What is Ethnography?

The term ethnography has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project in which the intention is to provide a detailed and in-depth description of everyday life and practice. This is sometimes referred to as “thick description,” a term attributed to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who wrote about the idea of ​​an interpretive theory of culture in the early 1970s (for example, see The Interpretation of Cultures, first published as a collection in 1973). The use of the term “qualitative” aims to distinguish this type of social science research from more “quantitative” or statistically oriented research. The two approaches, i.e. quantitative and qualitative, although often complementary,

Note that you can view and download my detailed guide on ethnography and ethnographic fieldwork, including question lists and tips for fieldwork notes. If you want to use and quote my work on this topic, this is the best way to do it.

While the ethnographic approach to social research is no longer purely that of the cultural anthropologist, a more precise definition must take root in the disciplinary home of ethnographic anthropology. Thus, ethnography can be defined both as a qualitative research process or method (an ethnography is carried out) and as a product (the result of this process is an ethnography) whose objective is cultural interpretation. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of the experience. Specifically, it tries to explain how these represent what we could call “meaning networks” (Geertz again), the cultural constructions in which we live.

Ethnographers generate understandings of culture through the representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what could be described as the “internal point of view.” The emphasis on this representation is, therefore, to allow categories and critical meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter instead of imposing them from existing models. An ethical perspective, by contrast, refers to a more distant and analytical orientation of experience.

An ethnographic understanding is developed through close exploration of various data sources. Using these data sources as a basis, the ethnographer relies on a cultural framework of analysis.

Long-term participation in the field setting or where ethnography takes place is called participant observation. This is perhaps the main source of ethnographic data. The term represents the dual role of the ethnographer. To develop an understanding of what it is to live in an environment, the researcher must become a participant in the life of the environment while maintaining the position of an observer, someone who can describe the experience with a measure of what we might call “detachment”. Note that this does not mean that ethnographers cannot become advocates for the people they study. Typically, ethnographers spend many months or even years in the places where they carry out their research, often forming lasting links with people. Due to historical development and disciplinary biases, in the past most ethnographers conducted their research in foreign countries, largely ignoring the potential to work right here at home. This has meant that much of the ethnography done in the United States today is being done outside of your disciplinary home. However, an increasing number of cultural anthropologists have begun to do field work in the communities where they themselves live and work. This has meant that much of the ethnography done in the United States today is being done outside of your disciplinary home. However, an increasing number of cultural anthropologists have begun to do field work in the communities where they themselves live and work. This has meant that much of the ethnography done in the United States today is being done outside of your disciplinary home. However, an increasing number of cultural anthropologists have begun to do field work in the communities where they themselves live and work.

Interviews provide what might be called “selective” data collection by asking specific but open questions. There are a wide variety of interview styles. Each ethnographer brings their own unique approach to the process. Regardless, emphasis is placed on allowing the person or persons interviewed to respond without being constrained by predefined options, which clearly distinguishes qualitative approaches from more quantitative or demographic approaches. In most cases, an ethnographic interview looks and feels little different from a daily conversation, and indeed, in the course of long-term participant observation, most conversations are in fact purely spontaneous and without any specific agenda.

The researchers collect other sources of data that depend on the specific nature of the field environment. This can take the form of representative artifacts that embody features of the topic of interest, government reports, and newspaper and magazine articles. Although often unrelated to the place of study, secondary academic sources are used to “locate” the specific study within an existing body of literature.

In the last twenty years, interest in anthropology has grown in considering the close relationship between personal history, motivation, and the particularities of ethnographic fieldwork (for example, see Hoey & Fricke 2007). It is undeniably important to question and understand how these factors influence the construction of the theory and conduct of academic life. Personal and professional experiences, together with the historical context, lead individual researchers to their own methodological and theoretical approaches. This is also an important source, although not recognized.

Ethnographic fieldwork is shaped by personal and professional identities, just as these identities are inevitably shaped by individual experiences while in the field. Unfortunately, the autobiographical dimension of ethnographic research has been historically minimized, if not entirely ruled out. This is largely understandable given the perception of a threat to the expected objectivity of legitimate science, the reliability of the data, and the integrity of our methodology, if we appear to allow subjectivity to intervene by allowing the taxpayer of the ethnographer to appear. instead of adhering to the prescribed role of totally dispassionate observer.

Most anthropologists today point to Bronislaw Malinowski, the author of ethnographies as important as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific (first published in 1922), as a kind of founding father of field ethnographic work, the practice of “observation of participants ”. Malinowski’s ethnographies of the early 20th century were written in a distant and utterly unrevealing voice about the nature of the ethnographer and his relationship to the people studied. Since Malinowski’s time, the personal account of fieldwork has been hidden in notes and diaries. These “unofficial” writings document unspoken impressions and emotional experiences without which we, as ethnographers, cannot fully appreciate and understand the project of our own research. Malinowski’s diaries were published after his death in a revealing autobiographical account of his inner life in the field (A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, first published in 1967). We learn in his diaries that, among other details, Malinowski yearned to write great novels even when his scientific writings effectively defined the practice of cultural anthropology for much of the twentieth century.

Of many important lessons for anthropologists, Malinowski’s diaries contain two especially relevant here. The first of these is that, at its core, ethnographic writing is a means of expressing a shared interest among cultural anthropologists in telling stories, stories about what it means to be human. The other is that the explicit professional project of observing, imagining and describing other people does not have to be incompatible with the implicit personal project of learning about oneself. It is the honest truth of fieldwork that these two projects are always involved in each other. Good ethnography recognizes the transformative nature of fieldwork, in which by seeking answers to questions about people we can find ourselves in the stories of others.

New Ethnography

“Do they tell you what the good life is, or do you find out for yourself?”

Raised by a middle-aged migrant who left a corporate career, this question invokes the theme of Opting for Another Place that arises from the stories of people who chose relocation as a way to redefine themselves and reorder work, family. and personal priorities. This is a book about the urge to start again. The stories presented involve new expressions of old dreams, understandings and ideals. Whether it is the reduction of stressful careers or the victims of the reduction of lost jobs in a wave of economic restructuring, migrants seek refuge in places that seem to resonate with an idealized and potential self. Choosing the option elsewhere and moving as a means of remaking yourself through sheer willpower are basic facets of the American character forged in its history as a developing nation of immigrants with an apparently constantly expanding border. The stories told here are part of a larger moral story of what constitutes the good life in an age of economic uncertainty, along with changing social categories and cultural meanings. Brian Hoey provides an evocative illustration of the ways in which these radical changes affect people and the places where they live and work, as well as how both strategies react to address or challenge the status quo.

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