do domain analysis, you first pick one semantic relationship. Spradley suggests strict inclusion or means-end as good ones for starters. Second, you select a portion of your data and begin reading it, and while doing so you fill out a domain analysis worksheet where you list all the terms that fit the semantic relationship you chose. Third (if you follow along in Spradley’s book, you’ll notice I’m crunching his steps together for brevity) you formulate questions for each domain. So to revert to my example, if you identified from your interview with me that I feel that Macs are kinds of computers, you could test this hypothesis by making a question out of this semantic statement, “Are there different kinds of computers?” You could ask me, or another participant, and based on their answer, you would know if the cover term, included terms, and semantic relationship that you identified were correct. You could then probe with more questions like, “Why are Macs a kind of computer?” or “In what way are Macs a kind of computer?” In this way, your analysis feeds into your next round of data collection.

The final step in domain analysis is to make a list of all the hypothetical domains you have identified, the relationships in these domains, and the structural questions that follow your analysis.

Taxonomic Analysis

Taxonomic Analysis is a search for the way that cultural domains are organized, building upon the first type of analysis, this form of research is best defined as the classification of data in the form x is a kind of y (D’Andrade, 92). Used largely for the organization and grouping of plant and animal species, taxonomic analysis is not focused on the features of an organism but rather the variable genetic differences that define them. For example, scientists can refer to the common chimpanzee using the taxonomy pan troglodyte and make specific references to that species without fear of error in their classification and use of data. Taxonomic Analysis usually involves drawing a graphical interpretation of the ways in which the individual participants move, form groups, and pattern the structure of a conversation.


  1. ↑Eating Christmas in the Kalahari
  2. ↑Zaira Jagudina, The life stories of the human rights NGO activists and (g)local public spaces in post-Soviet Russia: Moving from ‘personal’ to ‘political’ April 2002 Zaira Jagudina.
  3. ↑Schultz, Emily A.;Lavenda, Robert H.Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (7th Ed.). Oxford University Press 2009 P. 50
  4. ibid

^  “Positivism.” Def. 1. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. 2003.

^  Bourgois, Philip, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio Cambridge University Press, 1995.


^  D’Andrade, Roy. “The Development of Cognitive Anthropology.” 1995 92. 10 Mar 2009 http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=2QCWe2r-pvwC&oi=fnd&pg=PR12&dq=taxonomic+analysis+anthropology&ots=Vwe01uBe3l&sig=2EfRTfVyeZZyfOoIRHQwxase2K0#PPP1,M1

Retrieved from “http://en.wikibooks.org/w/index.php?title=Cultural_Anthropology/Anthropological_Methods&oldid=2586718”

The article Ethnography on the Wikipedia website is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ethnography (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos “folk, people, nation” and γράφω grapho “I write”) is a research method designed to explore culturalphenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group. The word can thus be said to have a “double meaning,” which partly depends on whether it is used as a count noun or uncountably.[1] The resulting field study or a case report reflects the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group.[2] [3] [4]

Ethnography, as the empirical data on human societies and cultures, was pioneered in the biological, social, and cultural branches of anthropologybut has also become popular in the social sciences in general—sociology,[5] communication studies, history—wherever people study ethnic groups, formations, compositions, resettlements, social welfare characteristics, materiality, spirituality, and a people’s ethnogenesis.[6] The typical ethnography is a holistic study[7] [8] and so includes a brief history, and an analysis of the terrain, the climate, and the habitat. In all cases it should be reflexive, make a substantial contribution toward the understanding of the social life of humans, have an aesthetic impact on the reader, and express a credible reality. An ethnography records all observed behavior and describes all symbol-meaning relations using concepts that avoid casual explanations.


  • 1 Origins
  • 2 Data collection methods
  • 3 Differences across disciplines
  • 3.1 Cultural and social anthropology
  • 3.2 Sociology
  • 3.3 Communication studies
  • 3.4 Other fields
  • 4 Evaluating ethnography
  • 5 Ethics
  • 5.1 Classic virtues
  • 5.2 Technical skills
  • 5.3 Ethnographic self
  • 6 See also
  • 6.1 Notable ethnographers
  • 7 References
  • 8 Further reading
  • 9 External links


Gerhard Friedrich Müller developed the concept of ethnography as a separate discipline whilst participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition(1733–43) as a professor of history and geography. Whilst involved in the expedition, he differentiated Völker-Beschreibung as a distinct area of study. This then became known as Ethnography.[9] However it was August Ludwig von Schlözer and Christoph Wilhelm Jacob Gatterer of the University of Göttingen who introduced the term into academic discourse in an attempt to reform the contemporary understanding of world history.[9]

Data collection methods

Data collection methods are meant to capture the “social meanings and ordinary activities” [10] of people (informants) in “naturally occurring settings” [10] that are commonly referred to as “the field.” The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher imposes a minimal amount of their own bias on the data.[10] Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys. Interviews are often taped and later transcribed, allowing the interview to proceed unimpaired of note-taking, but with all information available later for full analysis. Secondary research and document analysis are also employed to provide insight into the research topic. In the past kinship charts were commonly used to “discover logical patterns and social structure in non-Western societies”.[11] However anthropology today focuses more on the study of urban settings and the use of kinship charts is seldom employed.

In order to make the data collection and interpretation transparent, researchers creating ethnographies often attempt to be “reflexive”. Reflexivity refers to the researcher’s aim “to explore the ways in which [the] researcher’s involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research”.[12] Despite these attempts of reflexivity, no researcher can be totally unbiased, which has provided a basis to criticize ethnography.

Traditionally, the ethnographer focuses attention on a community, selecting knowledgeable informants who know the activities of the community well.[13] These informants are typically asked to identify other informants who represent the community, often using chain sampling.[13] This process is often effective in revealing common cultural denominators connected to the topic being studied.[13] Ethnography relies greatly on up-close, personal experience. Participation, rather than just observation, is one of the keys to this process.[14] Ethnography is very useful in social research.

A picture of the Izmir Ethnography Museum (İzmir Etnografya Müzesi) from the courtyard.

Ethnography museum

Ybema et al. (2010) examine the ontological and epistemological presuppositions underlying ethnography. Ethnographic research can range from a realist perspective in which behavior is observed to a constructivist perspective where understanding is socially constructed by the researcher and subjects. Research can range from an objectivist account of fixed, observable behaviors to an interpretivist narrative describing “the interplay of individual agency and social structure.”[15] Critical theory researchers address “issues of power within the researcher- researched relationships and the links between knowledge and power.”

Differences across disciplines

The ethnographic method is used across a range of different disciplines, primarily by anthropologists but also occasionally by sociologists. Cultural studies, sociology, economics, social work, education, ethnomusicology, folklore, religious studies, geography, history, linguistics, communication studies, performance studies, advertising, psychology, usability, political science,[16] and criminology are other fields which have made use of ethnography.

Cultural and social anthropology

Cultural anthropology and social anthropology were developed around ethnographic research and their canonical texts which are mostly ethnographies: e.g.  Argonauts of the Western Pacific  (1922) by Bronisław Malinowski, Ethnologische Excursion in Johore (1875) by Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay,  Coming of Age in Samoa  (1928) by Margaret Mead, The Nuer (1940) by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Naven (1936, 1958) by Gregory Bateson or “The Lele of the Kasai” (1963) by Mary Douglas. Cultural and social 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.[ citation needed ]The typical ethnography is a document written about a particular people, almost always based at least in part on emic views of where the culture begins and ends. Using language or community boundaries to bound the ethnography is common.[17] Ethnographies are also sometimes called “case studies.”[18] Ethnographers study and interpret culture, its universalities and its variations through ethnographic study based on fieldwork. An ethnography is a specific kind of written observational science which 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. Classic examples are Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, Jean Briggs’ “Never in Anger”, Richard Lee’s “Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers”, Victor Turner’s “Forest of Symbols”, David Maybry-Lewis’ “Akew-Shavante Society”, E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s “The Nuer” and Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “Tristes Tropiques”. Iterations of ethnographic representations in the classic, modernist camp include Bartholomew Dean’s recent (2009) contribution, Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia.[19]

Bronisław Malinowski among Trobriand tribe

Part of the ethnographic collection of the Međimurje County Museum in Croatia

A typical ethnography attempts to be holistic [7] [8] and typically follows an outline to include a brief history of the culture in question, an analysis of the physical geography or terrain inhabited by the people under study, including climate, and often including what biological anthropologists call habitat. Folk notions of botany and zoology are presented as ethnobotany and ethnozoology alongside references from the formal sciences. Material culture, technology, and means of subsistence are usually treated next, as they are typically bound up in physical geography and include descriptions of infrastructure. Kinship and social structure (including age grading, peer groups, gender, voluntary associations, clans, moieties, and so forth, if they exist) are typically included. Languages spoken, dialects, and the history of language change are another group of standard topics.[20] Practices of childrearing, acculturation, and emic views on personality and values usually follow after sections on social structure.[21] Rites, rituals, and other evidence of religion have long been an interest and are sometimes central to ethnographies, especially when conducted in public where visiting anthropologists can see them.[22]

As ethnography developed, anthropologists grew more interested in less tangible aspects of culture, such as values, worldview and what Clifford Geertz termed the “ethos” of the culture. Geertz’s own fieldwork used elements of a phenomenological approach to fieldwork, tracing not just the doings of people, but the cultural elements themselves. For example, if within a group of people, winking was a communicative gesture, he sought to first determine what kinds of things a wink might mean (it might mean several things). Then, he sought to determine in what contexts winks were used, and whether, as one moved about a region, winks remained meaningful in the same way. In this way, cultural boundaries of communication could be explored, as opposed to using linguistic boundaries or notions about residence. Geertz, while still following something of a traditional ethnographic outline, moved outside that outline to talk about “webs” instead of “outlines”[23] of culture.

Within cultural anthropology, there are several sub-genres of ethnography. Beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing “bio-confessional” ethnographies that intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research. Famous examples include  Tristes Tropiques  (1955) 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 “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz, 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.

This critical turn in sociocultural anthropology during the mid-1980s can be traced to the influence of the now classic (and often contested) text, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, (1986) edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. Writing Culture helped bring changes to both anthropology and ethnography often described in terms of being ‘postmodern,’ ‘reflexive,’ ‘literary,’ ‘deconstructive,’ or ‘poststructural’ in nature in that the text helped to highlight the various epistemic and political predicaments that many practitioners saw as plaguing ethnographic representations and practices.[24] Where Geertz’s and Turner’s interpretive anthropology recognized subjects as creative actors who constructed their sociocultural worlds out of symbols, postmodernists attempted to draw attention to the privileged status of the ethnographers themselves. That is, the ethnographer cannot escape their own particular viewpoint in creating an ethnographic account thus making any claims of objective neutrality on the part of their representation highly problematic, if not altogether impossible.[25] In regards to this last point, Writing Culture became a focal point for looking at how ethnographers could describe different cultures and societies without denying the subjectivity of those individuals and groups being studied while simultaneously doing so without laying claim to absolute knowledge and objective authority.[26] Along with the development of experimental forms such as ‘dialogic anthropology,’ ‘narrative ethnography,'[27] and ‘literary ethnography’,[28] Writing Culturehelped to encourage the development of ‘collaborative ethnography.'[29] This exploration of the relationship between writer, audience, and subject has become a central tenet of contemporary anthropological and ethnographic practice wherein active collaboration between the researcher(s) and subject(s) has helped blend, in certain instances, the practice of collaboration in ethnographic fieldwork with the process of creating the actual ethnographic product that emerges from the research itself.[29] [30] [31]


Sociology is another field which prominently features ethnographies. Urban sociology and the Chicago School in particular are associated with ethnographic research, with some well-known early examples being  Street Corner Society  by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr.. Some of the influence for this can be traced to the anthropologist Lloyd Warner who was on the Chicago sociology faculty, and to Robert Park’s experience as a journalist. Symbolic interactionism developed from the same tradition and yielded several excellent sociological ethnographies,[ peacock term ] including Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine, which documents the early history of fantasy role-playing games. Other important ethnographies in sociology include Pierre Bourdieu’s work on Algeria and France. Jaber F. Gubrium’s series of organizational ethnographies focused on the everyday practices of illness, care, and recovery are notable. They include “Living and Dying at Murray Manor,” which describes the social worlds of a nursing home; “Describing Care: Image and Practice in Rehabilitation,” which documents the social organization of patient subjectivity in a physical rehabilitation hospital; “Caretakers: Treating Emotionally Disturbed Children,” which features the social construction of behavioral disorders in children; and “Oldtimers and Alzheimer’s: The Descriptive Organization of Senility,” which describes how the Alzheimer’s disease movement constructed a new subjectivity of senile dementia and how that is organized in a geriatric hospital. Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour on working class youth, the work of Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Loïc Wacquant on black America, and Lai Olurode’s Glimpses of Madrasa From Africa. 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.

Communication studies

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, ethnographic research methods began to be widely employed by communication scholars. The purpose of ethnography is to describe and interpret the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs and language of a culture-sharing group (Harris, 1968), also Agar (1980) notes that ethnography is both a process and an outcome of the research. Studies such as Gerry Philipsen’sanalysis of cultural communication strategies in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Speaking ‘Like a Man’ in Teamsterville, paved the way for the expansion of ethnographic research in the study of communication.

Scholars of communication studies use ethnographic research methods to analyze communicative behaviors and phenomena. This is often characterized in the writing as attempts to understand taken-for-granted routines by which working definitions are socially produced. Ethnography as a method is a storied, careful, and systematic examination of the reality-generating mechanisms of everyday life (Coulon, 1995). Ethnographic work in communication studies seeks to explain “how” ordinary methods/practices/performances construct the ordinary actions used by ordinary people in the accomplishments of their identities. This often gives the perception of trying to answer the “why” and “how come” questions of human communication.[32] Often this type of research results in a case study or field study such as an analysis of speech patterns at a protest rally, or the way firemen communicate during “down time” at a fire station. Like anthropology scholars, communication scholars often immerse themselves, participate in and/or directly observe the particular social group being studied.[33]

Other fields

The American anthropologist George Spindler was a pioneer in applying ethnographic methodology to the classroom.

Anthropologists like Daniel Miller and Mary Douglas have used ethnographic data to answer academic questions about consumers and consumption. In this sense, Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson describe design ethnography as being “a way of understanding the particulars of daily life in such a way as to increase the success probability of a new product or service or, more appropriately, to reduce the probability of failure specifically due to a lack of understanding of the basic behaviors and frameworks of consumers.”[34] Sociologist Sam Ladner argues in her book,[35]that understanding consumers and their desires requires a shift in “standpoint,” one that only ethnography provides. The result is products and services that truly answer consumers’ unmet needs.

Businesses, too, have found ethnographers helpful for understanding how people use products and services, as indicated in the increasing use of ethnographic methods to understand consumers and consumption, or for new product development (such as video ethnography). The recent Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference is evidence of this.[ citation needed ] Ethnographers’ 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.

Evaluating ethnography

Ethnographic methodology is not usually evaluated in terms of philosophical standpoint (such as positivism and emotionalism). Ethnographic studies nonetheless need to be evaluated in some manner. While there is no consensus on evaluation standards, Richardson (2000, p. 254)[36] provides 5 criteria that ethnographers might find helpful. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein’s (1997) monograph “The New Language of Qualitative Method” discusses forms of ethnography in terms of their “methods talk.”

  1. Substantive Contribution: “Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social-life?”
  2. Aesthetic Merit: “Does this piece succeed aesthetically?”
  3. Reflexivity: “How did the author come to write this text…Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about the point of view?”[37]
  4. Impact: “Does this affect me? Emotionally? Intellectually?” Does it move me?
  5. Expresses a Reality: “Does it seem ‘true’—a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the ‘real’?”


Gary Alan Fine argues that the nature of ethnographic inquiry demands that researchers deviate from formal and idealistic rules or ethics that have come to be widely accepted in qualitative and quantitative approaches in research. Many of these ethical assumptions are rooted in positivist and post-positivist epistemologies that have adapted over time, but nonetheless are apparent and must be accounted for in all research paradigms. These ethical dilemmas are evident throughout the entire process of conducting ethnographies, including the design, implementation, and reporting of an ethnographic study. Essentially, Fine maintains that researchers are typically not as ethical as they claim or assume to be — and that “each job includes ways of doing things that would be inappropriate for others to know”.[38]

Fine is not necessarily casting blame or pointing his finger at ethnographic researchers, but rather is attempting to show that researchers often make idealized ethical claims and standards which in actuality are inherently based on partial truths and self-deceptions. Fine also acknowledges that many of these partial truths and self-deceptions are unavoidable. He maintains that “illusions” are essential to maintain an occupational reputation and avoid potentially more caustic consequences. He claims, “Ethnographers cannot help but lie, but in lying, we reveal truths that escape those who are not so bold”.[39] Based on these assertions, Fine establishes three conceptual clusters in which ethnographic ethical dilemmas can be situated: “Classic Virtues”, “Technical Skills”, and “Ethnographic Self”.

Much debate surrounding the issue of ethics arose after the ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon conducted his ethnographic fieldwork with the Yanomani people of South America.

While there is no international standard on Ethnographic Ethics, many western anthropologists look to the American Anthropological Association for guidance when conducting ethnographic work.[40] The Association has generated a code of ethics approved in February 2009 which states that Anthropologists have “moral obligations as members of other groups, such as the family, religion, and community, as well as the profession”.[41] The code of ethics goes on to note that anthropologists are also part of a wider scholarly and political network as well as human and natural environment which needs to be reported on respectfully.[41] The code of ethics recognizes that sometimes very close and personal relationship can sometimes emerge from doing ethnographic work.[41] The American Anthropological Association does recognize that the code is a bit limited in scope mainly because doing ethnographic work can sometimes be multidisciplinary and anthropologists need to familiarize themselves with ethic not only from an anthropological perspective but also from the perspectives of other disciplines.[42] The eight page code of ethics outlines ethical considerations for those conducting Research, Teaching, Application and Dissemination of Results which are briefly outlined below.[43]

  • Conducting Research-When conducting research Anthropologists need to be aware of the potential impacts of the research on the people and animals they study.[44]If the seeking of new knowledge will negatively impact the people and animals they will be studying they may not undertake the study according to the code of ethics.[44]
  • Teaching-When teaching the discipline of anthropology, instructors are required to inform students of the ethical dilemmas of conducting ethnographies and field work.[45]
  • Application-When conducting an ethnography Anthropologists must be “open with funders, colleagues, persons studied or providing information, and relevant parties affected by the work about the purpose(s), potential impacts, and source(s) of support for the work.” [46]
  • Dissemination of Results-When disseminating results of an ethnography the code notes that “[a]nthropologists have an ethical obligation to consider the potential impact of both their research and the communication or dissemination of the results of their research on all directly or indirectly involved.” [47]Research results of ethnographies should not be withheld from participants in the research if that research is being observed by other people.[46]

Classic virtues

  • “The kindly ethnographer” – Most ethnographers present themselves as being more sympathetic than they actually are, which aids in the research process, but is also deceptive. The identity that we present to subjects is different from who we are in other circumstances.
  • “The friendly ethnographer” – Ethnographers operate under the assumption that they should not dislike anyone. In actuality, when hated individuals are found within research, ethnographers often crop them out of the findings.[48]
  • “The honest ethnographer” – If research participants know the research goals, their responses will likely be skewed. Therefore, ethnographers often conceal what they know in order to increase the likelihood of acceptance.[48]

Technical skills

  • “The Precise Ethnographer” – Ethnographers often create the illusion that field notes are data and reflect what “really” happened. They engage in the opposite of plagiarism, giving credit to those undeserving by not using precise words but rather loose interpretations and paraphrasing. Researchers take near-fictions and turn them into claims of fact. The closest ethnographers can ever really get to reality is an approximate truth.
  • “The Observant Ethnographer” – Readers of ethnography are often led to assume the report of a scene is complete – that little of importance was missed. In reality, an ethnographer will always miss some aspect because they are not omniscient. Everything is open to multiple interpretations and misunderstandings. The ability of the ethnographer to take notes and observe varies, and therefore, what is depicted in ethnography is not the whole picture.
  • “The Unobtrusive Ethnographer” – As a “participant” in the scene, the researcher will always have an effect on the communication that occurs within the research site. The degree to which one is an “active member” affects the extent to which sympathetic understanding is possible.[49]

Ethnographic self

The following appellations are commonly misconceived conceptions of ethnographers:

  • “The Candid Ethnographer” – Where the researcher situates themselves within the ethnography is ethically problematic. There is an illusion that everything reported has actually happened because the researcher has been directly exposed to it.
  • “The Chaste Ethnographer” – When ethnographers participate within the field, they invariably develop relationships with research subjects/participants. These relationships are sometimes not accounted for within the reporting of the ethnography despite the fact that they seemingly would influence the research findings.
  • “The Fair Ethnographer” – Fine claims that objectivity is an illusion and that everything in ethnography is known from a perspective. Therefore, it is unethical for a researcher to report fairness in their findings.
  • “The Literary Ethnographer” – Representation is a balancing act of determining what to “show” through poetic/prosaic language and style versus what to “tell” via straightforward, ‘factual’ reporting. The idiosyncratic skill of the ethnographer influences the face-value of the research.[50]

According to Norman K. Denzin, the following eight principles should be considered when observing, recording, and sampling data:

  1. The groups should combine symbolic meanings with patterns of interaction.
  2. Observe the world from the point of view of the subject, while maintaining the distinction between everyday and scientific perceptions of reality.
  3. Link the group’s symbols and their meanings with the social relationships.
  4. Record all behaviour.
  5. Methodology should highlight phases of process, change, and stability.
  6. The act should be a type of symbolic interactionism.
  7. Use concepts that would avoid casual explanations.

See also

  • Area studies
  • Critical ethnography
  • Ethnography of communication
  • Ethnology
  • Realist ethnography
  • Online ethnography: a form of ethnography that involves conducting ethnographic studies on the Internet
  • Participant observation
  • Video ethnography
  • Living lab

Notable ethnographers

  • Gerhard Friedrich Müller(1705-1783)
  • Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck(c. 1618 – 1655)
  • Manuel Ancízar Basterra(1812-1882)
  • Franz Boas(1858–1942)
  • Sergey Oldenburg(1863-1934)
  • Edward Sapir(1884–1939)
  • Raymond Firth(1901–2002)
  • Margaret Mead(1901–1978)
  • Gregory Bateson(1904–1980)
  • Mary Douglas(1921–2007)
  • Napoleon Chagnon(born 1938)
  • Marilyn Strathern(born 1941)
  • Elijah Anderson(born 1943)
  • Veena Das(born 1945)
  • Kristen R. Ghodsee(born 1970)
  • Subhasish Bose(1947–2014)
  • Zuzana Beňušková(born 1960)
  • Zalpa Bersanova
  • Jaber F. Gubrium
  • Katrina Karkazis
  • Diamond Jenness
  • Ruth Landes
  • Edmund Leach
  • José Leite de Vasconcelos
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Bronisław Malinowski
  • David Maybury-Lewis
  • Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay
  • Nikolai Nadezhdin
  • Lubor Niederle
  • Dositej Obradović
  • Alexey Okladnikov
  • Richard Price
  • August Ludwig von Schlözer
  • Lila Abu-Lughod
  • Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Paul Willis
  • Susan Visvanathan


  1. ^ technical definition at scholarly journal
  2. ^ Geertz, C. (1973). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.
  3. ^ In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp 3-30). New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers
  4. ^ Philipsen, G. (1992). Speaking Culturally: Explorations in Social Communication. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press
  5. ^ “Ethnology” at dictionary.com .
  6. ^ Токарев, Сергей Александрович (1978).  История зарубежной этнографии (in Russian). Наука.
  7. a b Ember, Carol and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology. 2006. Prentice Hall, Chapter One
  8. a b Heider, Karl. Seeing Anthropology. 2001. Prentice Hall, Chapters One and Two.
  9. a b Vermeulen, Hans (2008). Early History of Ethnograph and Ethnolog in the German Enlightenment: Anthropological Discourse in Europe and Asia, 1710-1808. Leiden: Privately published.
  10. a b c  [Brewer, John D. (2000). Ethnography. Philadelphia: Open University Press. p.10.]
  11. ^ http://www.anthrobase.com/Dic/eng/def/kinship.html
  12. ^ [nightingale, David & Cromby, John. Social Constructionist Psychology: A Critical Analysis of Theory and Practice. Philadelphia: Open University Press. p.228.]
  13. a b c  G. David Garson (2008). “Ethnographic Research: Statnotes, from North Carolina State University, Public Administration Program”. Faculty.chass.ncsu.edu. Retrieved 2011-03-27.
  14. ^ Genzuk, Michael, PH.D.,  A Synthesis of Ethnographic , Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research, University of Southern California
  15. ^ S. Ybema, D. Yanow, H. Wels, & F. Kamsteeg (2010). Ethnography. In A. Mills, G. Durepos, & E. Wiebe (Eds.), Encyclopedia of case study research. (pp. 348-352). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  16. ^ Schatz, Edward, ed. “Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power”. University Of Chicago Press. 2009.
  17. ^ Naroll, Raoul. Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology.
  18. ^ Chavez, Leo. “Shadowed Lives: Undocumented workers in American society (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology). 1997 Prentice Hall.
  19. ^ “University Press of Florida: Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia”. Upf.com. 2009-11-15. Retrieved 2011-03-27.
  20. ^ cf. Ember and Ember 2006, Heider 2001 op cit.
  21. ^ Ember and Ember 2006, op cit., Chapters 7 and 8
  22. ^ Truner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols. remainder of citation forthcoming
  23. ^ Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of CultureChapter one.
  24. ^ Olaf Zenker & Karsten Kumoll. Beyond Writing Culture: Current Intersections of Epistemologies and Representational Practices. (2010). New York: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-84545-675-7. Pgs. 1-4
  25. ^ Paul A. Erickson & Liam D. Murphy. A History of Anthropological Theory, Third Edition. (2008). Toronto: Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-871-0. Pg. 190
  26. ^ Paul A. Erickson & Liam D. Murphy. A History of Anthropological Theory, Third Edition. (2008). Toronto: Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-871-0. Pgs. 190-191
  27. ^ Kristen Ghodsee, “Writing Ethnographies that Ordinary People Can Read.” http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2013/05/24/writing-ethnographies-that-ordinary-people-can-read/
  28. ^ Literary Ethnography http://literary-ethnography.tumblr.com/
  29. a b Olaf Zenker & Karsten Kumoll. Beyond Writing Culture: Current Intersections of Epistemologies and Representational Practices. (2010). New York: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-84545-675-7. Pg. 12
  30. ^ Luke E. Lassiter. ‘From “Reading over the Shoulders of Natives” to “Reading alongside Natives”, Literally: Toward a Collaborative and Reciprocal Ethnography’. (2001). Journal of Anthropologcal Research, 57(2):137-149
  31. ^ Luke E. Lassiter. ‘Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology’. (2005). Current Anthropology, 46(1):83-106
  32. ^ Rubin, R. B., Rubin, A. M., and Piele, L. J. (2005). Communication research: Strategies and sources.Belmont, California: Thomson Wadworth. pp. 229.
  33. ^ Bentz, V. M., and Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage. pp. 117.
  34. ^ Salvador, Tony; Genevieve Bell; and Ken Anderson (1999) Design Ethnography.Design Management Journal (pp. 35-41). p.37
  35. ^ [1]Practical Ethnography
  36. ^ Richardson,L. (2000). Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), 253-255
  37. ^ For postcolonial critiques of ethnography from various locations, see essays in Prem Poddar et al, Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures–Continental Europe and its Empires, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
  38. ^ Fine, p. 267
  39. ^ Fine, p. 291
  40. ^ American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/upload/AAA-Ethics-Code-2009.pdf, p.1
  41. a b c  American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.1
  42. ^ American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.2
  43. ^ American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.1-8
  44. a b American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.2-3
  45. ^ American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.4
  46. a b American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.5
  47. ^ American Anthropology Association Code of Ethics, p.5-6
  48. a b Fine, p. 270-77
  49. ^ Fine, p. 277-81
  50. ^  Fine, p. 282-89

Further reading

  • Agar, Michael (1996) The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. Academic Press.
  • Clifford, James & George E. Marcus (Eds.). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. (1986). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood (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.
  • Fine, G. A. (1993). Ten lies of ethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 22(3), p. 267-294.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures.
  • Ghodsee, Kristen (2013) “Writing Ethnographies That Ordinary People Can Read.” Anthropology News.
  • Gubrium, Jaber F. (1988). “Analyzing Field Reality.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Gubrium, Jaber F. and James A. Holstein. (1997) “The New Language of Qualitative Method.” New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Gubrium, Jaber F. and James A. Holstein. (2009). “Analyzing Narrative Reality.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Heath, Shirley Brice & Brian Street, with Molly Mills. On Ethnography.
  • Hymes, Dell. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Kottak, Conrad Phillip (2005) Window on Humanity : A Concise Introduction to General Anthropology, (pages 2–3, 16-17, 34-44). McGraw Hill, New York.
  • Marcus, George E. & Michael Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. (1986). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, Daniel (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Blackwell, London.
  • Spradley, James P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.
  • Salvador, Tony; Genevieve Bell; and Ken Anderson (1999) Design Ethnography.Design Management Journal.
  • Van Maanen, John. 1988. Tales of the Field: On Writing EthnographyChicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Westbrook, David A. Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters. (2008). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to  Ethnography .
  • Human Relations Area Files
  • 100 of the Most Influential Ethnographies and Anthropology Texts
  • Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference
  • Genzuk, Michael (2003) A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research
  • Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History – Over 160,000 objects from Pacific, North American, African, Asian ethnographic collections with images and detailed description, linked to the original catalogue pages, field notebooks, and photographs are available online.
  • Ross Archive of African Images
  • Ethnographic material collection from Northern Anatolia and Caucasus -Photo Gallery
  • Ethnography.com A community based Ethnography website for academic and professional ethnographers and interested parties
  • New Zealand Museum Images of objects from Pacific cultures.
  • University of Pennsylvania’s “What is Ethnography?” Penn’s Public Interest Anthropology Web Site
  • American Ethnography — Definitions: What is Ethnography? A collection of quotes about ethnography (Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, …)
  • Doing ethnographies (Concepts and Techniques in Modern Geography)
  • Cornell University Library Southeast Asia Visions
  • Ethnography for the masses 2CV’s Practical Application of Ethnography in Market Research
  • Scott Polar Research Institute Arctic Material Culture Collection
  • Texts on Wikisource:
  • Otis Tufton Mason (1905). “Ethnography”.  New International Encyclopedia .
  • “Ethnology and ethnography”.  Encyclopædia Britannica  (11th ed.). 1911.
  • “Ethnography”.  Encyclopedia Americana . 1920.
  • “Ethnography”.  Collier’s New Encyclopedia . 1921.


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