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MINI-ETHNOGRAPHY ASSIGNMENT

Malcolm W. Campbell, Lecturer


University Writing Programs

Due:

Check Moodle for your class due date.

Value: 100 points


Length: 4-5 pages
Explanation
Ethnographers study social communities (cultures) from the inside out the researcher lives in and among the people
she studies for months or years, speaking the language, participating in daily life. She takes copious notes on the details of
everyday life. She transcribes thousands of hours of taped conversations. Then she writes articles or books finding
patterns and lessons in this massive data. Obviously, this is not possible in a semester, which is why youre writing a MiniEthnography. The process is the same but on a much smaller scale.
You will find any group that shares an interest or an identity. This must be a group that has something in common, so that
you can treat them as a culture to study. You will observe the group on at least two occasions, taking notes on as many
details as you can, paying special attention to how members communicate (write, read, speak) with one another; you will
interview at least one member of group; and you will do additional research on the group. Once youve completed all this,
you will then review your material and interpret your experience, looking for patterns in the details. Your final written
assignment will include two elements: the observation/interview/research and your interpretation of what you find.

Assignment Process
1.

Selecting a Group

You will identify some subculturea group of people who share ritual behaviors, valued objects, common language,
and a set of valuesfor the purpose of understanding the way of life for that community. Youll need a group that meets
at a particular place at a particular time (so you can actually observe). Meetings of clubs or interest groups, sporting or
academic events, workplaces, religious services, classes, and social gatherings all provide a location and a time to observe.
You must get approval from me for your group selection. You will upload your group idea on Moodle, and I will write back
with approval or suggestions.
2.

Observation, Interviewing & Research

You will be a primary researcher for this assignmentacting somewhat like an anthropologistby going out into the
world to the field site where these people can be found, observing them, and writing down your observations. You need
to observe your group on at least two occasions. Identify at least one member of the group that you can interview. We
will discuss interviews in class, but essentially, you are looking for the same information listed below. Finally, you will
consult secondary resources via the library databases/internet to learn more about your group or about the type of group
youve selected.
Tips on observation/interviewing/research: Its best to take notes during the observation/interview. If that is impractical,
take notes immediately afterward. Summarizing your memories of an event is not what ethnographic observation calls for
(though its okay in journalism or memoir). You want to get down detailed, specific, observations, on details such as:

examples of speech (see the warning below about privacy)


other examples of communication, including written materials
clothing
ways of greeting, initiating conversation, beginning and ending an event
body language, gestures

the physical environment (the room, decorations, facilities draw maps, write descriptions)
social environment (Describe the community this group is a part of, and where they fit in that community.)
timelines (You can write down what happens every five minutes, for instance. Or you can write down a time next
to each observation.)
any other concrete, physical detail of behavior, speech, or the environment
Interview questions should focus on how one member interprets the above details, plus any other pertinent
information such as how the group communicates.
Secondary research should on information that put the group into a broader context. For example, if writing
about a specific sorority, you would want broader research that describes how sororities fit into the wider scale
of the university setting. Plus, you would want to research any answers to the above observations you make.

Privacy Warning: Use common sense. Be aware of privacy issues. You are writing a public paper. If you are observing
a public setting, remember that your subjects didnt give permission, and avoid using real names or reporting
anything personal. If you are observing a private setting, let people know you are writing a paper. Dont report
private conversations; report typical examples of speech, and snippets of conversation.
3.

Interpreting and Writing the Mini-Ethnography.

It will be easy to write the assignment if you have a wealth of detailed observations to write about, so make sure you are
thorough in the above sections. You will write two sections: What you observed and found via research, plus your
interpretation of the research.
The first part of your paper will report what you saw.

The introduction can identify who this group is, where and when you observed them, who you interviewed (not
by real name), and any secondary research you did. Also, describe what connection, if any, you have to the
group.

The first part of the body will report your observations. What did you see and hear? Be certain that language
how the group communicates via speaking, writing, readingis one of the things you observe and write about.

The second part of the paper/body will try to find patterns and lessons in what you observed. You should try to bring up
as many questions about your observation as you can think of, such as:

How does the group use spoken language?


How does the group use written language?
Why does this group meet? What is their purpose? What does one get from being a member?
What beliefs, values, or tastes does this group share? Do their specific actions demonstrate those beliefs, values,
or tastes?
How does this group act towards each other? Do they treat each other differently than they would in other
circumstances?
How does this group see its place in the larger community? How do they define themselves in relation to other
groups?

The questions are endless; any question is good that draws a pattern or a lesson from your observation.
Remember that as you interpret, you are conveying your own thoughts. There is no absolutely objective way to measure
the truth of what you say but it will be well supported if you can point to detailed observations to back up your
thoughts. It is okay to use first-person (I) to discuss your impressions and feelings. Just use examples to show why you
arrived at that thought.

Reflective Daybook Notes


As part of your assignment, please compose a reflection on how you went through the process of creating your miniethnography. Did you give yourself time to do the observations, interview, and research? Did you wait until the last
minute? What did you learn about yourself as a questioner, reader, and writer? What was challenging for you in preparing
the assignment, and what was easy or fun? The goal is to prepare an honest, thoughtful reflection that addresses the
Campbell, Mini-Ethnograpy - Page 2

above questions and that you can come back to at the end of the semester when you discuss this assignment in your EPortfolio.

Help from Me
Remember that my office hours are 11 to Noon on Tuesdays. Generally, Im available on campus most Tuesday and
Thursday mornings. Mondays and Wednesdays, we can discuss issues over the phone or via some interactive chat
software. (http://todaysmeet.com) is supposed to be cool b/c it generates a printed transcript of the chat.)
Remember: The student who has a question but does not ask it cannot be helped. The student who has a question and
asks it, can be helped.

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