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An Introduction to Ethnography
Ethnography is the descriptive study of a particular human society or the
process of making such a study.

Based almost entirely on fieldwork,

ethnography requires the immersion of the ethnographer in the culture and

everyday life of the people who are the subject of the study (
Ethnography typically involves the study of a small group of subjects in
their own environment and attempts to gain a detailed understanding of the
circumstances of the few subjects being studied. Ethnographic accounts are
both descriptive and interpretive:

descriptive because detail is critical and

interpretive because the ethnographer must determine the significance of

observations without gathering broad, statistical information.

Clifford Geertz

coined the term thick description to convey the methodology of the

ethnographer (What is Culture?).
To conduct their research, ethnographers, also called fieldworkers, often
live among the people they are studying, or at least spend a considerable
amount of time with them.

While in the field, ethnographers engage in

participant-observation which means that they participate as much as possible

in local daily life, while also making careful observations. An ethnographer might
partake in important ceremonies and rituals of a culture or might share in
ordinary activities such as meal preparation and consumption. This technique is
intended to provide an emic perspective or natives point of view, without
imposing the observers conceptual framework. The emic viewpoint, which may
differ from the etic or outsiders perspective on daily life, is a unique and critical

component of ethnographic research.

In addition, ethnographers use a

technique known as triangulation to identify multiple data sources, such as

fieldnotes, interviews, and site documents, which work together to support their
research claims (What is Ethnography?).
Ethnography is a qualitative research method and product and may be
distinguished from three other methods of investigating and writing: quantitative
research, public policy research, and journalism. Quantitative research usually
involves a larger number of cases in less depth, measuring frequency or using
statistics. Public policy research generally provides information that may be used
by policy makers to decide how specific behaviors might be understood in terms
of social outcomes.

Journalism attempts to provide objective outsider news

information in a timely manner for a designated target audience (What is

As a qualitative research method, ethnography offers several advantages.
First, ethnographies can account for the complexity of group behaviors, reveal
interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions, and
provide context for behaviors. In addition, ethnographies can reveal qualities of
group experience in a way that other research methods cannot. They can help
determine future questions and types of follow-up research. By expanding the
range of knowledge and understanding of the world, researchers often are able
to understand why behaviors occur, rather than just noting the occurrence. For
example, a quantitative study may find that students who are taught composition
using a process method receive higher grades on papers than students taught

using a product method. However, a qualitative study might reveal why many
composition instructors continue to use the product method even though they are
aware of the benefits of the process method (Qualitative Observational
Research, 2003).