ethnography (adjective, ethnographic): the branch of anthropology that studies the artifacts, customs, and life-styles of ethnic groups and tribes with different cultural histories.

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Ethnography has defined cultural anthropology for the last century, and is one of the discipline's most important contributions to the broader world of scholarship. I'll try to explain a bit about the history of ethnography and then show what ethnography actually is today.

Note: This writeup is biased toward American and English anthropology. Ethnography is primarily an Anglo-American invention, but other countries also have important anthropological traditions. I suggest that the scrupulous reader imagine a bunch of footnotes about French and Soviet ethnographers.

The history of ethnography, briefly

Anthropology really got started in Victorian England. Like a lot of other sciences in that time and place, it was an endeavor of gentleman amateurs. These armchair anthropologists would generally look at some artifacts, practices, and beliefs of a people in far-flung corners of the empire and then make a generalization about the nature of man (and yes, I do mean 'man'). The anthropologist would get a hold of the artifacts or knowledge in question either by paying some enterprising fellow in the colonies or by examining the dispatches and collections of missionaries and colonial agents. A few individuals, however, would actually go and spend time with the people they studied. These anthropologists were the first ethnographers. The most important of these is definitely the American Lewis Henry Morgan, who worked with a number of Native American groups and is most famous for his detailed works on the Iroquois and his consequent insights into kinship systems.

By the latter 19th century, ethnography was more firmly established as a method. It was at this point that brilliant German born anthropologist Franz Boas began to make his contributions to ethnography. Boas is quite justifiably known as the father of American anthropology, and his theoretical and empirical contributions revolutionized the discipline. As an ethnographer, he introduced a variety of linguistic, documentary, and other techniques. More importantly, Boas developed the idea that a culture should be understood in terms of its own beliefs and history. This meant that an ethnographer should pay great attention to context and should try to do as holistic a study as possible--ideals which still hold true. Boas also trained many, if not most, of the great anthropologists of the early 20th century, so he was also an indirect influence on numerous innovations in ethnography.

Boas shares the title Most Influential Anthropologist Ever with the Polish born, English tenured Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was the archetypical ethnographer. When World War I started, Malinowski happened to be in Australia. As an Austrian (as in Vienna) citizen (he was quite the cosmopolitan), Malinowski found himself classified as an enemy alien. Oops. Though allowed to go free, Malinowski was stuck in Australian territory. He thus made good on his doctorate in anthropology and spent most of the next four years in New Guinea, particularly in the Trobriand Islands. While there, Malinowski defined modern ethnography by spending long, continuous amounts of time in the field in a state of immersion punctuated by field notes and diary entries. He devised numerous technical contributions to ethnographic methodology and established the importance of participant observation. On the 1922 publication of Argonauts of the Western Pacific, modern anthropology was born.

The rest of the 20th century saw lots of theoretical and practical changes in ethnographic technique, but for the most part anthropologists kept doing what Boas and Malinowski defined. In the 1980s, though, another sea change began. First, Clifford Geertz's interpretive anthropology and focus on the anthropologist as author had convinced a number of anthropologists that there was as much art as science to ethnography. Second, poststructuralism, postmodernism, feminism, and neo-Marxism had disturbed a number of the epistemological and ethical foundations of traditional ethnography. Third, the world was changing. New modes of travel and communication, medical breakthroughs, political movements, religious shifts, global economic patterns, and the general collapse of the colonial world order meant that the social and cultural ordering of the world was fundamentally different from what it had been in the days of Boas and Malinowski. In 1986, the Writing Culture movement changed anthropology by arguing just how contingent and created ethnographies really were. Things have never been the same since. In the next section, I'll try to explain what ethnography is today.

What is ethnography?

The word 'ethnography' is usually used in one of two ways. The first means the practice of ethnography: this what the stereotypical cultural anthropologist goes out and does when she is busy at her fieldwork. The other use of 'ethnography' denotes a text describing and analyzing or interpreting the practices, values, and/or beliefs of a group of people. This 'ethnography' usually refers to a written book, but it could also be a shorter written piece or a documentary video. Obviously, the second use of 'ethnography' is derivative of the first. However, they are both very important, and as I will discuss later, the distinction isn't as clean as it might seem.

Leaving ethnography-as-text aside for the moment, we can ask, "What does it mean to practice ethnography?" The basic idea is pretty simple. The aspiring ethnographer picks some people, hangs out with them for a while, pays careful attention to what they do and say, and then comes back home and writes it all up. Not too tricky, huh? Ha! Every step of this process can be devilishly difficult, and will be devilishly difficult if you're doing it right.

Step 1: Who do I study?

The classic answer to this question is some isolated, more or less discreet group. This can be the 2000 people of some Polynesian island, or the villagers of a remote valley in Nepal, or the residents of an Indian reservation in the western United States. However, there are a few problems with this.

  • Nobody has ever really been that isolated

    As of March 2003, the number of ancient, lost tribes discovered by anthropologists is zero. Even in the 19th century, before airplanes and AOL Instant Messenger linked the New Guinea highlands to London, the most out of the way places still had links to the rest of the world. How else do you think the anthropologists and missionaries and colonial administrators found them? That's not to say that the ethnographer can't seek out some group of people which is relatively isolated by geography, language, or some other factor. However, don't expect too much. There is almost certainly always going to be some guy who speaks English or French or Chinese or Swahili, drinks Coca-Cola, and loves Jesus.

  • Maybe they aren't interested in you bothering them

    Not everybody likes to be part of an ethnographic project. Some people think that anthropologists are rude and nosy. Others believe they are being exploited, or at least being exposed to their enemies. A number consider ethnography to be ethnocentric, colonial, and generally oppressive. Finally, some folks are just plain bored of anthropologists, having starred in ethnographies for well over a century. All of these concerns are justified, and can really throw a wrench into the ethnographer's plans.

  • Even the smallest community is too big to study everyone

    Sooner or later, the ethnographer must make choices about who they will spend their time with. Even with all the time in the world, politics, family feuds, age, gender, religion, individual idiosyncracy, and a million other factors make it impossible to include everyone in your ethnographic work. Remember, these are real people you are dealing with, and they aren't going to be any more cooperative than other real people are at, say, the United Nations, or the line at McDonald's.

  • Everyone has already been in an ethnography

    Well, not everyone. Not even close, actually. However, you won't have much luck finding a traditional society which doesn't already have a book or two or fifty published about it. If you do find one, chances are that its neighbors, who are nearly identical as far as language, history, social structure, and religion, have already yielded their secrets up to the University of Chicago.

Ethnographers deal with these problems in a number of ways. Some just try to do the best they can at an old-style ethnography, perhaps motivated by a particularly interesting and esoteric topic that just can't be examined anywhere else. Others like to bring a hot new theory or approach to a classical anthropological site, like globalization in Fiji. A lot of contemporary anthropologists are interested in non-traditional populations, and so they conduct their ethnography among nuclear engineers or refugees or an obstetrician's office in Chicago or Usenet groups. Others focus in microscopically, like Ruth Behar, who wrote an ethnography about one woman in Mexico. Alternatively, they can pan out, like Aihwa Ong, who worked with Chinese transnationalism spanning the Pacific ocean. There are as many solutions as there are ethnographers, although there is still no perfect solution to any of these problems.

What do I actually do?

Well, it depends what you want to know. Ethnography is a very diverse enterprise, and it can encompass many different methodologies. In general, an ethnographer is expected to spend a significant amount of time in the field, wherever that may be. The amount of time varies with the sort of observations and claims you want to make, but you will never be able to get in and out in an afternoon. The archetypical ethnography lasts one or more years, and a doctoral student who doesn't spend at least a year working on their ethnographic project will have a hard time claiming his rights as a "real" anthropologist later on. However, there are certainly many shorter ethnographic projects, usually measured in semesters. An increasing number of ethnographers, especially outside the U.S. and in non-academic positions, work on projects that last a few weeks, but this is not what anybody thinks of when they hear the word "ethnography." For non-anthropologists doing ethnography, all bets are off. You'd be shocked to hear what they call "ethnography" in a lot of education journals, for instance.

The reason that time is so important is that ethnography is all about context. Since bits of culture are never so kind as to appear in isolation, an ethnographer has to stick around for a long time just in case somebody says or does something important. Moreover, an ethnographer is expected to have a firm grasp of the important parts of daily life wherever they were working. If you can't tell your colleagues what the villagers eat on the big Easter feast, you'll look like a mighty dumb anthropologist. It doesn't matter if you were really just interested in how the village's women made jokes about religion.

Obviously, then, ethnography involves a lot of watching and listening, just to get a feel for the community. Most ethnographers also engage in participant observation, which means taking part in an activity so as to learn about and better understand that activity. Participant observation can be making a canoe with the guys, or partaking in the afternoon smoke, or being a guest at a wedding. It invariably involves making mistakes, feeling like a fool, and learning a ton.

Of course, all that observation isn't any good unless you record it somehow. Clifford Geertz said, "What does the ethnographer do?...he writes." (Geertz 1973:19). This doesn't just mean writing a nice book when you get back. Instead, you will write field notes, where you record every little detail you can and reflect upon those details until they start to make sense. Field notes will both help you understand what you have already observed and direct your future observations. One measure of an ethnographer's success is the number of notebooks (virtual or otherwise) she drags back with her. An ethnographer records observations in other ways, as well. Video and audio recordings, drawings, and maps are a few of the most common.

An ethnographer adopts other methods as needed. Interviews are pretty standard, both to learn about particular topics and to gather linguistic data. Surveys are also standard, although they usually take a back seat to other techniques. Since the 1970s, ethnography has more and more often included archival research. A medical anthropologist might take measurements or physical samples, while an ethnobotanist could do chemical analysis. The one thing every ethnographic project has in common is a need to improvise, and an ethnographer's toolkit should include as many methods as possible. Specialization is for sociologists.

So now I just write it up, eh?

Again, this is easier said than done, grasshopper. This is where the second meaning of 'ethnography' comes in. This is where ethnography becomes an ethnography.

You just got back from the field. Your hard drive is full of field notes, recorded interviews, and video clips. Your journal has 500 new entries. You have 2 databases from the surveys you did and another database full of people's names and relationships. You have a box of photocopies from the national archives and plenty of notes to go with them. You have four crudely drawn maps and over 200 slides. You have the 9 ceramic pieces people gave you as gifts, as well as the coin collection, the hat, the shirt, the coffee beans, the VHS cassette, the photographs, the English language travel guide nobody else could read, the wood flute, and the bottle of hot sauce. You also have your clippings from four newspapers and six magazines that pertain to related events. Now you have to turn this into a book. Of course, the book will be targeted at a scholarly audience, so you can't forget to include any of those other books and articles that might be relevant.

As you can no doubt see, every ethnography is different. There are a few things that you can count on, though.

  • First, you'll have to be an editor before you're an author. Ethnography is like radio astronomy and unlike archaeology in that you will always have too much information. You have to decide what you want to say and then select only the data you need to say it. Be careful when you do this. Since context is so important in ethnography, you are going to distort your interpretation every time you make an editorial decision. There is no easy way to do your editing.

  • Second, you'll have to connect everything you do decide to include. Again, be careful. Connections between bits of culture aren't things you can see, so you will have to rely upon theory, intuition, and aesthetic sensibility to do it. Some people say that this makes anthropology a bullshit science. Fair enough. Do you have a better suggestion? In fact, other anthropologists will call you on it if you say something that is just plain wrong. Sometimes, they'll call you on it even if you're right. Plus, it is now expected that an ethnographer will share her work with the people in it. As the world grows smaller, these people are more and more likely to be familiar with the English (French, etc.) language and scholarly writing. You had better believe that they will call you on any bullshit, and sometimes they'll even sue or get you kicked out of the country.

  • Now you can finally write your ethnography. You may be surprised to learn that a lot of it is already written. As it turns out, all those thoughts and reflections you generated in your field notes are the meat of what goes in your book. Of course, the words will be different, the structure will be different, and your interpretations will change time and time again. This doesn't change the fact that you started writing your ethnography on your first day in the field.

"Surely this makes anthropology a bullshit science!" you exclaim. "These ethnographers can't even keep their observations and their conclusions separate!" Indeed. However, that is the nature of a hermeneutic science. When you work with with people, you work with meaning, which is a slippery and arbitrary beast. Also, you can never be an impartial observer in a laboratory. (Whether anybody can ever be an impartial observer is for others to decide.) Remember all that participant observation you were doing? There isn't really any other way to learn how to make a canoe, is there? If you're going to write about how people make canoes, you'll just have to swallow your epistemological doubts and do it. This is what those Writing Culture folks were getting at, and this is the state of ethnography in the dawn of the 21st century.


Geertz, Clifford
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Malinowski, Bronislaw
1984(1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Clifford, James and George Marcus, eds.
1986 Writing Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


You might suspect from this writeup that ethnographers are, as a rule, long-winded folks. You would be right.

Eth*nog"ra*phy (?), n. [Gr. nation + -graphy: cf. F. ethnographie.]

That branch of knowledge which has for its subject the characteristics of the human family, developing the details with which ethnology as a comparative science deals; descriptive ethnology. See Ethnology.

 

© Webster 1913.

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