Select a Culture

Identify a culture to study, one that you are relatively unfamiliar with.

An important aspect of ethnography involves the types of questions that a researcher tries to answer. Some ethnographers begin their research with a central question that guides their exploration. Others prefer to find their research question after they’ve been in the community for a while, or even after they’ve left the community. An ethnographic approach can be particularly appropriate for short-term projects like the ones assigned in a relatively brief college courses. Even though some professional ethnographies last for years, studies with a limited scope can be conducted in a matter of weeks.

Selecting a Culture

The athlete’s gym, the women’s club, the student government committee, the hair salon, the yoga class, the children’s play group, the news room—all of these unique communities could provide fascinating sites for ethnographic analysis. Other easily identifiable and accessible groups include the members of a dormitory, a particular classroom, a study group, an intramural athletic team, fellow employees, or even graduate students. Of course, you want to exercise caution when selecting a community to study; avoid potentially dangerous communities.

New Communities Are Better Than Familiar Ones

Experts disagree about how involved you can be in a community before studying it by means of ethnographic methods. Because you are experimenting for the first time with these methods, your instructor may allow you to study a community to which you already belong. The problem, however, with studying such a community is that you are less able to be passive and objective when you gather data. In a sense, what you think about the community and the people in it may control what you perceive. Rather than trying to discover why and how people behave as they do, your membership and history with the culture may blind you to new insights. Instead of going into a community with an open mind and systematically examining behavior, you may end up merely writing what you already believe, which undercuts our current goal—that is, to conduct research. If time limitations prohibit you from studying a new community, therefore, you will need to pay special attention to triangulating your data, as discussed below.

You also want to be realistic about how much you can accomplish in a short period of time. Remember, if performed diligently, ethnography creates mountains of data. However, many researchers prefer to select from a wealth of material than try to patch a report together based upon a handful of facts and a collection of disjointed photocopies.

Helpful Questions to Narrow the Scope

Asking the following questions can help you narrow the scope of your research.

  1. What specific culture or community will you study? Why is the culture worth studying? What religious, economic, or political forces define the culture? How would you describe the environment of the culture? What relationships can you define between the culture you are studying and the dominant culture?
  2. What literature about the culture is available? Do you know any people who used to be members of the culture whom you could interview to help develop a sense of what to look for once you enter the community?
  3. Do you have a viable way of entering the culture?
  4. Do you have access to inside written documents — such as interoffice memorandum, research studies, or general essays—that can provide you with information about program goals, problems, and power relations?
  5. What methods will you use to gather facts? Will you, for example, use any questionnaires, interviews, psychological tests?
  6. What schedule do you plan to follow? How much time do you allow for data collection or for data interpretation? When will you have a rough draft complete?