Ethnography: Meaning,importance,examples & overview

Ethnography is a qualitative research method which involves a detailed study of a particular cultural group. The word ethnography comes from Greek words Ethnos meaning people and Graphein meaning writing. That is why Ethnography is also known as “culture writing”.

It is a primary research method, but not limited to Anthropology which anthropologists often document in their fieldwork. Ethnography is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Anthropology. Socio-cultural anthropologists who write ethnographies are termed as ethnographers.

The methodology of Ethnography relies typically on participant observation and qualitative data collection. While conducting an ethnography, the anthropologists generally live in a culture different from their own. They get engaged in the daily lives of populations to be studied and deeply observe and record their findings. While conducting any research in Anthropology, the researchers try not be ethnocentric by using the tool of cultural relativism.

As the holistic study is important in Anthropology, ethnographers also apply a holistic approach to focus on most of the aspects of a culture.

Cultural relativism was an approach developed by a famous anthropologist, Franz Boas culminating the idea that It means that an ethnographer should avoid a judgemental attitude towards the culture to be studied. Instead, they should be empathetic and understand the viewpoints of others.

These cultural aspects could be the social institutions: political, economic and religious, kinship system and family, marriage, etc. For example, if an anthropologist has to conduct an ethnography of the subsistence strategies of a tribe, he/she won’t be limited to the economy but will also study other factors like power/authority, laws,  status of every individual and social stratification, behaviour of society, educational qualifications, average age of marriage, institutions and organisations in the area,etc. to get a complete picture of the cultural area.

One of the most famous ethnography is by Malinowski based on his six years’ fieldwork among the native people of Trobriand islands in Melanesia. His main works were “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” published in 1922. Other famous yet controversial research was by Margaret Mead among the Samoan children and titled “Coming of age in Samoa”.

Difference between Ethnography and Ethnology is that while ethnography is focused on one single culture or an aspect of a culture, Ethnology concerns itself with the comparative study of various ethnographies.

Many journals publish ethnographic research works on a variety of topics. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is one of the oldest and is publishing anthropological works since more than 150 years. American Anthropologist is a journal of American Anthropological Association(AAA) and it includes ethnographies from all the four divisions of the discipline. American Ethnologist (published by AAA and organized by American Ethnological Association), Anthropological Quarterly (published by Institute for Ethnographic research of George Washington University) and Cultural Anthropology (by Society for Cultural Anthropology) include mostly cultural anthropology articles. A relatively new journal is Transforming Anthropology by AAA and organized by Association of Black Anthropologists. It focuses on inequality and racism and includes ethnographies from all the four subfields. The Journal of Anthropological Survey of India includes papers from Socio-cultural Anthropology, sociology, linguistics and human ecology.


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