Things We Wish We Knew in First Year : Ethnography

The word ‘Ethnography’ can etymologically be broken down into two root concepts: the writing (graphy) of people (ethnos). ‘People’ in this sense, refers to their culture and systems of meaning.

Though ethnography can be written for a variety of reasons, and any piece of writing can be ‘ethnographic’ in nature through an attention to describing culture, ethnography is most explicitly linked to social and cultural anthropology as the product of anthropological investigation and qualitative research. It is a transcription of observation in which the experiences of the anthropologist are recorded with varying emphasis on the participatory presence of the ethnographer themselves in their research environment; it may be autobiographical or make no mention of self at all, with every degree in between as a possibility.

In origin ethnography is often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski (a name you’ll hear a lot if you’re studying anthropology), who in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific was one of the first to write descriptively from an attempted emic , or insider, perspective. Ethnography is produced from participant observation in which the researcher is immersed in a group, sometimes without hypotheses to test, instead forming their theory from what is observed and from existing cultural theory.

The proliferation of ethnography as a common academic text since Malinowski’s work has lead to the emergence of too many revered publications and academics to count. As anthropology has shifted its focus and experienced philosophical ‘turns’, so has the content and form of ethnography transformed. Postcolonial, postmodern and feminist discourses in the latter half of the twentieth century paved the way for current forays into multi-sited and multifocal research, meaning that the people or culture written about in ethnography might be drawn from multiple locations, transnationally, from the digital world, or even using the absence of location. The focus of the research can also be interdisciplinary, with ethnography providing a descriptive supplement to something else.

Each of the contributors to this blog are likely to use some form of ethnography in their honours theses, but a text that can be described as an ethnography proper will generally be a product of months to years of immersion in ‘the field’ (physical or otherwise), and culminate in a long published piece as a book or in an academic journal.

Check out these ethnographies for some of the greats of the past century of ethnographic writing (ordered by year) :

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.  (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mead, M. (1943).  Coming of Age in Samoa: a study of adolescence and sex in primitive societies, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Turnbull, C. M. (1968). The forest people. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Taussig, M.  (1980). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, University of North Carolina Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993).  Death without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, University of California Press.

Graeber, D. (2009) Direct action : an ethnography. AK Press.

7 thoughts on “Things We Wish We Knew in First Year : Ethnography”

  1. […] Ethnography these days can be like a jumble of different genres, including poetry, prose, narrative, memoirs and other forms of experimental writing. This pastiche captures anthropology as an art form rather than as a science. […]


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