Ethnographic Analysis & Techniques

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Culture is hard to define and even harder to study. In this lesson, we're going to see how an ethnographer tackles this challenge and look at the distinct techniques they employ.


So, you want to study culture? Who can blame you- it's a cool topic of research. But how do you do it? There are different ways that anthropologists, sociologists, and historians all look at culture, but one of the most distinct is ethnography.

Ethnography is a study of culture from a holistic sense, meaning it examines all the parts of the whole, and examines people and their relationships to cultural systems. This includes processes and meanings within those systems, such as customs, behaviors, interpersonal relations, and relations to space. It's an attempt to understand a culture on its own terms. As a result, ethnographers rely on some unique methods, methods which largely define ethnography itself. So, want to study culture? Let's see how.


Ethnographers conduct systematic and scientific analyses of a culture, utilizing a number of quantitative and qualitative methods. A good ethnographer should be open to using any and all tools of analysis available, but in this lesson, we're going to focus on the two ethnographic techniques that really define this type of study, and distinguish it from other kinds of research.

Let's start with the concept of fieldwork. Ethnographers try to understand a culture in its own terms, and that means you can't bring a culture to a lab. You have to go to the culture. This is common in many types of anthropological and sociological research, but ethnographers practice complete immersion within the culture. This means that their fieldwork can't be completed in a day or a week or a month. A typical ethnographic study lasts for a year or longer.

Ethnographers immerse themselves within a culture, observing it as it naturally occurs

During this time, the ethnographer lives within the culture he or she is studying. Most ethnographers try to be part of this society 24/7, although this isn't always possible. By taking this long-duration immersive approach, the ethnographer is acculturated to the society being studied, meaning they are deeply familiarized with that culture's systems of behavior.

This not only makes them more sensitive to customs, and behaviors, but lets them observe the culture across the year. This ensures that the research is not solely accurate to a specific time or place, but envisions the culture holistically. We can see, for example, how an agrarian culture may change between a summer harvest and the winter dry season.

Immersive fieldwork generally follows a series of stages. The research begins with the ethnographer living among the people of the culture and observing, but not participating. This gives the ethnographer a chance to acculturate and understand this society before interacting. If the ethnographer just jumped right in, his/her own cultural attitudes could bias the research, or the behaviors of the people in this society, even unwittingly.

After a few months of passive participation (with lots of observation and minimal participation), the ethnographer may work more towards moderate, active, and finally complete participation within that culture. By gradually building up a role in this society, the ethnographer works to both eliminate his/her own cultural biases, as well as ensure that the people are not altering their behaviors to accommodate the researcher.

Ethnographers record many different behaviors, customs, and traditions within a culture

Throughout all of this, the ethnographer is observing the culture systematically and using his/her five senses to record everything they can about this society. The ethnographer may watch people interact and ask: what's happening, who is involved, how are people interacting with each other, how are they interacting with their space, how are they interacting with time, what are their motivations/goals, how are they using language, and what sorts of behaviors are they displaying? The ethnographer is the data-collecting instrument when observing, and must be cognizant of his/her surroundings at all times.


Immersive fieldwork may be the technique that most defines ethnography, but ethnographers also rely heavily on interviews. Again, the goal is to study a culture in its own terms, so talking with the people in that society is a big part of this.

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