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What is Ethnography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Ethnography is the scientific study of human social phenomena and communities, through means such as fieldwork. It is considered a branch of cultural anthropology, the branch of anthropology which focuses on the study of human societies. Some people use “ethnography” and “cultural anthropology” interchangeably, although cultural anthropology includes more research techniques than just ethnography.

The practice of ethnography usually involves fieldwork in which the ethnographer lives among the population being studied. While trying to retain objectivity, the ethnographer lives an ordinary life among the people, working with informants who are particularly knowledgeable or well placed to collect information. This fieldwork may last for extended period of time; usually over a year, and sometimes much longer.

At the conclusion of a period of fieldwork, the ethnographer writes about his or her experiences. This writing includes a catalog of daily life, along with a discussion of rituals, phenomena, and an assortment of other events. Many people who work in the field of ethnography integrate multiple disciplines; using biology, for example, to analyze available food supplies, or geology to study the terrain and environment.

While many people visualize ethnography as a field of study on “other” people such as obscure native tribes in the South Pacific, ethnographers also work in environments which may quite familiar. Someone may choose to live among gangsters in the inner city, for example, or an ethnographer may follow a nudist colony in the wilds of Northern California. Ethnography is about studying the entirety of the human experience, from nomadic tribes in Asia to wealthy mothers from Park Slope.

The field of ethnography is a very important part of cultural anthropology, since many anthropologists use other people's fieldwork in their research. It may also provide clues to trends in human society, and ethnographers can be found in some surprising places. Many advertising agencies, for example, use ethnography in their work, to ensure that ads are effectively targeted at a desirable population.

People who are interested in pursuing ethnography as a career should start by studying cultural anthropology. If possible, they should take fieldwork opportunities when they arise in school, to see whether or not ethnography is something that they enjoy doing. A good ethnographer is able to calculate statistics, rapidly pick up new languages, and instantly assess a range of situations. Above all, ethnography is about observation and cataloging, and written communication skills are a strong asset for someone interested in this academic field.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By 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.

Discussion Comments

By ColdRain — On Aug 18, 2010

SilentIce- Yes, it is possible to purchase ethnographies that anthropologists have written. You cannot usually purchase ethnographies at an everyday bookstore or check them out from the library.

You can usually purchase ethnographies online or at a college bookstore. However, keep in mind that many people who write ethnographies are college professors. Some professors may not sell their ethnographies to the general public and will only make them available to students.

By SilentIce — On Aug 18, 2010

Is it possible for people to buy ethnographies that anthropologists have written?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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