How Do I Become an Ethnographer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

There are a number of routes you can take to become an ethnographer, depending on the type of ethnography you would like to practice. This branch of anthropology can be applied to psychology, social work, sociology, advertising, and a number of other fields. The key characteristic for someone who wants to work as an ethnographer is keen powers of observation, paired with the ability to make empathetic connections with people.

Enthnographers study human cultures around the world.
Enthnographers study human cultures around the world.

Ethnography is the detailed description of human cultures, which explains why it originated in anthropology, the study of people. People who work in the field work in the populations they wish to study, using a variety of techniques including observation and interviews to gather data about the society. This data can be written up in a formal document, which may describe anything from the habits of teenage boys in American public schools to the funeral traditions of a tribal culture in Asia.

Ethnography is a branch of cultural anthropology.
Ethnography is a branch of cultural anthropology.

People can apply ethnography to traditional anthropological pursuits, such as gaining a greater understanding of foreign cultures, in which case they should pursue a college education in anthropology and focus on ethnography. Someone who wants to become an ethnographer for the purpose of participating in advertising, product development, and customer relations may want to approach their education from the perspective of business, communications, or psychology, although people with traditional anthropological training can also apply ethnography in this way.

Others choose to study sociology, psychology, or folklore. Ethnography is very cross-disciplinary, encompassing many different experiences and perspectives, which means that people can mix and match training in many areas to develop a career in this field. Typically, strong writing and communications skills are also needed, as ethnographers need to be able to establish communication with the populations they study, and write up the results of their observations and research in a clear, understandable way.

At a minimum, someone who wants to become an ethnographer should plan on getting a bachelor's degree in one of the fields discussed above. Graduate work will be a great help for most job seekers, as it allows them to demonstrate that they have experience, and offers a chance to get published. People who are interested in positions with specific agencies or companies may want to contact those organizations directly to find out what level of education and training they look for in their employees.

Ethnographers may study the ways in which specific ethnic groups use locally-available materials to construct homes and tools.
Ethnographers may study the ways in which specific ethnic groups use locally-available materials to construct homes and tools.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@PinkLady4 - In addition to observing the behavior of groups of people and talking or interviewing them to find out some of what motivates them to do what they do, a good ethnographer needs to use some other skills.

After observing or interviewing, an ethnographer should write down brief notes to remind him/her what he saw and heard. Details are important.

Then he has to have good organizational and writing skills to put the information in good form. And he may have to present this information to his colleagues or others, using good speaking skills.


When in college, I took a couple of anthropology classes and learned some of the methods for studying the ethnography of different groups of people.

Observing what people do in various settings at intervals is a great way to learn what people do. But that doesn't tell the whole story. You need to actually talk to or interview them to find out why they do what they do.

I think this would be a very interesting and satisfying job to have, either studying other cultures, our own culture, or working for a marketing company.


Ethnographic skills are useful for research in a lot of different areas. In libraries, for instance, which is my field, we do a lot of user studies. How do people use the catalog? Do they use it at all? Why do they come to the library or not come to the library? How many books do they check out? Do they check out books at all, or do they just come for the free WiFi? And so on.

A lot of user studies can be don by tracking certain things on the computer. (If we want to know whether science fiction is more popular than mystery or vice versa, we just have to do a report.) But for some things, the only way to know anything is to just sit and watch.

The WiFi thing is a good example. We have no way of knowing whether someone who uses the WiFi also interacts with a librarian, checks out a DVD, etc., unless we sit and watch the lobby to see what they do.


@strawCake - Sounds like you had a good time doing your paper! That's awesome. When I was in college I didn't get to do too many big assignments that I actually enjoyed.

I think a career as an ethnographer would be great for someone who loves people watching. I have a few friends that could people watch all day long and I think they may have missed their calling!


I took cultural anthropology in college as an elective and it was very, very interesting. We talked about ethnography and even did a study that culminated in a final paper!

As the article said, a big part of ethnography is field work and observation. So for our project we were to pick a location and observe it on a few days a week over the course of several months.

I chose the entryway to one of the lecture buildings that groups of students seemed to always be hanging around. I had a pretty interesting time observing the way different groups of people acted. I also got hit with a Frisbee and hit on by an old man (I never figured out what he was doing on campus anyway), both of which I included in my paper.

I got my degree in another field, but I had a really great experience when I took anthropology!

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