Ethnography is a research method that involves embedding yourself in the environment of a group or community and recording what you observe. It often involves the researcher living in the community being studied. This leads to a much richer understanding of the people being examined than doing quantitative research.
The thing I love about ethnography is that it paints a thorough picture of people’s lives. It is, in its own way, the most raw, honest, and detailed form of academic research.
In my previous blog posts, I have discussed my admiration for thick description as a way to pierce beyond stereotypes and view the world through the lens of our subjects.
And there’s no doubt that ethnographic research has helped us learn so much more about how people navigate their cultural circumstances.
Below are some examples of ethnography – both abstract (with the hope that it helps students think about some ways they can do ethnography) and real-life (with the hope that you will read some inspiring ethnographic studies).
To start, here are some ways you could potentially do ethnography:
- Ethnography of Indigenous People: There are many examples of ethnographic studies that look at indigenous cultures and how they’re similar or different to Western culture. Beware of the trap of colonialism during this work.
- Mundane Ethnography: Remember, ethnography doesn’t have to happen in a far off land. You can do autoethnography, or a study of somewhere very banal, like your workplace or home.
- Educational Ethnography: There is a rich history of teachers and researchers using ethnographic methods in classrooms to explore how learning happens.
- Ethnography in a Shop: Be the ethnographer within a supermarket by interacting with the people there on a daily basis (maybe as the cashier) and observe how people interact and collide within the space.
- Working-Class and Immigrant Ethnography: Many sociologists use ethnographic methods to take an inside look at how people on the margins of society grapple with global concepts like capitalism, globalization, and race.
- Digital Ethnography: Since the rise of the internet, there have been many researchers interested in the digital lives of people. Some of my favorite studies have revealed how we create our identities online.
My Favorite Ethnographic Research Books
1. Learning to Labour
Author: Paul Willis
One of my favorite ethnographic works, Learning to Labour follows working-class ‘lads’ in the British Midlands as they participate in counter-cultural and ‘anti-social’ behaviors.
The most fascinating aspect of this book is the rich elucidation of how these working-class boys reject narratives of upward mobility and revel in rejecting mental work at school. But at the same time, they create their own value hierarchies.
In fact, the boys don’t even leave school when they are legally allowed, despite giving a veneer of being anti-school. Instead, they remain there, because there is their own social and even educational value they can get out of it. They prize the manual labor they do in class and, after leaving school, continue to prize physical labor in the workplace while deriding and dismissing mental labor.
2. Being Maori in the City
Author: Natacha Gagné
When indigenous people live in urban environments, their authenticity as indigenous peoples is often brought into question.
Thus, Gagné’s examination of Maori identity in Auckland presents a valuable insight into how people continue to live out their indigenous identities in a changing, urbanized, and colonized landscape.
Gagné spent two years living with Maori people in Auckland and highlights in the book how their identity continues to be central to how they interact both with one another and with broader society.
3. Ethnography of a Neoliberal School
Author: Garth Stahl
While a wide range of academic research has looked at how neoliberalism can affect education, an ethnographic approach allows Stahl to demonstrate how it turns up as lived experience.
Neoliberalism is an approach to governance that focuses on the corporatization of society. In education, this means that schools should be run like companies.
There is no better example, of course, than charter schools.
In my favorite chapter, Stahl demonstrates within one anonymized charter school how teachers are increasingly subjected to performance quotas, KPIs, and governance that narrow down the purpose of education and give them very little freedom to exercise their expertise and provide individualized support to their students.
4. Coming of Age in Samoa
Author: Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking ethnography, Coming of Age in Samoa, had implications for two important reasons:
- It highlighted the importance of feminist perspectives in ethnographic research.
- It challenged a universalizing stage-based conceptualization of human development.
Mead’s work was conducted at a time when the Western world was in a moral panic about adolescents’ stress and emotional behaviors. The prevailing idea – promoted mainly by male psychologists – was that most of those behaviors were a natural part of the developmental cycle.
Mead, however, saw that female Samoan adolescents had much different experiences of adolescence and would not have fitted into the western mold of how a female adolescent would behave or be treated.
The Samoan society’s liberal ideas around intimacy and the lower levels of academic stress placed on the girls meant they lived very different realities with far less stress and social pressure than their Western counterparts.
5. Ghetto at the Center of the World
Author: Gordon Mathews
Mathews’s Ghetto at the Center of the World explores a multiethnic high-density housing complex in Hong Kong.
While seen by many locals as a ghetto (despite its relative safety!), Mathews shows how the motley group of residents, migrants, and tourists in the building live rich lives at what appears to be ground zero of globalization.
For the people in the building, globalization has offered opportunities but hasn’t solved all their problems. Each person that Mathews follows has their own story of how they navigate a globalized world while maintaining hope for a better future.
Additional Influential Ethnographic Studies
- Argonauts of the Western Pacific – This study was notable because it presented a turn toward participant observation in ethnography rather than attempts at fly-on-the-wall objectivity.
- The Remembered Village – A study of caste systems in India, this study is most notable for its methodological influence. Srinivas, the author, lost his field notes, but he continued on with presenting his findings, causing widespread controversy about its methodological merits.
- Space and Society in Central Brazil – This study explores the experiences of the Panará indigenous people of Brazil as they attempt to secure protected space from the colonialization occurring around them. It’s notable for its insights into how the Panará people organize themselves both culturally and spatially.
- White Bound – This book follows two groups, a white anti-racist group and a white nationalist group, and explores how each deals with whiteness. While the groups have fundamentally different goals, even the anti-racist group continue to contribute to white privilege.
- City, Street and Citizen – Suzanne Hall’s study of the mundane city street explores how multiethnicity is played out in globalized cities. It is a fascinating look at how lives take place within shared spaces where social contact occurs.
Ethnography is, in my humble (and of course subjective) opinion, the most exciting form of primary research you can do. It can challenge assumptions, unpick social norms, and make us all more empathetic people.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.