Learn About the Culture

Enhance your interpretive skills by learning about the culture before visiting, perhaps by reading other researchers’ ethnographic accounts of the culture. Ethnographers vehemently disagree about the degree to which library research must support field study. Many well-respected anthropologists have written ethnographies that contain few if any references to secondary sources. The job of entering a culture, living as an insider, and then writing to outsiders is already so demanding that they do not have the time, energy, or zeal to connect their work to the work of others. In addition, because ethnography is a fairly new methodology, many ethnographers are truly breaking new ground and other scholarly references may simply be unavailable.

Research the Community First

Familiarizing yourself with the culture before entering it can provide you with the information you need to know to participate without being too obtrusive. For example, if you are going to study the local chess club, you need to learn the rules of chess and play a few games. If you want to study an engineering fraternity, you need to learn the engineering terms that people in the community will use. By learning the language and by knowing what other ethnographers and researchers have to say about the culture, you will know what questions to ask, what behaviors to look for, and even how to dress. For example, if you wanted to research how cancer patients interact with each other in a support group, spend some time in the library reading about how people typically respond

to potentially terminal diseases. You would be wise to see if any case studies or ethnographies have already been done with cancer patients. Adequate preparation for your entrance into the community is crucial if you are to blend into the background and subsequently understand the values, expectations, roles, and ceremonies of the community. Conducting extensive library research before entering the community will help you understand the subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions.

To see whether any ethnographies have been conducted on the culture you have selected to study and to find some useful background information about its history and the problems it now faces, you may need to conduct library and Internet research. The following are some of the databases that your library may own.

To better understand how to access and search these database, consult Search Your Library’s Databases: Periodical Indexes and Abstracts.