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Ethnography (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "folk, people, nation" and γράφω grapho "I write") is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group. The word can thus be said to have a "double meaning," which partly depends on whether it is used as a count noun or uncountably. The resulting field study or a case report reflects the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group.
Ethnography, as the presentation of empirical data on human societies and cultures, was pioneered in the biological, social, and cultural branches of anthropology, but it has also become popular in the social sciences in general—sociology, communication studies, history—wherever people study ethnic groups, formations, compositions, resettlements, social welfare characteristics, materiality, spirituality, and a people's ethnogenesis. The typical ethnography is a holistic study and so includes a brief history, and an analysis of the terrain, the climate, and the habitat. In all cases it should be reflexive, make a substantial contribution toward the understanding of the social life of humans, have an aesthetic impact on the reader, and express a credible reality. An ethnography records all observed behavior and describes all symbol-meaning relations, using concepts that avoid causal explanations.
Gerhard Friedrich Müller developed the concept of ethnography as a separate discipline whilst participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–43) as a professor of history and geography. Whilst involved in the expedition, he differentiated Völker-Beschreibung as a distinct area of study. This became known as Ethnography. August Ludwig von Schlözer and Christoph Wilhelm Jacob Gatterer of the University of Göttingen introduced the term into academic discourse in an attempt to reform the contemporary understanding of world history.
Herodotus known as the Father of History had significant works on the cultures of various peoples beyond the Hellenic realm such as nations in Scythia, which earned him the title "Barbarian lover" and may have produced the first ethnographic works.
Data collection methods are meant to capture the "social meanings and ordinary activities"  of people (informants) in "naturally occurring settings"  that are commonly referred to as "the field." The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher imposes a minimal amount of personal bias on the data. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys.
Interviews are often taped and later transcribed, allowing the interview to proceed unimpaired of note-taking, but with all information available later for full analysis. Secondary research and document analysis are also used to provide insight into the research topic. In the past, kinship charts were commonly used to "discover logical patterns and social structure in non-Western societies". In the 21st century, anthropology focuses more on the study of people in urban settings and the use of kinship charts is seldom employed.
In order to make the data collection and interpretation transparent, researchers creating ethnographies often attempt to be "reflexive". Reflexivity refers to the researcher's aim "to explore the ways in which [the] researcher's involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research". Despite these attempts of reflexivity, no researcher can be totally unbiased. This factor has provided a basis to criticize ethnography.
Traditionally, the ethnographer focuses attention on a community, selecting knowledgeable informants who know the activities of the community well. These informants are typically asked to identify other informants who represent the community, often using chain sampling. This process is often effective in revealing common cultural denominators connected to the topic being studied. Ethnography relies greatly on up-close, personal experience. Participation, rather than just observation, is one of the keys to this process. Ethnography is very useful in social research.
Ybema et al. (2010) examine the ontological and epistemological presuppositions underlying ethnography. Ethnographic research can range from a realist perspective, in which behavior is observed, to a constructivist perspective where understanding is socially constructed by the researcher and subjects. Research can range from an objectivist account of fixed, observable behaviors to an interpretivist narrative describing “the interplay of individual agency and social structure." Critical theory researchers address “issues of power within the researcher-researched relationships and the links between knowledge and power."
The ethnographic method is used across a range of different disciplines, primarily by anthropologists but also occasionally by sociologists. Cultural studies, sociology, economics, social work, education, design, ethnomusicology, folklore, religious studies, geography, history, linguistics, communication studies, performance studies, advertising, psychology, urban planning, usability, political science, and criminology are other fields which have made use of ethnography.
Cultural anthropology and social anthropology were developed around ethnographic research and their canonical texts, which are mostly ethnographies: e.g. Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) by Bronisław Malinowski, Ethnologische Excursion in Johore (1875) by Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) by Margaret Mead, The Nuer (1940) by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Naven (1936, 1958) by Gregory Bateson, or "The Lele of the Kasai" (1963) by Mary Douglas. Cultural and social anthropologists today place a high value on doing ethnographic research. The typical ethnography is a document written about a particular people, almost always based at least in part on emic views of where the culture begins and ends. Using language or community boundaries to bound the ethnography is common. Ethnographies are also sometimes called "case studies." Ethnographers study and interpret culture, its universalities and its variations through ethnographic study based on fieldwork. An ethnography is a specific kind of written observational science which provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life.
Ethnographers are participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought. Classic examples are Carol B. Stack's All Our Kin, Jean Briggs' Never in Anger, Richard Lee's Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, Victor Turner's Forest of Symbols, David Maybry-Lewis' Akew-Shavante Society, E.E. Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer, and Claude Lévi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques. Iterations of ethnographic representations in the classic, modernist camp include Joseph W. Bastien's "Drum and Stethoscope" (1992), Bartholomew Dean's recent (2009) contribution, Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia.
A typical ethnography attempts to be holistic and typically follows an outline to include a brief history of the culture in question, an analysis of the physical geography or terrain inhabited by the people under study, including climate, and often including what biological anthropologists call habitat. Folk notions of botany and zoology are presented as ethnobotany and ethnozoology alongside references from the formal sciences. Material culture, technology, and means of subsistence are usually treated next, as they are typically bound up in physical geography and include descriptions of infrastructure. Kinship and social structure (including age grading, peer groups, gender, voluntary associations, clans, moieties, and so forth, if they exist) are typically included. Languages spoken, dialects, and the history of language change are another group of standard topics. Practices of childrearing, acculturation, and emic views on personality and values usually follow after sections on social structure. Rites, rituals, and other evidence of religion have long been an interest and are sometimes central to ethnographies, especially when conducted in public where visiting anthropologists can see them.
As ethnography developed, anthropologists grew more interested in less tangible aspects of culture, such as values, worldview and what Clifford Geertz termed the "ethos" of the culture. In his fieldwork, Geertz used elements of a phenomenological approach, tracing not just the doings of people, but the cultural elements themselves. For example, if within a group of people, winking was a communicative gesture, he sought to first determine what kinds of things a wink might mean (it might mean several things). Then, he sought to determine in what contexts winks were used, and whether, as one moved about a region, winks remained meaningful in the same way. In this way, cultural boundaries of communication could be explored, as opposed to using linguistic boundaries or notions about residence. Geertz, while still following something of a traditional ethnographic outline, moved outside that outline to talk about "webs" instead of "outlines" of culture.
Within cultural anthropology, there are several sub-genres of ethnography. Beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing "bio-confessional" ethnographies that intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research. Famous examples include Tristes Tropiques (1955) by Lévi-Strauss, The High Valley by Kenneth Read, and The Savage and the Innocent by David Maybury-Lewis, as well as the mildly fictionalized Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen (Laura Bohannan).
Later "reflexive" ethnographies refined the technique to translate cultural differences by representing their effects on the ethnographer. Famous examples include Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow, The Headman and I by Jean-Paul Dumont, and Tuhami by Vincent Crapanzano. In the 1980s, the rhetoric of ethnography was subjected to intense scrutiny within the discipline, under the general influence of literary theory and post-colonial/post-structuralist thought. "Experimental" ethnographies that reveal the ferment of the discipline include Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man by Michael Taussig, Debating Muslims by Michael F. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, A Space on the Side of the Road by Kathleen Stewart, and Advocacy after Bhopal by Kim Fortun.
This critical turn in sociocultural anthropology during the mid-1980s can be traced to the influence of the now classic (and often contested) text, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, (1986) edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. Writing Culture helped bring changes to both anthropology and ethnography often described in terms of being 'postmodern,' 'reflexive,' 'literary,' 'deconstructive,' or 'poststructural' in nature, in that the text helped to highlight the various epistemic and political predicaments that many practitioners saw as plaguing ethnographic representations and practices.
Where Geertz's and Turner's interpretive anthropology recognized subjects as creative actors who constructed their sociocultural worlds out of symbols, postmodernists attempted to draw attention to the privileged status of the ethnographers themselves. That is, the ethnographer cannot escape the personal viewpoint in creating an ethnographic account, thus making any claims of objective neutrality highly problematic, if not altogether impossible. In regards to this last point, Writing Culture became a focal point for looking at how ethnographers could describe different cultures and societies without denying the subjectivity of those individuals and groups being studied while simultaneously doing so without laying claim to absolute knowledge and objective authority. Along with the development of experimental forms such as 'dialogic anthropology,' 'narrative ethnography,' and 'literary ethnography', Writing Culture helped to encourage the development of 'collaborative ethnography.' This exploration of the relationship between writer, audience, and subject has become a central tenet of contemporary anthropological and ethnographic practice. In certain instances, active collaboration between the researcher(s) and subject(s) has helped blend the practice of collaboration in ethnographic fieldwork with the process of creating the ethnographic product resulting from the research.
Sociology is another field which prominently features ethnographies. Urban sociology and the Chicago School in particular are associated with ethnographic research, with some well-known early examples being Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr.. Major influences on this development were anthropologist Lloyd Warner, on the Chicago sociology faculty, and to Robert Park's experience as a journalist. Symbolic interactionism developed from the same tradition and yielded such sociological ethnographies as Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine, which documents the early history of fantasy role-playing games. Other important ethnographies in sociology include Pierre Bourdieu's work on Algeria and France. Jaber F. Gubrium's series of organizational ethnographies focused on the everyday practices of illness, care, and recovery are notable. They include Living and Dying at Murray Manor, which describes the social worlds of a nursing home; Describing Care: Image and Practice in Rehabilitation, which documents the social organization of patient subjectivity in a physical rehabilitation hospital; Caretakers: Treating Emotionally Disturbed Children, which features the social construction of behavioral disorders in children; and Oldtimers and Alzheimer's: The Descriptive Organization of Senility, which describes how the Alzheimer's disease movement constructed a new subjectivity of senile dementia and how that is organized in a geriatric hospital. Paul Willis's Learning to Labour, on working class youth; the work of Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Loïc Wacquant on black America, and Lai Olurode's Glimpses of Madrasa From Africa. But even though many sub-fields and theoretical perspectives within sociology use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, ethnographic research methods began to be widely used by communication scholars. As the purpose of ethnography is to describe and interpret the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs and language of a culture-sharing group, Harris, (1968), also Agar (1980) note that ethnography is both a process and an outcome of the research. Studies such as Gerry Philipsen's analysis of cultural communication strategies in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Speaking 'Like a Man' in Teamsterville, paved the way for the expansion of ethnographic research in the study of communication.
Scholars of communication studies use ethnographic research methods to analyze communicative behaviors and phenomena. This is often characterized in the writing as attempts to understand taken-for-granted routines by which working definitions are socially produced. Ethnography as a method is a storied, careful, and systematic examination of the reality-generating mechanisms of everyday life (Coulon, 1995). Ethnographic work in communication studies seeks to explain "how" ordinary methods/practices/performances construct the ordinary actions used by ordinary people in the accomplishments of their identities. This often gives the perception of trying to answer the "why" and "how come" questions of human communication. Often this type of research results in a case study or field study such as an analysis of speech patterns at a protest rally, or the way firemen communicate during "down time" at a fire station. Like anthropology scholars, communication scholars often immerse themselves,and participate in and/or directly observe the particular social group being studied.
The American anthropologist George Spindler was a pioneer in applying ethnographic methodology to the classroom.
Anthropologists such as Daniel Miller and Mary Douglas have used ethnographic data to answer academic questions about consumers and consumption. In this sense, Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson describe design ethnography as being "a way of understanding the particulars of daily life in such a way as to increase the success probability of a new product or service or, more appropriately, to reduce the probability of failure specifically due to a lack of understanding of the basic behaviors and frameworks of consumers." Sociologist Sam Ladner argues in her book, that understanding consumers and their desires requires a shift in "standpoint," one that only ethnography provides. The results are products and services that respond to consumers' unmet needs.
Businesses, too, have found ethnographers helpful for understanding how people use products and services. companies make increasing use of ethnographic methods to understand consumers and consumption, or for new product development (such as video ethnography). The recent Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference in 2008 was evidence of this. Ethnographers' systematic and holistic approach to real-life experience is valued by product developers, who use the method to understand unstated desires or cultural practices that surround products. Where focus groups fail to inform marketers about what people really do, ethnography links what people say to what they do—avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported, focus-group data.
Ethnographic methodology is not usually evaluated in terms of philosophical standpoint (such as positivism and emotionalism). Ethnographic studies need to be evaluated in some manner. No consensus has been developed on evaluation standards, but Richardson (2000, p. 254) provides five criteria that ethnographers might find helpful. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein's (1997) monograph, The New Language of Qualitative Method, discusses forms of ethnography in terms of their "methods talk."
Gary Alan Fine argues that the nature of ethnographic inquiry demands that researchers deviate from formal and idealistic rules or ethics that have come to be widely accepted in qualitative and quantitative approaches in research. Many of these ethical assumptions are rooted in positivist and post-positivist epistemologies that have adapted over time, but are apparent and must be accounted for in all research paradigms. These ethical dilemmas are evident throughout the entire process of conducting ethnographies, including the design, implementation, and reporting of an ethnographic study. Essentially, Fine maintains that researchers are typically not as ethical as they claim or assume to be — and that "each job includes ways of doing things that would be inappropriate for others to know".
Fine is not necessarily casting blame at ethnographic researchers, but tries to show that researchers often make idealized ethical claims and standards which in are inherently based on partial truths and self-deceptions. Fine also acknowledges that many of these partial truths and self-deceptions are unavoidable. He maintains that "illusions" are essential to maintain an occupational reputation and avoid potentially more caustic consequences. He claims, "Ethnographers cannot help but lie, but in lying, we reveal truths that escape those who are not so bold". Based on these assertions, Fine establishes three conceptual clusters in which ethnographic ethical dilemmas can be situated: "Classic Virtues", "Technical Skills", and "Ethnographic Self".
While there is no international standard on Ethnographic Ethics, many western anthropologists look to the American Anthropological Association for guidance when conducting ethnographic work. In 2009 the Association adopted a code of ethics, stating: Anthropologists have "moral obligations as members of other groups, such as the family, religion, and community, as well as the profession". The code of ethics notes that anthropologists are part of a wider scholarly and political network, as well as human and natural environment, which needs to be reported on respectfully. The code of ethics recognizes that sometimes very close and personal relationship can sometimes develop from doing ethnographic work. The Association acknowledges that the code is limited in scope; ethnographic work can sometimes be multidisciplinary, and anthropologists need to be familiar with ethics and perspectives of other disciplines as well. The eight-page code of ethics outlines ethical considerations for those conducting Research, Teaching, Application and Dissemination of Results, which are briefly outlined below.
The following are commonly misconceived conceptions of ethnographers:
According to Norman K. Denzin, ethnographers should consider the following eight principles when observing, recording, and sampling data:
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