Ethnography

to better understand behaviors and norms within a system

WHAT IS ETHNOGRAPHY?

Ethnography means ‘writing about people,’ and is the primary tool for data collection and analysis among anthropologists, sociologists, and increasingly historians, and political scientists.

  • Cultural Immersion: First developed and defined methodologically in the early 20th century by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1922), the primary approach used by ethnographers is cultural immersion where the ethnographer lives with the community, group, or settlement under study, and participates in various aspects of the people’s daily lives.

Gaining such access usually requires significant investment in time spent with the community, and (usually) involves ethical review clearances, research permits, and numerous and repeated conversations with various members of the community. The primary outcome of these interactions is trust-building between the ethnographer and the members of the community. This enhanced access and trust enables the ethnographer to engage with the community members in informal conversations, discussions, and also participate in daily and ritualized activities processes. The trust built up between ethnographers and respondents usually results in data and observations that are closer to the people’s lived realities. In this regard, ethnographic approaches result in more accurate and precise descriptions and explanations of complex social and cultural processes than questionnaire-based surveys or formal and structured one-time interviews conducted by hired enumerators.

  • Smaller Sample Size: Due to the intense effort and time commitment required to build trust and gain access, ethnographic data collection and related analysis is usually based on a fewer number of respondents than survey-based research. The smaller sample size also suggests that ethnographic data is not easily conducive to quantitative or statistical analysis. Furthermore, the strength of ethnographic research is based on trust between respondent and ethnographer, and networks of trust between ethnographer and the community, and not usually based on random sampling. Hence, despite its greater accuracy and precision, ethnographic data collection and analysis is not easily scalable, generalizable, or transferable.

Recent efforts however have resulted in a variety of methods to move beyond subjective interpretation towards more quantitative analysis. These include Domain Analysis, Consensus Analysis, Decision Modeling, Social Network Analysis, and Causal Loop Programming, etc. (Bernard 2012; Bernard et al. 2016). These techniques have enabled ethnographers to a) generate generalizable and verifiable analysis that could be applied in regional and global contexts, b) partner with other social scientists in multi-disciplinary collaborations for analysis of complex social, economic, and political systems, and c) bring ethnographic techniques to various disciplines across the scientific spectrum including biology-ecology, engineering, and architecture.