What is Ethnography?

What exactly is ethnography? At its heart, it is two things: a research method and a genre of expression that describes and represents cultural worlds.

Over the last two weeks we have been trying to articulate how each of us use and understanding the term ethnography. This is important to explore so that we can see how our ideas and perspectives grow, change or deepen over the year.

As one class member expressed, “It is hard to define something that is so dynamic.” So rather than come up with a singular definition, below we share a range of ideas that students contributed to our conversation.

These are by no means the only ways one could define or describe ethnography, but they are the ones that were salient to us.

There are many different types of ethnography, and many different strands to ethnography. Here are some of those strands that stand out for us:

So, what is ethnography?

“Ethnography is about lived experience, so it becomes a personal, relational, creative space where transformation can occur.”

“Ethnography puts people at the centre of everything, focuses on lived experiences, and captures moments of time.”

“Ethnography is relational – how people connect to environments, things, culture and others, this includes the relationship between the researcher and their participants.”

“Ethnography is an art form; the description of a cultural world is an art form.”

“Ethnography is deeply personal and subjective.”

“While one viewpoint may paint a culture in intricate detail, it is only a viewpoint, drawn from one stance. The ethnographer lives in an experiential world, like all humans. This can limit their vision to originate from one angle alone. Ethnography encourages us to attempt to ‘see’ from multiple perspectives.”

“Ethnography explores the different interpretations and meanings life and practices hold, providing a ‘thick description’ as coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz”

“Ethnography involves ‘deep hanging out’ in a community. At times, in order for you to even partake in daily activities, you need to be accepted into the society you are studying. Or else, you find yourself on the outside looking in.”

“Ethnographic writing often seeks to subtly enhance the scholarly credibility of the author, and to build the audience’s trust in ethnographer’s credentials and expertise.”

“Ethnography is a form of humanistic enquiry, one that is grounded in the practice of fieldwork and the articulation of this experience through almost any creative form.”

“Ethnography is a hermeneutic and deeply personal practice.”

“Central to ethnography are relationships, and I see the ethnographer as a mediator of knowledge between the group they are working with and the reader/viewer.”

“Ethnography is not just produced by trained anthropologists. A person on a podcast talking about the reaction of a fan group to the latest entertainment trend could be classed as a form of ethnography. The speakers on the podcast may have had no formal anthropological training but they have still created ethnography.”

Students argued we need to remain aware of the ongoing legacies of early ideas about ethnography.

“Ethnography and anthropology can be traced back to 17th and 18th century Enlightenment ideas where thinkers began to advocate for: scientific methods, reason, secularised learning, universal education, and ‘progress’ as the basis for examining and understanding the human world. From these fundamentals, in particular, the provision for the scientific method enabled the development of methodology as a technique to synthesize reasoned explanations from empirical data. However these ideas were not neutral and emerged at the same time as scientific racism and imperial expansion.”

“Bronislaw Malinowski emphasized the importance of data collection through sustained fieldwork observation, detailed note-taking, holistically linking of information, and prescriptive sense-making of observations and inquiries. Moreover, the written-up research monograph – the ethnography, would in due course gain recognition as a ‘scientific’ and literary genre.”

“Ethnography involves acknowledging positionality: The ideas, intent and impacts of an ethnography cannot be separated from the anthropologists who create them.”

“Ethnography is reflexive, and involves acknowledging the complex social dynamics that an anthropologist brings to research and is embedded within in the world that they are exploring.”

“Ethnography has often relied heavily upon the idea of ‘being there’ in the field. Ethnographic writers often attempt to assert authority over knowledge through providing ethnographic details and first-hand observations. This encourages the reader to feel that the ethnographer has a rich, direct understanding of the knowledge shared and therefore has credible authority to share it.”