Ethnography: Methods, Types, Importance, Limitations, Examples

Ethnography is a descriptive study of a certain human culture or the process of conducting such a study.  It is a  qualitative data collection approach commonly employed in the social and behavioural sciences. The term “ethnography” comes from the Greek words “ethnos” (which means “people” or “nation) and “grapho” (which means “I write”). A very common example of ethnographic research is an ethnographer coming to an island, living within its community for years, and investigating its people and culture via persistent observation and involvement. A few essential elements of ethnographic research are the significance of context, detailed recording of people and their life and a holistic and qualitative analysis of the data collected. This article will discuss the methods and types of ethnographic research. It will also shed light on the importance of ethnography as a research tool, as well as its advantages and limitations. The article will also illustrate some differences between ethnography and anthropology.

Ethnography examples

Methods of Ethnography

  1. Naturalism :

The earliest form of ethnographic research, naturalism is an approach in which the researcher watches the variables of the study in their natural surroundings in order to detect and document behavioural patterns. It may entail spending time in the native habitat of the group or persons being studied in order to document their behaviours. Also known as the live and work method, this approach provides accurate information since it minimises interference within the group. However, this method is also time consuming and is thus not favoured by ethnographers.

For example, a naturalist ethnographic study was conducted in South African primary schools, with a focus on the learning habits of a group of Grade 6 children at an urban township school in the Western Cape (Plooy, 2010).

  1. Participant Observation

The participant observation approach is used when a sociologist becomes a member of the group being studied in order to gather data and comprehend social phenomena.  Throughout participant observation, the researcher takes on two roles at once: participant and observer. The group is sometimes, but not always, aware that the researcher is watching them. In 2011, sociologist Ashley Mears conducted an ethnographic study on the world of fashion modelling. She worked as a model in New York and London, and conducted interviews with major people of the fashion world in order to better understand it.

  1. Archival Research

Some researchers acquire access to massive volumes of data by relying on existing information to address a variety of study queries. This method of inquiry is called archival research. Looking at past records helps the researcher to identify patterns or relationships that can further lead to new paths of study. Fire agencies in the United States preserve records of fires, chemical spills, accidents, and so on, all of which represent archived data. From 1953 until 2001, the measurements of models shoot for Playboy magazine’s centrefolds were investigated as an example of archival research (Voracek & Fisher, 2002).

  1. Netnography

Netnography is a method of performing ethnographic research on the internet. It is a qualitative, interpretative research approach that applies standard ethnographic methodologies to the study of internet platforms. The ethnographic research setting is understood by going to the field where the researcher does fieldwork. Netnography doesn’t always need fieldwork, but what is done is online fieldwork. Even in some research examples, netnographic research can be done completely in front of a smartphone or computer screen. Using a netnographic and case-study method, a study by Johansson and Andreasson examined how loneliness is perceived and comprehended via the use of several blogs as data (2017).  More specifically, the study intended to analyse loneliness and associated topics in the context of online communication.

Types of Ethnographic Research

  1. Educational Ethnographic Research

There are certain procedures included in educational research that study people’s learning and teaching approaches and the influence they have on classroom behaviour. People may learn about student behaviour and attitudes, as well as academic motives, learning dispositions, and much more, through educational ethnography research. People can pay greater attention to the consequences of learning processes, pedagogy, and certain general arrangements in the learning environment with the aid of this study methodology.

  1. Business Ethnographic Research

Business ethnographic research is a study design that entails monitoring consumer behaviours and target markets in order to determine genuine market demands and the general attitude toward your product or service. It is an exceptionally useful research instrument that may assist your firm in identifying client wants and meeting market expectations. This research strategy combines many methodologies such as fieldwork, physical interviews, and internet surveys to get meaningful data about target market consumer behaviours.

  1. Medical Ethnographic Research

Ethnography is a valuable study tool for understanding patients’ and service consumers’ experiences throughout their medical journey. It may tell you what it’s like to have a certain medical condition or diagnosis, as well as the norms and behaviours of individuals with that ailment. The patient’s voice can be heard owing to ethnographic data. Information from ethnographic research of patient populations can be utilised to enhance healthcare and social care services.


There are various advantages of ethnography, which make it important to the field of sociological research. Some benefits of ethnography are:

  1. It investigates complex issues. Ethnographies are highly suited to studying complicated social and cultural interactions, unforeseen circumstances, and connections that are too complex and challenging to analyse using quantitative approaches such as questionnaires and model testing.
  1. It aids in the understanding of human behaviour. It contributes to scientists’ knowledge of human behaviour. Many scientists work in behavioural sciences to learn how and why individuals react to stimuli in various ways, as well as what variables influence their decisions and actions. Ethnography is extremely useful to behavioural scientists because it demonstrates if particular behaviours are exclusive to a certain community or if they are prevalent in all individuals, independent of geography, culture, customs, religious, political, or educational background.
  1. Ethnographic research transcends boundaries to provide a peek into other cultures. In issues of human rights, the ethnographer develops a knowledge of the group’s perspective and, in certain cases, acts as a spokesperson for the group.
  1. It offers in-depth insights. It is readily adaptable and capable of discovering new things. Ethnography employs qualitative research rather than quantitative study. This implies that, rather than depending on predefined assessments with restricted responses, the ethnographer focuses on his observation and conversations with the participants utilising open-ended questions. This approach enables ethnographers to find discoveries that would not have been apparent if quantitative research had been utilised, as well as provide more thorough, in-depth results.

However, there are some limitations to ethnographic research as well.

  1. It is time-consuming. One of the most significant disadvantages of ethnography is the time factor. Before the researcher can begin investigating a certain set of individuals, the ethnographer must first establish rapport with them. The researcher must spend months or perhaps years studying their everyday lives and learning about their culture, conventions, and practices.
  1. It requires effort and training. Ethnographies are hard to duplicate, and are limited to the subjects of the research, and are strongly reliant on the ethnographer. Ethnographers need significant training in interviewing procedures, note keeping, other data gathering methods, and data processing methods, as well as linguistic and other skills particular to the society or community they wish to investigate.
  1. It is susceptible to bias or prejudice. Ethnographers, no matter how neutral they strive to be, might nonetheless be impacted by cultural prejudice or ignorance. For example, if they have an innate attitude that their race is “better” than others, this might influence how they research and communicate with their subjects.
  1. Due to the nature of the study, ethnography may pose many ethical concerns. Therefore, researchers must pay close attention to ethics while conducting their studies. Ethnographers must pay close attention to ethics when doing their research. Ethnographers frequently examine delicate cultures that are prone to exploitation if precautions are not in place. Ethnographers also examine subcultures and labour groups, which necessitates cautious research to prevent harming the individuals.

Ethnography vs Anthropology

Ethnography seeks to depict life as it is seen and perceived by a person, somewhere, at some point in time. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a study of the circumstances and possibilities of people living in the world. Although anthropology and ethnography have much to offer each other, their goals and purposes are quite different. Ethnography is a methodology while anthropology is a discipline. Anthropology is the study of human communities in general, while ethnography is a methodical technique to discover a culture, place, or group.

For instance, an anthropologist might be interested in studying the mating rituals of a small town in New Guinea. Now he might employ many methods to achieve his objective. One of those methodological approaches can be the use of ethnographic research. The anthropologist can use participant observation to explore the culture of this tribe in New Guinea. Thus, in this case, the cultural anthropologist has used ethnography to understand a culture.

Ethnography is thus an extremely useful research tool that offers a wide range of benefits.


Johansson, T., & Andreasson, J. (2017, September 1). The web of loneliness: A netnographic study of narratives of being alone in an online context. MDPI. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from

Lucille, D. P. (M. L. (n.d.). An ethnographic study of the learning practices of grade 6 students in an urban township school in the Western Cape: A sociological perspective (thesis).

Voracek, M. (2002). Shapely centrefolds? temporal change in body measures: Trend Analysis. BMJ, 325(7378), 1447–1448.

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Ishita Bhambri is an undergraduate student of Psychology and Sociology at FLAME University, Pune. A raging feminist and a mental health advocate, she is deeply interested in gender studies and film literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading books and baking desserts.