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Joe Moxley


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Broaden your understanding of ethnographic research tools.

The ethnographer's eyes and ears are two very important tools for collecting information, but documentation is key. Any instrument that can record, store, or sort information is of primary use to the ethnographer. Tape recorders, cameras, and note pads are some of the most commonly used tools for ethnographic research.Recording interviews with key informants is more preferable than taking notes; by listening to recordings over and over you will discover important details that you might otherwise miss if you simply take notes. Photographs are also very helpful when you are trying to provide your reader with a thick description of the culture. The photographs can help remind you of the details of important scenes or artifacts, or they can physically be included in the ethnography itself.

Try Counting to Identify Patterns

Some academicians accuse ethnographers of putting on airs when they incorporate statistics into their work. However, ethnographers can often produce more reliable data by incorporating a few statistical procedures. For example, an ethnographer who was studying gender relations in a college mathematics course could record the number of times males and females asked questions of the instructor. The ethnographer could also document the length of time the instructor takes to answer the questions from males and females, or could record how many times the instructor deferred the male and female students' questions to an upcoming lecture or out-of-class meeting. After tallying these response patterns over a period of months, the ethnographer could be more confident in reporting, for instance, that females asked more questions but that the males' questions were treated more seriously (if that is the interpretation they read).

All Data Are Important

Sometimes people misunderstand ethnography when they assume that it can only be comprised of interpretive, descriptive, or qualitative information. While it is true that ethnography makes primary use of more subjective data, that does not mean that statistical or quantitative data cannot be an important part of the study. In fact, all relevant data, regardless of its source, can potentially be included in an ethnography. Therefore, the image we would like to create of the ethnographic task of writing a report is one where the author sits amidst scores of different types of data. The ethnographer should sort through and re-examine tape recordings, photographs, journals, statistical data, or whatever she has found. The goal while writing the report is to look for patterns of behavior that define the culture. Therefore, as you consider which tools to use for collecting ethnographic data, remember that you eventually want to arrive at the point where you are searching through a variety of material you have compiled, selecting what seems most interesting and representative and discarding what appears to be less important.

Ethnographers use quantitative methods such as statistical counts. As you read the following passage, try to picture the author Geertz standing next to a cockfighting ring in Bali; imagine the tools or systems he might have used to collect his data; and notice how he incorporates statistical information into his ethnography.

. . . there are two sorts of bets or toh. There is a single axial bet in the center between the two principals (toh ketengah), and there is a cloud of peripheral ones around the ring between the members of the audience (toh kesasi). . . .

The center bet is the official one, hedged in again with a webwork of rules and is made between the two cock owners, with the umpire as overseer and witness. This bet, which, as I say, is always relatively and sometimes very large, is never raised simply by the owner in whose name it is made, but by him together with four or five, sometimes seven or eight, allies—kin, village mates, neighbors, close friends. He may, if he is not especially well-to-do, not even be the major contributor, though, if only to show that he is not involved in chicanery, he must be a significant one.

Of the fifty-seven matches for which I have exact and reliable data on the center bet, the range is from fifteen ringgits to five hundred, with a mean at eighty-five and with the distribution being rather noticeable trimodal: small fights (15 ringgits either side of 35) accounting for 45 per cent of the total number; medium ones (20 ringgits either side of 70) for about 20 per cent; and large (75 ringgits either side of 175) for about 20 per cent, with a few very small and very large ones out at the extremes. In a society where the normal daily wage of a manual laborer—a brickmaker, an ordinary farm worker, a market porter—was about three ringgits a day, and considering the fact that fights were held on an average of about every two-and-a-half days in the immediate area I studied, this is clearly serious gambling, even if bets are pooled rather than individual efforts.

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham


Dear Colleagues and Students,

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