A set of matryoshka dolls representing an immersion into culture.
How does a particular culture and environment shape the behaviour of the people in it?

Ethnography: Immersing yourself in the culture

How do people belonging to different cultures think? How do they behave? What do they believe and what do they value?

The first qualitative research approach we’ll be looking at is known as Ethnography. Its goal is to understand how cultural forces affect people’s lives.

Ethnographers quite literally get up close and personal to immerse themselves in a particular culture. The research aspires to capture what’s said in naturally occurring conversations, to better understand how society constructs meaning and to unlock what drives human behaviour.

The Ethnographer’s goal is to explore the meanings of social processes, rituals and interactions of particular groups of people, often over a long period of time. It traditionally involved the researcher travelling to some far off land and living among an indigenous tribe. The researcher would discover how they lived and document what their culture was like.

Keep in mind, the modern concept of ‘culture’ is more complicated and Ethnography has changed to explore smaller subcultures than remote tribes. For example, an Ethnographer may explore a particular company culture, the culture of an institution (eg university or nursing home), groups (eg a sports teams), particular occupations (eg politician, economist) and groups in the community with particular characteristics (eg diabetics and refugees).

This kind of research helps us to understand the impact of cultural forces on individual and group behaviours. There have been ethnographic studies relating to Ikea shoppers and fast food workers in Harlem, so you can see this approach offers a lot of scope.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Is Ethnography the same as Fieldwork?

You may sometimes hear Ethnography being referred to as ‘fieldwork’. This is because the focus of this approach is the researcher entering the ‘field’ of the setting to be researched, to explore ‘what is going on?’ in the environment.

Ethnography investigates the nature of a particular social phenomenon rather than setting out to test a theory. It usually involves a small number of cases, sometimes even just one case, in detail. Data is collected through visual observation and interviews. Field notes are recorded and diaries are kept. Sometimes observations are captured in written form, by video or a combination of both. If you undertake Ethnographic research, keep in mind, you will bring your own personality, experience, skills, strengths and weaknesses to the field. Fieldwork is a personal thing, so the data will vary according to:

  • the level of experience you bring to the field
  • your level of involvement
  • your interpersonal capabilities and emotional intelligence
  • your ability to see and visualise things that other people visiting the area of study may fail to notice.

Ethnographers need to be open to new ideas and concepts, as well as being aware of (and continuing to reflect on) their own culture, in order to absorb those ideas. The quality of results obtained from your research depends on the quality of data you gather in the field. It’s important to prepare for your research. A well-informed approach will help dissolve ignorance, which strengthens your capacity to be open minded.

Ethnographic research reveals common, taken-for-granted assumptions. If you’re interested in exploring more practical applications of Ethnography, tune in to Ellen Isaac’s TEDx Talk. This entertaining 12 minute video highlights how Ethnography can lead to innovation to solve the ‘hidden obvious’.

Your task

Who are you interested in learning more about? Identify a group or culture that fascinates you and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

For those of you who would like to take the next step, construct a research question that could guide an ethnographic study and share it with the group.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Griffith University