What does an Ethnographer do?

S. Zaimov

An ethnographer is a person who gathers and records data about human culture and societies. There are various research methods that can be applied to the different sub-categories of this social study, such as field, design or visual ethnography. An ethnographer often needs to be able to find patterns in and understand issues faced by a wide sample of people with diverse backgrounds.

An enthnographer may study cultures around the world.
An enthnographer may study cultures around the world.

Ethnography is a field that is closely linked to cultural anthropology. The latter treats human society as a field of science, while the former usually mainly involves direct interaction with people. An ethnographer can work in various areas, such as geography, education, linguistics, economics and social work. The information ethnographers collect can be used not only for providing a better understanding of societies, but also for business purposes and improving quality of life.

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.

Field ethnography is one of the main areas of the discipline. Many ethnographers use first-hand methods to gather the data they need. This can include traveling to different places, interacting with people and recording their ideas, as well as observing patterns from afar. For example, an ethnographer might go to a specific city or country and mingle with the residents in order to understand what effects government policy has on their lives. An ethnographer usually tries to apply a holistic approach, which means analyzing the whole of the work instead of forming conclusions based on individual examples.

An area that benefits directly from this type of work is design ethnography. An individual in this profession studies and examines people’s needs and desires. The research done by a design ethnographer can be used by a variety of industries to model products to meet consumer demand or needs. For example, a common problem in a number of countries around the world is the lack of electrical power. Since this prevents people from charging mobile phones, some manufacturers have designed phones that operate on energy made from sun or wind-power.

The growth of online communities has created the need for another type of ethnography, called virtual or online ethnography. Individuals who work in this area do the same types of research as field ethnographers, but study how Internet-based groups work, rather than people interacting face-to-face. These virtual communities, however, typically gather due to common interests instead of a shared geographical location. Many participants use such online groups to share opinions on topics of interest. Some virtual ethnographers participate in these discussions to gain a better understanding of the group, while others prefer to anonymously monitor others' interactions, which is typically called lurking.

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Discussion Comments


Could you please recommend some books or materials that are typically using ethnography method?


Design ethnography sounds very interesting. But then again, I always think applied sciences are more interesting than research science. And design ethnography definitely seems like applied science to me! The design ethnographer takes the data and actually applies it to solve problems with products.

I think the idea of charging a cell phone using solar power is a very interesting one. I'm not sure I would have come up with that myself! It's definitely a solution to a problem, and environmentally friendly.


@Monika - Since people interact online so much these days, it seems only natural that people in the field of applied anthropology and ethnography would take notice. These days, some people interact with people more on social networking sites than they do in person!

Anyway, I've actually had my own experience doing fieldwork similar to what an ethnographer does. When I took cultural anthropology in college, one of our assignments was to study a specific location over a period of time and write a paper about it.

I sat in front of our English building on campus, and I have to say, I saw some interesting things. I really enjoyed the whole experience and I enjoyed writing the paper.


I had no idea the field of ethnography extended to the study of online behavior. This is so interesting to me! I would love to read some books or articles about online behavior.

I participate in some online communities, and they're all based on something I'm interested in, as the article said. I definitely have noticed some patterns of behavior, but I'm sure the ethnographer, being trained in the field, would probably have more insight than I do!

That being said, I wonder if any of the forums I participate in have ever been studied by an ethnographer! That would be really interesting.

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