Ethnography (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "folk, people, nation" and γράφω grapho "I write") is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group. The word can thus be said to have a double meaning, which partly depends on whether it is used as a count noun or uncountable. The resulting field study or a case report reflects the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group.
As a method of data collection, ethnography entails examining the behaviour of the participants in a certain specific social situation and also understanding their interpretation of such behaviour. Dewan (2018) further elaborates that this behaviour may be shaped by the constraints the participants feel because of the situations they are in or by the society in which they belong. Ethnography, as the presentation of empirical data on human societies and cultures, was pioneered in the biological, social, and cultural branches of anthropology, but it has also become popular in the social sciences in general—sociology, communication studies, history—wherever people study ethnic groups, formations, compositions, resettlements, social welfare characteristics, materiality, spirituality, and a people's ethnogenesis. The typical ethnography is a holistic study and so includes a brief history, and an analysis of the terrain, the climate, and the habitat. In all cases, it should be reflexive, make a substantial contribution toward the understanding of the social life of humans, have an aesthetic impact on the reader, and express a credible reality. An ethnography records all observed behavior and describes all symbol-meaning relations, using concepts that avoid causal explanations. Traditionally, ethnography was focussed on the western gaze towards the far 'exotic' east, but now researchers are undertaking ethnography in their own social environment. According to Dewan (2018), even if we are the other, the ‘another’ or the ‘native’, we are still ‘another’ because there are many facades of ourselves that connect us to people and other facades that highlight our differences.
History and meaning
The word 'ethnography' is derived from the Greek ἔθνος (ethnos), meaning "a company, later a people, nation" and -graphy, meaning "writing". Ethnographic studies focus on large cultural groups of people who interact over time. Ethnography is a set of qualitative methods that are used in social sciences that focus on the observation of social practices and interactions. Its aim is to observe a situation without imposing any deductive structure or framework upon it and to view everything as strange or unique.
The field of anthropology originated from Europe and England designed in late 19th century. It spread its roots to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the main contributors like E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) from Britain and Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881), an American scientist were considered as founders of cultural and social dimensions. Franz Boas (1858–1942), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884—1942), Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), and Margaret Mead (1901–1978), were a group of researchers from the United States who contributed the idea of cultural relativism to the literature. Boas's approach focused on the use of documents and informants, whereas Malinowski stated that a researcher should be engrossed with the work for long periods in the field and do a participant observation by living with the informant and experiencing their way of life. He gives the viewpoint of the native and this became the origin of field work and field methods.
Gerhard Friedrich Müller developed the concept of ethnography as a separate discipline whilst participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–43) as a professor of history and geography. Whilst involved in the expedition, he differentiated Völker-Beschreibung as a distinct area of study. This became known as "ethnography," following the introduction of the Greek neologism ethnographia by Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin and the German variant by A. F. Thilo in 1767. August Ludwig von Schlözer and Christoph Wilhelm Jacob Gatterer of the University of Göttingen introduced the term into the academic discourse in an attempt to reform the contemporary understanding of world history.
Herodotus, known as the Father of History, had significant works on the cultures of various peoples beyond the Hellenic realm such as the Scythians, which earned him the title "philobarbarian", and may be said to have produced the first works of ethnography.
There are different forms of ethnography: confessional ethnography; life history; feminist ethnography etc. Two popular forms of ethnography are realist ethnography and critical ethnography. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 93)
Realist ethnography is a traditional approach used by cultural anthropologists. Characterized by Van Maanen (1988), it reflects a particular instance taken by the researcher toward the individual being studied. It's an objective study of the situation. It's composed from a third person's perspective by getting the data from the members on the site. The ethnographer stays as omniscient correspondent of actualities out of sight. The realist reports information in a measured style ostensibly uncontaminated by individual predisposition, political objectives, and judgment. The analyst will give a detailed report of the everyday life of the individuals under study. The ethnographer also uses standard categories for cultural description (e.g., family life, communication network). The ethnographer produces the participant's views through closely edited quotations and has the final word on how the culture is to be interpreted and presented. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 93)
Critical ethnography is a kind of ethnographic research in which the creators advocate for the liberation of groups which are marginalized in society. Critical researchers typically are politically minded people who look to take a stand of opposition to inequality and domination. For example, a critical ethnographer might study schools that provide privileges to certain types of students, or counseling practices that serve to overlook the needs of underrepresented groups. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 94). The important components of a critical ethnographer are to incorporate a value-laden introduction, empower people by giving them more authority, challenging the status quo, and addressing concerns about power and control. A critical ethnographer will study issues of power, empowerment, inequality, inequity, dominance, repression, hegemony, and victimization. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 94)
Features of ethnographic research
According to Dewan (2018), the researcher is not looking for generalizing the findings; rather, they are considering it in reference to the context of the situation. In this regard, the best way to integrate ethnography in a quantitative research would be to use it to discover and uncover relationships and then use the resultant data to test and explain the empirical assumptions 
- Involves investigation of very few cases, maybe just one case, in detail.
- Often involves working with primarily unconstructed data. This data had not been coded at the point of data collection in terms of a closed set of analytic categories.
- Emphasizes on exploring social phenomena rather than testing hypotheses.
- Data analysis involves interpretation of the functions and meanings of human actions. The product of this is mainly verbal explanations, where statistical analysis and quantification play a subordinate role.
- Methodological discussions focus more on questions about how to report findings in the field than on methods of data collection and interpretation.
- Ethnographies focus on describing the culture of a group in very detailed and complex manner. The ethnography can be of the entire group or a subpart of it.
- It involves engaging in extensive field work where data collection is mainly by interviews, symbols, artifacts, observations, and many other sources of data.
- The researcher in ethnography type of research looks for patterns of the group's mental activities, that is their ideas and beliefs expressed through language or other activities, and how they behave in their groups as expressed through their actions that the researcher observed.
- In ethnography, the researcher gathers what is available, what is normal, what it is that people do, what they say, and how they work.
Procedures for conducting ethnography
- Determine if ethnography is the most appropriate design to use to study the research problem. Ethnography is suitable if the needs are to describe how a cultural group works and to explore their beliefs, language, behaviours and also issues faced by the group, such as power, resistance, and dominance. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 94)
- Then identify and locate a culture-sharing group to study. This group is one whose members have been together for an extended period of time, so that their shared language, patterns of behaviour and attitudes have merged into discernible patterns. This group can also be a group that has been marginalized by society. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 94)
- Select cultural themes, issues or theories to study about the group. These themes, issues, and theories provide an orienting framework for the study of the culture-sharing group. As discussed by Hammersley and Atkinson (2007), Wolcott (1987, 1994b, 2008-1), and Fetterman (2009). The ethnographer begins the study by examining people in interaction in ordinary settings and discerns pervasive patterns such as life cycles, events, and cultural themes. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 94-95)
- For studying cultural concepts, determine which type of ethnography to use. Perhaps how the group works need to be described, or a critical ethnography can expose issues such as power, hegemony, and advocacy for certain groups (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 95)
- Should collect information in the context or setting where the group works or lives. This is called fieldwork. Types of information typically needed in ethnography are collected by going to the research site, respecting the daily lives of individuals at the site and collecting a wide variety of materials. Field issues of respect, reciprocity, deciding who owns the data and others are central to Ethnography (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 95)
- From the many sources collected, the ethnographer analyzes the data for a description of the culture-sharing group, themes that emerge from the group and an overall interpretation (Wolcott, 1994b). The researcher begins to compile a detailed description of the culture-sharing group, by focusing on a single event, on several activities, or on the group over a prolonged period of time.
- Forge a working set of rules or generalizations as to how the culture-sharing group works as the final product of this analysis. The final product is a holistic cultural portrait of the group that incorporates the views of the participants (emic) as well as the views of the researcher (etic). It might also advocate for the needs of the group or suggest changes in society. (Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, 96)
The ethnographic method is different from other ways of conducting social science approach due to the following reasons:
- It is field-based. It is conducted in the settings in which real people actually live, rather than in laboratories where the researcher controls the elements of the behaviors to be observed or measured.
- It is personalized. It is conducted by researchers who are in the day-to-day, face-to-face contact with the people they are studying and who are thus both participants in and observers of the lives under study.
- It is multifactorial. It is conducted through the use of two or more data collection techniques - which may be qualitative or quantitative in nature - in order to get a conclusion.
- It requires a long-term commitment i.e. it is conducted by a researcher who intends to interact with people they are studying for an extended period of time. The exact time frame can vary from several weeks to a year or more.
- It is inductive. It is conducted in such a way to use an accumulation of descriptive detail to build toward general patterns or explanatory theories rather than structured to test hypotheses derived from existing theories or models.
- It is dialogic. It is conducted by a researcher whose interpretations and findings may be expounded on by the study's participants while conclusions are still in the process of formulation.
- It is holistic. It is conducted so as to yield the fullest possible portrait of the group under study.
- It can also be used in other methodological frameworks, for instance, an action research program of study where one of the goals is to change and improve the situation.
Data collection methods
According to the leading social scientist, John Brewer, data collection methods are meant to capture the "social meanings and ordinary activities" of people (informants) in "naturally occurring settings" that are commonly referred to as "the field." The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher imposes a minimal amount of personal bias in the data. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys.
Interviews are often taped and later transcribed, allowing the interview to proceed unimpaired of note-taking, but with all information available later for full analysis. Secondary research and document analysis are also used to provide insight into the research topic. In the past, kinship charts were commonly used to "discover logical patterns and social structure in non-Western societies". In the 21st century, anthropology focuses more on the study of people in urban settings and the use of kinship charts is seldom employed.
In order to make the data collection and interpretation transparent, researchers creating ethnographies often attempt to be "reflexive". Reflexivity refers to the researcher's aim "to explore the ways in which [the] researcher's involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research". Despite these attempts of reflexivity, no researcher can be totally unbiased. This factor has provided a basis to criticize ethnography.
Traditionally, the ethnographer focuses attention on a community, selecting knowledgeable informants who know the activities of the community well. These informants are typically asked to identify other informants who represent the community, often using snowball or chain sampling. This process is often effective in revealing common cultural denominators connected to the topic being studied. Ethnography relies greatly on up-close, personal experience. Participation, rather than just observation, is one of the keys to this process. Ethnography is very useful in social research.
Ybema et al. (2010) examine the ontological and epistemological presuppositions underlying ethnography. Ethnographic research can range from a realist perspective, in which behavior is observed, to a constructivist perspective where understanding is socially constructed by the researcher and subjects. Research can range from an objectivist account of fixed, observable behaviors to an interpretive narrative describing "the interplay of individual agency and social structure." Critical theory researchers address "issues of power within the researcher-researched relationships and the links between knowledge and power."
Another form of data collection is that of the "image." The image is the projection that an individual puts on an object or abstract idea. An image can be contained within the physical world through a particular individual's perspective, primarily based on that individual's past experiences. One example of an image is how an individual views a novel after completing it. The physical entity that is the novel contains a specific image in the perspective of the interpreting individual and can only be expressed by the individual in the terms of "I can tell you what an image is by telling you what it feels like." The idea of an image relies on the imagination and has been seen to be utilized by children in a very spontaneous and natural manner. Effectively, the idea of the image is a primary tool for ethnographers to collect data. The image presents the perspective, experiences, and influences of an individual as a single entity and in consequence, the individual will always contain this image in the group under study.
Differences across disciplines
The ethnographic method is used across a range of different disciplines, primarily by anthropologists but also occasionally by sociologists. Cultural studies, Occupational Therapy, (European) ethnology, sociology, economics, social work, education, design, psychology, computer science, human factors and ergonomics, ethnomusicology, folkloristics, religious studies, geography, history, linguistics, communication studies, performance studies, advertising, accounting research, nursing, urban planning, usability, political science, social movement, and criminology are other fields which have made use of ethnography.
Cultural anthropology and social anthropology were developed around ethnographic research and their canonical texts, which are mostly ethnographies: e.g. Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) by Bronisław Malinowski, Ethnologische Excursion in Johore (1875) by Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) by Margaret Mead, The Nuer (1940) by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Naven (1936, 1958) by Gregory Bateson, or "The Lele of the Kasai" (1963) by Mary Douglas. Cultural and social anthropologists today place a high value on doing ethnographic research. The typical ethnography is a document written about a particular people, almost always based at least in part on emic views of where the culture begins and ends. Using language or community boundaries to bound the ethnography is common. Ethnographies are also sometimes called "case studies." Ethnographers study and interpret culture, its universalities, and its variations through the ethnographic study based on fieldwork. An ethnography is a specific kind of written observational science which provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life. Neophyte Ethnographers are strongly encouraged to develop extensive familiarity with their subject prior to entering the field; otherwise, they may find themselves in difficult situations.
Ethnographers are participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought. Classic examples are Carol B. Stack's All Our Kin, Jean Briggs' Never in Anger, Richard Lee's Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, Victor Turner's Forest of Symbols, David Maybry-Lewis' Akew-Shavante Society, E.E. Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer, and Claude Lévi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques. Iterations of ethnographic representations in the classic, modernist camp include Joseph W. Bastien's "Drum and Stethoscope" (1992), Bartholomew Dean's recent (2009) contribution, Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia.
A typical ethnography attempts to be holistic and typically follows an outline to include a brief history of the culture in question, an analysis of the physical geography or terrain inhabited by the people under study, including climate, and often including what biological anthropologists call habitat. Folk notions of botany and zoology are presented as ethnobotany and ethnozoology alongside references from the formal sciences. Material culture, technology, and means of subsistence are usually treated next, as they are typically bound up in physical geography and include descriptions of infrastructure. Kinship and social structure (including age grading, peer groups, gender, voluntary associations, clans, moieties, and so forth, if they exist) are typically included. Languages spoken, dialects, and the history of language change are another group of standard topics. Practices of child rearing, acculturation, and emic views on personality and values usually follow after sections on social structure. Rites, rituals, and other evidence of religion have long been an interest and are sometimes central to ethnographies, especially when conducted in public where visiting anthropologists can see them.
As ethnography developed, anthropologists grew more interested in less tangible aspects of culture, such as values, worldview and what Clifford Geertz termed the "ethos" of the culture. In his fieldwork, Geertz used elements of a phenomenological approach, tracing not just the doings of people, but the cultural elements themselves. For example, if within a group of people, winking was a communicative gesture, he sought to first determine what kinds of things a wink might mean (it might mean several things). Then, he sought to determine in what contexts winks were used, and whether, as one moved about a region, winks remained meaningful in the same way. In this way, cultural boundaries of communication could be explored, as opposed to using linguistic boundaries or notions about the residence. Geertz, while still following something of a traditional ethnographic outline, moved outside that outline to talk about "webs" instead of "outlines" of culture.
Within cultural anthropology, there are several subgenres of ethnography. Beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing "bio-confessional" ethnographies that intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research. Famous examples include Tristes Tropiques (1955) by Lévi-Strauss, The High Valley by Kenneth Read, and The Savage and the Innocent by David Maybury-Lewis, as well as the mildly fictionalized Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen (Laura Bohannan).
Later "reflexive" ethnographies refined the technique to translate cultural differences by representing their effects on the ethnographer. Famous examples include Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow, The Headman and I by Jean-Paul Dumont, and Tuhami by Vincent Crapanzano. In the 1980s, the rhetoric of ethnography was subjected to intense scrutiny within the discipline, under the general influence of literary theory and post-colonial/post-structuralist thought. "Experimental" ethnographies that reveal the ferment of the discipline include Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man by Michael Taussig, Debating Muslims by Michael F. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, A Space on the Side of the Road by Kathleen Stewart, and Advocacy after Bhopal by Kim Fortun.
This critical turn in sociocultural anthropology during the mid-1980s can be traced to the influence of the now classic (and often contested) text, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, (1986) edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. Writing Culture helped bring changes to both anthropology and ethnography often described in terms of being 'postmodern,' 'reflexive,' 'literary,' 'deconstructive,' or 'poststructural' in nature, in that the text helped to highlight the various epistemic and political predicaments that many practitioners saw as plaguing ethnographic representations and practices.
Where Geertz's and Turner's interpretive anthropology recognized subjects as creative actors who constructed their sociocultural worlds out of symbols, postmodernists attempted to draw attention to the privileged status of the ethnographers themselves. That is, the ethnographer cannot escape the personal viewpoint in creating an ethnographic account, thus making any claims of objective neutrality highly problematic, if not altogether impossible. In regards to this last point, Writing Culture became a focal point for looking at how ethnographers could describe different cultures and societies without denying the subjectivity of those individuals and groups being studied while simultaneously doing so without laying claim to absolute knowledge and objective authority. Along with the development of experimental forms such as 'dialogic anthropology,' 'narrative ethnography,' and 'literary ethnography', Writing Culture helped to encourage the development of 'collaborative ethnography.' This exploration of the relationship between writer, audience, and subject has become a central tenet of contemporary anthropological and ethnographic practice. In certain instances, active collaboration between the researcher(s) and subject(s) has helped blend the practice of collaboration in ethnographic fieldwork with the process of creating the ethnographic product resulting from the research.
Sociology is another field which prominently features ethnographies. Urban sociology, Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University), and the Chicago School, in particular, are associated with ethnographic research, with some well-known early examples being The Philadelphia Negro (1899) by W. E. B. Du Bois, Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr.. Major influences on this development were anthropologist Lloyd Warner, on the Chicago sociology faculty, and to Robert Park's experience as a journalist. Symbolic interactionism developed from the same tradition and yielded such sociological ethnographies as Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine, which documents the early history of fantasy role-playing games. Other important ethnographies in sociology include Pierre Bourdieu's work in Algeria and France.
Jaber F. Gubrium's series of organizational ethnographies focused on the everyday practices of illness, care, and recovery are notable. They include Living and Dying at Murray Manor, which describes the social worlds of a nursing home; Describing Care: Image and Practice in Rehabilitation, which documents the social organization of patient subjectivity in a physical rehabilitation hospital; Caretakers: Treating Emotionally Disturbed Children, which features the social construction of behavioral disorders in children; and Oldtimers and Alzheimer's: The Descriptive Organization of Senility, which describes how the Alzheimer's disease movement constructed a new subjectivity of senile dementia and how that is organized in a geriatric hospital. Another approach to ethnography in sociology comes in the form of institutional ethnography, developed by Dorothy E. Smith for studying the social relations which structure people's everyday lives.
Other notable ethnographies include Paul Willis's Learning to Labour, on working class youth; the work of Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Loïc Wacquant on black America, and Lai Olurode's Glimpses of Madrasa From Africa. But even though many sub-fields and theoretical perspectives within sociology use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, ethnographic research methods began to be widely used by communication scholars. As the purpose of ethnography is to describe and interpret the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs, and language of a culture-sharing group, Harris, (1968), also Agar (1980) note that ethnography is both a process and an outcome of the research. Studies such as Gerry Philipsen's analysis of cultural communication strategies in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Speaking 'Like a Man' in Teamsterville, paved the way for the expansion of ethnographic research in the study of communication.
Scholars of communication studies use ethnographic research methods to analyze communicative behaviors and phenomena. This is often characterized in the writing as attempts to understand taken-for-granted routines by which working definitions are socially produced. Ethnography as a method is a storied, careful, and systematic examination of the reality-generating mechanisms of everyday life (Coulon, 1995). Ethnographic work in communication studies seeks to explain "how" ordinary methods/practices/performances construct the ordinary actions used by ordinary people in the accomplishments of their identities. This often gives the perception of trying to answer the "why" and "how come" questions of human communication. Often this type of research results in a case study or field study such as an analysis of speech patterns at a protest rally, or the way firemen communicate during "down time" at a fire station. Like anthropology scholars, communication scholars often immerse themselves, and participate in and/or directly observe the particular social group being studied.
The American anthropologist George Spindler was a pioneer in applying the ethnographic methodology to the classroom.
Anthropologists such as Daniel Miller and Mary Douglas have used ethnographic data to answer academic questions about consumers and consumption. In this sense, Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson describe design ethnography as being "a way of understanding the particulars of daily life in such a way as to increase the success probability of a new product or service or, more appropriately, to reduce the probability of failure specifically due to a lack of understanding of the basic behaviors and frameworks of consumers." Sociologist Sam Ladner argues in her book, that understanding consumers and their desires requires a shift in "standpoint," one that only ethnography provides. The results are products and services that respond to consumers' unmet needs.
Businesses, too, have found ethnographers helpful for understanding how people use products and services. Companies make increasing use of ethnographic methods to understand consumers and consumption, or for new product development (such as video ethnography). The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference is evidence of this. Ethnographers' systematic and holistic approach to real-life experience is valued by product developers, who use the method to understand unstated desires or cultural practices that surround products. Where focus groups fail to inform marketers about what people really do, ethnography links what people say to what they do—avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying only on self-reported, focus-group data. Modern developments in computing power and AI have enabled higher efficiencies in ethnographic data collection via multimedia and computational analysis using machine learning.
The ethnographic methodology is not usually evaluated in terms of philosophical standpoint (such as positivism and emotionalism). Ethnographic studies need to be evaluated in some manner. No consensus has been developed on evaluation standards, but Richardson (2000, p. 254) provides five criteria that ethnographers might find helpful. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein's (1997) monograph, The New Language of Qualitative Method, discusses forms of ethnography in terms of their "methods talk."
Advantages and challenges
Ethnography, which is a method dedicated entirely to field work, is aimed at gaining a deeper insight of a certain people's knowledge and social culture.
Ethnography's advantages are:
- It can open up certain experiences during group research that other research methods fail to cover.
- Notions that are taken for granted can be highlighted and confronted.
- It can tap into intuitive and deep human understanding of and interpretations of (by the ethnographer) the accounts of informants (those who are being studied), which goes far beyond what quantitative research can do in terms of extracting meanings.
- Ethnography allows people outside of a culture (whether of a primitive tribe or of a corporation's employees) to learn about its members' practices, motives, understandings, and values.
However, there are certain challenges or limitations for the ethnographic method:
- Deep expertise is required: Ethnographers must accumulate knowledge about the methods and domains of interest, which can take considerable training and time.
- Sensitivity: The ethnographer is an outsider and must exercise discretion and caution to avoid offending, alienating or harming those being observed.
- Access: Negotiating access to field sites and participants can be time-consuming and difficult. Secretive or guarded organizations may require different approaches in order for researchers to succeed.
- Duration and cost: Research can involve prolonged time in the field, particularly because building trust with participants is usually necessary for obtaining rich data.
- Bias: Ethnographers bring their own experience to bear in pursuing questions to ask and reviewing data, which can lead to biases in directions of inquiry and analysis.
- Descriptive approach: Ethnography relies heavily on storytelling and the presentation of critical incidents, which is inevitably selective and viewed as a weakness by those used to the scientific approaches of hypothesis testing, quantification and replication.
Among the dangers of ethnography are that it can become indistinguishable from a kind of embedded journalism or blog with academic jargon giving it the veneer of academic legitimacy but without actually meeting the classic requirements for ethnography. A series of tests can be applied to determine whether work is actually ethnography or academic journalism depending on the focus of the study (an "ethnos"), the scientific hypotheses and questions, whether there is model building, whether there are cross-cultural comparisons, and the purpose, uses and forms of the work.
Gary Alan Fine argues that the nature of ethnographic inquiry demands that researchers deviate from formal and idealistic rules or ethics that have come to be widely accepted in qualitative and quantitative approaches in research. Many of these ethical assumptions are rooted in positivist and post-positivist epistemologies that have adapted over time but are apparent and must be accounted for in all research paradigms. These ethical dilemmas are evident throughout the entire process of conducting ethnographies, including the design, implementation, and reporting of an ethnographic study. Essentially, Fine maintains that researchers are typically not as ethical as they claim or assume to be — and that "each job includes ways of doing things that would be inappropriate for others to know".
Fine is not necessarily casting blame at ethnographic researchers but tries to show that researchers often make idealized ethical claims and standards which in are inherently based on partial truths and self-deceptions. Fine also acknowledges that many of these partial truths and self-deceptions are unavoidable. He maintains that "illusions" are essential to maintain an occupational reputation and avoid potentially more caustic consequences. He claims, "Ethnographers cannot help but lie, but in lying, we reveal truths that escape those who are not so bold". Based on these assertions, Fine establishes three conceptual clusters in which ethnographic ethical dilemmas can be situated: "Classic Virtues", "Technical Skills", and "Ethnographic Self".
While there is no international standard on Ethnographic Ethics, many western anthropologists look to the American Anthropological Association for guidance when conducting ethnographic work. In 2009 the Association adopted a code of ethics, stating: Anthropologists have "moral obligations as members of other groups, such as the family, religion, and community, as well as the profession". The code of ethics notes that anthropologists are part of a wider scholarly and political network, as well as human and natural environment, which needs to be reported on respectfully. The code of ethics recognizes that sometimes very close and personal relationship can sometimes develop from doing ethnographic work. The Association acknowledges that the code is limited in scope; ethnographic work can sometimes be multidisciplinary, and anthropologists need to be familiar with ethics and perspectives of other disciplines as well. The eight-page code of ethics outlines ethical considerations for those conducting Research, Teaching, Application and Dissemination of Results, which are briefly outlined below.
- "Conducting Research" - When conducting research Anthropologists need to be aware of the potential impacts of the research on the people and animals they study. If the seeking of new knowledge will negatively impact the people and animals they will be studying they may not undertake the study according to the code of ethics.
- "Teaching" - When teaching the discipline of anthropology, instructors are required to inform students of the ethical dilemmas of conducting ethnographies and field work.
- "Application" - When conducting an ethnography, Anthropologists must be "open with funders, colleagues, persons studied or providing information, and relevant parties affected by the work about the purpose(s), potential impacts, and source(s) of support for the work."
- "Dissemination of Results" - When disseminating results of an ethnography, "[a]nthropologists have an ethical obligation to consider the potential impact of both their research and the communication or dissemination of the results of their research on all directly or indirectly involved." Research results of ethnographies should not be withheld from participants in the research if that research is being observed by other people.
- "The kindly ethnographer" – Most ethnographers present themselves as being more sympathetic than they are, which aids in the research process, but is also deceptive. The identity that we present to subjects is different from who we are in other circumstances.
- "The friendly ethnographer" – Ethnographers operate under the assumption that they should not dislike anyone. When ethnographers find they intensely dislike individuals encountered in the research, they may crop them out of the findings.
- "The honest ethnographer" – If research participants know the research goals, their responses will likely be skewed. Therefore, ethnographers often conceal what they know in order to increase the likelihood of acceptance by participants.
- "The Precise Ethnographer" – Ethnographers often create the illusion that field notes are data and reflect what "really" happened. They engage in the opposite of plagiarism, giving undeserved credit through loose interpretations and paraphrasing. Researchers take near-fictions and turn them into claims of fact. The closest ethnographers can ever really get to reality is an approximate truth.
- "The Observant Ethnographer" – Readers of ethnography are often led to assume the report of a scene is complete – that little of importance was missed. In reality, an ethnographer will always miss some aspect because of lacking omniscience. Everything is open to multiple interpretations and misunderstandings. As ethnographers' skills in observation and collection of data vary by individual, what is depicted in ethnography can never be the whole picture.
- "The Unobtrusive Ethnographer" – As a "participant" in the scene, the researcher will always have an effect on the communication that occurs within the research site. The degree to which one is an "active member" affects the extent to which sympathetic understanding is possible.
The following are commonly misconceived conceptions of ethnographers:
- "The Candid Ethnographer" – Where the researcher personally situates within the ethnography is ethically problematic. There is an illusion that everything reported was observed by the researcher.
- "The Chaste Ethnographer" – When ethnographers participate within the field, they invariably develop relationships with research subjects/participants. These relationships are sometimes not accounted for within the reporting of the ethnography, although they may influence the research findings.
- "The Fair Ethnographer" – Fine claims that objectivity is an illusion and that everything in ethnography is known from a perspective. Therefore, it is unethical for a researcher to report fairness in findings.
- "The Literary Ethnographer" – Representation is a balancing act of determining what to "show" through poetic/prosaic language and style, versus what to "tell" via straightforward, 'factual' reporting. The individual skills of an ethnographer influence what appears to be the value of the research.
According to Norman K. Denzin, ethnographers should consider the following eight principles when observing, recording, and sampling data:
- Manuel Ancízar Basterra (1812-1882)
- Franz Boas (1858–1942)
- Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)
- Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck (c. 1618 – 1655)
- Mary Douglas (1921–2007)
- Raymond Firth (1901–2002)
- Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002)
- Diamond Jenness (1886-1969)
- Mary Kingsley (1862–1900)
- Carobeth Laird (1895-1983)
- Ruth Landes (1908-1991)
- Edmund Leach (1910-1989)
- José Leite de Vasconcelos (1858-1941)
- Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)
- Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942)
- David Maybury-Lewis (1929-2007)
- Margaret Mead (1901–1978)
- Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888)
- Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705-1783)
- Nikolai Nadezhdin (1804-1856)
- Lubor Niederle (1865-1944)
- Dositej Obradović (1739-1811)
- Alexey Okladnikov (1908-1981)
- Sergey Oldenburg (1863-1934)
- Edward Sapir (1884–1939)
- August Ludwig von Schlözer (1735-1809)
- James Spradley (1933-1982)
- Jean Briggs (1929-2016)
- Cora Du Bois (1903-1991)
- Lila Abu-Lughod
- Elijah Anderson (born 1943)
- Ruth Behar
- Zuzana Beňušková (born 1960)
- Zalpa Bersanova
- Napoleon Chagnon (born 1938)
- Veena Das (born 1945)
- Kristen R. Ghodsee (born 1970)
- Alice Goffman (born 1982)
- Jaber F. Gubrium
- Katrina Karkazis
- Richard Price (born 1941)
- Marilyn Strathern (born 1941)
- Barrie Thorne
- Sudhir Venkatesh
- Susan Visvanathan
- Paul Willis