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Ethnography was initially developed in anthropology in the early twentieth century. Here it generally involved the researcher living with a group of people for an extended period, perhaps a year or several years, in order to document their distinctive way of life, beliefs and values. Within sociology today, the term is normally used in a broader way to refer to studies that rely on participant observation and/or in-depth, relatively unstructured interviewing. In this more recent usage, there is considerable overlap in meaning with other labels for research approaches, whose meanings are also somewhat vague, such as ”qualitative research,” ”fieldwork,” ”interpretive method,” and ”case study.”
In more detailed practical terms, as a method, ethnography usually involves most of the following features:
- People’s actions are studied primarily in everyday contexts rather than under conditions created by the researcher – such as in experiments or highly structured interview situations. In other words, research takes place ”in the field.”
- Data are gathered from a range of sources: while participant observation and/or relatively informal interviews are usually the main ones, others are also often employed – including documents or artifacts that are personal and/ or official, physical and/or virtual.
- Data collection is ”unstructured” in two senses. First, it does not involve following through a fixed and detailed research plan set up at the beginning, but is more flexible in design. Secondly, the categories to be used for interpreting the data are not built into the data collection process.
- The focus is normally on a small number of cases, perhaps a single setting or group of people, typically small-scale, with these being studied in depth.
- Analysis of the data involves interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions, and how these are implicated in local and wider contexts; quantification and statistical analysis usually play a subordinate role at most.
As a set of methods, ethnography is not far removed from the means that we all use in everyday life to make sense of our surroundings. However, it involves a more deliberate and systematic approach and, also, a distinctive mentality. This can perhaps best be summarized as seeking to make the strange familiar, in the sense of finding intelligibility and rationality within it; and viewing the familiar as strange, by suspending some of those background assumptions that immediately give apparent sense to what we experience.
Over the course of its development, ethnography has been influenced by a range of methodological and theoretical movements. Early on, within anthropology, it was shaped by German ideas about the distinctive character of history and the human sciences, by Wundt’s folk psychology, and even by positivism. Subsequently, in the form of the case-study approach of the Chicago School, it was also influenced by philosophical pragmatism, while in more recent times Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, ”critical” theory, feminism, and poststructuralism have all informed its character.
While these influences have led to a diversification in approach, ethnography still tends to be characterized by a number of key methodological ideas about the nature of the social world and how it can be understood:
- Human behavior is not an automatic product of either internal or external stimuli. It is constructed and reconstructed over time, and across space, in ways that reflect the biographies and sociocultural locations of actors, and how they interpret the situations they face.
- There are diverse cultures that can inform human behavior, and these operate not just between societies or local communities but also within them; and sometimes even within individual actors.
- Human social life is not structured in terms of fixed, law-like patterns, but displays emergent processes of various kinds that involve a high degree of contingency.
To a large extent, ethnography shares these commitments with some other kinds of qualitative research, such as narrative and discourse analysis, but it applies them in distinctive ways through the kinds of data and forms of analysis it employs.
- Atkinson, P. A., Delamont, S., Coffey, A. J., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (eds.) (2007) Handbook of Ethnography. 2nd edn. Sage, London.
- Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. 3rd edn. Routledge, London.
- O’Reilly, K. (2004) Ethnographic Methods. Routledge, London.
- Wolcott, H. F. (1999) Ethnography: A Way of Seeing. Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.