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.

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. 

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?

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 engage in some serious information literacy.

Arrange Access

Secure access to the community without poisoning the waters.

Experts typically agree that the way you are introduced into the community plays a crucial role in the overall success of your study. If the people in charge introduce you to the community and ask participants to do what they can to help you, you may be perceived as a spy or enemy. It is, therefore, often better to enter a community less obtrusively. Because being introduced to the community by someone in power or by someone considered to be a member of an “opposing faction” can irreparably taint your results, you may have to reject the role implied by your introduction or withdraw from the community and select another site to conduct the research.

Pick the Perfect Spot for Making Observations

Position yourself in a spot that will enhance your data collection and ability to make observations. For example, a student was intrigued by what she heard at the teachers’ lounge when she was undergoing her training to be a teacher. After extensive reading about the concerns of high school teachers, she conducted an ethnography of the teachers’ lounge at the school where she was assigned to intern for her teacher training. The result of her study was a sometimes inspiring and sometimes depressing account of ten teachers’ struggles, ideas, and ambitions.

Experts strongly disagree about how active a role researchers should play in the community that they are studying. While some ethnographers formally interview respondents, give them psychological tests, and inform community members about their role, others are less candid. Instead of revealing their status as observers, these ethnographers prefer to enter the community as silent detectives. Although this secrecy about their goals can result in an ethical quandary, some professional anthropologists prefer this approach, believing it results in better data collection. Clearly, there are dangers that participants will not forget their “company behavior” after you disclose your intentions; yet, you need to be honest about your intentions.

Develop Field Notes

Write notes in the field, seeking interpretive patterns.

While true ethnographers have the luxury of spending large chunks of time in the field and can discover their purpose after lengthy observations, you may find it necessary to focus on a more clearly defined purpose early in your research. Writing a proposal for your study and sharing it with your classmates and instructor is a good starting point. Although it is possible (although not recommended) to put off the writing until the last minute when writing a report based on library research, questionnaire, or even interviews, such a strategy is nearly impossible when writing an ethnography.

Never Stop Writing

Ethnographers are constantly writing. In the preliminary stages, they are writing about how they choose the community, synthesizing in writing the literature that exists about the community, writing detailed descriptions about what the culture and members look like, and recording dialogues and insights. Ethnographers rely extensively on their field notes to determine what attributes define members in the community, what common problems community members face, and what power relations or rituals exist. In short, ethnographers rely on their field notes to make preliminary interpretations. Rather than waiting until it’s time to leave the community, they are constantly writing up their observations and results, drawing tentative conclusions. 

Ask Journalistic Questions

By asking the journalistic questions when making field notes, you will ensure that you do not neglect any important observations.

  1. Who are key actors in the culture?
  2. What happens? What key events can you describe to give us a heightened impression about values, rituals, and problems?
  3. Where is the culture located? What does the environment look like?
  4. When did the events happen in time? Do any events or statements routinely seem to follow each other, suggesting a pattern?
  5. Why did the events happen?
  6. How did the events happen?

Analyze Artifacts

Enrich your ethnographic interpretation by accounting for community artifacts.

Archeology is the study of past civilizations based upon artifacts, physical objects that are characteristic of a particular culture. We are all familiar with the Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins. These artifacts provide a great deal of information about ancient civilizations and help to recreate a picture of what life was like for these people.

Identify Artifacts Important to the Group

Anthropology also uses artifacts in order to describe a culture and its people. However, if we are researching a culture that we are able to observe, we are able not only to interpret the importance of an artifact, but also we are able to see how individuals interact with it. And so, even if you are not an archaeologist or an anthropologist, as long as you intend to study a particular culture you will want to identify objects that seem to be of daily importance to the group.

Asking the following questions can help you select which artifacts to study:

  1. What household or domestic objects seem necessary for the daily functioning of the culture?
  2. What are the religious or ritual artifacts that all of the members are likely to identify?
  3. How does the careful treatment of certain objects reflect the group’s value system?
  4. What machines or technologies seem to be changing the way the culture operates?
  5. What objects are frequently used for labor? for cooking? for entertainment?

Examine All Artifacts of a Culture

The most important question to ask concerning artifacts is: “What does it tell about the culture?” The ethnographer should be careful when answering this question because a culture includes a multitude of artifacts, and while you focus on the most important ones, be aware that no one single object is likely to obtain an absolutely central importance.

Below is another excerpt from Geertz’s study. Notice how the importance of cockfighting causes the Balinese men to treat their roosters with such great concern. Because they focus so much attention on these animals, it is apparent that cockfighting is very important to the culture. As you read Geertz’s description of the cocks as artifacts, ask yourself, “What do they tell us about Balinese culture?”

In the houseyard, the high-walled enclosures where people live, fighting cocks are kept in wicker cages, moved frequently about so as to maintain an optimum balance of sun and shade. They are fed a special diet, which varies according to individual theories but which is mostly maize, sifted for impurities with far more care than it is when mere humans are going to eat it and offered to the animal kernal by kernal. Red pepper is stuffed down their beaks and up their anuses to give them spirit. They are bathed in the same ceremonial preparation of tepid water, medicinal herbs, flowers, and onions in which infants are bathed, and for a prized cock just about as often. Their combs are cropped, their plumage dressed, their spurs trimmed, their legs messaged, and they are inspected for flaws with the squinted concentration of a diamond merchant. A man who has a passion for cocks, an enthusiast in the literal sense of the term, can spend most of his life with them, and even those, the overwhelming majority, whose passion though intense has not entirely run away with them can and do spend what seems not only to an outsider, but also to themselves, an inordinate amount of time with them. “I am cock crazy,” my landlord, a quite ordinary aficionado by Balinese standards, used to moan as he went to move another cage, give another a bath, or conduct another feeling. “We’re all cock crazy.”

Observe Rituals

Enhance your ethnographic interpretation by identifying and observing customs and rituals that members of the community routinely perform.

Unlike artifacts, rituals and customs are not physical objects that can be held in one’s hands and described according to their shape and function. Rituals are activities that people perform according to a predetermined pattern. Even though rituals frequently involve the use of artifacts, the ritual itself is an activity. Because rituals and customs are behaviors, they are sometimes more difficult to describe and analyze than artifacts. However, like artifacts, rituals are very useful for understanding and interpreting a culture.

Which Rituals or Customs Should Be Studied?

Rituals are often considered a defining characteristic by both people inside as well as outside of the culture. Some of the more obvious rituals are associated with a culture’s religion. Ceremonies involving worship or celebration are easy to identify and to describe because they are usually public and are repeated with continuity and regularity. Domestic or social rituals, such as cockfighting, watching football, dining, or courtship may be harder to identify, but are also very important for understanding a group.

Ask yourself the following questions to help you select which rituals or customs to study:

  1. What activities do most of the members of the group participate in together?
  2. What behaviors seem to be common to the members of the community?
  3. What activities have a specific format that is repeated frequently?
  4. What activities involve special kinds of dress or costumes?
  5. What customs does the culture exhibit that are different from your own?
  6. What folktales, lore, or superstitions belong to the culture?
  7. What rituals or customs are part of the routine of daily life such as working, eating, entertainment, dating, or resting?
  8. What rituals or customs have been are part of the culture for a number of years? Which ones are relatively new?

Explain Why a Ritual Is Important to a Culture

As with artifacts, simply describing a ritual in detail is not enough; you must somehow tell your reader why it is important to an interpretation of the culture. Again, avoid the mistake of claiming that one particular behavior completely represents or explains an entire culture. As you already know, Geertz studied the Balinese ritual of cockfighting in great detail, recreating a vivid image of the sights and sounds of a culture obsessed by a particular form of entertainment. As you read the next excerpt, concentrate on the way cockfighting helps understand Balinese culture as a whole:

Cockfights are held in a ring about fifty-five feet square. Usually they begin toward late afternoon and run three or four hours until sunset. About nine or ten separate matches comprise a program. Each match is precisely like the others in general pattern: there is no main match, no connection between individual matches, no variation in their format, and each is arranged on a completely ad hoc basis. After a fight has ended and the emotional debris cleared away—the bets paid, the curses cursed, the carcasses possessed—seven, eight, perhaps even a dozen men slip negligently into the ring with a cock and seek to find there a logical opponent for it. This process, which rarely takes less than ten minutes, and often a good deal longer, is conducted in a very subdued, oblique, even dissembling manner. Those not immediately involved give it at best but disguised, sidelong attention; those who, embarrassingly are, attempt to pretend somehow that the whole thing is not really happening.

A match made, the other hopefuls retire with the same deliberate indifference and the selected cocks have their spurs affixed—razor sharp, pointed steel swords, four our five inches long. This is a delicate job which only a small portion of men, a half-dozen or so in most villages, know how to do properly. The man who attaches the spurs also provides them, and if the rooster he assists wins its owner awards him the spur-leg of the victim. The spurs are affixed by winding a long length of string around the foot of the spur and the leg of the cock [. . .]an obsessively deliberate affair. The lore about spurs is extensive—they are sharpened only at eclipses and the dark of the moon, should be kept out of the sight of women, and so forth. And they are handled, both in use and out, with the same curious combination of fussiness and sensuality the Balinese direct toward ritual objects generally.

The spurs affixed, the two cocks are placed by their handlers (who may or may not be the owners) facing one another in the center of the ring. A coconut pierced with a small hole is placed in a pail of water, in which it takes about twenty-one seconds to sink, a period known as a tjeng and marked at beginning and end by the beating of a slit gong. During these twenty-one seconds the handlers are not permitted to touch their roosters. If, as sometimes happens, the animals have not fought during this time, they are picked up, fluffed, pulled, prodded, and otherwise insulted, and put back in the center of the ring and the process begins again. Sometimes they refuse to fight at all, or one keeps running away, in which case they get imprisoned together under a wicker cage, which usually gets them e

Conclude Your Work

Understand and value the subjective nature of ethnographic interpretation.

The ethnographic research design involves a number of unique considerations toward the end of the project. Chronologically, the first of these concerns is deciding when to stop conducting field work. Logically, the more time you are able to spend in the field, the stronger your data are likely to be and therefore the stronger your understanding and interpretation of the culture.

Know When to Leave the Field

Eventually you must stop acquiring data and begin interpreting them. This does not mean that field research has to stop in order for the report to be written. In fact, sometimes ethnographers go back and forth between the writing desk and their field work. Some researchers even write their reports while still in the field. But, as someone who is likely to be new to ethnography, you should plan to essentially retire from the culture you are studying at least two weeks ahead of the date when you plan to submit your report. Even though you should be generating writing as you go, the amount of time it takes to sort your data and compose an interesting, thoughtful, and carefully composed paper is significant.

Allow for enough time to change directions in your writing or to seek some advice from your peers, informants, or instructor. You also should consider that the process of sorting through the data you have created can encroach on the time you have allowed for the actual composing of the paper.

Identify Major Interpretive Themes

Ultimately, what have you learned as a result of conducting the ethnographic research? What story can you tell that will accurately and compellingly depict the lives and struggles of community members?

When you are attempting to make sense of observations, you will need to guard against the human tendency to form patterns too quickly and then look for confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming evidence. Of course, you ultimately cannot escape your own selective and subjective perception of reality, yet you can try to be as objective as possible by checking your version of reality against what other people in the community have to say.You can best begin analyzing and organizing your final report by rereading your chronological record of field notes. As you review, look for recurring behaviors, attitudes, and themes. For example, if you were conducting an ethnography that examines students’ attitudes regarding a large lecture course and you heard several students make similar comments—such as “I have no idea what the professor is talking about, but there’s no way I’m going to ask any questions. I don’t want to look stupid”—then you might posit a theme: Students are afraid of looking silly by asking questions in large groups. Over time, you could check the validity of this theme against what other people in the community say or suggest by their actions. In addition, other themes might emerge. For example, when you discuss the course with several students, they may tell you they have heard that the teacher has been using the same lecture notes for years and that it’s best to study the course text carefully and mostly ignore the lectures—all but the last three before each test—in order to get good grades. The ethnographer could then take these two themes and posit a pattern: Students’ drive to earn a good grade encourages them to be quiet and ignore most of the professor’s lectures.

If Ethnographies Are Completely Subjective, What’s the Use?

Virtually every nightly news program includes some coverage of the President’s daily activities. We often see him walking across the White House lawn or making a speech or shaking hands with an international figure. Often it is assumed that journalists, such as the ones who create the evening news, only report “the facts.” By appearing to only present “facts,” journalists give the impression that they are objective, that no bias affects their reporting. Of course, they are not completely objective: The decision to report some “facts” and not others involves subjective decisions. But more importantly, the audience doesn’t want only “facts”: They also want interpretation and explanation. We don’t want to watch footage of the President shaking hands and not have someone try to explain what the event might mean. We don’t want to read a story about an upcoming vote on an important bill and not also consider what the repercussions might be.

“Conclude Your Work” was written by Joseph M. Moxley

Be Honest About Observations

Professional journalism has strict codes, which try to insure that their audience is not misled. Ethnographers are involved in a similar situation: they report their observations as objectively and honestly as possible, but they also explain what their discoveries might mean. In other words, ethnography inherently involves a weaving of observation and interpretation.

As with journalists, ethnographers should employ the utmost integrity in order to insure that their audience is not misled. When an ethnographer feels the need to interpret the observations he has witnessed, he wants to be sure that his interpretation is based upon as many pieces of evidence as possible. It is important to allow the ethnography to formulate such interpretations. For example, we don’t want to read a bunch of facts about the size

and frequency of Balinese cockfighting bets without also reading an analysis of what they could possibly mean.

Observation vs. Interpretation

As an ethnographer you must be aware of the distinction between observation and an interpretation. An observation is an occurrence that is witnessed by one or more people. For example, in Geertz’s article the observation is Geertz’s declaration that “this is clearly serious gambling” is an interpretation. Even though his interpretation is written emphatically, and even though we might agree with his interpretation, nonetheless, it is not something that a group of people who were watching the cockfight would agree they definitely observed.

Base Interpretations on Multiple Observations

The ethnographer’s goal is to base interpretations on as many observations as possible. Remember, ethnography is a research design that is based upon both description and interpretation. If you can make an observation that you think is important but cannot fully interpret, don’t hesitate to include it with an explanation. After all, readers will also be conducting interpretations of your study, and they can also benefit from as many observations as possible. Likewise, if you have a strong feeling about an interpretation you would like to offer, but your data may be currently incomplete, you can still include your commentary as long as you explain the situation.

In essence you should judiciously weave together both observation and interpretation, alternating them in order to create variety in your writing and maintain