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1 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 native’s point of view, without imposing the observer’s conceptual framework. The emic viewpoint, which may differ from the “etic” or outsider’s perspective on daily life, is a unique and critical

ethnographies can account for the complexity of group behaviors. 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. and provide context for behaviors. rather than just noting the occurrence. As a qualitative research method. public policy research. Journalism attempts to provide objective outsider news information in a timely manner for a designated target audience (“What is Ethnography?”). ethnographies can reveal qualities of group experience in a way that other research methods cannot. In addition. First. such as fieldnotes. and site documents. reveal interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions. interviews. measuring frequency or using statistics. a quantitative study may find that students who are taught composition using a process method receive higher grades on papers than students taught . Ethnography is a qualitative research method and product and may be distinguished from three other methods of investigating and writing: quantitative research. ethnographers use a technique known as triangulation to identify multiple data sources. which work together to support their research claims (“What is Ethnography?”). and journalism. They can help determine future questions and types of follow-up research. For example. By expanding the range of knowledge and understanding of the world. In addition. Quantitative research usually involves a larger number of cases in less depth. researchers often are able to understand why behaviors occur. ethnography offers several advantages.2 component of ethnographic research.

Others may use audio or video tapes. 73). Bias on the part of the researcher can affect both the design of the study and the collection and interpretation of data. time and place of observation.” 2003). tastes. smells. Some observers begin with a blank notebook and write down everything that takes place. Ethnographic research has several disadvantages to consider as well. 1997. phrases.3 using a product method. Fieldnotes should include the following information: date. 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. Fieldnotes should be written as soon as possible after leaving the fieldsite to minimize the possibility of forgetting important details. summaries of conversations and insider language. textures. sensory impressions such as sights. However. Too little data may lead to false assumptions about behavior patterns. Ethnography is time consuming and requires a well-trained researcher. and page numbers to help keep observations in order (Chiseri-Strater. p. specific facts and details of site activities. while large quantities of data may not be processed effectively (“Qualitative Observational Research. It takes time to build trust with informants in order to facilitate full and honest discourse. Still others begin with a list of behavior categories to note. Short-term studies are at a particular disadvantage in this regard. sounds.” 2003). One of the primary tools of ethnographic study is the use of fieldnotes. questions about people or behaviors for future investigations. . specific words.

jottings are intended to serve as reminders for more complete notes to be written later. If possible. A description of the event —a meal.” 2003). they generally are divided into four components. Researchers may also utilize site documents such as newsletters. Jottings are the brief words or phrases written down while at the fieldsite. to provide background and supplemental data (“Qualitative Observational Research. good listening skills are essential. should be clearly separate from description and analysis (“What is Ethnography?”). which should be kept distinct from one another in some way. course materials. While participant-observation yields information about behavior in action. Since an important part of the interview is establishing rapport with the informant. and events. An analysis of the observation may help to identify themes. Personal reflections. circumstances.4 While methods of writing fieldnotes can be very personal. and preliminary connections. An . a reflection on the research from a personal point of view should be included. questions for subsequent visits. interviews provide an opportunity to learn how people reflect directly on behavior. and student samples. a meeting—including specific details as well as general information is an integral part of the fieldnotes. while important. Interviews can be very valuable in fulfilling the main goal of ethnography: gaining an insider’s perspective. as well as artifacts. To facilitate truthful responses. Finally. Usually recorded in a small notebook. a ritual. identity. the interview should be informal or conversational in nature and employ open-ended questions. obtain permission from the informant to tape the interview (“What is Ethnography?”).

. they write: To understand the innovative ways in which Gen Y teens use the Internet. language. and aspirations. Do participants have full knowledge of what is involved? Can the study hurt participants? Is the researcher being truthful in presenting data? Will the study intrude too much into group behaviors? (“Qualitative Observational Research. Ethnography can offer insights into consumer practices. However. myths. Sachs Insights is one of a growing number of firms that specialize in ethnographic studies to aid market research and product development. we spoke with high school and college students who are avid fans of the Internet and other digital devices like MP3 players. Since ethnographic research requires observation and interaction of real human beings. and how it affects their relationships with brands. Teacher lesson plans and grade level textbooks might also be useful (“What is Ethnography?”). Traditionally. In their study titled Seeing Digital: How Gen Y Teenagers Use the Web . ethnography has been a research method used by anthropologists and sociologists.5 ethnographer studying how third graders learn science in a classroom setting might want to collect the state-mandated science curriculum requirements and examples of student work.” 2003). certain ethical issues merit consideration. An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties is one example of this application. the ability to deliver deep insights into the contexts of ordinary life has led to a more widespread application within the commercial world. Historically associated with generating cross-cultural understanding. ethnography makes it possible to design and develop products and services that fit into people’s lives (“Ethnography – An ABC”).

In summary. We went shopping with them online. the term ethnography may be loosely applied to any qualitative research project where the desired outcome is a thick description. . this research method has been applied to market research and development as well.” 2002). and collecting additional data to supplement their research. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting facts and attempts to generate an understanding of culture.6 PDAs. We spoke with them from “mission control”—their bedrooms—and had a first hand look at the lives of these digital whiz kids. entertain. conducting interviews. recording fieldnotes. and create their self-identity revealed new opportunities for brands to thrive in this market (“Ethnography. While traditional ethnographic studies have focused on anthropology and sociology. The resulting in-depth portrait of how these digital whiz kids communicate. and checked out how the many devices in their bedroom all work together to create a sense of self. Ethnographers utilize the participant-observation method. digital cameras and video game consoles.

In Writing@CSU: Writing Guide. Ethnographic Research.). from http://www.colostate.ideasbazaar. Retrieved February 9.).d. 2003. Retrieved February 2003. Learning commons. (1997).wsu.html Chiseri-Strater. from http://writing.).d.csun.htm Ethnography.html Steps and methods used in qualitative observational research.7 References An urban ethnography of Latino street gangs . Retrieved February 2. (n. Ideas bazaar. Public interest anthropology at (2003). Elizabeth & Upper Saddle River.).sachsnet. Retrieved February Retrieved February 3.cfm .html Ethnography – an aphy. 2003. (n.).d.d. from http://www. FieldWorking: Reading and writing What is culture? (n.upenn. 2003. Retrieved February 9. (n. Retrieved February 9.: Blair Press. 2003. N. Sachs insights services.J. (2002). from from http://www2.html What is ethnography? (n.d.ncsu. 2003 from www. from http://www. Bonnie.

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