Understanding Ethnography

Understanding Ethnography

By Maureen E. Sheridan


Defining Ethnography


At its most basic core, ethnography is “writing about people.” Ethnography is a research method that permits researchers to explore and examine the cultures and societies that are a vital part of the human experience. This chapter will broaden the reader’s understanding of what ethnography is and gives a brief history of its origin. Chapter One looks to inform the reader about how researchers are utilizing modern contemporary ethnography. In recent years, it has become more relevant in multiple disciplines in the field of social sciences. Its popularity has grown in use due to its ability to collect data on living subjects from a first-hand perspective (Alasuutari, 1995; Bryman, 2004; Ladner, 2014; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).


Approaching research with the ethnographic method may be unlikely for researchers who are not yet acquainted to it and, instead, approach research in a more traditional way. Yet, we find that ethnography can be an essential approach for many researchers looking to evaluate and investigate basic social circumstances (Schensul & LeCompte, 2012). At times ethnography is the best tool to use to explore ongoing events in context where other methods, such as controlled experiments or collections of quantifiable data do not.


Most scientific research strategies are typically done from the perspective of a detached observer. The difference between these traditional methods and ethnography is that the ethnographic method allows the researcher to capture data in the role of active participant and passive observer. So how does one reconcile being active and passive at the same time? The ethnographer gathers data through observation, interviews, fieldnotes, and mapping as well as gains insight through firsthand involvement with research subjects or participants (Alasuutari, 1995; Anderson, 1994; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016; Van Mannen, 2003). The ethnographer mainly conducts research by interacting with other people who are part of the study. This partnership or interaction takes on many forms, from conversations and interviews to participating in shared rituals, symbols, artifacts, and emotional experiences. The ethnographer actively participates and gathers information while, at the same time, tries to remain an objective observer.


Studying Cultural Phenomena


Like ethnographic frameworks infused into the social sciences, it has been noted that the best way to study social and cultural phenomena is to study them in action. The complexity of humans and their social interactions cannot be captured in a picture or sterile laboratory as there are no strict control of variables in ethnography. Analyzing initial data collection and comparing the experiences captured over time may result in the researcher having to tweak the research process. This comes after viewing conflicts over time as well as other variables found within the environment under investigation. Ethnographers employ multiple research techniques and methods in a complex research strategy that matches the complexity of the living objects under investigation (Bryman, 2004; Ladner, 2014; Tombro, 2016).


An important thing to note is that ethnography is not a static process. And that it occurs over a prolonged period of time of weeks, months, or even years. Ethnographic research incorporates multiple types of research methods and techniques from active participation to passive observation and can incorporate interviews, focus groups, note taking, and mapping, among others. This is why ethnography is not usually the research method of choice by many social scientists. Social scientists in the past have chosen to use surveys, static interviews, focus groups but using them as singular events, etc. However, the ethnographic research method has gained traction as social science trends continue to indicate. Murchison (2010) argued that “today, researchers employ ethnography as a research strategy in a number of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, and education, and as a practical research strategy in marketing, management, and public policy arenas” (p. 4). This demonstration of widespread use indicates that the utility of the approach has become evident in many different situations where a better understanding of social and cultural dynamics is desired.


Maintaining a Naïve State of Mind as a First-Hand Observer


Early ethnographers wrote about what they saw and heard but did not go into detail to describe how they captured their research data or formed their conclusion. Most early ethnographic accounts did not include the method of research collection as part of the description in the research study. It was believed that the pioneers of ethnography did not fully understand research practices (Anderson, 1994; Averill, 1996; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016; Van Mannen, 2003). Another consideration was that most of earlier ethnographic reports were done in places that required the researcher to travel many miles away from their homeland and study groups of individuals who likely did not speak the same language. Early ethnography ignored much of the complexity found in the human experience. Instead it made a lot of assumptions based on the researcher’s own personal bias or their lack of understanding about the phenomena under investigation. Today, the ethnographer tries to avoid bringing in their personal biases and instead remain in a naïve state of mind. They try not to assume or manipulate what the outcome will be.


The fundamental assumption in ethnography’s commitment to remaining attractive as a method of research is that certain types of information are only obtainable through first-hand experience. The belief that ethnography affords the researcher a better understanding of a particular place or culture under investigation stems from the fact that the researcher acts as both participant and observer. A survey, for example, is an instrument that can provide a researcher rich information about demographics, political opinions, economic activities, and many other things. A survey can yield a multitude of useful information but must be well designed and administered properly. The benefit of a survey instrument is that it can be carried out fairly quickly and it may even be conducted at a distance using standard or electronic means of communication such as telephones, mail, or through the Internet.


Other disciplines that study human beings, particularly psychology, have intermittently used detached observation as a research method (Creswell, 1994). This approach places the researcher as a usually removed or detached entity. They are often either observing from a distance or looking through a video lens. It is necessary that the researcher does not directly interact with the participants so there is little or no chance of influencing the situation or subjects under investigation. Detached observation gives the researcher the ability to see how different individuals respond to certain stimuli and either react or problem-solve in the process. These are usually very controlled environments with very little variables to account for.


Ethnography is not like that. Much of the ethnographic process is as an active participant coupled with passive observation. It also has hundreds of uncontrollable variables and situations that could arise. The benefit of ethnography is that it can reveal and recount varying types of information that would not necessarily be readily obtainable through a more detached approach such as observations or surveys. Ethnography allows the researcher to collect and analyze the most relevant conditions or categories regarding the group being studied. The focus of the ethnographic method is on local styles of thought and mannerisms. Ethnography gives the researcher the ability to not only observe what is going on, but to also experience the events, interactions, conflicts, and rituals as manifestations of the larger group or culture under investigation.


Ethnography may capture the disarray of the culture or group under study. It is straightforward in the sense that although the ethnographer has to relinquish much of the control over the research situation, it allows the researcher the opportunity to study first-hand and get an accurate grasp of the behavior under investigation. Murchison (2010) argued that “ethnography allows the researcher to examine how people’s actions compare to what they say about their actions in ideal situations and their thoughts or opinions on particular topics”. Different outcomes can generate research questions that emerge out of researchers trying to account for apparent disparities. Sometimes researchers must turn their attention to variables or questions that did not seem relevant at first (Anderson, 1994; Bryman, 2004; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).


The ethnographer’s existence in the research site fosters questions about whether they can remain objective. The idea that the ethnographer is both participant and observer is an inherent contradiction of terms. It brings into questions whether or not it can be turned into a generalizable study of behavior as another researcher may not be able to duplicate the study with the same specificity as the first. This brings into question the idea of ethics in ethnographic research. How does the individuals under investigation interact with or react to the individual ethnographer on site? These considerations are important matters when designing and conducting the ethnographer’s research plan. Ethnographers share different attitudes about topics. So, when designing a study, the researcher must acknowledge that there may be the need to further explore questions that may arise or devise strategies to make sense for the individual researcher’s goals (Alasuutari, 1995; Anderson, 2004; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016). This does not bring into question the validity of ethnography, but rather, demonstrates that its very nature is powerful and potentially precarious.




Employing Ethnography


Contemporary ethnography evolved over time into a methodical and useful research tool. Critics of classical ethnography started to question early ethnographer’s reliance on models that assumed equality and balance. The discussion centered on whether early ethnography could claim to be objective and avoided bringing personal biases into the mix. A review of classic studies demonstrated that strands of personal bias infiltrated many of the assumptions made by earlier social scientists. It was argued that more was needed to ensure that contemporary ethnographers addressed and checked their own personal biases prior to approaching their subjects under study and that they must consider the ethical responsibilities they had with the people they worked with (Ladner, 2014; Murchison, 2010; Van Manned, 2003).


There has been vigorous debate over the subject of the ethnographic approach. Anthropology and sociology are no longer the only disciplines that choose the ethnographic method as a way to collect rich and detailed first-hand knowledge of a group or culture under investigation. Rather, there is an increase in its acceptance across the globe and within studies about urban or rural communities in action (Murchison, 2010). Ethnography does not only mean traveling to remote areas or small rural communities. There is an increased recognition for the utility of capturing cultural and social phenomena using the ethnographic approach. As sociologists utilize ethnography more to capture the ways of industrialized and urban communities, there is more debate on the validity of the earlier classic studies. This critique on earlier ethnography has affected some to pursue ethnography as a contemporary practice. The ethnographic projects verified that researchers could successfully use ethnography in both urban and industrialized research scenarios. This paradigm shift made ethnographic research more acceptable locally. Contemporary ethnographers found that ethnography allowed the researchers to study particular groups and subjects that were not already researched using more traditional methods such as surveys.


Identifying Bias in the Research Process


The ethnographer’s role as a passive observer can be difficult if they choose a field site where they have little knowledge of the local language or customs. In this instance, the researcher runs the risk of making serious mistakes and will have to learn from them quickly. Ethnographic research requires that the researcher adopt a participant-observer role and not bring in any personal bias as to the possible outcomes of the project.


The ethnographer may have a more difficult time planning their research because the process necessitates solid preparation and purpose while entailing the researcher act as an active participant and passive observer at the same time. Ethnographic research takes place over an extended period of weeks, months, or years and requires that the participant-observer maintain an objective, detached attitude. The parameters surrounding ethnography suggest that the researcher should not intentionally redirect or influence the environment or participants under study. One challenge the ethnographer must face is that, while the researcher maintains a neutral unbiased stance, their direct participation in the environment draws them in on a personal level. This happens when their own lived experience mixes with the environment over time and they react to the subjects and environment involved (Alasuutari, 1995; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).


To achieve their research goals in capturing the personal experiences of a society or culture in action, the ethnographer must become involved on a personal level to some degree. It has been acknowledged that participant-observation involves the researcher acquire first-hand lived experience regarding the subjects under investigation which may cause the ethnographer to involuntarily abandon their objective viewpoint over time. When this happens, the ethnographer could experience social or cultural empathy that might influence the conclusions garnered about the culture or group under study. The researcher must bear in mind that they should try and not prejudge anyone or situation they observe (Bryman, 2004; Emerson et al., 1997; Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).


While all this may be necessary, there is the opposite assumption that a researcher who becomes a “participant” cannot maintain the ability to capture and acknowledge the larger picture. Instead, the ethnographer may absorb the experience of events and may not have the ability to remain objective once they have immersed themselves in the study long term. This can occur when concentrated experiences and emotions have actively ensued over a prolonged time period. The first-hand experience of the ethnographer can change the long-term perception of their environment when they continue to act as a participant-observer long term (Ladner, 2014; Murchison, 2010).




The goal of ethnography is to improve insight into cultural and shared group behaviors and understand the cultural relationships and processes that create behavior. An experienced ethnographer will have a well thought out research plan of action prior to collecting distinctive types of information using varying techniques. Earlier ethnographic research studies made assumptions about the culture under investigation. Especially when traveling to isolated groups or areas they considered relatively static cultures. When ethnography evolved over time, present-day ethnographers uncovered inconsistencies across early studies, which led them to question the validity of classic ethnography.


The early ethnographers were considered the authoritative experts on the group under study. However, that research lacked in detail how the data was collected. What method did they use? Early ethnographers framed the researcher as authorities and made sure that their research study told a good story.


Remember, the ethnographer as a researcher is both an active participant and passive observer. Terms that may contradict one another. A practiced ethnographer needs to manage these competing inconsistencies (Murchison, 2010, Schensul & LeCompte, 2017, Tombro, 2016). Ethnography is a unique method that gives the researcher an insider’s view into the culture or group in action. Participating directly on-site to take notes, create maps and images, or to have conversations with participants, affords the ethnographer the ability to evolve over the duration of the process. The challenge over time becomes trying to maintain a passive observer role while becoming more accustomed to the local customs, rituals, symbols, and practices (Murchison, 2010; Tombro, 2016).


Ethnography captures the essence of the human existence. It is straightforward in process and gives the ethnographer unfettered access to the group under study. Ethnographers need to keep in mind that they have to relinquish a lot of the control over the research process in order to avoid bringing in personal bias and clouding the results of the study. The advantage of this process to the ethnographer is that the researcher themselves are allowed access to study first-hand and to gain a first-hand understanding about the behavior under investigation. Ethnography allows the researcher to reconcile what people’s actions demonstrate compared with what they say about their actions (Murchison, 2010).

Chapter Overview


  • Defining ethnography
  • A brief history behind ethnography
  • Trends in today’s ethnography
  • Exploring the ethnographic method as first-hand research
  • Recognizing the ethnographer as research instrument
  • Understanding how the ethnographer as participant-observer partners with study participants



  • Ethnography
  • Research strategy
  • Participant-observer
  • Research subjects
  • Bias
  • Mapping
  • Objectivity
  • Building rapport
  • Validity


Chapter Questions


  1. What was the significance of a rise in the use of the ethnographic method?
  2. What are some of the differences between early ethnography and contemporary ethnography? What are the potential problems that stemmed from early ethnographic accounts?
  3. What key feature is missing in the early work?
  4. Why did most early ethnographers choose only one elder male to speak for the rest of the group and then make assumptions about the group based from on encounters alone?
  5. In what ways was early ethnographic work problematic or inconsistent?
  6. In what was has ethnography evolved in contemporary ethnographic research methods?
  7. What main characteristics in ethnography are different from other research strategies in the social sciences?
  8. Do you believe ethnography is a good way to collect data?
  9. In your opinion, do you think social scientists would choose ethnography as a means to pursue a study?
  10. How does the ethnographer function as research instrument?
  11. What should an ethnographer do to nurture a better rapport between ethnographer and participant?
  12. What are the most positive elements of ethnographic research methods?





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