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The form of research known as Ethnography

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Ethnography is a form of research focusing on the sociology of meaning through close field observation of sociocultural phenomena. Typically, the ethnographer focuses on a community (not necessarily geographic, considering also work, leisure, and other communities), selecting informants who are known to have an overview of the activities of the community. Such informants are asked to identify other informants representative of the community, using chain sampling to obtain a saturation of informants in all empirical areas of investigation. Informants are interviewed multiple times, using information from previous informants to elicit clarification and deeper responses upon re-interview. This process is intended to reveal common cultural understandings related to the phenomena under study. These subjective but collective understandings on a subject (ex., stratification) are often interpreted to be more significant than objective data (ex., income differentials).

It should be noted that ethnography may be approached from the point of view of art and cultural preservation, and as a descriptive rather than analytic endeavor. The comments here, however, focus on social science analytic aspects. In this focus, ethnography is a branch of cultural anthropology.

Related information is contained in the sections on content analysis and on case study research.

Key Concepts and Terms

The ethnographic method starts with selection of a culture, review of the literature pertaining to the culture, and identification of variables of interest — typically variables perceived as significant by members of the culture. The ethnographer then goes about gaining entrance, which in turn sets the stage for cultural immersion of the ethnographer in the culture. It is not unusual for ethnographers to live in the culture for months or even years. The middle stages of the ethnographic method involve gaining informants, using them to gain yet more informants in a chaining process, and gathering of data in the form of observational transcripts and interview recordings. Data analysis and theory development come at the end, though theories may emerge from cultural immersion and theory-articulation by members of the culture. However, the ethnographic researcher strives to avoid theoretical preconceptions and instead to induce theory from the perspectives of the members of the culture and from observation. The researcher may seek validation of induced theories by going back to members of the culture for their reaction.

Definition. A popular definition of ethnography is found in Hammersley and Atkinson (1995: 1), who write of ethnography, “We see the term as referring primarily to a particular method or sets of methods. In its most characteristic form it involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions—in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research. More recently, Johnson (2000: 111) defines ethnography as “a descriptive account of social life and culture in a particular social system based on detailed observations of what people actually do.”

Ethnographic methodologies vary and some ethnographers advocate use of structured observation schedules by which one may code observed behaviors or cultural artifacts for purposes of later statistical analysis. Coding and subsequent statistical analysis is treated in Hodson (1999). See also Denzin and Lincoln (1994).

Macro-ethnography is the study of broadly-defined cultural groupings, such as “the English” or “New Yorkers.”

Micro-ethnography is the study of narrowly-defined cultural groupings, such as “local government GIS specialists” or “members of Congress.”

Emic perspective is the ethnographic research approach to the way the members of the given culture perceive their world. The emic perspective is usually the main focus of ethnography.

Etic perspective, is the ethnographic research approach to the way non-members (outsiders) perceive and interpret behaviors and phenomena associated with a given culture.

Situational reduction refers to the view of ethnographers that social structures and social dynamics emerge from and may be reduced analytically to the accumulated effects of microsituational interactions (Collins 1981, 1988). Put another way, the cosmos is best understood in microcosm. Situational reduction, Collins (1981b: 93) wrote, “. . . produces an empirically stronger theory, on any level of analysis, by displaying the real-life situations and behaviors that make up its phenomena. In particular, it introduces empirically real causal forces in the shape of human beings expending energy. It enables us to discover which macro-concepts and explanations are empirically groundable, and which are not…”

Symbols, always a focus of ethnographic research, are any material artifact of a culture, such as art, clothing, or even technology. The ethnographer strives to understand the cultural connotations associated with symbols. Technology, for instance, may be interpreted in terms of how it relates to an implied plan to bring about a different desired state for the culture.

Cultural patterning is the observation of cultural patterns forming relationships involving two or more symbols. Ethnographic research is holistic, believing that symbols cannot be understood in isolation but instead are elements of a whole. One method of patterning is conceptual mapping, using the terms of members of the culture themselves to relate symbols across varied forms of behavior and in varied contexts. Another method is to focus on learning processes, in order to understand how a culture transmits what it perceives to be important across generations. A third method is to focus on sanctioning processes, in order to understand which cultural elements are formally (ex., legally) prescribed or proscribed and which are informally prescribed or proscribed, and of these which are enforced through sanction and which are unenforced.

Tacit knowledge is deeply-embedded cultural beliefs which are assumed in a culture’s way of perceiving the world, so much so that such knowledge is rarely or never discussed explicitly by members of the culture, but rather must be inferred by the ethnographer.


Ethnography assumes the principal research interest is primarily affected by community cultural understandings. The methodology virtually assures that common cultural understandings will be identified for the research interest at hand. Interpretation is apt to place great weight on the causal importance of such cultural understandings. There is a possibility that an ethnographic focus will overestimate the role of cultural perceptions and underestimate the causal role of objective forces.

Ethnography assumes an ability to identify the relevant community of interest. In some settings, this can be difficult. Community, formal organization, informal group, and individual-level perceptions may all play a causal role in the subject under study, and the importance of these may vary by time, place, and issue. There is a possibility that an ethnographic focus may overestimate the role of community culture and underestimate the causal role of individual psychological or of sub-community (or for that matter, extra-community) forces.

Ethnography assumes the researcher is capable of understanding the cultural mores of the population under study, has mastered the language or technical jargon of the culture, and has based findings on comprehensive knowledge of the culture. There is a danger that the researcher may introduce bias toward perspectives of his or her own culture.

While not inherent to the method, cross-cultural ethnographic research runs the risk of falsely assuming that given measures have the same meaning across cultures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Isn’t ethnography a subjective rather than scientific social science research method?

Selection of informants is not based on the researcher’s personal judgments but on identifications made by community members. Likewise, conclusions about cultural understandings of the phenomena of interests are not personal insights of the researcher, or even of particular community members, but are views cross-validated through repeated, in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of representative informants. Ethnographers may also validate findings through conventional archival research, consultation with experts, use of surveys, and other techniques not unique to ethnography. At the same time, ethnographic interviews are far more in-depth than survey research. Ethnographers respond to charges of subjectivity by emphasizing that their approach eschews preconceived frameworks and derives meaning from the community informants themselves, whereas survey instruments often reflect the conceptual categories preconceived by the researcher prior to actual encounter with respondents.

What are the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF)?

The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), based at Yale University, are a large collection of pre-coded ethnographic field studies of some 350 cultures. Originally available only on microfiche, collection subsets are now available on CD-ROM. Examples of coded subjects include marriage, family, crime, education, religion, and warfare. The researcher must code variables of interest to go beyond the precoding done by HRAF. Hundreds of articles have been based on the HRAF cultural database, and collections of coding schemes are documented in Barry and Schlegel, eds. (1980). The HRAF database is suitable for ethnographic coding methods as described in Hodson (1999)

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