What Is Ethnography? Anthropology Research Methodology Explained


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Australian aboriginal Pukumani graveposts: Important artifacts of both art and beliefs. Image ©Val Williamson

Fieldwork, known as ethnography, provides the primary research methodology for anthropology. What is ethnography? How did it get its name?

The science of ethnography developed over two centuries to report behaviours of indigenous peoples, and continues as a primary research method for understanding cultural groupings.

Early European explorers encountered people of other ethnicities as they travelled and mapped the world. They came into cultural contact with other peoples, learned their languages, and observed their customs in order to survive. Descriptions of these contacts constitute an early form of what is now known as ethnography. Some anthropologists suggest that Marco Polo (c.1254-1324) was the first ethnographer.

Participant Observation

Originally the province of the geographer, ethnography and ethnology (study of cultural practice in relation to race) began to emerge from writings of various scholars in the Northern Hemisphere, especially writing in German, considering the behaviour of, and the very question of, the human.

Paradoxically, chosen terminology was French:

  • Anthropologie (from the Latin)
  • Ethnologie (from the Greek)
  • Ethnographie (from the Greek)

While the word anthropology was known in English by the end of the 16th century, the word ethnography does not appear until the early 19th century. But understanding “what is ethnography” requires more than terminology.

Basically, ethnography is writing about the human, whether focusing on science, medicine, religion, linguistics, or nation formation; this is the human in its groups, so ethnographic information is that which considers interactive behaviour among humans. Anthropologists use this process to try to figure out what it means to be human.

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Ethnographic Method and Anthropology

Geographers and scientists began to devise ethnographic method as means of reporting about and understanding new peoples, specifically of writing these observations and interpretations. Linguists and anthropologists developed specific methods in the process of evolving into a separate discipline.

Not until cultural contact with aboriginal peoples became of interest in the Northern Hemisphere did anthropology or its method, ethnography, become attached to the historical and become recognized as instruments of a science of history. Ethnography’s application as an historical tool developed through this interest in aboriginal peoples when a concept of evolution of humanity became significant.

Ethnography of Aboriginal Peoples

The realisation emerged that Hunter-gatherer groups continue to exist simultaneously with contemporary societies, and that their characteristic ‘prehistoric’ behaviour and general mode of living continues. This was particularly true of the various bands of Bushmen or San that still populate Africa, and who were encountered but ignored rather than observed for a considerable time. Documentary films made by ethnographers in the twentieth century provide important ethnographic information.

Elsewhere rainforest dwellers, various tribal groups, Inuit, Native American groups and Australasian aboriginals provide continued focus for ethnographers.

Ethnography and the Science of History

Lapland woman in traditional dress in her local supermarket. Image credit Holly Ford Brown

Ethnographic study was originally conducted as the recording of data, usually by the anthropologist living among the subjects of study. Such data then became available to other researchers for interpretation. In effect, anthropologists practiced ethnography on three levels:

  • the assembling of the data itself;
  • tentative arrangements of the data to give various information on the culture such as social structure, traditions, economics, etc.;
  • they posed a discussion of the procedures used in arriving at the arrangement of the data reported in the second level.

This combination of the process of data gathering, data interpretation, and discussion of the researcher’s process of thought is generally how ethnography is practiced.

Ethnographers agonise about the ethics of their work, constantly reflecting on the research process, as Laine (2012) foregrounds when reflecting on her work among Tamil exiles: “This article explores the extent to which our influence on the very subjects of our research constitutes an ethical dilemma.”

Archaeology Reveals Ethnography

Ethnographic study of existing peoples provided information through which to interpret archaeological evidence found at sites of historical significance and to build up an account of human behaviour and development in the archaic world.

Archaeology unearths historical remains and artifacts, and maps and classifies them; anthropology asks what do these artifacts imply about human behaviour? Ethnography supplies method and case studies for comparison and extrapolation in interpretation of this detritus of human activity.

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