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What is Ethnographic Fieldwork? - Definition & Methods

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will provide a definition of ethnographic fieldwork and the basic steps involved in this form of research. Examples of ethnographic challenges will be detailed and several controversies surrounding ethnographic field work will be explained.

Ethnography: Definitions and Explanations

Ethnographic field work is the primary methodology employed by anthropologists, although other disciplines such as cultural studies and sociology may also employ ethnographic methods. Ethnography involves immersion in the daily lives of a particular community of people for an extended period of time for the purpose of collecting various types of data about that community.

An ethnographer will typically choose a particular community, village, or ethnic group, request permission from the group in question to live among them for the purpose of research, and then conduct the period of research for anywhere from several months, to several years. For instance, in one famous study the ethnographer Janice Radway found a group of women in the rural Midwest who were fans of romance novels. Radway spent several years attending their book clubs, interviewing participants, and talking with them informally about why they like romance novels. Her book Reading the Romance is considered a classic of contemporary American ethnography.

Ethnography attempts to understand human cultures both through the eyes of the community themselves, as well as through the analysis and interpretation of a trained ethnographer.

Observation
Ethnographer Nancy Nusz taking field notes.~
fieldnotes

Participant observation is one of the most important methods used by ethnographers. This aspect of ethnography involves careful observation of the daily life of the community. In many cases, the first stage of participant observation involves becoming proficient in the local language. This very necessary step can be pretty tricky if the language in question is not well known outside of the community, has no written form, or if the ethnographer initially lacks members of the community who are willing to teach someone the local language.

Participant observation usually requires that the researcher actively takes part in the day-to-day events of the community. If the society in question is a hunter-gatherer society, the ethnographer might accompany members of the community in foraging in the forest for eatable fruits. If the community in question is part of a youth subculture in the developed world, the ethnographer might accompany informants to a night club; indeed, the ethnographer Sarah Thornton did just that in her well-known study Club Cultures. Religious rituals, economic transactions, food preparation, child rearing, diplomacy with neighboring communities, and many other aspects of life are all part of participant observation.

Gender divisions often create problems for ethnographers. If the ethnographer is male, he may have very little or no access to the lives of the community's women and a female ethnographer may have very little access to the male life of the community. For this reason, it is not uncommon for married couples to conduct ethnographic research together.

Interviews

Key informant interviews constitute a vital stage of the ethnographic process. After the ethnographer has become fluent in the community's language and has gained the trust of a sufficient number of community members, the ethnographer will proceed to conduct formal interviews with a number of different community members, often defined as informants. Typically, key informants will be interviewed numerous times over a significant period of time. Today, due to technological innovations, it is usually quite easy to make audio recordings of informant interviews, but in decades past, ethnographers in rural areas often had to rely exclusively on careful note taking. After the data collection phase is over, the ethnographer will carefully analyze and interpret the interviews as part of his or her larger body of data.

Ethnographic Challenges and Controversies

Ethnographic field work can be one of the most difficult and complex forms of scholarly inquiry. One of the most fundamental challenges facing the ethnographer is the need to win over the community that he or she is working in. If the community is ambivalent or even hostile to the ethnographer's presence, this can cause serious roadblocks to ethnographic field work. If the ethnographer is conducting research in a conflict zone, local authorities may object to research felt to reflect one side of the conflict in a negative light. In South Africa during apartheid, several anthropologists were murdered by pro-apartheid agents in order to silence their critical outlook on the apartheid regime.

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