Enhance your ability to observe and make reliable judgments about communities

Ethnography involves studying a specific culture or community. By living among the members of a culture and playing the role of participant-observer, ethnographers attempt to define the beliefs, rituals, symbols, problems, and patterns of behavior that distinguish this culture from other dominant cultures. For example, ethnographers have attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and written about the culture of alcoholics. Ethnographers have studied the community of prostitutes and drug dealers on inner-city streets and in housing projects. Researchers have used ethnographic techniques to study classrooms in colleges, high schools, and middle schools.

Understanding People is the Purpose

The purpose of ethnography is not to generalize from a smaller population to a larger one. Instead, ethnographers are conducted to better understand specific groups and how those people are influenced by their environment. While ethnographers typically interview key informants in the culture, their emphasis in writing an ethnography is not to tell discrete life stories. Instead, ethnographers use their observations, conclusions from informal and formal interviews, results of psychological tests, and interpretations of insider-written documents to weave together an account of key people in the community and to explicate the community’s values, ceremonies, problems, and prospects.

Ethnography in the Classroom

In a variety of college classes, your instructors may challenge you to play the exciting role of an ethnographer. For example, in a sociology class you may be asked to observe and analyze behavior in a college dormitory. For an education class you may need to analyze how different sociological backgrounds or teaching techniques affect learning. Instructors in business management or communication classes might ask you to study the interpersonal factors that influence how decisions are made or how different people respond to certain leadership and management styles.