So What Makes Ethnography “Real”?

What does it really mean to do ethnography? Ethnography came from cultural anthropology and ethnology around the turn of 20th century. To be sure, there were people out in the world observing and talking and listening, but it would have been premature to refer to it as ethnography.  Ethnographers  spend a long time in the field–sometimes years. The idea is that you participate with the culture you are studying.  You do more than just ask questions, you set your self aside, as much as that is possible.  This isn’t to say you jettison your cultural and psychological identity (it can’t be done), but you try to understand the situation from the point of view of the people being “studied” and then make sense of the systems that emerge.  Ethnographers talk about becoming a “participant observer.”  We aren’t in lab coats watching people in sterile settings.  We aren’t simply sitting on the sofa for an hour or two asking polite questions. That’s actually the opposite of ethnography.

From this, we have to understand the perspective of the culture and then communicate that to others who weren’t there. We translate and we interpret. We make other cultures visible.

But how far do you have to go to say you’re doing ethnography? How “other” do the other people you’re looking at have to be? Ethnography is a lot of things: a method, a process, a discipline, a genre of writing.  It’s hard to define. Even ethnographers argue amongst themselves as to how far you have to go to be doing ethnography.  Some things to think about as we enter the field, regardless of what we call it.

 

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