• In cultural antropology and is exemplified by works by Boas, Malinowski and Radcliff-Brown.
  • Similar ideas also emerged from the Chicago School of Sociology in the 1920s-30s, for example, the work of Blumer and Park and Burgess. 
  • Atkinson and Hammersley (1994) give a useful historical account of ethnographic methodology and theoretical development that includes two key moments:
    • the shift by social and cultural antropologists toward collecting data first hand (late 19th - early 20th century) 
    • recognition that the problem of understanding is not restricted to the study of other societies, but applies to one's own society as well (20th century)


There is controversy surrounding the definition of Ethnography. Here, we include three common definitions:

Fetterman, 1998, p. 1

Ethnography is the art and science of describing a group or culture.  The description may be of a small tribal community in an exotic land or a classroom in middle-class suburbia.  The task is much like the one taken on by an investigative reporter, who interviews relevant people, reviews records, weighs the credibility of one person's opinions against another's, looks for ties to special interests and organizations, and writes the story for a concerned public and for professional colleagues.  A key difference between the investigative reporter and the ethnographer, however, is that whereas the journalist seeks out the unusual - the murder, the plane crash, or the bank robbery - the ethnographer writes about the routine, daily lives of people

Agar, 1996, p. 53

Ethnography is both a product and process of research (Agar, 1980). The product is an ethnography - a written manuscript of one's observations of the culture under study.  The process involves prolonged observation of a group (nurses, physician, surgeons).  

Atkinson & Hammersley (1994, p. 248)

Ethnography ususally refers to forms of social research having a substantial number of the following features:

  • a strong emphasis on exploring the nature of particular social phenomena, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about them
  • a tendency to work primarily with 'unstructured' data, that is, data that have not been coded at the point of data collection in terms of a closed set of analytic categories
  • investigation of a small number of cases, perhaps just one case, in detail
  • analysis of data that involves explicit interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions, the product of which mainly takes the form of verbal descriptions and explanations, with quantification and statistical analysis playing a subordinate role at most" (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994, p. 248).

Common Methods used in Ethnography

Participant Observation. This involves the researcher immersing him or herself in the daily lives and routines of those being studied.  This often requires extensive work in the setting being studied.  This is called fieldwork.

Interviewing. Enthnographers also learn about a culture or group by speaking with informants or members of the culture or group.  Talking with informants is called interviewing.  The types of interviews conducted by ethnographers vary in degree of formality (informal interviews to semi-structured to structured interviews).

Collection of Artifacts and Texts. Ethnographers may also learn about a group or culture by collecting and studying artifacts (e.g. written protocols, charts, flowsheets, educational handouts) - materials used by members of the culture in their daily lives.

A Key Paradox

With the "rhetorical turn" in the social sciences the debate between rhetoric versus science highlighted a key paradox faced by ethnographers. On the one hand, the ethnographer is in the "field" for a long period of time.  This is an aspect of "good" ethnography for the researcher comes to know and share a reality with those they set out to study.  On the other hand, in much of ethnographic writing the other is characterized solely as the object of the ethnographer's gaze.  This position priviledges the voice of the researcher.  In order to rectify this paradox, there has been a move to dialogic modes of ethnographic reporting that represent multiple voices in the text.  Yet, these representations are always through the writer/enthnographer's lens. (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994)


Agar, MH. (1996). The Professional Stranger. Second Edition. New York: Academic Press.

Atkinson, P. & Hammersley, M. (1994). "Ethnography and participant observation." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 248-261). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice-Hall.

Boas, F. (1901). "The Mind of Primitive Man."  Journal of American Folklore, 14(52) 1-11.

Fetterman, DM. (1998). Ethnography: Step by Step. Applied Social Research Methods Series, Volume 17. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hammersley, M. (1990). Reading Ethnographic Research: A Critical Guide. New York: Longman.

Hammersley, M & Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography: Practices and Principles. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Park, R. & Burgess, E. (Eds.) (1921). Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Radcliff-Brown, AR. (1948). A Natural Science of Society. New York: Free Press.

Savage, J. (2000). Ethnography and health care. BMJ, 321, 1400-1402.

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