As I’m sure many researchers have experienced, there is an obsession with defining research samples in exact, often painfully rigid ways. We slice, dice and cram people into individual categories and then find ourselves baffled when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. But people don’t act as individuals. Or more precisely, people don’t act, think, or do much of anything else without it being wrapped in the social and cultural models that define their worldview. We are social creatures and act within a system of meaning that is shared and reconstructed through interaction with others. Rather than examining the system, many researchers look at elements. They rely on data that fit their needs (please the boss, make a product look more successful, etc.) rather than looking at the connections, which is where real opportunities lie. While ethnography doesn’t solve every problem, it does put human meaning and interaction into perspective, something traditional methods can’t do.
The key point in ethnography is that the unit of analysis is not the individual, but the culture in which people operate. As such, it is intrinsic to understanding ethnography’s value to comprehend that the study of a culture involves exploring two levels of consciousness and meaning: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit culture is what we see and hear people articulate: social mores, tool, basic interactions, etc. It is that level of shared knowledge people can typically communicate easily, or those aspects of material culture that are readily identifiable. Implicit culture is comprised of those things, which are simply “known” and usually either unspoken or difficult to articulate. It is that space where culture is not just trappings and customs, but rather meanings, symbols, and practices. The implicit side of culture is the domain of meanings takes shape, and it is here where the ethnographic understanding finds its true value.