a gathering of researchers and locals

Ethnography: A Qualitative Research Method Used in Anthropology

As its name suggests, anthropology refers to the study of humankind. The word anthropology is derived from two Greek words. The first is ‘anthropos’ meaning human or man, and ‘logia’ meaning study. In this field of study, humanity is scientifically studied in the context of biology, culture, society, language, behaviour, and more. However, in order to successfully research these areas, anthropologists like to rely on a method known as ethnography.

In today’s post, we will explore the concept of ethnography in detail. We will at first understand what it is, what ethnographic research is, why, when, and how it is conducted, and discover the various forms of ethnography. We will also attempt to elucidate how ethnography changed the understanding of anthropology and other fields of studies.

What is Ethnography?

group of people discussing with each other
Image Credit: Ethnography Matters

Like the word anthropology, ethnography also has Greek roots. It comes from a compound of two Greek words, the first being ‘ethnos’, meaning people or nation, and the second being ‘grapho’, meaning ‘I write’. It is essentially a branch of anthropology that studies different cultures from the perspective of the subject in the study.

Ethnography refers to a type of qualitative research methodology. Qualitative research involves the collection, analysis and interpretation of non-numerical data. It aims to fill in the gaps in knowledge of a topic by taking into account people’s beliefs, attitudes, behaviour, interactions, perceptions, and experiences. This form of research yields in-depth information used to study the social and cultural factors of individuals or communities.

Ethnography focuses on small to large groups of people or a particular community. Speaking of which, ethnography can be of two types. Macro and micro-ethnography. Macro-ethnography studies and cultural groups are broadly defined. For instance, ‘ Italians’ or ‘Indians’ or ‘Parisians’. Micro-ethnography studies narrowed down cultural groups such as ‘local governments’ or ‘terrorists’.

Researchers observe the community’s behaviour to understand their social relations in their natural setting or environment to come to draw conclusions for their study. This process provides researchers with valid and authentic information to understand how different cultures function. Academic theories pertaining to society and culture are also used to perform a comparison between different cultural groups, establishing a relationship between them and gaining insight into the cultural history of a community.

Ethnography is the primary research method used in cultural and social anthropology. However, it can be used in other areas of humanity too, and even other areas of study.

Ethnographic Research Methodology

Now that we understand what ethnography is and its purpose, let us look at how ethnographic research is done.

There are 5 primary ways to carry out an ethnographic study:


This research technique is also known and live and work. Through this method, the researcher observes their variables in their natural environment and documents their behavioural patterns. They immerse themselves in their environment for the duration of the research in order to carry out the observations. This is perhaps the oldest, if not, one of the oldest methods of conducting ethnographic research. Using this method usually requires some level of familiarity and acceptance between the researcher and the participants. Disrupting or interfering with the participant’s daily life is kept to a minimum and observations are made from an objective perspective. The researcher is able to extract the most accurate and reliable data through this technique. However, it does tend to be a costly and time-consuming method.

Participant Observation

a gathering of researchers and locals
Researchers participating in a cultural activity. Image Credit: Universiteit Leiden

Ethnography is often directly associated with a method known as participant observation. In participant observation, the researcher immerses themselves completely in the real world by observing and studying people in their natural setting. The difference between this method and naturalism is that the researcher must actively participate in the community, in the participant observation method. Through this process, the researcher can understand a community’s culture, way of life, personal beliefs, and values, from their perspective. Basically, allowing them to acquire insider information.

This could, for example, involve an anthropologist travelling to an island and living with and like the locals for months or even years, to study them.

To go through with this method, the researcher either disguises themselves as a member of the respondents, hiding their true identity, or at least hiding the fact that they are studying them. Or, they go undisguised and reveal their identity as a researcher. The former method often yields more candid results. In the latter, the participants are often too cautious of the researcher’s presence, which may alter their behaviour or the nature of the information that they share.

Like in naturalism, researchers must apply this method without interfering or having any influence over the lives of the community members. They must allow events to occur as they were intended. Participant observation intends to link what people say to what they end up doing. To understand how people live in reality and how they make sense of their reality and how they perceive their own behaviour.


Another method used to collect information for research is through interviews. In this scenario, the researcher is still immersed in their culture but they also arrange face-to-face discussions with individuals or a small group of participants. The interviews are unstructured, spontaneous and casual, yielding information that they normally wouldn’t get in a formal interview setting, for instance. The researcher speaks to the participants as they go about their day while performing other activities.

To actually be able to conduct such an interview and squeeze out valuable information would depend on the relationship between the researcher and respondent.


This is another effective technique to collect precise and quantifiable data pertaining to the matter at hand. The information is then analysed in an objective manner to explore why something is the way it is. Researchers design a survey containing questions based on their hypothesis. The nature of these questions usually intends to yield quick responses so there may be multiple-choice questions, Likert scale for rating, or open-ended questions.

Secondary Research

In secondary research, the researcher consults existing research available from various academic sources like journals, newspapers, books, and more. As the researcher doesn’t establish any relationship with the subjects or participants, this technique tends to be less biased. However, ethnographers and anthropologists find this method to be tedious, time-consuming and existing work may not even accurately represent the subject’s beliefs or behaviour, at least in relation to the study being done. Moreover, the choice of sources and information is completely random.

A Standard Research Model

group of researchers brainstorming variables
Image Credit: Universiteit Leiden

To ensure success in conducting the research, a typical research model or plan is followed. This provides a structure to the process, limiting the wastage of precious resources like time, money, and energy. This plan or strategy also ensures the production of a coherent piece of literature that is structured in a logical manner. Being able to do so will guarantee attending to the research problem.

First off, researchers select the culture or group of people they wish to study. They identify where gaps in knowledge exist.

Then, they identify the variables they wish to work on and explore, after which, they review existing literature surrounding their selected area of study.

Next, they make initial contact with the chosen community, try to familiarize themselves with the locals, try to gain their acceptance and overall build a rapport with them.

Once that is established, they immerse themselves in their culture. They actively participate in their activities, living like them and with them for the duration of the study. During this time, they select participants who are aware of the day to day activities of the community. These participants or informants are then asked to bring forward other informants from the community. The method of gathering informants this way is known as chain sampling. The informants are interviewed many times using the responses noted down by other informants to verify their data and bring out more comprehensive responses. This process also proves if members of the same community have a similar cultural understanding regarding the topic under examination.

Following this step, observations made are documented. More and more people are interviewed, and discussions among participants are encouraged. The information generated through this process is recorded in the form of transcripts, notes, audio and video recordings, photographs, etc.

Once the data has been collected, the ethnographer analyses this data based on which they formulate a theory, in an objective manner, avoiding taking preconceived notions into account.

Ethnographic Perspectives

venn diagram of emic and etic perspectpives
Image Credit: Vassar

Data in ethnography vary in perspectives and in this field of study, there are two kinds of perspectives.

Emic Perspectives

Emic perspectives are accounts of social behaviours and beliefs that are meaningful to members of a certain community. Like the reasons why a community believes in what they believe, how they perceive their reality and how they explain their culture and experiences.  To unearth emic perspectives, researchers use the participant observation method, which involves talking to people, observing them, living with them and participating in their activities. These perspectives are crucial for the researcher to interpret another culture as is and not based on their personal cultural beliefs.

Etic Perspectives

Etic perspectives explain the behaviours and social interactions of an outsider, or someone who isn’t a member of the community under study. Their actions are important to the researchers, however, as they provide a better understanding of how external groups view or interact with the community being studied. The perspectives can be obtained through conversation with outsiders.

The Various Forms of Ethnography

There are numerous forms of ethnography that exist, and with time more and more forms are being theorized by academics. These varying forms are essentially different methods of qualitative research. To put it simply, they refer to different approaches to ethnographic study. These methods cater to the variables and communities being studied.

Some examples are institutional ethnography, critical ethnography, multi-sited ethnography, Meta ethnography, multispecies ethnography, patchwork ethnography, performance ethnography, experimental ethnography, digital ethnography, graphic ethnography, colonial ethnography, sensory ethnography, feminist ethnography, relational ethnography, communicational ethnography, and auto-ethnography. Below, we’ll be looking at some of them in detail.

Digital Ethnography

conference over the internet
Image Credit: Research Live

Digital ethnography, also known as virtual or mobile ethnography, is a branch of ethnography. It is a form of online ethnographic research that refers to the method of understanding behavioural and social patterns in the digital world. Digital or online communities also allow researchers the opportunity to understand and study how people communicate with each other around the world through digital platforms. Virtual worlds on digital platforms is an example of cultural realities online. One that is worth researching.

Digital ethnography is similar to traditional ethnography. The only difference is that the communities being studied exist online, and the observations made are therefore also done by spending time online. Ethnographers use the advantages of technology such as the internet and internet-enabled devices to conduct research by gathering in-depth insights about human needs, behaviours, perspectives, experiences online.

This type of ethnography has become increasingly popular. It doesn’t require the researcher to physically visit a location, since the communities being studied are online. The research can hence be done remotely. Either from home or any other place in the world, as long as there is internet connectivity. It is also a more convenient, less time-consuming, and cost-effective way to gather genuine data than a traditional ethnography. It also proves to be safe, particularly during a pandemic, like the one we’re living through at the moment. Researching remotely would after all avoid the risk of virus transmission that could occur via face-to-face interaction.

Conducting a Digital Ethnography

Participants are selected in the same way as one usually would in a traditional ethnography. They can be selected by building a rapport with them prior to the study, then applying the chain sampling method. Alternatively, they may even use the services of a qualitative research recruiter.

Participants gather in a private online space and are assigned some tasks which are expected to be done daily. For example, participating in discussions and keeping an online journal or recording videos or audio of themselves to basically document their lives, thoughts, and emotions. These tasks would show the researcher what they do instead of telling the researcher what they do. After all, there is a difference between what is done and what is said. Digital ethnography can also entail observing chat rooms and online discussion groups. A successful digital ethnography can yield in-depth, unstructured information about the study group. The researcher then processes the texts and graphics on these virtual platforms to formulate a theory or draw unbiased conclusions.

Ethnography of Communication

people talking to each other
Image Credit: Best of Mindanao

Initially known as the ethnography of speaking, the ethnography of communication studies communication in the context of social and cultural practices. It refers to the ethnographic approach taken to understanding a language, including both verbal and non-verbal factors of communication. The purpose of the ethnography of communication is to examine the use of language to understand patterns of speech.

The ethnography of communication has two objectives. The first objective is to study patterns in communication in the social and cultural context, as mentioned earlier. Here, ethnographers try to comprehend how communication within cultural groups occurs. It questions the type of knowledge speakers require to be able to successfully communicate with members of their community. Depending on the context, speakers are often found to follow certain unspoken rules of linguistics and interactions that are accepted by the culture. Researchers also try to find out from where the individuals got this knowledge. Being able to answer these questions explains the factors. Also, by achieving this objective, ethnographers try to link linguistics to culture.

The second objective is to formulate theories pertaining to communication amongst humans. In order to meet this objective, the concept of communication is grasped from a broader sense by making observations from both the perspective of the subject (emic), researcher and external party (etic). To succeed, both parties must possess cultural knowledge.

Ethnographers of communication collect and analyse how speech along with other methods of communication are used to convey a message that is understood by communities. For that, context is crucial. Language, after all, cannot be understood without its social and cultural context.

Method to Carry Out an Ethnography of Communication

First of all, the researcher selects and defines a group of people sharing linguistic norms and customs.

Then, initial efforts are made to understand the social structure of the group in question. Frequently occurring events in their society along with important features of the community are highlighted.

After that, researchers attempt to establish a relationship between the identified features and other facets of their society. This relationship is then thoroughly studied.  They determine that descriptive adequacy is achieved when a person who isn’t aware of the community’s linguistic norms, is able to appropriately communicate with them in a certain situation.

Next, all important features of the culture are examined and they immerse themselves in the subject’s environment. The ethnographer tries to find out what a person would need to know about communication norms to be an active and valuable member of a particular community.

Once that is done, the researcher creates a theory about how socio-cultural aspects influence communication patterns.

Feminist Ethnography

group of women the focus of feminist ethnography
Image Credit: Borgen Magazine

Feminist ethnography is believed to be a new concept, one that emerged in the 1980s and was quickly popularized. However, the area of study existed much before the 80s. According to Richelle D. Schrock, feminist ethnography, is a research method, one that uses observation to gather data about women’s lives, experiences, and the challenges they face in different cultural settings. However, there is no one way to define this concept.

Use of Ethnography in Different Fields of Study

While ethnography is largely associated with anthropology, it can also be used in other fields of humanity, such as gender studies, geography, education, and sociology. It isn’t, however, limited to humanities. It can also prove useful in the field of business, medicine, and IT, among many more disciplines.

In Anthropology

As mentioned earlier, ethnography is the primary research method in anthropological disciplines. Anthropologists or ethnographers use ethnography to get a thorough understanding of various societies with scientific reasoning.

In Business and Management

Ethnographic Market Research
Ethnographic Market Research. Image Credit: Greenbook

Ethnography can be used for studying the market or consumer behaviour, both very complex but important areas to examine. In market research, this process allows the company to learn about what their customers need and what their purchasing habits are like. Additionally, it provides insight into their social behaviours and interactions, which could provide just the information needed to deduce what it is that the customers want.

In the place of work, ethnography is used to understand the characteristics and personalities of employees to form a functional work culture and draft work policies accordingly.

In Education

The field of education uses the input of participants, technology for teaching, and descriptive writing to highlight the complexities of learning. Ethnography aids in understanding the unfairness in all types of learning practices. Education is everywhere. Therefore, the approach to conducting ethnographic research may vary. Nevertheless, some methods like participant observation are crucial for researchers to immerse themselves in the world of educational cultures.

In Software Engineering

Usually, ethnography is adopted in disciplines leaning towards studying human cultures and societies. Surprisingly, it can be relevant in technical fields such as software engineering as well. Software engineering applies scientific theories and technologies to design and maintain computer programs. These programs intend to help organisations achieve their goals more efficiently while minimizing errors.  Ethnography, in this case, provides a profound understanding of how a computer program is used, what issues people face while using the product, and what else the program can be used for.

Despite its utility and potential, it remains a largely underused tool in the technical sphere.

The Hidden Obvious

As per anthropologist Margaret Mead, what people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things.

rock sign at a site full of rocks
The Obvious. Image Credit: Jim Harvey

In a survey or a formal structured interview, many a time the obvious usually often slips out of people’s minds or they aren’t able to articulate their problem. When the same obvious is pointed out to respondents, they feel that it should already be understood. Missing out this obvious is what often causes gaps in understanding. This is why observation and the study of humans and their behaviour in their natural environment provides a more honest understanding of mankind. That is how ethnography points out the hidden obvious.

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