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
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
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
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
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
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.
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
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
You might suspect from this writeup that ethnographers are, as a
rule, long-winded folks. You would be right.