Ethnography Gone Bad

I wrote the other day about the misuse of the term “ethnography” and seemed to raise the ire of a few folks.  Ethnography, I was informed, is indeed the collective property of all researchers and it’s definition is subject to the chosen uses of the day.  Being the anthropologist and would be semiotician that I am, I would concur insofar as meaning changes through time, is subject to cultural interpretation, etc.  True enough.  However, I would also argue that before meaning can change, it still needs to be grounded in something.  To do otherwise is no different than me saying “Peaches are books because I said so.”  I may indeed make that definition, and on a grand cosmic scale it may be true, but if I choose to read a peach today or bite into a book when I’m hungry, I’m will to bet I will be sadly disappointed.  Thus so, it behooves us to think about what ethnography actually means and why it means it.  “Ethnography” has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project.

While an ethnographic approach to research is no longer “owned” solely by of the sociologist, cultural anthropologist or sociolinguist, it doesn’t mean we should tuck our tails between our legs and simply accept any definition put before us.  A more precise definition needs to be rooted in ethnography’s disciplinary home of anthropology. There lies it’s origin and therefore it has a place in the formation and definition, whether practiced by anthropologists or more general market researchers and product developers.  Thus, ethnography may be defined as both a qualitative research process and method (one conducts an ethnography, not a bunch of “ethnographies,” by the by) and product (the outcome of the process is an ethnography, as in a literary genre). The aim is cultural interpretation, not simply a series of anecdotes about individual behaviors. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience.  Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these details represent what Geertz called “webs of meaning.” It seeks to understand and explain the cultural constructions in which we live.

This means that ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models.  An etic perspective, by contrast, refers to a more distant, analytical orientation to experience.  Both emic and etic factor into the final product and require triangulation or data and a theoretical framework.  It also means taking into account more than interview data and considering the totality of the setting, the context and the interplay between people in the encounter. An ethnographic understanding is developed through close exploration of multiple sources of data. Using these data sources as a foundation, the ethnographer relies on a cultural frame of analysis. In other words, it means having an holistic approach to understanding how the human condition unfolds and an finds expression.

So yes, “ethnography” is, like all language, defined in the act of communication.  It will no doubt change again before all is said and done as a broader range of disciplines adopt it as another method, another writing style and another way of understanding the world. Hopefully it won’t be watered down to the point of uselessness in the meantime. It is sometimes important to take a stand on what things mean and how they come to mean them.  Not just for ourselves, but for the people who hire us.



Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Completely agree. I’d only add that “participatory observation” is the core of ethnographic practice. Without the act of participating in the context being observed, a great deal of the value of ethnographic practice is lost.

    Ethnographic practice is different from contextual inquiry. Both have strong value, both are qualitative techniques, but they are not the same.

    1. What you say would mean, for example, that a male would not be able to do an ethnography of women undergoing In Vitro Fertilization. How could they ‘participate’? Or does participating in the context mean hanging around where something is being practiced? In which case the term doesn’t mean much more than ‘observing’ and we’re back to the intitial, vexing, problem of what complex of techniques must be used in order for a study to be ‘ethnographic’..

      1. True, to a point. The issue is that the argument assumes that the individual is the only actor in the situation. Ethnography does not focus on individual actors, but rather the interactions. Participation does not necessarily mean direct experience — by that logic we could argue that we can never understand a junkie unless we indulge in heroin, or playing with toys once we pass adolescence. However, we CAN engage in the system and establish the connections between the emit and the etic. That is ethnography.

      2. Ethnography is a social process, and yes, it is observation.

        Observation is not “hanging around.” It’s contextual understanding. The ethnographer is successful when (s)he combines observation, careful probing and active participation in the context around a particular situation to gain in-depth insight around the experience.

        For your example of in-vitro fertilization, frankly, even another woman wouldn’t be able to participate in the procedure “along with” the participant. But the procedure itself is a small part of the overall experience. There’s a whole world of whys, hows, adaptations, values, consideration sets, attitudes, culture, and situational changes around the decision.

        Why did she choose this procedure? What was the story and circumstances behind it — the memorable and less memorable?
        What did having a child mean to her?
        How did she adapt to the feedback (positive and negative) in her social world?
        What was the experience of making the decision?
        What was the experience with the key stakeholders in the decision (partner, family, friends, employer, health care provider, insurer, government, etc.)?
        What were the sources of surprise or unexpected “realities” in her life? How did she cope with them?
        How did she rationalize the cost components? Is “cost” being considered purely economic and measurable, or is there a degree of cost that’s perceived beyond simple dollars and cents?

        Ethnography would be able to answer all those questions, plus more. “Hanging around” wouldn’t. A survey wouldn’t. A focus group wouldn’t.

      3. As a formal matter I agree with you completly. If you could point me to any studies or reports that meet the criteria you state- in any realm- I would be deeply appreciative.

      4. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers by Kathleen M. DeWalt and Billie R. DeWalt

        The Ethnographic Interview by James P. Spradley

        Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation by Lynne Hume and Jane Mulcock

      5. these are classic way old ‘what we shoulds’ and ‘how to’s’ but they don’t meet the criteria.

      6. publication in 2010 would hardly qualify as “classic” or “way old”. However, that’s beside the point. I think what you’re looking for is more of a philosophical nature — you might try something along the lines of Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Or a book on logic problems and/or semantic paradoxes. No doubt there are people writing about, but I’m frankly not sure who is still digging away at the “Can God make a rock so big even he can’t lift it” type of puzzle because it is rather pointless. It’s an exercise most scholars have simply outgrown.

      7. One of my favorites, though it is an article from a Chicago school sociologist I took graduate courses with, is Murray Wax’s “Tenting with Malinowski.” It is a somewhat critical, though appreciative, study of Malinowski’s diaries. For more recent views of ethnography I’d suggest Lassiter’s The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. However, the best treatment I know of recently is Sunderland and Denny’s work on Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. You will find a coherent critique of arguments trying to reduce ethnography to participant observation in their thinking. Ethnographic questions, regardless of the disciplinary focus, don’t reduce to participant observation. Of course, for a real classic one should look at Geertz.

        Wax, Murray L. (1972), “Tenting with Malinowski,” American Sociological Review. 27(1), pp. 1-13.

        Lassiter, L. . (2005), The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

        Sunderland, Patricia L., & Rita M. Denny (2007), Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, Inc.

        Geertz, C. (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

  2. All types of inquiry are defined in terms of the types of questions they ask. If you aren’t asking questions about sociocultural practices you probably aren’t doing ethnography.

    1. Agreed. I’d also point out that ethnographic questions are contextual. More akin to “what just happened” or “what do you think of what he just did,” versus “why do you buy Apple products?”

  3. What ethnographers learn, I have found, is how a story of place unfolds in the interactions between people and environment. I do work in Russian jails and what I have learned is that the ethno method is hugely burdensome , though deeply enriching. Ethnography brings worlds to life but the burden of seeing and the burden of writing can create academic vertigo because the problems of accountability and integrity often surface, dominate and overshadow the gathering of new knowledge. The the question we must always return to when doing an ethnography and being ethnographic, and I mean here too whether you are a participant observer or an observing participant (see Anderson) is: what does the ethnographer hope to find in the field?

  4. I was interested in francois’ example of males observing in vitro operations. It reminded me of Katherine Frank’s “G-Strings and Sympathy.” TI was a fairly controversial book in which an anthropology student did her doctoral thesis as a stripper. In gender studies courses this one kept coming up again and again, and I have read this book multiple times now. I have always had a problem with it because this is another example of ethnographic work that I could never do as a non-stripper-quality male. And that always stuck in my craw. Did I have a problem with it because it was controversial and suspect ethnographic work, or was I simply just jealous that I couldn’t do something like that myself?

    Recently I posted a response to an article in Cultural Anthropology, “Studying Unformed Objects.” Britt Dahlberg is great and you should check this out if you have not already and respond to it. It basically asked “How do ethnographic works take shape, and what does it look like to do ethnography” (I promise the questions are more detailed than this simplification).

    In my own work I have been really tackling the issue of empathy and the emic approach. Empathy being our ability to connect, relate to and understand other people. I believe there is an empathic context that exists in all aspects of culture, and those in the know, so to speak, are privy to its more intricate workings. Think about the way masonic or fraternal iconography and symbols have different meaning to those on the inside vs. those on the outside. then think about the ways in which something like the Confederate flag may hold different meanings, or prejudices, for different people. to understand these meaning we have to have some degree of empathy or a literal empathic connection with the culture and peoples involved in these examples.

    As a result I believe emic becomes a degree of empathy. Within your own comfort zone of culture, such as your hometown, you can delve into ethnography much quicker than you can dealing with an unknown culture. Often ethnographers must spend a few years just getting “in” with the groups before they start to understand the group.

    Back to the in vitro question/debate, yes a male could achieve an emic approach if he develops an empathic connection with the group. Perhaps a male fertilization specialist/Dr. may be the more likely candidate in a situation such as this. Just because a male cannot participate in the operation and impregnation does not mean the male cannot empathize with women doing so. Would it be the same as a female researcher, no. But would it be the same for said female ethnographer if she had never undergone in vitro fertilization herself vs. an ethnographer who had?

    I still have some issue with Katherine Frank’s work, for purely academic reasons. However, I do think she managed to cull something out of a stripper’s perspective about male audiences. She certainly had a connection with these men, and one that skirts the line between customer, friend, and spectator. No, she could never, shall we say, experience the satisfaction the men got from spectating in the same way. At the same time she introduced a perspective no male could ever achieve, and even quite a few female ethnographers. Does this make her work some how less emic? I don’t think so.

    As an interdisciplinarian who also works in rhetoric and writing I feel the woes of the overuse of the word ‘ethnography.” To sit there and here a professor refer to someone’s autobiography as an ethnography always made me cringe. It has become a buzz word in literary circles in which everything from biographies to news articles can be called ethnography simply because they report on culture in some shallow way.

    So, to put it simply, in this overly long response, ethnography begins with empathy. Beyond that you are merely reporting, rather than sharing experiences. Participant observation does not necessarily guarantee good ethnography. Ex. Renato Rosaldo (I manage to get him into every response somehow). Participation alone is nothing without understanding, which is empathy. And empathy is something that can’t seized, studied, or even really learned. It must be cultivated and experienced. Anecdotes become far more important than numbers of recurrences, frequency of symbols, etc. Understanding the “Headhunter’s Rage” required tragedy to even occur. I hope this was long enough.

    1. Oh awesome, thanks! (Oops maybe I was redundant then- somehow didn’t spot your comment.) Thank you! Good discussion!

  5. I agree that the questions we ask are really important (@ Larry Irons’ comment) as are the questions of emic/etic categories raised in the original post. I’d add that in addition to “seek[ing] to understand and explain the cultural constructions in which we live” I think anthropologists often now use ethnography to try to track how those constructions are put together in practice (or are attempted but fail to quite last).

    On both of these issues – defining questions/topics of ethnographic inquiry, and using ethnography to study emergence of new cultural formations – we recently had a brief series and discussion on the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsights webpage some might be interested in:

    This also starts to raise the question of how etic categories inform what we see as we aim to encounter emic worlds, and language used in writing up ethnography.

    Also – Another great text reflecting on ethnography, and on issues of construction and emergence of social process and systems (though focused mostly, ultimately, on meanings built through talk), is Martin Packer’s “The Science of Qualitative Research.” Excellent resource on philosophical underpinnings of these different techniques of research.

  6. You are so interesting! I don’t suppose I have read something like that before.

    So great to find someone with some original thoughts on this
    subject. Seriously.. thank you for starting this
    up. This website is something that’s needed on the
    web, someone with a little originality!

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