Ethnography is a research strategy where the approach is to get as much information as possible about a particular culture. The ethnographer, or cultural anthropologist, tries to get information from many angles to see whole picture–again, striving for that holistic view.
There are multiple methodologies that can be employed:
Participant Observation – this the hallmark of anthropology. This method was pioneered by Branislaw Malinowski. Using this method, the ethnographer not only observes but participates in the activities of the culture. In this manner, anthropologists attempt to record the emic, or insider’s view of the behavior, as opposed to the etic, or outsider’s view. This does not mean that the emic and etic are mutually exclusive; they can compliment one another by giving both subjective and objective interpretation.
Interviews, Conversation – this works best when the ethnographer has learned the language. Interpreters can and are used; however, it is always best to be able to learn the language oneself. Not only does it lessen the chance of misinterpretation via a third person, but it helps build confidence with the culture group being studied.
Informant – an informant is a key individual—usually someone with a lot of knowledge about the group being studied. This individual is interviewed and used as a contact point with the group. The problem with this is that the researcher only gets a small picture of what’s going on.
Genealogical Method – this method is strictly about learning the kinship, family, and marriage patterns of a group. It is a basic method used to help anthropologists understand social relationships and history.
Life Histories – this method relies on getting the personal history of an individual. This can help anthropologists arrive at some insights into perceptions about a culture. It can help the researcher understand the emic. Ideally, several life histories would be collected in order to get more balanced information.
Interpretive Anthropology – ethnographers produce ethnographies, which are reports on their ethnographic work. Over the years the approach to writing ethographies has changed. Early ethnographies used the etic approach to portray a scientific, objective view of the society. This approach is referred to as ethnographic realism. In the 1970s there was a movement to use an emic approach. This was an endeavor to try to get past the researcher’s ethnocentrism to understand the natives’ viewpoint. From this, interpretive anthropology arose. Interpretive anthropologyrequires the ethnographer to reflect on what their presence is doing to the study group as well as what it is in their personal culture that is impacting the interpretation of what they observe. It also allows for the ethnographer to relate their own feelings and reactions, all in the attempt to understand their interpretation.
Problem-oriented ethnography – cultural anthropologists using a problem-oriented ethnographic approach research a specific question; they collect data just on that question, e.g., the effects of modernization on social organization, while they are in the field.
Ethnohistory – this approach requires library and archival research; ethnohistorians attempt to reconstruct the history of a people using both their own accounts and those of outside observers. In this manner, ethnohistorians try to understand the modern condition of a people by understanding the historical events and processes that got the group to where they are now.
Ethnology (cross-cultural comparison) – cross-cultural comparison is employed by cultural anthropologists in order to understand the similarities and differences among cultures; this can help us to better understand the processes of change and adaptation in human culture.
Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 2008. Mirror for Humanity, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.