Top 101 Ethnographic Research Topics

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What is ethnography?

Ethnography is qualitative scientific research on people’s culture, beliefs, customs, and differences. The word ethnography also implies the reports that an ethnographer produces after research.

The subject is flexible as you understand society’s social challenges and conventions in focus.

Importance of Ethnography

Ethnographic research involves anthropologists living in a particular society to learn and understand their way of living for a while. However, the subject is vital in other social science fields, not only anthropology. For example, ethnographic research is applicable in:

  • Gang investigation
  • Studies on sports fans
  • Understanding how call centres work
  • Probing police officers

Ethnography has immense career possibilities. Ethnographers get employment in:

  • Anthropological organizations
  • Archeological organizations
  • NGOs specializing in social-cultural aspects

What are the advantages of ethnographic research?

Ethnography gives a researcher first-hand information of cultures and practices of communities. The ethnographic approach gives researchers first-hand interaction with people within a particular setting.

By becoming an ethnographer, you access more authentic information that you cannot easily find when asking or reading.

Further, the subject is flexible and open to other research methods. In this case, when doing ethnography research, ethnographers do not aim to verify theories and hypotheses. Instead, they are open to gathering narratives to explain a specific culture and other aspects of a community.

Why should you use ethnography in your research?

Students who want to use ethnographic research for thesis or dissertation writing should consider using the right approach. Below is a highlight of the questions that you need to ask yourself before starting your research:

  • Can you collect the information using another method? (e.g., interviews or surveys?
  • Is the community in focus easily accessible?
  • What methods will you use to conduct the research?
  • Can any ethical issues arise during the research?

When you choose to do ethnographic research in person, we recommend finding a group that you can easily access to complete in a short timeframe.

Qualities of an excellent ethnographic research topic

To create an excellent ethnographic research topic, you should formulate a question that you are curious about and have a passion for learning. We recommend that your research idea should be:

Clear: The ethnographic research topic should be clear to understand. A precise research topic makes it easy for your audience to understand your ideas.

Concise: The research topic should be direct to the point. For this reason, you should express your topic in the fewest understandable words possible.

Complex: As much as we recommend a presice research topic, it should not be answerable by yes or no. Your research topic should require analysis and synthesis.

Arguable : Your research topic should be not only factual but also debatable. Your research should also use examples to back up your points.

Focused : Your research topic should be narrow enough to answer it concisely and thoroughly.

Top 100 ethnography research topics

The number of research topics for ethnography is unlimited. However, it would be best to consider your research’s relevance, accuracy, and audience. For this case, we have selected the best ethnographic topics for you. We hope you find a suitable one.

  • Access how the culture of Native Americans have changed over time
  • An ethnographic study of military families
  • Can racism impact scientific decision-making?
  • Comparison of the behavior of kids in school and at home
  • Discuss the links between drug trafficking and violence in an area of your choice
  • Gender and socialization in Muslim communities
  • Homelessness is a global catastrophe
  • How is child protection offered in an area of your choice?
  • How to improve services for homeless pet owners
  • How to punish brutal police officers
  • How vulnerable are homeless women? Are they as vulnerable as homeless men?
  • Impacts of foreign languages on culture
  • Is homelessness a problem in your home area? (or an area of your choice)
  • Police brutality to minority communities
  • Racial discrimination in public universities
  • The concept of adulthood in the European setting
  • What are the effects of skilled migration from third-world countries?
  • What are the habits of rich people in a city of your choice?
  • What are the impacts of COVID-19 on socially excluded people?
  • What are the interventions that could help solve homelessness
  • What causes rural-urban migration?
  • What is seasonal migration?
  • What is the best policy analysis used by ethnographers?
  •  What is the cause of hospital vandalism?
  • What problems do police officers face?

Easy Ethnographic Research Topics

Do you want some easy ethnography questions? Check out the list below and tell us what you think:

  • An ethnographic study of Asian diets
  • Causes of seasonal migrations
  • Discrimination against the LGBTQ community
  • Discuss how minority groups are treated  in prison
  • Domestic violence against men
  • Effects of COVID-19
  • How are languages affected by code-switching?
  • How are refugees used to legitimize territorial claims?
  • How does domestic violence affect women?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected gender-based violence victims?
  • How to make ethnographic research innovative
  • Mental health in conflict areas
  • Mental health issues among the elderly
  • Methods to eliminate homelessness
  • Methods used to access the quality of life
  • Narrative analysis with ethnography
  • Prevention of gender-based violence
  • Relationship between structural discrimination and moral status
  • Social stigma amongst infertile couples
  • Stigma towards COVID-19 victims
  • The conflict between prisoners and prison staff
  • The role of self-deception in racism
  • What are the challenges of taking care of people with disabilities?
  • What drives people from third-world regions to travel to first-world countries?
  • What is the extent of drug trafficking in South America?

Interesting Ethnographic Research topics

Are you looking for interesting ethnographic research topics? Worry no more. We have got you covered.

  • Describe the cultural clashes between natives and colonizers
  • Do mixed origin people have a culture
  • Economic generating activities of street families
  • Effects of unemployment
  • Ethical theories concerning gay marriage
  • History of feminism
  • How are the youth affected by poverty in Canada
  • How do celebrities influence the culture of their fans?
  • How do drugs affect culture?
  • How do illicit economies affect development?
  • How do native communities perceive modern fashion?
  • How does culture influence the economy
  • How does foreign religion influence native culture?
  • How essential is it to preserve cultural diversity?
  •  Impact of education on the poverty rate
  • Is feminism relevant?
  • Is homelessness a crisis vs. homelessness as an institution
  • Issues facing bisexuals in society
  • Policies essential in the management of poverty in contemporary social market economies
  • Poverty eradication
  • Strategies to minimize unemployment among youth in Africa
  • Transgender discrimination in the USA
  • What are the similarities and differences between African and American feminism?
  • What defines culture?
  • What factors contribute to joining cults?
  • What factors contribute to leaving cults?

Additional Expert Ethnography Research Topics Suggestions

Ethnography has no limit. Some best suggestions are listed below:

  • Coexistence between natives and refugees
  • Coexistence of religion and politics
  • Compare IQ difference between people living in rural and urban areas
  • Compare the perception of children from wealthy and low-income families
  • Describe the demographic characteristics of the Native communities of Hawaii
  • Difference between American and Norwegian prison system
  • Differences in diets in the Asian community
  • Discuss the perception Japanese perception of pain
  • Gender roles in African communities
  • Gender roles in European communities
  • Global mental health in a low-income society
  • How can developing countries reach their full potential?
  • How communities coexist with terrorism
  • How do lifestyles encourage migration?
  • How does authoritarianism affect communities?
  • How does terrorism affect migration?
  • How will humanity survive its inventions?
  • LGBTQ in the Muslim community
  • Methods of eradicating poverty
  • Perception of beauty in the Maasai community in Kenya
  • Racial discrimination in the 19th century
  • The social-economic situation during the COVID-19 period
  • Why are the minority communities suffering from severe outcomes of COVID-19 infections?
  • Why do migrants use Malta as a strategic point of movement?
  • Why is low income associated with poverty?

Tips for creating an ethnographic research topic

Do you want to create an ethnographic topic yourself? Below are expert tips to help you through.

Choose a general topic

Choose a broad research question of the topic that interests you. If you are interested in a topic, you have to research and make coherent points of the idea.

Do preliminary studies on the topic

By carrying out preliminary studies on the topic, you know the areas to scale down. Therefore, you should read journals and periodicals and see what researchers have covered and what thye have missed.

Consider your audience

It would be best if you determined your audience by your education level. If you are a college student, your research should be college-level. Before starting your research, ask yourself, “will the research interest my audience?” 

Create evaluative questions

When selecting a research topic, create questions to evaluate it. You should ask questions like “how” and “why” to know if the topic is compelling. At this stage, also ask yourself:

  • Is the ethnographic research topic clear?
  • How straightforward are the research questions?
  • Is the ethnographic project idea complex?

By reading through the topic suggestions and tips, we are sure you now have insightful information for your next project. But do not forget to consult us if you have any questions, ideas, or suggestions.

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255 Original Ethnographic Essay Topics & Ethnography Project Ideas for College Students

possible research topics for ethnography

Ethnography is a qualitative study field that investigates socio-cultural relations in a specific human community. The research methods involve fieldwork and participant observation. That means that ethnographers must immerse themselves in everyday life of the people they’re studying. Thus, researchers interview and regard the locals while documenting the data about them and their social aspects.

This field is crucial for anthropology and the creation of anthropological theories. Through ethnography, we can document the range of people’s livelihoods, cultures, and practices. It allows us to observe, examine, and empathize with different human experiences.

If you have studied ethnography, you probably know this is a very extensive subject. In this article, our team has collected ethnographic essay topics and research titles. We also listed tips to help you explore and approach your academic paper. You can browse through them as you decide on the best ethnography topic.

🔝 Top 21 Ethnography Topic Examples

  • 🔎 Interesting Research Topics
  • 📊 Topic Ideas for Comparative Essays

💻 Digital Ethnography Topics

  • ❓ Ethnographic Research Questions

✏️ Ethnographic Research Ideas for College Students

💡 ethnography project ideas, 🎓 examples of ethnographic research topics in education, 📜 more topics for ethnographic research paper, 📝 ethnographic essay: plan of action, 🔗 references.

  • The homeless population in the UK.
  • Global Diversity: Importance of Cultural Differences.
  • Cultural practices of the Hadza people.
  • Culture and Diversity in Education.
  • Evolution of the Spanish language in Mexico.
  • Literary Techniques and Ethnicity Role in Screenwriting .
  • Differences between Chinese and Indian parents.
  • Tattoo significance of the Maori.
  • Culture, Globalization, and Intercultural Adaptation .
  • Jewish immigrants in the West.
  • Essential Elements of Ethnography .
  • Nursing home culture in the US.
  • The purpose of ethnography.
  • Impact of Culture on the American Family System and Structure .
  • Rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony.
  • Burial rites of the Toraja people.
  • American Culture Reflection in Sport .
  • The struggles of the Muslim population in France.
  • Culture and Representations: Why Culture and Representation Matter.
  • Religious practices of American Buddhists.
  • Ethnic Groups and Discrimination.

🔎 Interesting Examples of Ethnographic Research Topics

  • The social dynamics of a small business owner’s community.
  • The cultural practices of Zoroastrian communities.
  • The Effects of Diverse Culture of a Business in UAE .
  • Does globalization impact the cultural traditions of indigenous tribes?
  • The daily life of a group of street vendors in a city.
  • Anthropology: The Culture of the People of River Front .
  • The impact of gentrification on a neighborhood’s community.
  • The cultural differences between various generations within a family.
  • Discrimination and marginalization as experienced by the furry subculture .
  • The Cultural Diversity- Tool That Influences Organizational Culture.
  • The relationships and communication patterns in an office setting.
  • What role do social media play in toddler development?
  • Human Behavior and Culture: The Relationship Analysis .
  • The impact of tourism on the culture of Australian aboriginal tribes.
  • The social dynamics of an international university .
  • Ancient Rome: History and Culture.
  • Social adaptation and communication patterns exhibited by international students.
  • The role of traditions in the daily life of an indigenous village.
  • The impact of technology on social interactions in underdeveloped nations.
  • Academic Motivation: Ethnic Teaching in Dutch Schools .
  • Perspectives of Amish voluntary converts on modern technological development.
  • The cultural differences between rural and urban areas of Russia.
  • Culture, Cultural Identity and Related Phenomena .
  • The impact of immigration on the cultural dynamics in Germany.
  • The role of gender in social interactions within Muslim communities.
  • The use of music as a coping mechanism for individuals experiencing trauma or mental illness.
  • ‘Native Americans: Traditional Healing’ .
  • The social dynamics of the Knotfest music festival .
  • The role of sports in community building in Argentina.
  • The Influence of Globalization on Arab Culture.
  • The evolution of music festival culture in the United States over the past 50 years.
  • Does music contribute to shaping the gender identities of American adolescents?
  • Ethnicity and Religion Impact on the Second Language Acquisition of Muslims Males .
  • The impact of mobilization on warfare perspectives in the Russian population.
  • Heritage and Culture in African American Literature .
  • The use of music as a tool for social activism and political resistance.
  • The impact of social media on the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • The cultural practices and traditions of Native American holidays.
  • Celebration of Eid Al-Fitr: Its Importance, Traditions, and Meaning .
  • Investigating gender and power dynamics within Amish households.
  • The role of anonymity in the construction of “alcoholic” identity.
  • The role of religion in anonymous alcoholics’ recovery.
  • White Non-Hispanics: Ethnic Groups Discrimination Immigration.
  • Examining the role of identity performance in LGBTQ+ online communities.
  • Organizational Culture and Diversity Within the Modern MNC.
  • The role of traditional healers in Afro-Caribbean religious communities.
  • Religious attitudes within Death and Black Metal communities.
  • The cultural practices and traditions of QAnon members.
  • The significance of faith for LGBTQ+ individuals within conservative religious communities.
  • Ethnic Identity in Asian American Fiction Authors .

📊 Ethnography Topic Ideas for Comparative Essays

  • How do wedding traditions differ in China and the US?
  • Comparing Mexican and American neighborhoods.
  • Multicultural vs. Citizenship Education .
  • Different attitudes toward the afterlife between Christians and Hindus.
  • How have school rules changed over the last 20 years?
  • Race and Ethnic Gangs in Chicago vs. Los Angeles.
  • Women’s roles in matriarchal and patriarchal societies.
  • Comparison of gender roles in Western and Eastern cultures.
  • Critical features of American and Chinese fairy tales.
  • Cohabitation Versus Traditional Marriages .
  • Popular children’s games in the US and Australia.
  • How does street design differ in American and European cities?
  • Comparing business etiquette in the US and Japan.
  • The Parisian Culture: European and Islamic Cultures .
  • Differences in mealtime traditions between America and China.
  • Dress codes in American and Japanese schools.
  • Comparison of soccer and baseball fans.
  • Tradition and Innovation in Chinese Visual Arts .
  • Differences in socializing of homeschoolers and traditional school students.
  • Comparing video gaming practices of children and adults.
  • Differences Between Slavery and Indentured Servitude.
  • A typical day for families with and without children.
  • Analysis of Cultures: Deaf Culture, White Culture, and Black Culture .
  • Urban parks in New York City and Shanghai.
  • Family meals in single-parent and two-parent families.
  • Differences in leisure time between young men and women.
  • Illegal Immigration: Arizona v. United States Case.
  • Shopping habits of Millennials and Baby Boomers.
  • Concepts of beauty in ancient Greece and modern America.
  • Hobbies popular among single and married people.
  • Emmett Scott High School’s Social vs. Academic Culture .
  • Shopping experiences of people with and without visual impairments.
  • Comparing New Year celebrations in the US and China .
  • A typical day for a rural and urban resident.
  • Modern vs. Traditional or Alternative Medicine.
  • Caregiving practices in African American versus Hispanic communities.
  • Differences between Japanese and American restaurant culture.
  • Cultural and Linguistic Differences in Education .
  • Comparing sports of Native and modern Americans.
  • The life of Germans before and after World War II.
  • Differences Between the Brazilian and American Cultures .
  • Differences in parenting practices between the US and China.
  • How does humor differ in Western and Eastern cultures?
  • Comparing attitudes toward immigrants in the US and Russia.
  • Different perceptions of motherhood in Eastern and Western cultures.
  • Egypt Families in Changed and Traditional Forms .
  • Principles and practice of digital ethnography .
  • Application of modern technologies to social study through digital ethnography.
  • Advice on conducting digital ethnography during pandemics.
  • Three lies of digital ethnographies.
  • Addressing the Cultural Disconnect in Online Learning for First Nations Students in Canada .
  • Digital ethnography in a group project: Ethical considerations.
  • Electronic ethnography and media usage.
  • Digital ethnography to strengthen empirical reasoning.
  • Evaluation of a Digital Library: A Case Study .
  • Medical students using Twitter for professional development: A digital ethnography.
  • Questioning “digital ethnography” in the age of omnipresent computers.
  • Modern ethnographic digital techniques for social research .
  • The Relationship Between Culture and Technology.
  • Research on the third sector using digital ethnography.
  • The social network on the dark web using digital ethnography.
  • Foreignism, Media, Imperialism Influence on Culture .
  • In the era of information warfare, digital ethnography.
  • Using embedded visual techniques to reveal consumer values considering digital ethnography.
  • Methodological approaches in the digital ethnography of young culture.
  • Influence of Culture and Technology on the Stage Design .
  • Cybercrime research using digital ethnography: Nomadic digital ethnography and engagement.
  • Millennials, young people, and international research collectives.
  • Digital Knowledge Platforms Versus Traditional Education Systems .
  • COVID-19 pandemic digital ethnography.
  • The use of digital ethnography to improve the Erasmus+ mobility program.
  • Teach for America’s digital ethnography.
  • Social Networks Trends for Reducing Language Barriers .
  • A mixed-methods approach to digital ethnography using semantic social networks.
  • Conducting ethnographic studies in the digital era.
  • Case studies, ideas, and concepts related to digital ethnography.
  • Popular Culture, Commercialization and Industrialization .
  • Best practice guidelines for digital ethnography in intercultural professional communication .
  • Digital ethnography and online gaming.
  • Online learning as a digital ethnography of virtual social distance.
  • Digital ethnographic methodologies in residential settings: Methodological and ethical considerations .
  • Understanding how faculty members use digital ethnography for professional development.
  • Principles of Museum in Contemporary and Digital Art .
  • Analyzing trends socio-computationally to comprehend digital ethnography online videos.
  • Stand-up comedy’s perspective on racism: A digital ethnography of Netflix.
  • The study of language, gender, and sexuality using digital ethnography.
  • Social Media Role in Promoting Social Change .
  • Cross-cultural digital ethnography interpretation: The role of the religious context.
  • A digital ethnography of Instagram : likes, hashtags, comments, and publics.

❓ Examples of Ethnographic Research Questions

  • Do indigenous populations’ experiences differ in the US and Australia?
  • How can Eastern and Western cultures enrich each other?
  • What Is the Effect of Music on Culture?
  • What are the challenges faced by young and older immigrants?
  • How can society facilitate social justice for Australian Indigenous people?
  • What are the dietary patterns of Western and Eastern cultures?
  • What Are the Immigration and Ethnic Relations in the US?
  • How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect ethnic minority groups?
  • What are the ethical issues associated with ethnographic research?
  • How did the Japanese occupation influence Korean traditions?
  • How Do Refugees Affect the Host Country?
  • What are the ethnic identities of children from immigrant families?
  • How do cultures worldwide differ regarding shame, guilt, and fear?
  • How Do Various Races and Ethnicities View the Library?
  • What are the examples of social injustice towards Indigenous populations?
  • How do history and ethnography complement each other?
  • What Are the Changes in Pop Culture?
  • What are the experiences of Chinese students in Western universities?
  • How do immigrant families maintain the traditions of their cultures?
  • What Are the Origins of Hip-Hop Culture?
  • What are the healing practices of Latin American ethnic groups?
  • How do Mexican immigrants interact with the US healthcare system?
  • What Is the Nature of the Racial and Ethnic Inequality?
  • What are the history and current state of ethnographic research?
  • How do refugees from African countries adjust in Europe?
  • What’s the Importance of Ethnic Diversity and Cultural Competence in Nursing?
  • What are the specifics of Mexican American ethnicity ?
  • How does Amazonian brew ayahuasca help in addressing substance addiction?
  • What are the three ethnic groups prevalent in the US?
  • What Are the Pressures for and Against a Common EU Immigration Policy?
  • How does ethnographic research help in understanding different cultures?
  • What can American citizens learn from Chinese culture?
  • What challenges do Latin American immigrants face in the US?
  • What Are the Racial, Ethnic, Cultural and Linguistic Issues in Psychology?
  • What do US citizens know about ethnic minority groups’ experiences?
  • What does workplace spirituality mean for Indian employees?
  • What is Korean individuals’ migration decision-making regarding the US?
  • What Is the Connection Between Interracial Marriages and Immigration?
  • What obstacles are faced by English as a Second Language students?
  • Why do Indigenous people in Australia have trouble accessing water?
  • How does foreign religion affect native culture?
  • Analysis of social interactions in shopping malls.
  • The formation of youth subcultures in urban areas.
  • What are the peculiarities of the organization of community festivals?
  • Analyzing the communication patterns in cyberspace.
  • The culture of sports fandom and its key features.
  • The challenges of people experiencing homelessness within specific communities.
  • What is the role of political clubs in society?
  • Analyzing local stories that reveal cultural values.
  • The influence of immigration on the cultural dynamics in the USA.
  • The analysis of the perception of children from low-income families.
  • How do famous people impact the viewpoints of their fans?
  • Analysis of teenage behavior in school and at home.
  • The value of religion in anonymous alcoholics’ recovery.
  • The peculiarities of community dynamics in a small town or village.
  • The culture and customs of indigenous people.
  • Analyzing habits of elementary school children.
  • How did people perceive the concept of death in the past?
  • The origins of women’s roles in different societies.
  • Service staff and their particular view on the visitors.
  • How do immigrants express their identity in a foreign country?
  • The peculiarities of social interactions of employees at a business consulting agency.
  • What are the social customs of motorcycle riders?
  • The pitfalls in interprofessional teamwork practice among nurses.
  • The peculiarities of family structure among Muslims.
  • Analyzing people in a local retirement home.
  • The career choices of people with higher IQs.
  • How do individuals communicate during their journeys on public transportation?
  • Observing medical personnel in a high-volume hospital.
  • The inner perspective of the culture of gamers.
  • The social and cultural dynamics of a high school classroom.
  • Analyzing the lifestyle of a high school teacher.
  • How do children of wealthy parents behave in the education system?
  • The use of modern technology in the learning process and its benefits.
  • How do schools respond to the cultural differences of their students?
  • The peculiarities of school culture in urban areas.
  • How does social media impact school relations?
  • The role of teachers in the formation of the identity of students.
  • The experience of learning and teaching in an inclusive class.
  • How do teachers and students interact with each other in elementary school?
  • The concept of social status in any African community.
  • What are the key health beliefs and myths in the modern society?
  • The view of the American black community on racist narratives.
  • The role of media representation in spreading stereotypes.
  • The impact of religious beliefs and practices on everyday lives.
  • How does social class shape our experiences of life?
  • The role of art and music in expressing cultural values.
  • Analyzing the lifestyle of a lawyer with a successful career.
  • The main greeting gestures in native Chinese societies.
  • The connection between urban planning and social segregation.
  • The efficiency of online communities in providing support for people with shared experiences.
  • The experiences of people living with ADHD.
  • What factors influence the physical health of teenagers?
  • Analyzing the physical outlook of a smoker at a young age.
  • The peculiarities of polygamous marriages in different Asian societies.

Before writing an academic paper, you should have a clear plan. It is especially beneficial for ethnographic essays, as it is a complex study field. Below, we have described how to approach this assignment.

Things to Consider

  • After choosing your ethnography topic, the first step is to ask yourself why it matters . Consider what you are attempting to achieve by writing your paper. Who will be your audience? What do you want them to learn?
  • Once you have this in mind, write down the questions you hope to answer with your research. They will help you keep your essay or research paper focused.
  • Take note of your pre-existing assumptions about your topic. Everyone has personal biases. It is essential to be aware of them when writing an ethnography essay.

Things to Do

  • Thorough research is essential to writing a successful paper. It is best to refer to first-hand accounts , which offer the most insight. However, secondary sources can also be valuable for background reading. You can use our online summary generator to save time reading through them.
  • Try to find authors with different perspectives . This way, you will likely get a well-rounded impression of the chosen topic.
  • Pay attention to how the writers refer to and describe the people they study. You should always question their findings and keep track of their own biases.

Thank you for reading this article. We hope you have managed to find a good ethnography topic idea for your paper. Need a little help putting together your essay title or research question? Try out our handy paraphraser tool !

  • What is Ethnography? – Anthropology@Princeton, Princeton University
  • Ethnographic Research – The University of Virginia
  • Ethnography – Writing Studio, Thompson Writing Program, Duke University
  • What Is Ethnographic Research? — National Park Service
  • Ethnography: Challenges and Opportunities — BMJ Journals
  • Ethnographic Study: Qualitative Studies — GOV.UK

55 Ethnographic Essay Topics


Table of Contents

Ethnographic Essay Topics: A Comprehensive Guide

Ethnography is a fascinating field that delves into the study of cultures, societies, and human behaviors. An ethnographic essay allows writers to immerse themselves in different cultures and present findings in an engaging manner. If you’re struggling to pinpoint the right topic, this guide will walk you through some brilliant ideas and explain how to make your choice.

How to Choose the Best Ethnographic Essay Topic?

Modern ethnographers often hone in on specific aspects of cultures rather than trying to cover everything. Some focus on particular nations based on ethnicity, language, or geography, while others might delve into aspects like migration, interethnic relations, or religion across multiple cultures. To choose a topic, follow these steps:

Identify a Specific Theme : Decide on a particular cultural element you wish to explore. For instance, if you’re interested in rituals, you could delve into traditional wedding ceremonies in a particular region.

Research : Before diving in, spend some time online familiarizing yourself with your chosen cultural area. This will help you narrow down your topic and ensure it’s unique.

Personal Connection : Choose a topic that resonates with you or that you have a personal interest in. It will make your writing process more enjoyable and your essay more compelling.

Top Ethnographic Essay Topics:

  • Exploring professional and ethical differences in gender indicators.
  • Delving into Egyptian funeral rites and their cultural significance.
  • The role and significance of traditional calendar rituals.
  • Migration patterns and ethnocultural adaptation in the Jewish Autonomous Region in recent decades.
  • The historical and mythological roots of Korean ethnic identity.
  • Preserving the traditional culture of Akha Thailand amid modernization.
  • Unpacking ‘Englishness’ in contemporary Northern England.
  • The roots and progression of Chinese tea culture.
  • Linguistic diversity in Spain: Between theory and practice.
  • The socio-anthropological study of youth political movements.
  • The cultural significance of names in Japan.
  • The Sociocultural Journey of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous Region.
  • Re-emigration patterns in Israel at the turn of the century.
  • The role of tolerance in multi-faith cultures.
  • Challenges of globalization in today’s diverse world.
  • Spatial behaviors in multi-ethnic youth groups.
  • Internet resources and their role in ethnic discourse.
  • Traditional gaming practices in Japanese culture.
  • Collective identity territories in contemporary French discourse.
  • The role and significance of puppets across cultures.
  • Ethno-caste communities and their role in India’s traditional social organization.
  • Unpacking Korean dance: Ethnic and cultural dimensions.
  • Artistic expressions of early European farmers.
  • The role of magic in traditional rituals.
  • The pantheon of Ancient Greek deities: A study in typology and personification.
  • Role-playing games as a modern subculture.
  • The cultural significance of women’s tattoos.
  • Traditional Micronesian shipping: An ethnohistoric perspective.
  • Female deities in Central Asian religions and worldviews.
  • The significance of animals in traditional cultures.

Cultural Practices and Rituals

  • The significance of coming-of-age rituals in indigenous Australian tribes.
  • Wedding traditions and their symbolic meanings in Southeast Asia.
  • Culinary customs: Exploring the communal dining practices in the Middle East.
  • The role of music and dance in West African ceremonies.
  • Birth and naming ceremonies in Native American cultures.

Language and Communication

  • Sign language communities and their cultural significance in the U.S.
  • The oral storytelling traditions of the Maasai tribe.
  • How language preservation efforts shape cultural identity among the Welsh.
  • The evolution and modernization of the Gaelic language in Ireland.
  • The intricate art of Inuit throat singing and its societal implications.

Religion and Spirituality

  • Voodoo practices in Haiti: Beyond the misconceptions.
  • The intricate temple rituals of Balinese Hinduism.
  • Shamanic practices and their role in Mongolian tribal communities.
  • The blending of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism in the Philippines.
  • Pilgrimage trails and their socio-cultural importance in Tibetan Buddhism.

Economic and Social Structures

  • The role of marketplaces in shaping community ties in Morocco.
  • Barter trade systems and their continued relevance in Papua New Guinea.
  • Nomadic lifestyles and economic adaptations among the Bedouins.
  • The cultural significance of cowrie shells as currency in ancient Africa.
  • Traditional and modern coexistence: The tech hubs of Bangalore amidst age-old practices.

Art and Aesthetics

  • The cultural and spiritual significance of Polynesian tattoo art.
  • Maori wood carvings: A story of ancestry and legends.
  • The evolution of sari designs and weaving techniques in India.
  • The symbolism behind Native American totem poles.
  • Balinese mask-making: A blend of craft, drama, and spirituality.

Core Themes in Ethnography:

When considering your essay, you might want to explore some of these overarching themes:

  • The main goals and categories of ethnography.
  • The impact of the terrestrial environment on human development.
  • The intricate relationship between language and cultural traits.
  • The unique religious beliefs across global societies.
  • A study of paganism versus global religions.
  • An insight into primitive beliefs and regional religions.
  • The daily lives and traditions of different ethnic groups.
  • The history and significance of ethnonyms.

Should you find yourself still grappling with a topic, it can be valuable to seek guidance from experts. For top-quality essays crafted to perfection, our team at is at your disposal anytime. And if you’re racing against time or need professional input, our skilled writers are just a click away . Don’t hesitate to reach out!

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89 Ethnographic Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best ethnographic topic ideas & essay examples, 📌 interesting topics to write about ethnographic, 👍 good essay topics on ethnographic, ❓ ethnographic research questions.

Ethnographic essays are an excellent way to show your understanding of the science and the relationships that form a particular development or situation. You have to display your knowledge of anthropology and how it influences a particular population group based on a variety of circumstances.

There are many factors that can affect a group of people, including their geographic location, climate, relationships with other groups, numbers, and more. As such, compiling them to form a logical conclusion can be an overwhelming task.

The complex relationships between different variables may appear relevant when they are not and vice versa. However, there are several tips that will let you write an outstanding essay.

You should try to determine the root causes behind the formation of a particular culture or phenomenon and work outwards from them. For example, overpopulation does not generally occur without a definite reason, as human populations tend to regulate themselves.

Once you identify that it is present, search for causes such as immigration, poverty, or sudden removal of a threat. After you identify the reason, you can mention it in your essay before overpopulation and use the two to develop a logical argument.

In doing so, you will establish a link and introduce a structure to your essay. The relationships may even provide you with ethnographic essay ideas that you may explore in detail.

Here are some tips for your writing process:

  • Write a clear and concise thesis that will describe the topic of your essay and include it at the end of the introduction. It will help the reader understand what you are discussing early on and evaluate your arguments.
  • Try to focus on one specific option among different ethnographic essay topics and have every point you make support it. The goal of the essay is to defend ideas, and deviations into unrelated matters serve as distractions. The reader will not appreciate a deviation from the subject matter into unknown territory.
  • Separate the body of your essay into sections with concise and descriptive titles. A structure that divides the paper by topics makes navigation easier in case the reader wants to revisit your essay later.
  • Remember that you are writing about ethnography, the study of cultures. While it may be tempting to concentrate on the circumstances of a specific group, your goal is to explain its practices and traditions. As such, you have to provide concrete examples of how a behavior emerged to suit the population’s needs.
  • Make sure to cite relevant scholarly research whenever you want to make a statement of fact. Today’s science is founded on the achievements of past researchers, and their findings should not be taken as universal truths.

These considerations will help you improve your essay while you write it, reducing the workload and letting you achieve better results. The paper you will produce by following the tips will be easy to read and comprehend and show your understanding of the topic.

It will also demonstrate that you have studied the relevant sources and obtained accurate data for the formation of your conclusions.

However, you may struggle to write an essay from nothing using just these suggestions, as they require that you have some notion of the ideas you will discuss. For inspiration, visit IvyPanda to find ethnographic essay examples and other useful paper samples!

  • Ethnographic and Phenomenological Approaches to Research Ethnographic research is an approach to data collection and analysis that aims at evaluating and categorizing human experiences through the lens of the participants’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Ethnographic Research Methods Participant observation can be defined as a qualitative method in ethnology research that is used by researchers in the areas of cultural anthropology in which the researcher in given the opportunity to get a close […]
  • A Critical Review of Ethnographic Analysis The difference between these two techniques is transparent: in the case of open observation, the group of respondents knows that the researcher is conducting an analysis and is aware of its goals, whereas covert observation […]
  • Cheyenne Indians History and Culture Furthermore, it was to emphasize the unique powers and the superiority of the chief priests and the prophets in the community.
  • Twin Oaks Intentional Community Ethnographic Analysis It was through field work that the community was noted as one of the intentional communities. One of the main lessons learnt was their effort to bring gender equality in the community.
  • Ethnographic Field Notes from Starbucks The two large supermarkets, the large pharmacy, the three playgrounds, the community garden, the eclectic shopping and night life of South Street itself, the mural art of Isaiah Zagar, and other attractions, all pull a […]
  • Barker’s Ethnographic Exposé: Revealing Structural Violence Against the Marshallese Barker’s study of the Marshallese people and their victimization by the U.S.government is an outstanding demonstration of how ethnographic research and writing should be conducted.
  • Ethnographic Design: Types The investigator is required to define the characteristics of the society under study. Abalos, argues that “critical ethnographic studies are a type of ethnographic research in which the author is interested in advocating for the […]
  • Ethnographic Design: Characteristics According to Abalos, “ethnography is the in depth study of naturally occurring behavior within a culture or a social group; it seeks to understand the relationship between culture and behavior, with culture referring to beliefs, […]
  • Clement Restaurant: Ethnographic Description The ethnographic analysis will be added with a demographic review of the region in order to identify whether the business success is stipulated by the ethnographic background of the restaurants, or the population that is […]
  • Ethnographic Prospects in Teaching and Learning Such a controversial view on the approaches taken in the research complies with the changeability of the social life at the moment.
  • Ethnographic Interview of the Costa Rican People The analysis of the social environment is the important aspect of realizing the cultural background and the social problems of the clients.
  • Tourism Management as an Ethnographic Theme Thus, as it is stated in some of the interview, tourists generally expect the attitude of obeisance towards them, and the workers of the tourism sphere feel themselves as the obedient servants.
  • Hong Kong Street Food in Ethnographic Studies Bronislaw Malinowski is often cited as one of the first practitioners of this method during his research of the people of Papua New Guinea.
  • Mayan Culture in Ethnographic Interpretation The Mayan elders were charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the traditions of the people and overseeing all the cultural practices.
  • The Kurds Culture: An Ethnographic Study The most popular of the two dialects is the Kurmanji, it is the language of communication for most of the Kurds today.
  • Mesoamerican Ethnographic Interpretation The civilization of these people faced strong influences from the people in the non-Maya cultures which include the Olmecs of Mexico and the Izapa cultures of people who lived in the Pacific coast.
  • Mayan Ethnographic Interpretation: Traditions and Rituals According to The Mayan culture, the human body was viewed as a combination of the body and the souls. This means that the blood could communicate to the inner and the outer environment of the […]
  • Navajo Ethnographic and Ethnological Studies The story is preserved in myths and is recounted in the ceremony known as ‘blessing way’ which is the foundation of the Navajo way of life.
  • Kmart Department Stores: Ethnographic Study During the meeting, much attention was paid to the particular features of communication between the meeting participants in order to understand the aspects of the environment, characteristics of individuals, their interactions, and the presented culture.
  • Ethnographic State in India He stated that their ignorance of the customs and beliefs of the Indian people had a hit against the British and that this had resulted to a distant loss of administrative power to British government.
  • The Significance of Ethnographic Observation Thus, Arthur concentrates on the role of women in the use of lithics and the role of females in the development of Prehistoric communities, whereas Sillitoe and Hardy study the use of stone tools and […]
  • Ethnographic Research: Coming of Age in Samoa Considering Margaret Mead’s ethnography, Coming of Age in Samoa, it is possible to say that dwelling upon that society she paid much attention to religion, education, upbringing and relation to each other within a family, […]
  • Ethnographic reflection Mixing the scientific and humanistic approaches and implementing the anthropological framework and the concept of the bio-cultural triad for covering various sides of life of Beaver community, Brody uses dialogic procedures for depicting and explaining […]
  • Understanding the Science of Ethnographic Through Oneirology
  • An Overview of the Dream State and the Concept of Human Ethnographic
  • Understanding the Unconcious Ethnographic
  • The Beauty Of Ethnographic: How Dreams Drive The Individual
  • The Skeptical Ethnographic Argument of Rene Descartes, and the Priori and the Posteriori
  • Ethnographic And Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • An Overview of the Controversy of Ethnographics, a Cognitive Activity During Sleep
  • Animal Ethnographic And Substantiation A Connection To Humanity
  • The Psychological Theories Of The Function Of Ethnographic
  • The Ethnographic and Traditional Aboriginal Spirituality
  • Sleeping and Ethnographic and Theories of Sleep
  • Ethnographic Is Known As The Journey Your Mind
  • The Centrality of the Ethnographic and Its Importance for Aboriginal Spirituality
  • The Benefits Of Lucid Ethnographic
  • Procrastination and Day Ethnographic
  • Comparing and Contrasting Psychological Theories of Ethnographic
  • Ethnographic as a Significant Process in Human Life Experience
  • The Use of Illusion Argument, Ethnographic Argument, and Evil Genius Argument by Descartes
  • Varieties of Lucid Ethnographic Experience, by Stephen Laberge
  • Day Ethnographic in the Middle of the Summer Heat
  • Ethnographic Various Amount Of People Experiences Different Effects
  • Dreams, Ethnographic and Phases of Sleep
  • Freud’s Theory of Ethnographic and Repression
  • Synchroncities in the History of Paranormal Ethnographic
  • Dreams and Ethnographic Nightmares in Children
  • Gender And Ethnographic in Mapuche Shamanistic Practices
  • Phenomenology of Ethnographic
  • Descartes’ Meditations: Ethnographic and Evil Demon Arguments
  • How Is the Power of Dreams and Ethnographic in the Novel of Mice and Men
  • Difference Between Astral Projection And Lucid Ethnographic
  • The Significance of Land to the Ethnographic for Aboriginal People and the Impact of the Land Rights Movement
  • The Importance of Ethnographic and Sleeping
  • Ethnographics Can Bring Misery in the Great Gatsby By F. Scott
  • Exploring Causes of Sleep Difficulty and Ethnographic Problems
  • The Importance of Ethnographic and the Sub-Conscious
  • What Are the Problems and Constraints of Making Films on Ethnographics?
  • What Importance May the Sex of the Anthropologist Have on the Ethnographic Process?
  • What Does Ethnography Mean?
  • What Is an Ethnographic Example?
  • What Is Considered Ethnographic?
  • What Is Ethnography Used For?
  • What Is the Difference Between Ethnography and Anthropology?
  • Why Is Ethnography Critical in Research?
  • What Is Ethnography in Sociology?
  • What Is Ethnography in Social Research?
  • What Kind of Research Is Ethnography?
  • What Is a Synonym for Ethnography?
  • Is Ethnography a Research Design?
  • How Do You Use Ethnography in a Sentence?
  • When Did Ethnology Appear?
  • How Does Ethnography Work in Real Life?
  • What Are the Critical Characteristics of Ethnography?
  • What Is the Difference Between Phenomenology and Ethnography?
  • Who Was the First Ethnographer?
  • Who Is the Father of Ethnography?
  • How Do Ethnologists Study Culture?
  • What Is the Difference Between Archaeology and Ethnography?
  • What Is the Ethnological Argument?
  • Is Ethnography a Theory?
  • What Is the Weakness of Ethnography?
  • What Is the Difference Between Ethnography and Qualitative Research?
  • What Are the Problems With Traditional Ethnographic Film-Making?
  • What Is the Relationship Between Students and Teachers in Ethnographic?
  • What Are the Pros and Cons of Ethnographic Reflexivity?
  • What Are the Defining Activities and Principles of Ethnographic Research?
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IvyPanda. (2024, February 28). 89 Ethnographic Essay Topic Ideas & Examples.

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IvyPanda . "89 Ethnographic Essay Topic Ideas & Examples." February 28, 2024.

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What are Ethnographies Useful for?

Cover of Margaret Mead's book, Letters from the Field 1925-1975

Check the " Where to Find Books & Videos " Page for tips on how to search for ethnographic books

Ethnographic Resources

  • Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
  • Ethnography
  • Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research

Ethnographic Book Series:

Check these links to find ethnographies in a wide variety of topics. Some of the books are available online while others are available in print in the library.

  • New Directions in Ethnography This is a book series which began in 2007 by the publisher Wiley-Blackwell. The link shows the titles owned by UConn.
  • New Ethnographies A series published by Manchester University and the Macmillan Company.
  • Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries A series of books published by the University of Chicago.
  • Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry A series that was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology Over two hundred case studies published in this series by Cengage.

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possible research topics for ethnography

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possible research topics for ethnography

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Can't find an ethnography for your project? Check out Amazon! Use the same keywords that you developed for your project. Read the title and book summary to identify which books match your topic. Then search for the title either in the General Search or WorldCat to determine if we have the book or if you need to request through Interlibrary Services.

  • Amazon Limit your search to Books. Type your topic + ethnography to make sure that you find ethnographic books. E.g. Mexican workers ethnography
  • Amazon Sample Search: Mexican + Workers + Ethnography
  • Library's Advance Search Use terms such as ethnography or ethnology + your topic to identify ethnographies that the UConn Library own.
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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

12 Ethnography

Anthony Kwame Harrison, Department of Sociology, Virginia Tech

  • Published: 04 August 2014
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Embracing the trope of ethnography as narrative, this chapter uses the mythic story of Bronislaw Malinowski’s early career and fieldwork as a vehicle through which to explore key aspects of ethnography’s history and development into a distinct form of qualitative research. The reputed “founding father” of the ethnographic approach, Malinowski was a brilliant social scientist, dynamic writer, conceited colonialist, and, above all else, pathetically human. Through a series of intervallic steps—in and out of Malinowski’s path from Poland to the “Cambridge School” and eventually to the western Pacific—I trace the legacy of ethnography to its current position as a critical, historically informed, and unfailingly evolving research endeavor. As a research methodology that has continually reflected on and revised its practices and modes of presentation, ethnography is boundless. Yet minus its political, ethical, and historical moorings, I argue, the complexities of twenty-first-century society render its future uncertain.

During my final weeks working on this chapter, I happened to watch the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 —a contemporary collage of rarely seen Swedish television footage of the Black Power cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1973 chapter of the DVD, there is a brief scene from inside a Swedish tour bus traveling around New York City. As the bus passes through Harlem, the tour guide—speaking in Swedish but translated as subtitles—describes the upper Manhattan neighborhood as “undoubtedly the Black man’s ghetto” where “large amounts of narcotics are circulating”; he goes on to remind the tourists of how their “welcome letter” had instructed them that the tour company did “not want anyone to visit Harlem for personal studies ... because [Harlem] is only for Black people” ( Olsson, 2011 —emphasis added).

This human desire for personal studies, the traveler’s yearning to get off the tour bus, the curiosity to move beyond the pretense of staged representations of life and to discover what it is really all about, underlies the post-Enlightenment project of apprehending the world though physical force, cognitive classifications and containments, and, at times, empathetic pretensions. The same impulses anticipated among Swedes in 1970s New York inspired a generation of European explorers to penetrate the dark continent of Africa ( Thornton, 1983 ) and continue to compel turn of the (twenty-first) century visitors to Chicago to sift and sort through a sliding scale of authentic venues in search of “the real” Chicago blues experience. But, as David Grazian (2003) has effectively shown, even the most seemingly authentic of these late modern cultural products are fabricated commodifications, banking on the city’s global popularity as a blues destination.

Such realizations have implications for how we think about the history, current state, and future of ethnography. More than merely embracing Erving Goffman’s (1959) mid-twentieth-century declaration that “all life is a stage”—though its connotations are perhaps more profound than some recognize—the staging of the ethnographic project is acutely linked to an invasive mix of privilege and inquisition that sprouted in the garden of Western modernity and spread throughout the colonial hinterland. To make sense of this deep history one must begin with questions like: what does it mean to study the life of someone else? What gives anyone the right to initiate research on another community (even when they sincerely and passionately believe it is for the community’s betterment)? And, pressing beyond the expected, pedestrian answers, what larger goals are we working towards or working in the service of when we undertake qualitative social fieldwork?

I can imagine our Swedish tourist being just as curious about the dealings of Wall Street investment bankers ( Ho, 2009 ) but less inclined to consider going there , not necessarily out of a conscious awareness of Wall Street’s inaccessibility, but due to a doxic ( Bourdieu, 1977 ) inability to even acknowledge it as a possibility. Then again, social researchers and cultural commentators from W. E. B. DuBois (1903/1996) to Norman Mailer (1957) to Jon Cruz (1999) have observed the racially loaded fascinations that people of European descent have about those they (a) have had unproblematized access to and (b) view as most distinct from themselves, either physically, culturally, or both. Explanations for this range from the allure of the exotic and presumed primal drives towards straightaway satisfaction and survival that govern those at the other end of the civilization spectrum (here Mailer and perhaps Malinowski) to empathy with the romanticized innocence that such closeness to nature and freedom from civilization’s repressive shackles offers (here Margaret Mead and perhaps Malinowski). Anthropology—the discipline to which ethnography is most historically bound—came of age as a legitimate academic field through these Western impulses while simultaneously fueling their popular interest ( Thornton, 1983 ).

Like the threat of Swedish tourists undertaking personal studies, ethnography as a research practice is, in many respects, renegade. That is, it refuses to follow strict conventions and achieves virtue and vitality through its lack of prescription. Ethnography straddles structured research design and improvised inquisitive adventure, constantly moving betwixt and between theory, data, and analysis ( O’Dell & Willim, 2011 ). Although it is non-linear, it is profoundly narrative.

This chapter introduces ethnography, as a specific type of qualitative research methodology, through an historically conscious narrative of its principal and principled approaches. Much has changed in ethnography since the classic era when researchers such as Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown (1922) and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1940/1969) traveled to faraway places with names like the Andaman Islands and Nuerland. Their charge was to plot the topography of human cultural difference and to identify, via conditions of isolation and theories of unified wholes, the systems and processes through which social life successfully functioned. Today, most observers regard ethnography as fitting within a more sophisticated project of making sense of social life through the ways of knowing that are most meaningful and potentially most consequential to social actors themselves. Yet I caution against the tendency for each coming-of-age generation to selectively disconnect itself from those that came before. 1 Ethnographers trained in fields such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and folklore recognize the importance—or have experienced the rite-of-passage mandate—of knowing their history. Still, mere knowledge of past right- and wrongdoings combined with a critical disposition neither empowers contemporary ethnographers to make the most of their approach’s unique virtues nor alleviates them from its most primordial problematics. Moreover, as ethnography has propagated into such fields as organizational studies, planning, management, and industrial engineering (to name just three) concerns over research efficiency and tangible outcomes tend to eclipse the historically informed and critical perspectives that have defined its fundamental modes of understanding. What is called for, then, is an accounting of ethnography that situates it contemporarily while simultaneously integrating historical actors and the social forces they at times conformed to and at others contended with.

One of the more damaging consequences of ethnography’s spreading popularity has been the propensity to view it as a method rather than a methodology. 2 This difference is significant. A method is simply a technique or tool used to collect data. Ethnographers often utilize a variety of tools and techniques during the course of their research, including but not limited to: establishing rapport; selecting informants; using a range of interview and focus group forms; making observations—both participatory and non-participatory—and writing field notes based on them; conducting surveys, genealogies, and domain analyses; mapping fields; transcribing texts; and coding data. 3 In contrast, a methodology is a theoretical, ethical, political, and at times moral orientation to research, which guides the decisions one makes, including choices about research methods. This distinction between method and methodology is crucial to my effort to differentiate ethnography from qualitative field research more generally. Much of what is included in this chapter will be useful to qualitative researchers on the whole. However, my primary purpose is to describe and delineate ethnography as a communally engaged and historically informed early twenty-first-century research practice.

Much like culture , ethnography is one of those social scientific abstractions that is readily deployed to mark out what we—as anthropologists, sociologists, and an increasing range of researchers in other fields—do as unique, yet is difficult to capture in a single precise and thoroughgoing definition. 4 Part of the difficulty is that the term refers to both a research process and the written product of those research activities. While not losing sight of the important revisions to come out of its “crisis of representation” that have pushed scholars to acknowledge, and in fact prioritize its ultimate textual character ( Clifford & Marcus, 1986 ; Marcus & Fischer, 1986 ), in this chapter, I mostly treat ethnography as a processual approach to doing a particular kind of qualitative research.

To begin, I present a few basic definitions of ethnography. Carol A. Bailey (2007) quite simply explains it as “a type of field research that requires longterm engagement in a natural setting” (p. 206). In a more detailed description, Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson outline the ethnographic project as:

participating, overtly or covertly in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking question...[and] collecting whatever [other] data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research. [1995, p. 1]

Lastly, Clifford Geertz (1973) , in his classic treatment, defines ethnography as “an elaborate venture in...‘thick description’” (p. 6). Etymologically, ethnography combines ethno , meaning “culture (or race),” and graphy , meaning “to write, record, and describe.” 5 Thus ethnography, which Barbara Tedlock (2000) refers to as an “inscription practice” (p. 455), can be thought of as the process and product of writing, recording, and describing culture.

Building off of these different understandings, my treatment of ethnography is simultaneously broad and narrow. During the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, ethnography moved from the confined ranges of anthropology and sociology to a tremendous number of disciplines and fields, including (in addition to those listed earlier) psychology, geography, women’s studies, history, criminology, education, political science, communications, leisure studies, counseling, nursing, psychiatry, medicine, social work, and law (see Tedlock, 2000 ; Denzin & Lincoln, 2008 ; Jones & Watt, 2010 ), just to name a few. Attempts to put narrow disciplinary restraints on ethnography are, in my view, shortsighted and possibly even disciplinarily egocentric. Similarly, the variety of practices involved with ethnography is expansive and continually expanding. These include several traditional qualitative research methods (such as those listed earlier) as well as more recent innovations that cross into visual and sensory studies ( Pink, 2006 , 2009 ), the arts ( Leavy, 2009 ; Schneider & Wright, 2010 ), action-oriented research ( Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000 ), autoethnography ( Ellis, 2004 ; S. H. Jones, 2008 ), and collaborative ethnography ( Lassiter, 2005 ). This is not the place to explicate the multifaceted dimensions of these varied approaches, but I want to be clear in stating that all cohere (or have the potential to) with the understanding of ethnography that I put forward.

At the same time, there has been a tendency among some scholars to define almost any qualitative research project—and particularly projects involving traveling to a field site—as ethnographic. On this matter I am more stringent in explaining that ethnography involves more than just going somewhere to conduct research on or within a community. It involves a certain frame of mind, or, I will even say, historically aware sensibility that is very much its own. Ethnography is often equated with the practice of (or practices surrounding) participant observation. I agree to the extent that ethnography fits within a participant-observation framework, yet to highlight what I see as a key difference, let me return to the definition from Geertz, which is premised on his notion of thick description . In his classic illustration of thick description, Geertz (1973) discusses Gilbert Ryle’s (1971) distinction between the involuntary contracting of the eyelid associated with a twitch and winking. While as a physical description of action the two are the same, properly contextualized—in the case of the wink, involving such things as impetus, intention, and success in communication—they are drastically different. Ethnography, as I am defining it (as a methodology), involves degrees of impetus, intention, and conviction that are different from simply having a participant-observatory perspective and standpoint. Although many of its characteristics have changed since the days when Margaret Mead first traveled to Samoa, like the origins of ethnography itself, these changes have been as much a gradual, reflective, and historically mediated evolution as a radical shift. Thus, a solid grounding in the history of ethnography is important to understanding how current ethnographic research differs from what we might broadly call qualitative field research.

My approach involves reviving, interrogating, and embarking on a narrative journey via ethnography’s most pervasive origin story. That is the chronicle of Bronislaw Malinowski’s pioneering field research in the Trobriand Islands, which, within the core fields listed earlier, is commonly held up as the ethnographic archetype ( Strathern, 1987 ). In doing this, I attend to the multiple trajectories of development and enlightenment that follow from these mythic origins. This is complex terrain since, as most researchers now recognize, ethnography was birthed out of colonialist impetuses that included “territorial expansion, the pursuit of military power, commercial greed... the need to find raw materials and investment opportunities for accumulated capital, [as well as] an emerging ‘media industry’ in search of stories to sell” ( Fabian, 2000 , p. 4; see also Thornton, 1983 ). Retrospectively, the history of ethnography is comprised of hardly heroic heroes (see Sontag, 1966/1978 ). While I do not shy away from the intellectual temptation of unpacking the possible fictions surrounding Malinowski as a mythic figure, I ultimately treat representations as real—meaning, they are products of contested political processes that have real consequences ( Hall, 1996 ). Thus these historical trajectories are shaped as much by what is represented and remembered, which is never fixed, as by what actually might have been.

Building on the trope of ethnography-as-narrative-journey, this chapter uses the narratives of Malinowski’s early life and career as vehicles through which to present important aspects of and issues facing contemporary ethnography. This involves a series of intervallic, temporal steps out of the early twentieth century into broader historical and present-day contexts. I begin by discussing Malinowski’s mythic status in relation to some of his ideas regarding the social functioning of myths. I next review his early life experiences and education in Poland and Germany as a means to introduce key paradigmatic and epistemological underpinnings of the ethnographic enterprise. Malinowski’s travels to England and association with the Cambridge School provide an opportunity to present the transition in social research practices during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which the myth of his methodological revolution belies. His initial research experiences on the island of Mailu illustrate the colonial legacy of the ethnographic project as well as the interpersonal dynamics of its research practices, and his transition from Mailu to the Trobriand Islands offers an opportunity to contemplate the changing notion of the ethnographic “field.” The 1922 publication of Argonauts of the Western Pacific marks a watershed moment in the history of ethnography and Malinowski’s career. It was here where he first presented his “modern sociological method of fieldwork” ( Stocking, 1983b , p. 111). My reflections on the impact of this book segue into some important considerations surrounding what has been referred to as (among other things) ethnography’s “literary turn.” Finally, a consideration of Malinowski’s reputation gives rise to some conclusionary remarks regarding ethnography’s historical legacy and future. Journeying through the life of the man whose idealized image, more than anyone else, came to epitomize ethnography and whose divulged human frailties contributed to its reorientation highlights a degree of sophistication that is frequently omitted in deference to (too often self-congratulatory) how-far-we-have-come framings of history.

Malinowski’s Myth

The history of ethnography is replete with its own myths, superstitions, and survivals. As the countless ethnographers who have studied these topics over the last century-plus have taught us, such aspects of culture should not be dismissed lightly but rather interrogated for the important purposes, both functional and symbolic, they serve. In ethnography’s most prominent origin story, Polish-born, British-educated 6 Bronislaw Malinowski is cast as its progenitor. Though the “Malinowski myth” has been discussed in several anthropology-specific treatments of methods, theory, and the history of the field, 7 as ethnographic research has diffused into other areas, Malinowski the man, the myth, and the heuristic value of both have become dispensable. This chapter—as much for a non-anthropological readership as for a distinctly anthropological one—aims to correct this.

Viewed through the lens of some of his own theoretical findings, Malinowski’s early life and career, that is, his circuitous journey to “inventing” the ethnographic method, becomes an instructive hagiography—part travelogue, part founding fable. In developing his own version of (psychological) functionalism, Malinowski did groundbreaking work on the topics of myth, magic, and superstition. Contrasting early views that interpreted myths as “idle rhapsody” or “aimless outpourings of vain imaginings” ( Malinowski, 1926/1948 , p. 97), he forcefully put forward the position that myths actively affect the conduct of members of a community by exercising “a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies” (p. 100). Through myths individual reputations are made and sustained and important lessons and understandings of cultural practices are carried over time.

According to Malinowski’s myth, the young Pole first became fascinated with cross-cultural study when, during a period of illness, his mother read him sections of Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough (1900) . After receiving his doctorate in physics and mathematics in Poland, Malinowski, as the story goes, traveled to England in pursuit of education and romance. Once there, he converted to the budding science of anthropology and in 1914 set off to do field research in the southwest Pacific where, as a consequence of the outbreak of war in Europe, 8 he found himself stranded for several years. During this time—after realizing the importance of the anthropologist getting “off the verandah” ( Singer & Dakowski, 1986b ) and, instead, living among the natives—he established what he claimed was “an entirely new academic discipline” ( Leach, 1957/2000b , p. 49), now known as ethnography.

Foundations of a Man and His Methodology

Like an onion, the layers of Malinowski’s myth can be peeled back to reveal numerous inconsistencies, resulting from selective embellishments, missing details, lacks of contextualization, and perhaps just plain concoctions. Adopting a weighty ethnographic tag popularized by James Clifford (1986) , the various versions of Malinowski’s story are at best partial truths . Although divining the correct version of this story is not my goal, interrogating some of its factual bases opens a didactic narrative pathway along which to contextualize the famed “father of fieldwork” ( Thornton, 1985 , p. 8).

Both Malinowski’s class background and the role of his mother in introducing him to the work of Frazier have been scrutinized. 9 The question of class is notable if for no other reason because early ethnography—with its demands of traveling to faraway places and associated reprieve from everyday economic necessities—was thought to be an elite profession ( Nash & Wintrob, 1972 ; Tedlock, 2000 ). By the early years of his post-secondary education, Malinowski was undoubtedly familiar with The Golden Bough . The book’s focus on the worship of Diana at Nemi in southern Italy in all likelihood resonated with Malinowski, who as a sickly youngster, upon the orders of his doctors, had traveled throughout the Mediterranean with his mother ( Wayne, 1985 ); 10 and reading Frazier’s cross-cultural comparisons with “exotic” customs from around the world most certainly nourished the exceedingly ambitious Malinowski’s desire to conduct his own personal studies .

Malinowski’s journey to England was preceded by two years at Leipzig University in Germany where he was directed toward Völkerpsychologie through the work of the university rector and future “father of experimental psychology,” ( Kess, 1981 , p. 126) Wilhelm Wundt. As with his earlier path to Jagiellonian University in Poland—where his father was “a renowned professor of Slavic philology...[with] a lively interest in Polish ethnography and folklore” ( Pulman, 2004/5 , p. 126)—Malinowski’s decision to study at Leipzig was quite literally following paternal footsteps. While at Leipzig in the 1860s, Lucjan Malinowski had “broke[n] new ground in methodology” with his doctoral dissertation in Silesian dialectics ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 12). Yet the younger Malinowski, who by all reports was never close to his father ( Kubica, 1988 , p. 89; Wayne, 1985 , p. 529), apparently also chose Leipzig because of its reputable program in thermodynamics (M. W. Young, p. 128).

The decision to travel to England was indeed motivated by romantic interests. Shortly after arriving in Leipzig, Malinowski met the widowed South African pianist Annie Brunton—described by his daughter as a woman “considerably older than him” ( Wayne, 1985 , p. 531)—and the two began a stormy affair. In December 1909, when Brunton moved to London, Malinowski soon followed. He once said that “if [he] hadn’t met Mrs. Brunton [he] would never have taken up sociology” (Wayne, p. 532). Though likely an example of his characteristic hyperbole and flare for the dramatic, Brunton undoubtedly influenced the much younger “Bronius’s” intellectual growth in at least two ways. First, by pulling him from Leipzig—an institution that “represented the best of German science” ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 130) where he had the opportunity to work with a venerable master in the field 11 —to Britain, which by 1910 was a hotbed for ethnology and home to prominent figures like Edward Burnett Tylor, William H. R. Rivers, Charles Seligman, and Malinowski’s old friend Frazier. The second influence came through Brunton’s role in (re-)exposing Malinowski to music, and, by extension, to the arts in general.

One oft-cited tension in Malinowski’s psyche was the opposition between the scientist and the artist, reason and intuition, rationality and emotion ( Thornton, 1985 ; M. W. Young, 2004 ). The productive off-play of these two temperaments would serve him well—in terms of both methodological process and written product—as an ethnographer. 12 Upon arriving in Leipzig, with the intention to study the thermodynamics of liquids and gasses at “the renowned centre in Europe” for such study (M. W. Young, p. 128), one could surmise that Malinowski’s pendulum had swung sharply towards science. Annie Brunton’s greatest influence on the aspiring young scholar may have been to bring him back into balance—as turbulent as a Malinowskian balance would have been—and to open his eyes to the possibilities beyond the “best of science” that had so intrigued him years before. 13

Ethnographic Science, Ethnographic Humanity

Ethnography can take many forms and guises. Despite some commonalities in practices and politics, ethnographers adhere to multiple epistemologies and paradigmatic understandings of what constitutes good research. This creates a troublesome tension: whereas different researchers and research activities may appear the same, and may be guided by similar politics and sensibilities, they nevertheless may be foundationally grounded in different philosophies of knowledge. Malinowski, fittingly perhaps, straddled ethnography’s prime epistemic divide. Anthropology has been referred to as the social science that is closest to the humanities ( Redfield, 1953 ; Aunger, 1995 ). Ethnography, as its chief mode of research, is firmly situated at these crossroads. Yet this position is never fixed.

As ethnographic practices have spread into other disciplines, the potential outcomes and misunderstandings resulting from epistemological differences, although not always discussed, have become more pronounced. When people undertake ethnographic research in the fields of, for instance, architecture, marketing, and/or women’s studies, what are their goals and what are considered legitimate means of attaining these goals? Thomas Schwandt (2000) highlights three areas of concern surrounding qualitative inquiry, which are instructive for a discussion of ethnography in particular. I adapt them here:

Cognitive concerns surrounding how to define, justify, and legitimize claims to understanding, which might or definitively might not include questions of validity, transferability, and generalizability.

Social concerns regarding (in this case) the goals of ethnography: should they be emancipatory and transformative? Should ethnographers seek solutions/answers to problems/questions that are of direct interest to their own academic communities and/or to the communities they study? Or should they seek to understand the situations in which, and the social processes through which, human actions take place in the ultimate interest of working towards a better understanding of sociality in general as well as in the particular? Questions such as these are neither all encompassing nor mutually exclusive but they do point towards potentially stark divergences in the ethnographic enterprise.

Moral concerns as to how to “envision and occupy the ethical space” between ethnographers and those they research in responsible, obligatorily aware, and status conscious ways. (see Schwandt, 2000 , p. 200)

The first of the three areas—specifically ethnographers’ epistemological embeddedness and paradigmatic adhesions—is of most immediate concern here. Nonetheless, for the ethnographer, cognitive concerns are not neatly separated from social and moral ones. Although I save discussions of social responsibility and ethics until later in the chapter, an awareness of both their impact on, and how they are impacted by, foundations of knowledge and understandings of legitimate research are important.

Before briefly outlining the guiding paradigms surrounding ethnography, I offer a few additional caveats. Whereas defining and labeling these various epistemological and methodological frameworks is useful, it would be a mistake to give too much attention to trying to fit a particular researcher or even an instance of ethnographic research neatly into one category. Ethnographic experience is perpetually ephemeral, meaning that at times ethnographers are prone to move, transform, and shape shift between different paradigmatic classifications. Attempts to categorize also tend to highlight differences over time and disciplinary space. While differences do exist, the need to place individuals or projects in particular boxes closes down the possibility of also seeing commonalities and furthermore belies the nuanced nature of ethnographic inquiry. Nonetheless, in what follows, I label some of the traditions that ethnographers might move between and draw on variably as paradigmatic resources.

I begin, quite straightforwardly, by separating inclinations towards science and inclinations towards the arts and humanities. This can, by and large, be cast as a binary between positivism and what I will broadly call interpretivism. Although few if any contemporary ethnographers would define themselves as strict positivists, it is nonetheless necessary to discuss positivism as foundational to any social scientific enterprise. To some extent, outlining the tenets of strict positivism may be useful in explaining what most ethnographers are not. However, before dismissing it too quickly, I should point out that, particularly with regard to the mandates of certain gatekeepers of credible research reporting, ethnography is not as far removed from its positivist principles as some of its practitioners would like to think. Furthermore, there is an important post-positivist paradigm that continues to carry weight.

Positivism is premised on a belief in what is referred to as naïve realism —that is, the notion that there is a reality “out there” that can be grasped through sensory perception. As such, it holds empirical data—that which is produced though direct observations—as definitive evidence through which to construct claims to truth. In doing so, positivism prioritizes objectivity, assuming that it is possible for a researcher to detach his or herself from values, interests, or the clouding contamination of bias and prejudice. Following this formula, good research is achieved through conventional rigor—that is, dutifully following a prescribed, systematic, series of steps surrounding data accumulation and analysis. With this being the most scientific frame of reference that ethnography potentially occupies, standards of hypothesis testing and deductive reasoning are principal to its practices. In that positivism recognizes a fundamental (capital “T”) Truth, which it is believed researchers can apprehend, ethnographers anchored in this tradition are more prone to concern themselves with questions of transferability (i.e., can the findings from one setting be applied to another?) and generalizability (i.e., can the findings from a particular context be generalized on to the whole?) on the assumption that such Truth has potential relevance for a broad range of social circumstances and cultural contexts. Today all ethnographic researchers recognize the role of culture and socialization in shaping social realities; thus, strict positivism has fallen out of favor. However, post-positivist orientations towards valuing empirical evidence, making efforts toward detached objectivism, and deductive reason continue, even if researchers are less confident about the conclusions.


If the positivist epistemological branch, with its post-positivist paradigmatic inclinations, supports Malinowski the scientist, Malinowski the artist is perched on the interpretivist (or constructionist) alternative. This position, which issues from an acknowledgement of the constructed nature of all social reality, recognizes no single all-encompassing Truth, but rather multiple (small “t”) truths that are the products of human subjectivities. As such, cultural and contextual specifics are critical to understanding, and inductive reasoning becomes the privileged path to making sense of unwieldy social realities. Reality, which is shaped by experience, thus becomes something to be interpreted. Such interpretivism sees human action as inherently meaningful with meanings being processual, temporal, and historically unfinished. 14

The subjectivity of the ethnographer is quite consequential here. Under any form of interpretivism, the outcomes of researcher bias are acknowledged. Sometimes efforts are made to mitigate researchers’ subjectivities. Such techniques might involve reflexive journaling, inventorying subjectivities, and other attempts to manage and track bias ( Schwandt, 2000 , p. 207 n. 11). Yet increasingly interpretivist approaches accept that within ethnography the human is the research instrument and as such, cultural, social, and personal frames of reference are inescapable.

To repeat myself, I do not think particular researchers or specific research projects should necessarily being categorized along the broad epistemological strokes that I am painting. Although I acknowledge that many are, I think it is important to appreciate how both positivist and interpretivist foundations impact all ethnography. Indeed, I would question if a researcher with inclinations and sensibilities fully saturated in post-positivism would even fit into my rather scrupulous definition of ethnography—a confirmatory approach to assessing one’s hypothesis via the accumulation of empirical data through long-term fieldwork living as a member of a community strikes me more as a non-ethnographic form of participant observation. Nonetheless, it would be limiting to not recognize how the significance of positivist and post-positivist tenets impact ethnography.

Since Malinowski’s early-twentieth-century articulation of ethnography as a proper research method, there have been two general movements, which have overshadowed an assortment of countercurrents and inter/intra-disciplinary variations. The earlier of the two, which dominated anthropology up until the Second World War, was the movement towards legitimizing ethnography as a rigorous scientific method on par with those practiced in the supposed “harder” natural sciences. The latter part of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of a more humanistic acceptance of ethnographic research. Dennison Nash and Ronald Wintrob (1972) have suggested this may have more to do with what is institutionally accepted as legitimate research and how that shapes what aspects of the research process the researcher is willing to disclose than with what researchers themselves believe. As evidenced in his early ethnographic writings and actualized through the posthumous publishing of his field diaries (see “Malinowski’s literary (re)turn”), Malinowski, although very much a researcher of this earlier era, personified this crucial ethnographic binary.

In concluding what has been outlined, I think it is useful to highlight two pervading (non-exclusive) sets of questions that are at the core of these paradigmatic tensions: one surrounds the basis of truth, and the second is concerned with the positioning of the researcher in respect to the research endeavor.

Is truth something that exists independently to be discovered by researchers? Are truths the products of subjectively authored realities to be grasped by researchers? Or are these subjective “truthful realities” to be engaged with the researcher as part of the truth-making process?

Ethnography is defined in part by its participant-observation mandate of researcher involvement. Yet should this constitute taking up an inside/involved standpoint from which to make detached observations? Should it be based on a deeply engaged experiential understanding? Or should researchers understand themselves as active participants in shaping the social world they conduct research in?

The answers to such questions may look very different depending on the disciplinary, institutional, and personal groundings of the researcher; the standards of the outlets where they are seeking to publish, publicize, or apply their work; and/or the specific uses to which the findings of a particular project will be put. For example, commercial ethnographers working under the dual pressures of time and a need to communicate applicable findings, both customary in the business world ( Ehn & Löfgren, 2009 ), will feel compelled to adopt a more scientifically precise mode of inquiry and reporting that steers clear of the theoretical complexities and deliberations commonly found within academia.

Malinowski Encounters the Cambridge School

In addition to his pursuit of Annie Brunton, Malinowski had a second romantic interest in England. Since a childhood visit with his mother, young Bronius had cultivated an intense attachment to anything having to do with Britain. While crossing the English Channel by ferry, he wrote an essay-letter to a Polish friend in which he confessed to having “a highly developed Anglomania” and “an almost mystic cult of British culture” ( Wayne, 1985 , p. 532).

It appears that his interests in anthropology were firmly set while making this journey, for once in England, he wasted little time traveling to Cambridge and introducing himself to Rivers and Alfred Cort Haddon—two men who had brought ethnological acclaim to the school by way of their 1898 Expedition to the Torres Straits (see Kuper, 1996 ; Stocking, 1983b ; Urry, 1972 ). Either through these men or his own initiative, Malinowski soon got to know the other members of England’s leading circle of ethnologists 15 who collectively came to be called the “Cambridge School.” 16 He arrived in March 1910 and by that summer, presumably on Haddon’s advice ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 68), Malinowski was registered for classes at the London School of Economics. There he would study under Charles Seligman, who became both mentor and something of a supportive older brother to him (M. W. Young, p. 160).

The first two decades of the twentieth century have been described as a period of re-orientation away from “the Tylorian domination of anthropology,” with its focus on culture and custom, 17 and towards a serious investment in ways of going about collecting and using data ( Urry, 1972 , p. 48). This was a time when, on both sides of the Atlantic, the field of social/cultural anthropology formally crystallized around specific sets of prescribed methods and the conferring of degrees. Malinowski entered the world of British anthropology soon after embarking on his Pacific islands research, at precisely the moment when the decades-long clamorings for a definitive method were reaching a cusp. In a 1909 meeting of the principals from Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics, it had been decided that “ethnography” would be the term used for “descriptive accounts of non-literate peoples”—as distinct from the historical and comparative-based ethnology ( Radcliffe-Brown, 1952 , p. 276; see also note 15).

The cutting-edge movements of the day were toward “intensive work,” which had been outlined thoroughly (against the older standard of survey work) by Rivers in 1913 :

A typical piece of intensive work is one in which the worker lives for a year or more among a community of perhaps four or five hundred people and studies every detail of their life and culture; in which he comes to know every member of the community personally; in which he is not content with generalized information, but studies every feature of life and custom in concrete detail and by means of the vernacular language. It is only by such work that one can realize the immense extent of the knowledge which is now awaiting the inquirer, even in places where the culture has already suffered much change. It is only by such work that it is possible to discover the incomplete and even misleading character of much of the vast mass of survey work which forms the existing material of anthropology. [quoted in Kuper, 1996 , p. 7]

This passage is significant in demonstrating the extent to which Malinowski’s “research revolution” was already in the thoughts and minds—if not practices—of many of the Cambridge School scholars who mentored him (see Urry, 1972 ; Langham, 1981 ). Since returning from the Torres Straits expedition in 1899, Haddon had “busily propagandized” the need for “fresh investigations in the field” conducted by trained anthropologists ( Stocking, 1983b , p. 80; see also Haddon, 1903 ).

Writing in 1912, Robert Marett had stressed that a “conscious method” was needed in anthropology and sociology. Described by Adam Kuper (1996) as “one of the last of the armchair anthropologists” (p. 7), even Marett recognized the merits of intensive work and intimate research. Indeed, Marett could have been dictating to his future “secretary Malinowski” (see the following section), just weeks before the latter embarked on his own field research, when he wrote:

[It is] most important at the present juncture that some anthropologist should undertake the supplementary work of showing how, even where the regime of custom is most absolute, the individual constantly adapts himself to its injunctions, or rather adapts these to his own purpose, with more or less conscious and intelligent discrimination. The immobility of custom, I believe, is largely the effect of distance. Look more closely and you will see perpetual modification in process. [quoted in Wallis, 1957 , p. 790—emphasis added]

As with many myths, Malinowski’s serves the euhemeristic function of deification (see Stocking, 1983b ), whereas a thorough examination of the intellectual environment in which he came of age strongly suggests that his pioneering work was more straightforwardly a product of the social forces and prevailing ideas on how to best research, document, and understand (and in many instances ultimately manage) human difference. This minimization of his agency and foresight gets magnified through the facts of how he came to New Guinea and eventually the Trobriand Islands, yet in surprisingly different ways from how the well-rehearsed myth of ethnography’s origins represents it. What is perhaps most telling is the extent to which, although he may have strived to, Malinowski was never successful in separating himself from the colonial impulses that characterized his upbringing and training.

Malinowski’s Journey to the Western Pacific

Even at its most scientific, ethnography is resolutely a human science conducted in a real-world laboratory. As such, the ethnographic enterprise is saturated with circumstances, situations, and personalities that are less anticipated and controllable than its research reporting typically presents. Tedlock elaborates:

No matter how much care the ethnographer devotes to the project, its success depends upon more than individual effort. It is tied to outside forces, including local, national, and sometimes even international relationships that make research possible as well as to a readership that accepts the endeavor as meaningful. [2000, p. 466]

Often the messiness involved when one (or more) human beings commits to long-term research living among a community of human beings, who ideally and inevitably are continuing along the unforeseeable journeys that are their lives, is either managed through a series of entertaining, at times instructive, but usually incidental anecdotes or kept completely out of the research report. Again, this probably has more to do with accepted conventions of academic legitimacy than it does with particular ethnographers’ lack of sophistication in recognizing the variability of their research subjects’ lives. Nevertheless, conceived of in this way, the ethnographic project with its unwieldiness and unanticipated turns, has some notable parallels to the tradition of nineteenth-century travelogue reporting that the Cambridge School had been so interested in moving away from. One of the first great episodes along this adventure involves the miscellaneous twists and turns that lead ethnographers to their chosen field sites. 18

In many respects, Malinowski would play the role of “bemused bystander” ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 245) in the sequence of events that led to the start of his 1914 western Pacific fieldwork. He had expressed to Seligman that he was willing to spend up to two years in the field, and, perhaps more diplomatically than intellectually, seemed content to let his various academic patrons—among them Haddon, Rivers, Seligman, and Marett—wrangle over his ultimate destination. It appears that Seligman, with the backing of Haddon, did the legwork of securing two years’ worth of funding. The combination of Haddon’s influence and Seligman’s initiative held sway, and Malinowski’s fieldwork was designed as a follow-up study of Seligman’s earlier expedition to British New Guinea. Marett is widely credited with securing Malinowski’s passage to the Pacific by enlisting him as secretary to the anthropology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, which took place in Melbourne that year ( Kuper, 1996 , pp. 11–12)—a position that brought with it travel funding. 19

Stocking (1992 , p. 242) has outlined the precarious position that Malinowski found himself in following the outbreak of war in Europe. Whereas the Malinowski myth focuses on his “enemy alien” status as a citizen of Austria-Hungary, the most consequential outcome of the Great War’s outbreak for Malinowski appears to have been a lack of access to personal funds back in Poland, which placed him at the mercy of local officials and made him dependent on the good will of members of the Australian scientific community. 20 The myth of being stranded appears to be a fabrication, for Kuper (1996) contends that “all enemy scientists... were allowed to return to Europe” (p. 12).

Getting Off the Veranda

Malinowski’s celebrated epiphany that

the anthropologist must relinquish his [ sic ] comfortable position in the long chair on the veranda of the missionary compound, Government station, or planter’s bungalow, where armed with pencil and notebook and at times with a whisky and soda, he has been accustomed to collect statements from informants, write down stories, and fill out sheets of paper with savage texts [ Malinowski, 1926/1948 , pp. 146–147]

appears to have been inspired by both scholarly ambition 21 and an interest in preserving indigenous customs that he quite literally saw as threatened by the civilizing mission. The early sections of Malinowski’s published Diary (1967/1989) illustrate his growing distaste for the missionaries he lived among during his initial field stay on Mailu:

These people destroy the natives’ joy in life; they destroy the psychological raison d’être. And what they give in return is completely beyond the savages. 22 They struggle consistently and ruthlessly against everything old and create new needs, both material and moral. No question but that they do harm. [p. 41]

Malinowski’s ire was chiefly directed towards Reverend William J. Saville, with whom he lived as a paying guest. 23 Saville, who with his wife had served on Mailu since 1900, at one point wrote Haddon with his own impressions of Malinowski:

You ask me about Malinowsky (I forget how you write his name)... I must candidly confess that I hope we shall never have to entertain that gentleman again... I admire his enthusiasm for his work, but he spoiled that altogether by not being intelligibly able to understand that other people also might have a right to interests in which they are much justified and just as likely to be quite enthusiastic as he was about his... Dr. Malinowsky seemed unfortunately to think that our time and that of our people should be given up to him. He very likely did not mean this, but his experience with men seemed to be of the smallest and he was pretty much like a child with a new toy. The problems he was trying to work out were of the keenest interest to me, but the minds of some of us must have relaxations from one subject, by the tackling of others. Had he been a man, who would enter into the position and minds of another , whether native or white, he could have got twice as much information in one twelfth of the time. A native is not a class room student, and a native likes a bit of fun and a game, Dr. M. seems to understand neither, nor could he understand anybody who did. [ M. W. Young, 2004 , pp. 357-358—emphasis added] 24

The described intensity and implied ambition are certainly in line with what we know about Malinowski’s personality. Although Saville’s account likely contains some embellishments, this early documentation of an observer observed ( Stocking, 1983a ) is enormously illuminating and offers important lessons for any young, zealous ethnographer. As a beginning researcher, “Malinowsky” made several flawed assumptions. Even prior to the decision to “camp... right in their villages” ( Malinowski, 1922/1966 , p. 6), his ethnographic fervor would have motivated him to “push research beyond its previous limits in depth, in width, or in both” (p. xvii).

Throughout his early research, Malinowski was regularly reading Notes and Queries in Anthropology as well as works directly authored by Rivers (see Malinowski, 1967/1989 , p. 30, 64). Notes and Queries was the classic Royal Anthropological Institute field guide, by then in its fourth edition, designed to promote “far greater accuracy of detail... in the description of the social institutions of savages and barbarous races” in order to “enable those who are not anthropologists themselves to supply the information which is wanted for the scientific study of anthropology at home” ( Urry, 1972 , p. 46, 47). It had been produced largely under the direction of Edward Burnett Tylor—the monumental figure of nineteenth century British anthropology—and, in the words of Tedlock, was “filled with ethnocentric ideas and leading questions” (2000, p. 456). Early editions of the handbook were primarily intended for travelers, merchants, colonial officials, and missionaries, but by the start the twentieth century, as Rivers and others were advocating for an end to “armchair” theorizing and the need for trained investigators conducting long-term field stays ( J. L. Myers, 1923 ), Notes and Queries was in increasing demand within academic circles. The 1912 edition, the one that Malinowski brought to the field with him, had been the first to include a general chapter on methods. Thus “Malinowsky,” being both ambitious and new to field research and making the critical mistake of thinking that natives represented “walking data,” might have earnestly followed the direction of this research guide and, as Saville’s note suggests, immediately sought to question the Magi (people of Mailu) on anything and everything possible. 25

Rivers, who introduced many of the methodological innovations into the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries , was progressive enough in his thinking to advocate the importance of narrative inquires that allowed interviewees “to talk freely on subjects or independently to volunteer information” as opposed to direct questions and answers ( Urry, 1972 , p. 51). 26 Yet there was a conspicuous gap between Rivers’ ideas regarding best research practices and what he actually did in the field. For example, Rivers’ most recognized contribution to anthropology, then and now, is a highly structured genealogical method—used by Malinowski (see 1922/1966 , p.14)—which most certainly encouraged direct questioning and answering ( Stocking, 1983b ). Furthermore, many key tenets of Rivers’ “intensive study,” for instance the importance of studying native customs “by means of the vernacular language” (see “Malinowski encounters the Cambridge School”), were practices he did not follow himself. Rivers also very much stayed on the verandah. For example, in his celebrated “several months” ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 162) of field research among the Todas of Southern India, which Stocking (1983b) regards as his only research attempt that verged on “intensive study” (p. 89), Rivers stayed in the resort station house, which “catered to the needs and past times of colonials” ( Singer & Dakowski, 1986a ). One can imagine the “Rider Haggard of anthropology”—as Malinowski referred to Rivers ( Stocking, 1998 , p. 268)—sipping whisky and soda as he went about filling his many sheets of paper with “savage texts.”

Rivers’ failure to act upon his own ethnographic innovations, in my reading of this history, justifies his secondary status. Marilyn Strathern (1987) warns us that ideas alone can be deceptively ambiguous; what matters is practice, or the “effectiveness of the vision [and] the manner in which an idea [is] implemented” (p. 253). This insight is no less true today than it was a hundred years ago. You could even, quite easily I believe, make the case that, with the expansion of higher education and most particularly academic publishing, the pressure to present a new idea, to say something different from what has come before, has increased exponentially. Thus the need—every five years it seems—to announce a new “historical moment” along the qualitative research timeline ( Denzin & Lincoln, 2008 ; see also note 1). Without neglecting or condoning the now well-documented and discussed wrongs of ethnography’s past, 27 the most novel of practices for moving forward may involve the reinvestment in and scholarly extrapolation of the merits of the pioneers.

At the start of his time in Mailu, Malinowski would have likely been situated somewhere between the ideals his mentor preached and the actualities that he practiced. The novice researcher’s colonial temperature can be gauged from the inventory of supplies he purchased prior to leaving Europe, which (among the expected medicines, first-aid and camping supplies) included tins of sliced bacon, jugged hare, roast turkey, kippered herring, lobster, oysters, Swiss cheese, Dutch beans, Spanish olives, Suchard’s vanilla chocolate, Peter’s milk chocolate, six different jams, dried fruit, biscuits, and morning tea, two bottles of French brandy, an “oil-cotton coat with special collar and sou’wester,” a “Cawnpore sunhelmet complete with oilskin cover,” two pairs of “light-coloured puttees,” two pairs of “colonial boots,” two Norfolk jackets and breeches, two-dozen “custom-made” notebooks, nine writing pads, three-bottles of ink, six dozen wax cylinder records, a quarter-plate Klimax camera, and a single toothbrush ( M. W. Young, 2004 , pp. 264–267). 28 One should take care to consider this list in its proper historical context—that is, early-twentieth-century England—and certainly Malinowski’s mentors had a hand in advising him on what to take. The point is that coming from a context that represented the pinnacle of coloniality, despite his dislike for missionaries and misgivings about the colonial enterprise, it would have been impossible for Malinowski to be anything but colonial. 29

Ethnography’s Colonial Impetuses

Malinowski’s list of fieldwork necessities gives us pause to consider what tools and luxuries ethnographers take with them to the field. More than a delineation of specific items—although certainly the technologies of research demand some consideration of these—this issue is more productively explored by reflecting on the relationship between researcher and research communities, and how what ethnographers choose to take comes to define them.

In Malinoswki’s time, ethnography was unmistakably a colonial project with the quality and distribution of ethnographic knowledge conforming to the borders of empires ( Thornton, 1983 ). Its continuities with European expansion are unmistakable. According to C. Loring Brace (2005) , perceptions of categorical differences between groups of people—which we can consider in terms of both physical and cultural differences—emerged with advancements in nautical technology and navigational capabilities starting in the fifteenth century. Where prior travel, whether by land or coast-hugging ships, occurred in increments of twenty-five miles or less, developments in maritime machinery and knowledge enabled travelers to set out from a port in one location and arrive in destinations where people and lifeways looked drastically different. Magnified through Age-of-Exploration demands for increased trade to support Europe’s growing populations and industries as well as Enlightenment emphases on rationality and scientific understanding ( Robinson, 1983/2000 ), accounting for human difference became an important vocation.

This effort to understand and explain differences in how people looked and lived is very much at the heart of what was thought of as anthropology during the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. By the close of the latter, with the project of colonial conquest reaching its apex in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, the endeavor to document the lifeways of different social groups was seen as serving the multiple purposes of mapping human social evolution—primarily as a means of rationalizing imperial dominion—recording rapidly changing cultures, and figuring out how to better administer colonial subjects. Through the efforts of members of the Cambridge School and cross-Atlantic counterparts associated with the Bureau of American Ethnology in the United States ( Judd, 1967 ), travel and voyages were scientificized as expeditions, and explorers, once the instruments of data collection about supposed “savage” ways of life, were replaced by ethnologists, ethnographers, and other types of anthropologic fieldworkers. Likewise the travelogue gave way to the ethnographic manuscript ( Urry, 1972 ; Thornton, 1983 ).

The fact that in many cases—Malinowski’s certainly being one—there were enough colonial agents already present in a remote field site to cast most ethnographers as familiar (i.e., a typical white person), and only circumstantially as oddities, is a telling comment on the lack of field work isolation even during this early period.

Indeed Robert Lowie gives an amusing account of once being accosted by a young Crow Indian about his business on their reservation. When Lowie, attempting to explain the business of anthropology with childlike simplicity, said, “I am here to talk with your old men to find out how they used to hunt and play and dance,” the young man—who apparently had never been off the reservation—replied, “Oh, I see, you are an ethnologist” ( Lowie, 1959 , p. 60). 30 This can be contrasted against situations in which community members have no understanding of what an ethnographer is or does and therefore make sense of a researcher’s presence through their own cultural frames of reference ( Pouwer, 1973 ; McLaren, 1991 ). Although Lowie’s work on the Crow reservation took place long after the (idealized) first-contact situation, it speaks to the extent that ethnographic researchers were in many cases fixtures of a larger imperial apparatus.

The emphasis on studying small-scale “non-Western” societies—either in the interest of documenting what were erroneously thought to be rapidly disappearing cultures ( Hallowell, 1960/2002 ) or as a means of offering profitable cross-cultural comparisons through presentations of values and practices that were sufficiently distinct from the researcher’s own—curtailed ethnographers’ interest in fitting in. For such societies were usually located on the frontier of imperial expansion: for nineteenth-century America, they were communities of native peoples in the manifest destinations of the territories to the west; for Europeans (most notably the British), they were in Africa, India, and the islands of the Pacific.

Reflecting on the rational standpoint that, at the time, was considered essential to these cross cultural investigations, Johannes Fabian (2000 , p. 7) remarks on the varying amounts of “protective equipment” that aided pseudo-scientific travelers in maintaining physical and intellectual distance. Certainly the “necessities” that researchers take with them into the field and the decisions they make about how to present themselves should be considered legacies of this endeavor. Malinowski’s list shows an obvious lack of concern with integrating and perhaps the intention of presenting his colonialist superiority, possibly even to the other Westerners who were already there. He might not be blamed since the level of integration—or more precisely the level of isolation from the contaminating influence and company of white men—he ultimately aspired to was unprecedented within the Cambridge School. 31 Malinowski was not interested in presenting himself as a native. He was interested in “wak[ing] up every morning to a day, presenting itself to [him] more or less as it does to a native” ( Malinowski, 1922/1966 , p. 7). He had no desire to become a Trobriander but rather an intense desire to take on a native standpoint. What he appears to have understated is any consideration for the extent to which his self-presentations hindered his efforts to cease being “a disturbing element in the tribal life” (p. 8).

This is in stark contrast to later ethnographies, particularly in the postcolonial era, where researchers and the communities they study do not look, and in fact might not be, all that different. Today we see more conscious efforts on the part of researchers to present themselves in fashions that facilitate their fitting in, and, one may presume, to conceal those aspects of their personalities or those day-to-day “necessities” that most strikingly mark them as different. For example, in his research among Arab professionals in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Brazil, John Tofik Karam (2007) took several intentional steps to polish his appearance in the interest of meeting the expectations of the people he worked among, these included upgrading his wardrobe and cutting his dreadlocked hair. 32 Comparatively, in my own research among underground hip hop musicians ( Harrison, 2009 ), I very consciously wore my hair in dreadlocks and purchased a book bag displaying a fashionable hip hop label, which helped mark me as someone involved in the scene.

An Intersubjective Science

As research practitioners, ethnographers intrinsically operate in the physical, social, and psychological spaces of the in-between. This position is reflected in ethnography’s guiding vantage point, participant observation, which is regularly (although erroneously) equated with the methodology itself. Ideally, the classic ethnographer was at once a participant and an observer. Such liminality extends from personal situatedness to the realm of societal belonging. Although ethnographic writings frequently celebrate instances of researchers being accepted by, and thus belonging to, the communities they study, these relationships are in most cases conditional. In fact, in classic ethnographic discourse it was just as common for a community to be represented as belonging to the researcher (i.e., “my village” or “my people”) or for there to be suspicions surrounding an ethnographer “going (too far) native.” Even in instances where researchers choose to study the communities they belong to—referred to as native ethnography 33   — the acts of conducting research can serve to extract the researcher from their community in meaningful and potentially consequential ways (see Brayboy & Deyhle, 2000 ). Furthermore, there is a popular anthropological wisdom, which I believe has more than a shred of truth to it, suggesting that those most drawn to the discipline have difficulty fitting in within their own societies.

I mention all this to shed greater contextual light on the interpersonal negotiations that ethnographers must persistently grapple with. The everyday practice of ethnographic participation, observation, inquiry, and engagement marks another zone of in-betweenness where relationships, understandings, and methodological scripts are never settled. In this regard, the ethnographer is a perpetual improviser and social bricoleur, both “adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks” ( Lévi-Strauss, 1962 , p. 17) and cobbling together a social role out of whatever unexpected rapids the stream of ethnographic experience holds. As such a strict set of prescribed methods simply does not suffice.

Ethnographic research is dialogic, intersubjective, and intrinsically incomplete ( Kondo, 1986 ). Its multiplex methods start from an act of intervention into the fabric of daily life in which the researcher—their presence and behavior—is continuously being interpreted by the fashioners of the social world they wish to examine ( Williams, 1996 ). At times this negotiation of observation and presentation compels researchers to subordinate certain aspects of their identities ( Tsuda, 1998 ) or to embrace the idea that the research process can be transformative for both ethnographers and members of the communities they work within ( D’Amico-Samuels, 1991/1997 ). Peter McLaren insists that contemporary field researchers must consider the conditions and ends to which they “enter into relations of cooperation, mutuality and reciprocity with those whom [they] research” (1991, p. 150). Questions of who the ethnographer is and what their business is within the community are part and parcel to this process. This can lead to specific inquiries regarding sources of funding and institutional affiliations, which have the potential to betray ethnography’s more benign characteristics.

Technological Rapport

Another kind of “protective equipment” frequently deployed by ethnographers in the field is the technologies of recording that they take with them into research. In Malinowski’s case, we see the instruments of writing field notes, namely ink, writing pads, and notebooks, as well as wax cylinders for making field recordings. 34 For both their material presence and role in data collection and analysis not to mention their use in maintaining communication with the world beyond “the field,” these instruments can significantly affect the depth and texture of ethnographic relations. Even the activity of field note writing (typically) marks participant researchers as different from members of the community where research is conducted. That is, although the researcher might take part in all the same activities as “natives,” at the end of the day—when “natives” retire to do whatever it is they do—the ethnographer goes home to write about culture ( Clifford, 1986 ; Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995 ).

Over recent decades this process of documentation has evolved to include possibly more conspicuous technologies (depending on the setting). Malinowski’s Klimax camera was certainly one of his heftier purchases. The introduction of new technological machinery—for instance iPads or do-it-all smart phones—has the potential to disrupt the everyday life today’s ethnographers seek to observe. Erica Brady (1999) explains how, just as the ethnographer of the early twentieth century became a common part of the typically observed community landscape, these technologies of recording should be understood as things that ethnographic subjects respond to and form relationships with, often as a means of serving their own interest (see Menon, 2010 ). The miniaturization and global proliferation of technologies ( Appadurai, 1990 ) over the course of the twentieth century has made them increasingly more familiar in all “fields.” Even so, their notable introduction into everyday social settings in which one would not typically find them tends to highlight the researcher–subject dichotomy and extraction-of-data agenda in ways that many contemporary ethnographers would rather minimize. In this interest, various strategies are employed. These range from using jottings as a technique of clandestine field note writing to efforts towards familiarizing research subjects with a piece of recording technology by making it available to them for non-research purposes—for example, allowing children to play on one’s laptop computer prior to using it to record an interview or using a camera to take family photos in addition to more intentionally ethnographic ones. 35

In an effort to prioritize equitable social relationships over extractive research ones, some ethnographers choose to participate more and record less. This is done with the awareness that experiences of recording (for instance witnessing an event through a video camera lens) are distinct and atypical forms of participation with potentially distorting effects. Indeed, even Malinowski recommended that:

it is good for the Ethnographer sometimes to put aside that camera, note book and pencil, and to join in himself [ sic ] in what is going on... Out of such plunges into the life of the native... I have carried away a distinct feeling that their behavior, their manner of being, in all sorts of tribal transactions, became more transparent and easily understandable than it had before. [1922/1966, pp. 21–22]

Of course, this dichotomy gets collapsed within paradigmatic outlooks that recognize the researcher as having a role in actively constructing the social environment they study (see the earlier discussion).

At the same time, many sites of contemporary ethnography are increasingly saturated with technologies of recording—such as smart phones that allow for photography, video, and sound recording all at one time—making the activity of recording and the introduction of a technology nothing particularly out of the ordinary. On the surface this ubiquity of recordings may be viewed as benefiting the project of documenting native life without having the documentation process or technologies disturb its rhythms and fabric. However, this simultaneously introduces new sets of issues. These particularly concern the minimization of traditional ethnographic authority, the extent to which ethnographic research and researchers have become surveillable, and possible conflicts and contradictions surrounding who must (and who must not) adhere to institutional regulations. Ultimately, such developments have the potential to augment, jeopardize, and transform the ethnographic project, perhaps all at once.

At the height of anthropology’s “crisis of representation” (see “Malinowski’s literary (re)turn”), Geertz astutely commented that, traditionally:

[t]he ability of [ethnographers] to get us to take what they say seriously has less to do with either a factual look or an air of conceptual elegance than it has with their capacity to convince us that what they say is a result of their having actually penetrated (or, if you prefer, been penetrated by) another form of life, of having, one way or another, truly “been there.” [1988, 4–5]

An historical arc can be drawn starting from an era when ethnographic accounts, by names like Malinowski and Mead, were seldom challenged on the basis that, quite simply, no other trained researcher had been there to a period of ethnographic proliferation where multiple researchers had worked within the same societies. Even accounting for the half century between their studies and the shifts in styles of ethnographic reporting, Annette Weiner’s (1976) Trobriand Islands ethnography is notably different from Malinowski’s ( Jolly, 1992 ). A few years later, Derek Freeman (1983) was attacking Mead’s work in Samoa (1928/1961) on the basis of both her methods and findings. 36

In addition, during the post-World War II decades, members of what for lack of a better term might be called “traditionally studied communities” began having a greater presence in anthropology. 37 Though there had been a long disciplinary history of native community members working closely with ethnographers, and in some cases being encouraged to publish their own work and/or enter the discipline ( Lassiter, 2005 ), initially such key informants were regarded primarily as tools who through their organic insider-ness could get “the inside scoop” ( Narayan, 1993 , p. 672). In contrast, the native anthropologist who came of age during that latter half of the twentieth century brought with them “a set of theories based on non-Western precepts and assumptions” ( D. Jones, 1970 , p. 251) with the critical politics of post-colonialism to support them. Even outside these trained professionals, the one-time omniscient voice of the lone ethnographer who had “been there” was additionally challenged by community members who were often Western educated and had both access to the research that had been conducted on them and avenues for talking back.

These late-twentieth-century challenges to ethnographic authority are magnified in the early twenty-first century context of widespread social and data-based documentation, social networking, and what Andrea Fontana and James H. Frey (2000 , p. 647) refer to as “interview society.” Social media—for instance, a YouTube video of an event that has been posted and commented on for months prior to the time necessary for a peer-reviewed publication—makes it possible for virtually anyone to feel as if they have been there . 38 As John L. Jackson (2012) has recently pointed out, under many of today’s ethnographic conditions it is quite easy to follow a researcher’s backstage activities. Furthermore, from blogs to online (customer) reviews of ethnographic texts, the possibilities for public comment have enabled research subjects, as well as everyday people, to engage in public dialogues about research. In short, modes of ethnographic inquiry and reporting are no longer the exclusive province of trained academics ( Holmes & Marcus, 2008 ), with both the process of research and the scrutiny of research reporting open to wider circles of participants.

Jackson describes the “internet as a mechanism for humbling ethnographic voyeurism” (2012, p. 495). Indeed, the emergence of these new modes of dialogue may mark the future of ethnography, but the multitude of voices and the potential for rhetoric (particularly among those with little to no social research background) to trump careful reflection and grounded analysis within the public domain may signal the amplification of what some already regard as an unproductive methodological quagmire.

That academic ethnographers, on the basis of their training, disciplinary identities, and institutional affiliations are required to follow not only important ethical principles but also institutional regulations—most notably in the form of institutional review board (IRB) compliance—which often appear to be more interested in protecting the institution from lawsuits than in protecting human subjects ( Lincoln & Tierney, 2004 ), creates further complications in an age when the conducting and broadcasting of personal studies is so pervasive. Following the 1970s “Belmont Report” (1979) , IRBs were set up to “ensure freedom from harm for human subjects, to establish the likelihood of beneficence for a larger group (of similar research participants), and to ensure that subjects’ consent to participate in research is fully and authentically informed” ( Lincoln, 2005 , p. 174). Where human subjects’ protections were initially directed towards research in health, they were soon applied to all interactive research on people. Among qualitative researchers there have always been question regarding IRB regulations’ applicability to studies as benign as oral histories or as unpredictable (i.e., difficult to outline in an IRB protocol) as ethnography, 39 as well as concerns about the ability of IRB members—most of whom come from the “harder sciences”—to understand and appreciate what ethnographers do. One constant case for comparison, which perhaps most effectively brings to light many of the grievances of contemporary ethnographers operating in environments of ubiquitous social documentations and media, is with journalists who in many ways operate similarly to qualitative researchers but are not bound to the same ethnical principals or, more importantly, regulatory constraints.

Malinowski “Checks Out” the Trobriands

Malinowski’s regulatory constraints seem to have been few. He appears to have arrived at his ultimate ethnographic destination—the Trobriand Island of Kiriwina—somewhat serendipitously. What started as a one-month stop along the way to New Guinea’s northern coast—“to get an idea of what was going on [in the Trobriands],” he reported to Seligman (who presumably wanted him to go elsewhere), assuring him that the stay was only temporary ( Stocking, 1992 , p. 249)—resulted in “about two years” ( Malinowski, 1922/1966 , p. xvi) of field research. Yet this escape from colonially infested Mailu to the uncontaminated Trobriands was not as isolated as the “off the verandah” legend and Malinowski himself portray it. Early in Argonauts’ famous first chapter, Malinowski outlines the proper conditions for ethnographic work :

It must be far enough away [from the company of other white men] not to become a permanent milieu in which you live and from which you emerge at fixed hours only to “do the village.” It should not even be near enough to fly to at any moment for recreation. For the native is not the natural companion to a white man , and after you have worked with him [ sic ] for several hours... you will naturally hanker after the company of your own kind. But if you are alone in a village beyond reach of this, you go for a solitary walk for an hour or so, return again and then quite naturally seek out the natives’ society, this time as a relief from loneliness, just as you would any other companionship. [pp. 6–7—emphasis added]

Stocking (1992) refers to Malinowski’s “aloneness” among the Trobrianders as “relative rather than ‘absolute’” (p. 251). Should he have had a hankering, Malinowski could seek the company of his “own kind” just a few miles away. At the time Malinowski arrived on Kiriwina looking to pitch his tent, the largest Trobriand Island had both a hospital and jail; moreover, its resident magistrate had recently “persuaded” the Kiriwinians to line the paths of the island with 120,000 coconut trees by “imposing stiff penalties for failure to do so” ( Stocking, 1992 , p. 249). Seligman had already conducted some preliminary fieldwork there and, as Michael W. Young explains, the Trobriands had developed quite a reputation among colonial observers for its unique virtues—not the least of which surrounded the burgeoning popular image of its “chiefly aristocracies and exotic dancers” as “part noble savage[s], part licentious sybarite[s]” 40 (quoted in Stocking, 1992 , p. 249). One of these early observers was travel writer Beatrice Grimshaw, who nominated Kiriwina as “among the most civilized” places in British Papua New Guinea ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 380). Malinowski has been credited for shifting the anthropological lens from searching for and trying to represent pure cultural forms to understanding societies in the context of colonially induced change ( Kluckholn, 1943 ; Fardon, 1990 ). Yet from his impetus to get away from missionaries to the appeal of “Trobriand beauties,” Malinowski’s efforts to extol the virtues of his new methodology appear to be lodged in the allure, albeit a fabricated one, of the pure and untouched exotic.

Alternative “Fields”

Traditionally the ethnographic “field” has been conceived of as remote, non-Western, and to some degree exotic. This was largely a remnant of evolutionary anthropology’s emphasis on comparative (cross-cultural) analysis through holistic examinations of small-scale societies that differed significantly from the West. Yet there are important ethnographic traditions, mostly coming out of sociology, that were notably closer to home. W. E. B. DuBois’s late nineteenth century resident study of Black life in Philadelphia, published as The Philadelphia Negro (1899/1973), should be considered one of the earliest examples of urban ethnographic study. 41 Though much of DuBois’s research consisted of detailed questionnaires to residents of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, his taking up residence “in the heart of the community to be studied” ( Aptheker, 1973 , p. 6), his regular house to house visits to virtually all the homes in the ward, and his propensity to align with the Black people of Philadelphia and, at times, stand in militaristic opposition to what was at best a stance of paternalistic benevolence held by the project’s sponsors, retrospectively marks the Philadelphia study as profoundly ethnographic. DuBois would go on to do similar field research throughout the South while at Atlanta University (1898; 1903/1996).

Far and away the most celebrated ethnographic traditions practiced outside of anthropology came from a collection of researchers associated with the University of Chicago department of sociology. The “Chicago School,” 42 in a general sense, formed around the combined influences of Malinowskian fieldwork methodologies and German phenomenological theory ( J. S. Jones, 2010 ). Through their conceptualization of urban life as an assemblage of “natural areas” or “little communities,” researchers affiliated with the Chicago School, under the direction and/or influence of scholars like Robert E. Park, W. I. Thomas, E. W. Burgess, and later Everett Hughes and Herbert Blumer ( Becker, 1999 ; Vidich & Lyman, 2000 ) imagined the city as a social laboratory through which to examine secular differences—primarily oriented around ethnicity and various forms of “civic otherness.” Between the 1920s and the early 1960s, the Chicago School released a series of ethnographic studies of specific aspects of urban life. Among the most notable were Nels Anderson’s (1923/1961) sympathetic account of the life of the hobo, Frederick Thrasher’s (1927) pioneering work on the urban geography of gangs, Louis Wirth’s (1928) historically informed study of the social isolation of ghetto life among Jewish immigrants, several important studies of Black urban life by E. Franklin Frazier (1932 ; 1939 ; 1957 ) and St. Claire Drake & Horace Clayton (1945/1993) , and William Foot Whyte’s “participant observation” among Italian American youth residing in Boston’s North End (1943/1981). Despite their more proximate ethnographic settings, most of these works conformed to the anthropological tradition of otherizing by focusing on “urban groups whose ways of life were below or outside the purview of the respectable middle class” ( Vidich & Lyman, 2000 , p. 49). 43 Indeed, when Howard Becker described the virtues of the “Chicago way” as having “all the romance of anthropology but [you] could sleep in your own bed and eat decent food” (1999, p. 8), we can imagine a romance different from Malinowski’s with Annie Brunton and all things British, and rather resembling the intrigues which drew him to Kiriwina or, for that matter, might draw a Swedish tourist to attempt personal studies in 1970s Harlem.

Other notable studies that employed “the approach of the cultural anthropologist” to what could be described as closer-to-home communities in more than just a geographic sense include Helen and Robert Lynd’s (1929/1956) study of a compact, homogenous, representative American city—“ Middletown ,” also known as Muncie, Indiana (see also Lynd & Lynd, 1937 ); August B. Hollingshead’s “typical midwestern community,” “ Elmtown ” (1949/1975) ; and W. Loyd Warner’s Yankee City Series (see Warner, 1963 ). Despite the classic place of these middle-of-the-road American ethnographic studies in sociological history ( Gillin, 1957 ), both the Lynds’ study of Muncie and Warner’s “Yankee City,”—which was known to be Newburyport, Massachusetts—received considerable criticism. 44

One of the more remarkable critiques of the Middletown studies came from Dr. Hillyer Hawthorne Straton, minister of the First Baptist Church of Muncie and a neighbor of one of the families that was prominently featured in the Lynds’ study. Straton’s ten-page, typewritten manuscript, written in 1937 and eventually published by Robert S. La Forte and Richard Himmel (1983) , I believe, is consistent with many of the later “native criticisms” of anthropology. Straton chides Robert Lynd for “fail[ing] to live up to... [the] standard of ‘[t]he social scientist,’” citing a local columnist comment that “[The Lynds] came here with a preconceived notion of what Middletown should be.... Blind to everything else” ( La Forte & Himmel, 1983 , p. 255). He is particularly critical of the Lynds “propensity for anything that is radical, ‘new-dealish,’ or liberal” (p. 261) and in one telling passage questions the credentials of a critic who hailed the book for its sociological accuracy, arguing “How he knows is a puzzle for he has never been here ” (p. 255—emphasis added). The critical lens brought to many of these early-to-mid twentieth century ethnographic studies of middle America anticipated the critiques from abroad that emerged as more “traditional” ethnographic subjects gained knowledge of how they were being represented and had the platforms and impetuses to say something about it. 45

Disappearing “fields”

Several of the previously outlined historical developments that impacted relationships between ethnographers and members of the communities they study also worked to collapse the once comfortable division between “home” and “the field.” Time and space compressions ( Harvey, 1991 ), accelerated by heretofore unconceivable levels of global interconnectness and telecommunications ubiquity exposed the lines separating the field, the academy, and everyday life as artificially imposed classifications ( Wilk, 2011 ). Whereas previous ethnographic conventions foregrounded the significance of place—especially when activated through the classic “arrival story”—as essential to establishing the identity and authority of ethnographer as having “been there ,” which had to be somewhere , 46 by the close of the last century, innovations in how ethnography was being conceptualized, particularly within anthropology, sought to dislocate and deconstruct the traditional notion of a discreet ethnographic “field” ( Gupta & Ferguson, 1997 ). George Marcus (1995 ; 1998 ), for example, advocated mobile, multi-site ethnography as a way of both rethinking methods and theories within globalized contexts and accounting for life ways that were fundamentally embedded within global systems (see also Appadurai, 1990 ; Stoller, 1997 ; Hannerz, 1998 ). In doing so, Marcus was particularly attentive to the strides that had been made within interdisciplinary fields like media studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies, and migration/diaspora studies. 47

Certainly the notion of a traditional, fixed “field”—itself a product of a colonial worldview—obscured many of the realities of contemporary fieldwork. Thus, many scholars (including several cited earlier) argue that clinging to such spatialized understandings is not only limiting but potentially nonproductive ( Caputo, 2000 , p. 29). Politically, the notion of a traditional “field” produces and sustains the role of academia and other at-home institutions as the “exclusive site[s] of shaping, directing, and informing the research agenda” ( Rogers & Swadener, 1999 , p. 437); the “out there” field remains as the place where those directives get carried out. In challenging this history, Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson assert that ethnography’s once well-established sense of location “becomes a liability when notions of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’ are assumed to be features of geography, rather than sites constructed in fields of unequal power relations” (1997, p. 35).

A decade into the twenty-first century, we see not only a blurring of distinctions between home and the field but, for many researchers, corresponding collapses between research and everyday life. Whereas quite recently these disappearing physical and mental spaces were thought to engender a schizophrenic existence ( Hoodfar, 1994 ; see also Caputo, 2000 ), many ethnographers today, schooled in the vocabulary and conception of multitasking, would agree with Richard Wilk’s assertion that ethnography “takes the unruly business of life through a series of operations which produce an orderly narrative”:

It is not so much a stage as a process, and in reality it is always going on, because we are never simply recording what we see like cameras or voice recorders. We are interpretive instruments, and we are engaging with ethnography when we move any experience from our senses to our pen or keyboard. [ Wilk, 2011 , p. 24]

An Ethnographer of Ethnographic Practice

In 1922 when Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published, it was hailed by none other than Frazier himself as a “remarkable record of anthropological research” by someone who had “lived as a native among the natives” ( J. G. Frazier, 1922/1966 , p. vii). For his part, Malinowski was exceedingly deliberate in foregrounding his methodological “innovations.” Despite mixed reviews, most notably some unfavorable ones coming out of England ( Leach, 1965/2000a ), the myth of Malinowski—as the first field researcher to voluntarily remove himself from colonial quarters, (essentially) cut off all ties with “civilization,” and immerse himself in the world of savages as a methodological imperative for understanding both their world and worldview—soon took legs. His oft-quoted summation, found on the penultimate paragraph of Argonauts’ first chapter, stated that the ultimate goal of the ethnographer was “to grasp the native’s point of view, his [ sic ] relation to life, to realize his vision of his world” ( Malinowski, 1922/1966 , p. 25). The prescriptive methods for doing this included long-term residence by a trained researcher, learning the local language rather than relying on interpreters, collecting as much data as possible on as wide a range of activities as possible—from the spectacular and ceremonial to the everyday and mundane—and taking copious field notes, and, when possible, partaking in social activities as a “participant-observer.” From all that I have outlined already, it should be apparent that Malinowski’s status as the “inventor” of these practices is disputable if not improbable. But more than anyone in England at the time, he took up the challenge of theorizing them through practice and was, furthermore, immodest in broadcasting his achievements. Together Malinowski’s prescriptions amounted to a methodological manifesto ( Strathern, 1987 , p. 258; see also Stocking, 1992 , p. 62) that championed contextualization, holism, 48 and the distinction between ideal and actual behavior as signaling the capacity for agency within social structures.

In this respect, Malinowski’s title as the progenitor of ethnography is in some ways legitimate. Where scholars like Rivers and Marett were forthright in producing ideas regarding the correct methods for conducting qualitative research across cultures (see “Malinowski encounters the Cambridge School”), Malinowski more so than any Cambridge School scholar before him formulated his ideas through involving himself in activities of participant observation. In other words, his understandings of proper ethnography were experientially informed in the same way that ethnography as a methodology requires experiential realizations.

In the early pages of Argonauts —dedicated to “Subject, Method, and Scope”— Malinowski (1922/1966) made several prescient dictates that re-emerged during the late-twentieth-century ascendance of postmodern, poststructural ethnographic practices and orientations. These included:

Methodological transparency : “an ethnographer, who wishes to be trusted, must show clearly and concisely... which are his [ sic ] own direct observations, and which the indirect information that form the bases of his account.” 49 (p. 15)

Researcher subjectivity and (his solution) the importance of keeping a diary : “As to the actual method of observing and recording in fieldwork these imponderabilia of actual life and of typical behavior , there is no doubt that the personal equation of the observer comes in here more prominently, than in the collection of crystalised ethnographic data... An ethnographic diary, carried on systematically throughout the course of one’s work in a district would be an ideal instrument for this sort of study.” (pp. 20–21—emphasis original)

Embodied knowledge cultivated through engaging the rhythm of research : In order to “get... the hang of tribal life” (p. 5), “I had to learn how to behave and to a certain extent, I acquired ‘the feeling’ for native good and bad manners. With this, and with the capacity of enjoying their company and sharing some of their games and amusements, I began to feel that I was indeed in touch with the natives, and this is certainly the preliminary condition of being able to carry on successful field work.” (p. 8)

Aside from the unintended publication of his Diary (1967/1989) , which made previously veiled aspects of his field experiences transparent, I hesitate to champion Malinowski as a researcher who practiced all that he preached. Nevertheless, students of ethnography would be wise to note that these important aspects of how ethnography has been conceived of and conducted were articulated by Malinowski only after his informative experience conducting fieldwork.

Malinowski’s Literary (Re)turn

Richard Fardon notes how following a period—which he dates to the 1970s—when emerging trends in critical and radical ethnography treated Malinowski as “definitively superseded or encompassed” (1990, p. 573), a new wave of scholarship, much of it coming out of the United States, resurrected his significance. For this next generation of ethnographers, Malinowski’s value, or more precisely the value of his “charter myth” ( M. W. Young, 1988 , p.1), lay in the braided inheritances of the Malinowskian method of research, theory of culture, and style of ethnographic reporting (Fardon, p. 574). The most recognized of these “Malinowskian children” ( Geertz, 1988 ) were collectively cast under the label “postmodern ethnographers” with their craft deemed, alternately, “the new ethnography,” “reflexive ethnography,” “critical ethnography,” or simply “postmodern ethnography.” 50 Though the postmodern label, which has been criticized for obscuring more than it says ( Pool, 1991 ), was not always embraced by those who felt it imposed on them, these scholars generally shared a number of orientations to their ethnographic practice, including an interest in deconstructing, decentering, and juxtaposing the coherence of established ways of knowing ( Fardon, 1992 , p. 25); a reflexive outlook on the position of the researcher relative to the community of study; concern for the constructed nature of ethnographic authority ( Clifford, 1983 ); and attention to language, texture, and form in modes (primarily literary) of ethnographic representation ( Clifford, 1986 ).

These paradigmatic shifts, which significantly impacted how ethnography today is thought of and practiced, have been credited to various late-twentieth-century “moments” including the publication of Malinowski’s field diaries (1967/1989), important interventions from feminists and indigenous researchers ( Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen, 1989 ; Wolf, 1996 ; Harrison, 1997 ), 51 as well as the arrival of seminal works such as Dell Hymes’ Reinventing Anthropology (1972) and Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) . In contrast to this revolutionary moment model, Nash and Wintrob (1972) document how, as early as the 1950s, within anthropology an ethnographic self-consciousness emerged that challenged the discipline’s naively empirical aspirations towards attaining “full-fledged scientific status.” Several significant works—such as Claude Lévi-Strauss’s autobiographical Tristes Tropiques (1955/1992) and later Gerald Berriman’s Behind many Masks (1962) —reflected the integration of symbolic interactionist thinking into conceptions of research as process. They credit these shifts to: (a) global forces that resulted in the crumbling of the colonial regime’s that anthropology had come of age under and the creation of globally-informed and post-colonially-critical (traditional) ethnographic subjects; and (b) changes within the discipline of anthropology, including multiple studies of the same culture and a greater range of people and “personality types” becoming ethnographers (p. 530).

The ascension of the postmodern—which reached its zenith in 1986 around the publication of Marcus and Michael Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986) and Clifford and Marcus’s edited volume Writing Culture (1986)—coalesced around a political stance concerned with questioning the terms of Western hegemony, an appreciation for the (inter)performative nature of ethnographic research and the (inter)subjective nature of ethnographic analysis, and a focus on ethnographies as texts ( Marcus & Cushman, 1982 ).

Literal Postmodern Politics

Responding to what Mascia-Lees et al. (1989 , p. 8) describe as “the need to claim a politics in order to appeal to an anthropological audience,” the harbingers of postmodernism adopted (or appropriated) critical stances previously propagated by feminist, (to some extent, native 52 ) and indigenous ethnographers. Their insufficiency in crediting these positioned influences was striking given that so many of the key scholars associated with postmodernism were white males. This critique was most poignantly raised by feminist scholars who observed that “[l]ike European explorers discovering the New World, [postmodernists] perceive a new and uninhabited space where, in fact, feminists have long worked” (Mascia-Lees et al., p. 14). Indeed, where women and native ethnographers have always occupied marked positions along the axes of gender and ethnicity/race, white male researchers, as unmarked, have historically enjoyed the privilege of claiming objectivity and, quite notably, had their claims accepted by their audiences ( Alsup, 2004 ). Postmodern skepticism about the constructed nature of truth claims coincided with a recognition of researcher subjectivity and research serendipity that was, for lack of a better way of putting it, “old news” within feminist and native ethnographic traditions. Both traditions had long questioned the assumption of political allegiance on the basis of common identity ascriptions (see Kondo, 1986 ; Narayan, 1993 ), thus compelling their adherents to critically examine the politics and experiences of fieldwork. Far from detached scholars, feminist and native ethnographers recognized their role in shaping the social worlds they participant-observed and described ( Geertz, 1988 ). Such revelatory acknowledgements—not from the margins of ethnographic practice but, with the rise of postmodernism, coming from its mainstream—supplied the platform for more collaborative, participatory action-based, and arts-based approaches that were to follow ( Lassiter, 2005 ; Finley, 2005 ; Leavy, 2009 ).

Writing in the Postmodern Momentum

The most distinguishing aspect of this new ethnography—or the topic that has received the most attention—is the emphasis on the rhetorical processes involved with ethnographic production and, ultimately, the view of ethnographies as writerly projects. This literary turn was not without precedent. 53 Malinowski certainly thought of himself as a writer. Writing just after the “founding father” of ethnography’s death, Clyde Kluckholn speculated that Malinowski’s “capacity for expression” would be one of the key things upon which his reputation would rest (1943, p. 209). 54 Indeed Clifford (1986) in arguing the partial and constructed nature of truth claims, and advancing the artistic dimensions of ethnography as a project profoundly situated between systems of meaning making, invoked Malinowski on the very first page of his seminal text. Even though the once-dominant aspirations for “hard science” status—marked by formalized methods leading to timeless truths—had been waning for decades, this nod to the humanities and the constructed and interpretive nature of all research was viewed by many as a “crisis” in the field.

Ethnography constructs culture through texts of contexts, which to a certain degree are valued based on their effective presentations. Arguing for what she called an anthropology of “persuasive fictions,” Marilyn Strathern suggested that ethnographers impact imaginations through relationships internal to the text : “the kind of relationship that is set up between writer and reader and writer and subject matter” (1987, p. 256). Stephen Tylor expressed it somewhat differently in asserting that “the critical function of ethnography derives from the fact that it makes its own contextualization part of the question” (1986, p. 139). Inspired by this wisdom, my conviction for some time now has been that ethnography, both as research and representational practice, operates in an adverbial mode (see Hammersley, 2008 ). It contextualizes transmutable and transposable social processes through transcriptions of the dynamic social interactions of community members and researchers. As such, the experiences of ethnographic fieldwork are (re)constructed through the process of writing first field notes ( Emerson et al., 1995 ) and later ethnographic monographs. Such recognition, of the mediated expressions of social processes and meanings, through acts of composition (literal and otherwise), has sprouted into a tremendous range of experimental ethnographic forms and new political possibilities—thus leaving ethnography’s horizons promising and bright.

His(torical) Legacies

Constructing a complete picture of Malinowski—the man, the field researcher, and the scholar—presents special difficulties, not the least because he was a creative intellectual with “an open and lively mind” ( Flis, 1988 , p. 123) whose scholarly career can be characterized as much by evolution as by stasis ( Murdock, 1943 ). He furthermore had a penchant for flamboyance in both representing himself and the world around him. Part of this involved embracing the great storytellers’ wisdom that the context of a telling dictates the text of the tale. In this vein, it would not be too much to characterize Malinowski as having a loose interpretation of the “facts” regarding his own personal history, which he would strategically adjust to delight or in some other way influence his audience ( M. W. Young, 2004 ). He was a master of the sketchy, revisionist memoir, which, combined with an erratic temperament that made even his journal entries and personal correspondences knavishly unreliable ( Rapport, 1997 ), resulted in an enigmatic and elusive biography fitting of mythic status.

Malinowski was obviously aware of the pioneering nature of his work—or at the very least the potential to frame it that way—and quite concerned with his legacy. He was in essence what sociologist Gary Fine (1996) would refer to as a self-entrepreneur of his own reputation. Fine’s notion of reputation entrepreneurs —that is, “self-interested custodians” of someone’s historical reputation (p. 1162)—is useful for contextualizing Malinowski’s historical import and for making sense of how and why the myths surrounding him have been so enduring. As an analytic concept, reputation entrepreneurism is premised on a constructionist model of history that frames it as the outcome of sociopolitical struggles over power, prestige, and resources ( Fine, 2001 , p. 8). Fine specifically investigates the role of social agents in shaping the collective memory and settling discourses that surround historical figures. This can involve recognition within one’s field—in Malinowski’s case, anthropology and other scholarly fields that position ethnography at or near their core—and renown outside of it.

In addition to his achievements and how he represented them, Malinowski also laid the groundwork for future custodians of his reputation despite his untimely death from a heart attack at age fifty-eight. 55 For example, his propensity to keep journals provided the source materials for future biographers—although it is widely believed that his Diary (1967/1989) was never intended for publication. Young (2004) recounts how during his days in Leipzig, Malinowski exhorted himself to “Keep a diary!”; adding, “Everything that passes through me must leave a lasting trace” (p. 131). His published Diary similarly includes statements to this effect. In 1926 Malinowski wrote that myths “record singularly great achievements... redound to the credit of some individual and his [ sic ] descendants or of a whole community; and hence they are kept alive by the ambition of those whose ancestry they glorify” (1926/1948, p. 106). The extent to which this was true for a lot of Malinowski’s student-descendants was evident by their support of him following the controversial publication of his diaries in 1967. 56

Had Frank Hamilton Cushing had better reputation entrepreneurs, or been more organized ( Brady 1999 ) and less prone to making enemies ( Kolianos & Weisman, 2005 ), he might hold a status comparable with Malinowski’s. In the United States, where the objects of anthropological study—minimally defined by William S. Willis Jr. as “dominated colored peoples... living outside the boundaries of modern white societies” (1972, p. 123)—were closer at hand, research expeditions along the order of Torres had a longer history. Thirty-five years before Malinowski, Cushing had “developed” his own “reciprocal method” of field research ( Mark, 1980 , p. 123), when he decided to forsake his position as the Smithsonian Institute representative on the 1879 Bureau of (American) Ethnology’s first-ever southwestern expedition, in order to take up residence with the Zuñi Indians. Apparently, after becoming frustrated “at how little he could learn as an outsider” camping outside the pueblo, he “soon abandoned the tents of his colleagues and... moved in with the Indians” ( Green, 1979 , p. 5). Cushing lived among the Zuñi for four and half years, during which time he dressed like a Zuñi, was given a Zuñi name, became proficient in the language, took an active part in both ceremonial events and daily life, was adopted into the Dogwood clan, became a member of the tribal council, and was initiated into the Priesthood of the Bow ( Pandey, 1972 ; Hinsley, 1983 ). Dubbing him the “original participant observer,” Jesse Green adds:

Cushing was the first anthropologist to have actually lived with his subjects over an extended period—and the only man in history entitled to sign himself, as he once did at the end of an official letter, “1st War Chief of Zuñi, U.S. Asst. Ethnologist.” [1979, p. 5–6]

This list of legendary feats may look somewhat different if subject to the same scrutiny as Malinowski’s. 57 Yet clearly Cushing was involved in a project that in many respects—duration of field stay, wardrobe (see any of the handful of classic photos of Malinowski in the field), formal recognition of community roles, and even acculturation, since it has been suggested that Cushing “felt more at home among the Zuñi than among his own people” ( Pandey 1972 , p. 322; cf. Malinowski 1967/89 )—outpaced ethnography’s recognized founder. 58

What is perhaps most special about ethnography as a research tradition is its propensity to perpetually and critically assess, and at times reinvent, its methodological, theoretical, and epistemological foundations. More than anything else, what marks the ethnographer as distinct from researchers who engage in (seemingly) identical methods and activities of qualitative field research (or participant-observations) are the sensibilities that led them to research, inform them during its unanticipatable courses of experiences, and, ultimately, sustain meaningful legacies thereafter.

Today’s ethnographers inherit the burdens of Malinowskian methodological precepts but are privileged in their ability to construct their own projects in strategic juxtaposition to those that came before them. In Malinowski’s example, both legendary and personal, the metaphors of travel and narratives of revision enact and sustain discourses that are crucial to understanding ethnography’s journey through a century of practice over epistemological, theoretical, and methodological grounds.

Among the several functions that Malinowski attributed to myths and legends, his claim that they open up historical vistas (1926/1948, p. 107) is perhaps the most apt point to close on. Mythic narratives “reflect the circumstances and perspectives of their narrators” and provide context for contemporary commentary ( Fardon, 1990 , p. 570). Malinowski then, through his status as ethnography’s “most mythicized” figure ( Geertz, 1988 , p. 75), serves as a beacon for whatever future turns ethnography’s journey into its second century as a professionalized practice takes. His legend supplies knowledge of where modern ethnography emerged from, highlighting both its enduring value and what has thankfully been left to the past, and simultaneously inspires the need for constant criticality, revision, and above all else, contextual awareness of how far this ethnographic field has yet to go.

Future Directions

What can historical methodological documents teach us about the development and evolution of ethnography (and about the attitudes, political views, and underlying epistemological assumptions of researchers during a particular period)?

What are the limitations of field notes and other forms of on-the-spot ethnographic record keeping? As with tape recorders or video cameras, in some instances, might field note documentation be viewed as negatively impacting ethnographic relationships? Can ethnography exist without field notes? What recent technological innovations or modes of ethnographic inquiry and analysis could potentially substitute for them?

Should ethnographers, on the whole or within specific disciplines, have a collective position on institutional review board compliance? Is it fundamental to what ethnographers do, or is it an unnecessary encumbrance that the increasing numbers of ethnographers outside the academy (and “everyday” ethnographers) do not have to deal with?

In a context of ubiquitous media interconnectedness, viral news streams, and big data, how must ethnography adjust to issues of timely publishing, accountability, and the erosion of ethnographic authority in a highly mediated, data-based “interview society?”

As the lines between ethnography and everyday life become increasingly fuzzy, what new modes of ethnographic understanding and representation should be acknowledged and embraced?

In ethnography’s post-postmodern reformulations and trajectories, how should ethnographers map the boundaries of the field (epistemologically and in terms of the various interests which ethnographic study can serve)?

Ethnography’s foundations are in writing culture, yet historically ethnographers are deeply implicated in the project of literatizing non-literate societies. Given this paradox, what non-literal forms of ethnographic representations might a contemporary, critical, and historically informed ethnographic project take? How can we move beyond writing culture ?

For instance, Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln identify “at least eight historical moments” in qualitative research history; writing in 2008 (p. 3), they list these as: the traditional (1900–1950), the modernist (1950–1970), blurred genres (1970–1986), the crisis of representation (1986–1990), the postmodern (1990–1995), the postexperimental (1995–2000), the methodologically contested present (2000–2004), and the fractured future (2005–). While I see value in their effort to assign broad themes to various time periods, I am less comfortable with the accelerated momentum of their model. To define the four year period of 2000–2004 as an “historical moment” on par with the first fifty years of the twentieth century strikes me as peculiar—something like a historiographic version of the old social evolutionist claims that non-literate peoples had been living the same way for the last thousand years. More to the point, to place six “historical moments” between qualitative research as practiced in 1948 and that practiced in 2008, from where I sit, misleadingly magnifies the impression of how far it has come.

Arthur J. Vidich and Stanford M. Lyman view this conflation as unwise and unserviceable, arguing that the ethnographic “data gathering process can never be described in its totality because...[it is] part of an ongoing social process that in its minute-by-minute and day-to-day experience defies recapitulation” (2000, p. 38).

Several very good overviews of ethnographic qualitative field research methods exist, including Hammersley & Atkinson (1995) , Bernard (1995) , Bailey (2007) , and Emerson et al. (1995) .

The classic definition-of-culture example comes from Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952) , who compiled 162 different definitions of the term.

Ethno is derived from the Greek ethnos , which refers to “people, nation, class, caste, tribe; a number of people accustomed to live together;” and graphy is derived from the Greek graphia , meaning “description of.” These etymological definitions came from the Online Etymology Dictionary: (Retrieved July 16, 2012). Similar breakdowns can be found in Jones (2010) .

Of course, Malinowski had already received a doctorate from Jagiellonian University in Cracow before he went to England ( Ellen, Gellner, Kubica, & Mucha, 1988 ), but because that degree is typically listed as in physics and mathematics, it is regarded as incidental to his later work.

See for example Stocking (1983a) , M. W. Young (1988) , Geertz (1988) , and Kuper (1996) .

By one popular account, Malinowski’s status as an “enemy alien” ( Wayne, 1985 , p. 533) prevented him from returning to Europe (see Kuper, 1996 ; J. S. Jones, 2010 ). By another—first relayed to me as an undergraduate—Malinowski’s journey to the southwest Pacific was engineered in part to dodge the outbreak of war in Europe. To the extent that this alleges an avoidance of military service, it seems untrue since owing to his health troubles, most notably issues with his eyesight, Malinowski was deemed unfit to serve ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 38).

Regarding class, Malinowski’s daughter Helena Wayne (1985) writes that both of her paternal grandparents belonged to a class that to her knowledge had “no exact equivalent” in Europe—“between landed gentry and nobility, but certainly not aristocracy” (p. 529). The story of young Malinowski being read The Golden Bough —which is contradicted by at least one testimony from Malinowski himself regarding his first “ read[ing] [emphasis added] this great work” ( Leach, 1965/2000a , p. 26)—can be traced to a 1923 letter written to Frazier (cited in Stocking, 1983b , p. 93). It is clear that Józefa Malinowska read a good deal to her son during his secondary-school years and beyond when trouble with his eyesight forced him out of school and to spend significant time with “his eyes bandaged” (Wayne, p. 530). By one account, she even forbade him to read, opting instead to “read everything to him herself” ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 38).

Stocking (1992) also cites these “preadolescent experiences at the cultural margins of Europe” as inspiring young Malinowski’s “romantic fascination with the culturally exotic;” adding that his father’s interest in folklore (see below) and Malinowski’s perspective of having grown up in a “subjugated nation” may have also contributed to his turn towards anthropology (p. 241).

Young (2004) has suggested that Malinowski’s opportunities to work with Wundt might have been truncated by the latter’s age and career stage, not to mention his responsibilities as university rector.

Robert Redfield writes in his introduction to Malinowski’s Magic, Science, and Religion , “Malinowski’s gift was double: it consisted both in the genius given usually to artists and in the scientist’s power to see and to declare the universal in the particular” (1948, p. 9).

By some accounts of the Malinowski myth, it was his sickness that caused him to break from his path to science ( Kuper, 1996 , p. 9). To the extent that this may be partially true—and both his extracurricular readings and Mediterranean travels could be construed as a product of illness—it might be extended to also include love-sickness.

Of course, this is a highly simplified explanation. For a thorough discussion of the various paradigms and epistemologies surrounding qualitative inquiry, see Lincoln & Guba (2000) and Schwandt (2000) .

I use “ethnology” to reference the more theoretically informed, historically speculative, and comparative form of researching (mostly) non-literate societies that dominated the emerging field of anthropology during the late nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth (see Radcliffe-Brown, 1952 ). Ethnology was “less intensive” than ethnography and often involved “armchair” theorists who adhered to evolutionist models of understanding human diversity. Initially Malinowski called his work ethnology ( Firth, 1988 ). However, by the 1922 publication of Argonauts of the Western Pacific , he was clearly referring to it as “ethnography.”

Prior to leaving Leipzig, Malinowski had already begun writing several ethnological projects including what would become his first book, The Family among the Australian Aborigines (see Barnes, 1963 ). In addition to his enthusiasm and notable intellect, these works enabled Malinowski to make an immediate impression on his eventual mentors.

Edward Burnett Tylor’s (1871) classic definition of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired my man [ sic ] as a member of society” (p. 1) is still widely used and taught today.

There are countless stories of arbitrary, serendipitous, and unforeseen circumstances that led ethnographers to particular fieldwork topics and destinations. Two of the more celebrated within American anthropology are: (1) Margaret Mead’s path to studying adolescence in American Samoa, which resulted from a negotiation between her desire to study culture change in the Tuamotu Islands and her advisor Franz Boas’s desire to have her study adolescence among American Indians (see Mead, 1972 ); and (2) the story of Lewis Henry Morgan, who came to work with Iroquois leaders after a chance meeting with a young Seneca, Ely Parker, in an Albany New York bookstore (see Lassiter, 2005 ).

There is also evidence suggesting that Haddon may have secured a travel grant for Malinowski ( M. W. Young, 2004 , p. 245).

Much of Papua New Guinea, including the Trobriand Islands, was under Australian control. The rest of it was controlled by Germany. Stocking (1992 , p. 242) hints at the possibility that, with the outbreak of war, Malinowski also had to negotiate this evolving imperial scramble.

Malinowski had one of his most fruitful periods of early research during a time when the missionary couple he stayed with, the Savilles, left Mailu for an extended period of time. In 1915 he wrote that he found this experience working among the natives “incomparably more intensive than work done from white men’s settlements” (quoted in Stocking, 1992 , p. 246); and again in 1922 he wrote, “it was not until I was alone in the district that I began to make some headway” ( Malinowski, 1922/1966 , p. 6).

Malinowski’s continued use of “savage” throughout his career has been, at times, presented as evidence of deep-seated racism. During this time, however, the term was a common descriptor for non-Western peoples. Its association to cultural evolutionism could certainly be used to help make the cases that Malinowski was a career long evolutionist (see Kuper, 1996 , p. 8).

Shortly after arriving in Mailu, Saville sent a letter to his brother in England in which he listed his ten “laws in dealing with Mailu-speaking natives” (or what Stocking [1992] refers to as his “ten commandments” [p. 246]); they went as follows: “(1) Never play the fool with a native; (2) Never speak to a native for the sake of speaking to him [ sic ]; (3) Swear at a native when he is alone; (4) Never call a native, send someone for him or go inadvertently to him; (5) Never touch a native, unless to shake hands or thrash him; (6) Always let a native see you mean what you say; (7) Never let a native see you believe his word right away, he never speaks the truth; (8) Rarely argue with a native and then only when he is alone; (9) Warn once, afterwards proceed to action; (10) Don’t try to be funny, a native can never see a joke. He possesses one joke and that is beastly talk” ( M. W. Young, 1988 , p. 44).

The note, found among Haddon’s papers, was typed and, intriguingly, neither signed nor dated— Young (2004 , p. 357) is nonetheless “almost certain” that it was written by Saville.

Indeed, in the opening pages of Argonauts of the Western Pacific —the major publication introducing his New Guinea/Trobriand fieldwork and announcing his revolutionary method—Malinowski describes the beginnings of his field research on Mailu as “making [his] first entry into the village... in the company of his white cicerone” (presumably Saville) and later returning, where after a few exchanges of “compliments in pidgin-English” and “some tobacco changing hands” he “tried then to proceed to business ” (1922/1966, pp. 4–5—emphasis added). Young (2004) confirms that “some work” was done during this “first week” on the island (p. 332).

In fact, J. L. Myers describes Rivers’ contributions to the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries as “a revelation to all but an inner circle of colleagues” and “setting a standard of workmanship in the field” (1923, p. 15). Would Malinowski, who went on to be the recognized setter of the next new standard, have been among that inner circle of colleagues? Stocking, for one, definitively names Malinowski as the last member of the “Cambridge School” to get into the field (1983b, p. 82). If by 1912 Malinowski was not a member of Rivers’ inner circle, he would have beyond any doubt been only one degree removed.

See for instance Deloria (1969/1988) , Willis (1972) , Asad (1973) , Owusu (1978) , Magubane & Faris (1985) , R. Rosaldo (1989) , Smith (1999/2012) , A. A. Young (2008) .

This is only a smattering of what was included. For the complete list and a discussion of its significance, see M. W. Young (2004 , pp. 264–267).

In a fascinating discussion, James Urry (1972) outlines how Notes and Queries on Anthropology was specifically marketed to colonialists to help mitigate the consequences of cross-cultural disagreements and misunderstandings. He concludes that, at the dawn of the twentieth century, “political and economic motives for the collection of ethnographic materials were becoming as important as the scientific” (p. 49).

Lowie supplies an exclamation point to the story by recounting how, the following year, a New York City election official stood “completely nonplussed” after being told that Lowie’s occupation was ethnology; “[h]e evidently lacked the educational advantages of the Crow reservation,” Lowe concluded (1959, p. 60).

Several North American researchers, most notably Frank Hamilton Cushing ( Pandey, 1972 ; Green, 1979 ) and Boas ( Cole, 1983 ), had previously achieved this level of integration.

See Karam (2007 , p. 18–19); some of the details of this account were also confirmed through personal email correspondence (August 20, 2012).

See D. Jones (1970) , Nakhleh (1979) , Hau’ofa (1982) , Ohnuki-Tierney (1984) , and Narayan (1993) .

Curiously in the list that M. W. Young (2004) presents there is no mention of a phonograph recorder. Wax cylinders did not work well in the tropics and, as Young notes, only six cylinders (of six dozen shipped) of sound recordings survived.

Thanks to Lakshmi Jayaram and Ali Colleen Neff for pointing out these specific practices to me.

Also compare same-culture studies conducted by Redfield (1930) against Lewis (1951) , Dollard (1937) against Powdermaker (1939) , as well as Mead (1935) against Fortune (1939) .

Nash & Wintrob (1972 , p. 531) credit the “assertions of independence by native people” in a general sense—outside of native anthropology in particular—with unsettling the self-assuredness of the Western colonial view of non-Western people.

I caution that all modes of recording—including video camera—have certain biases of perspective and limitations. Nevertheless, for many audiences—and particularly Western audiences conditioned to privilege vision over other sensory input ( M. Jackson, 1989 , p. 6)—seeing is believing.

This is by no means a one-way debate. Although many ethnographers would be more than happy to not have to deal with IRBs, some feel that by not requiring IRB approval, ethnographers would be further marginalized as unscientific and/or not real research ( Lincoln, 2005 ).

Young (2004) elaborates on Malinowski’s preoccupation with the “salacious details” of Trobriand sex life including what was likely a rather unnerving correspondence with Annie Brunton regarding the “sensual temptations” of Kiriwinian young women (pp. 402–405).

In fact, one could quite straightforwardly make the case for the “Sage of Great Barrington” (as DuBois came to be known) as the inventor of modern ethnography.

Howard Becker is critical of this designation, arguing that “‘Chicago’ was never the unified chapel...[or] unified school of thought” that many believe it to have been (1999, p. 10).

This can also be seen in the ethnographies conducted by white sociologists of African American communities during the integrationist period of the 1960s ( A. A. Young, 2008 ).

On the basis of their distortions and lack of scientific rigor ( Mills, 1942 ; Pfauts & Duncan, 1950 ; Madge, 1962 ; Colson, 1976 ; Frank, 1977 ), oversights ( Thernstrom, 1964 ; Lassiter et al., 2004 ), and their presentation of ideal types of community members as opposed to portraying genuine personalities ( Goldschmidt, 1950 ; Ingersoll, 1997 ). If such critical reception followed the publication Hollingshead’s studies of Elmtown Youth (1949), it seems to have been less publicized, most likely owing to the fact that, unlike Middletown and Yankee City, Elmtown’s true identity remained hidden.

More recently some urban ethnographers have focused their attention of elite institutions—i.e., “studying up”; examples of this research include Latour (1987) , Cassell (1991) , Karam (2007) , Fosher (2009) , and Ho (2009) .

Even if, customarily, the researcher-as-person would then disappear into “scientific omniscience” ( Coleman & Collins, 2006 , p. 1).

See Clifford (1994) , Friedland & Boden (1994) , Downey & Dumit (1995) , and Marcus (1996) . For some very good recent examples of transnational ethnographies, see Pribilsky (2007) and Zheng (2010) .

Malinowski (1922/1966) specifically said that “[o]ne of the first conditions of acceptable ethnographic work certainly is that it should deal with the totality of all social, cultural, and psychological aspects of a community, for they are so interwoven that not one can be understood without taking into consideration all the others” (p. xvi). This idea of anthropology as a holistic science continues to be reiterated in the introductory chapters of most discipline textbooks.

Such transparency might seem rather pedestrian by today’s standards, but, in its historical context, insisting on these types of divulgences was a noteworthy gesture.

Representative examples of this work include Rabinow (1977) , Myerhoff (1978) , Crapanzano (1980) , M. Rosaldo (1980) , Taussig (1980) , and Friedrich (1987) .

For examples of such work from the feminist tradition, see Rosaldo & Lamphere (1974) , Reiter (1975) , and Daniels (1983) ; from the indigenous or native ethnography tradition, see Jones (1970) , Owusu (1978) , and Nakhleh (1979) .

Inspired by Narayan’s (1993) insights, I distinguish between native and indigenous ethnographers on the basis of the former being an ascribed identity and the latter being a political stance.

In his Introduction to Writing Culture , Clifford (1986) lists Geertz, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Lévi-Strauss, Leach, Mead (1928/1961) , Ruth Benedict, as well as Malinowski as forerunners of this ethnographic tradition. I would resolutely add Zora Neale Hurston (1935/1990 ; 1942/1991 ).

His publications were noticeable and memorable for their poetics. The titles of his monographs alone make the case, including the dignified splendor of Argonauts of the Western Pacific ; the crude promotional-ism of The Sexual life of Savages and Sex and Repression in Savage Society , which Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw (2000) describe as “fairly low gimmicks” (p. 17); and the mystical intrigue of Coral Gardens and Their Magic .

Fine (1996) cites institutional placement as one of the key factors in enabling reputation building and sustainment. Beyond his position at the London School of Economics and his paramount role in establishing it as the leading center for anthropology in Europe, through his outstanding lectures and excellent mentorship ( Kluckholn, 1943 ) Malinowski cultivated a generation of scholars—among his academic progeny were some of the biggest names in twentieth century anthropology—who would continue to sing his praises for years to come.

For a good discussion of this, see Firth’s (1989) “Second Introduction 1988” to the republication of Malinowski’s Diary .

And very much like Malinowski, Cushing was not beyond strategically constructing his own legend (see Green, 1979 , p. 25 n. 5; Koianos & Weisman, 2005 ).

Other prominent candidates for “original participant observer” include Malinowski’s American anthropological counterpart, Franz Boas (see Rohner, 1969 ; Cole, 1983 ); Alice Cunningham Fletcher, who first traveled to Nebraska in 1881 in the interest of studying the life of Omaha women and ended up “traveling with the Omahas for weeks at a time, learning their customs and listening to their fears” about being taken advantage of by the American government ( Mark, 1980 , p. 67); Nikolai Mikouho-Maclay, the Russian fieldworker who in 1871 found himself “virtually alone among previously uncontacted and totally ‘untouched’ groups” on the northern coast of New Guinea ( Stocking, 1992 , p. 222); and Lewis Henry Morgan, whose League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee (1851) has been referred to as “the first ‘true ethnography’” ( Lassiter, 2005 , p. 30).

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Young, M. W. ( 1988 ) Editor’s introduction. In M.W. Young (ed.), Malinowski among the Magi: “the natives of Mailu” (pp. 1–76). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Young, M. W. ( 2004 ). Malinowski: Odyssey of an anthropologist, 1884-1920 . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Zheng, S. ( 2010 ). Claiming diaspora: Music, transnationalism, and cultural politics in Asian/Chinese America . New York: Oxford University Press.

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possible research topics for ethnography

The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

possible research topics for ethnography

  • Introduction and overview
  • What is qualitative research?
  • What is qualitative data?
  • Examples of qualitative data
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Mixed methods
  • Qualitative research preparation
  • Theoretical perspective
  • Theoretical framework
  • Literature reviews
  • Research question
  • Conceptual framework
  • Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  • Data collection
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research
  • Case studies
  • Introduction

Defining ethnographic research

What are the methods in ethnographic research, how do i conduct an ethnography.

  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

What is ethnographic research?

An ethnographic study is one of the most ambitious endeavors a researcher can pursue in qualitative research . It involves using several ethnographic methods to observe and describe social life, social relations, or human society as a whole. Time-consuming and arduous as the data collection and data analysis might be, conducting an ethnography can be one of the most rewarding challenges in cultural anthropology, social anthropology, and similar qualitative research areas.

possible research topics for ethnography

Let's look at the fundamentals of ethnographic research, examples of ethnographic studies, and the fundamentals of ethnography as a qualitative research method.

"Culture" is an ambiguous term that resists an easy definition. What defines a culture? What takes place inside a culture? What cultures does a particular individual belong to? Who decides who belongs to any specific culture?

Even within a particular context, there are several layers of cultures. Take the United States, for example. Given how diverse and as big as it is, how can one define American culture in as brief an explanation as possible? What are the different social groups within this one country, and how do those groups interact with each other?

Quantitative research is often incapable of capturing such detail, especially because it is extremely difficult to adequately capture a culture in quantitative terms. As a result, researchers often conduct traditional ethnographic research when they want to understand a culture. A credible, written account of a social group is challenging to produce. It requires looking at participant experiences, interviews , focus groups , and document collection, which are different ways to collect data for ethnographic research.

Ethnography belongs squarely in the realm of observational research . In other words, writing culture and cultural critique cannot be based on experiments performed in controlled settings. Ethnography aims to provide an immersive experience in a culture for audiences who are unfamiliar with it. In that case, the researcher must observe the intricate dimensions of social interaction in its natural environment. In ethnographic research, this observation is active and involves being part of the culture to understand the dimensions of cultural norms from the inside.

That said, even observation alone cannot capture concepts such as social relationships or cultural practices. Researchers conducting ethnographic studies acknowledge that simply observing and describing actions are insufficient to grasp social interaction fully. The concept of thick description, or the description of perspectives and beliefs informing those actions in addition to the actions themselves, guides the use of various methods to capture social phenomena from multiple angles.

What is the purpose of ethnographic research?

Ethnographic studies are heavily used in social and cultural anthropology disciplines to generate and expand theory. Outside of anthropology, the insights uncovered by ethnography help to propose or develop theories that can be verified by further qualitative or quantitative research within the social and human sciences.

In simple terms, ethnographic studies relate what a culture is to audiences who are otherwise unfamiliar outsiders. Armed with this understanding, researchers can illustrate and persuade audiences about patterns that emerge from a community or group of people. These patterns are essential to generating theory and pioneering work.

What are examples of ethnographic research?

Ethnographic research aims to reach a deep understanding of various socially-constructed topics, including:

  • Rituals and other cultural practices in everyday life
  • Social interaction among people of different cultures
  • People's interactions with their natural environment
  • Creation of and tensions in social relationships

Ethnography as a qualitative method is common in social and cultural anthropology and any scholarly discipline concerned with social interaction. The traditional role of ethnography is to inform scholars interested in cultures they wouldn't otherwise have contact or experience with. Various topics that have been explored by such research with ethnography include:

  • health care workers interacting with patients
  • teachers and students constructing classroom dialogue
  • workplace relations between employees and managers
  • experiences of refugees in conflict zones

Other disciplines, especially in the social sciences, employ ethnographic research methods for varied reasons, including understanding:

  • effective teaching practices
  • socialization processes
  • intercultural cohesiveness
  • company-customer relations

The range of inquiries that ethnography can answer is vast, highlighting the importance of ethnographic methods in studies where the researcher seeks a deep understanding of a particular topic.

Even within anthropology, there is a lack of consensus on the particular processes for conducting research through ethnography. Interaction among people is unpredictable to the extent that the researcher might encounter unexpected issues with research participants not foreseen at the outset of a study. Because no observational research can be conducted in a fully controlled setting, it is a challenge to define an exact process for an ethnography beyond the general principles guiding an ethnographic approach.

In broad terms, ethnographic data collection methods are varied. Still, all such methods carry the assumption that a single research method cannot fully capture a thorough understanding of a cultural phenomenon. A systematic study that employs ethnographic research methods collects data from observations, participant observations, and interviews . The researchers' reflections also contribute to the body of data since personal experiences are essential to understanding the unfolding ethnography.

Participant observation

At the core of field research is a method called participant observation . Scholars in contemporary ethnography have long acknowledged the importance of active participation in understanding cultural life. This method allows the researcher to experience activities and interactions alongside participants to establish an understanding they wouldn't otherwise achieve by observing from afar. In active participant observation, the ethnographic researcher takes field notes of what they see and experience. They are essential during fieldwork as they create a record that the researcher can look at later on to structure their analysis and recall crucial developments useful to data analysis .

possible research topics for ethnography

During participant observation, the researcher may also collect other forms of data, including photographs and audio and video recordings . Sensory data is beneficial to ethnography because it helps the researcher recall essential experiences with vivid detail and provides potentially abundant supporting evidence for the arguments in their findings.

Interviews and focus groups

Participant observation provides data for seeing what people say and do in their natural environment. However, observation has its limits for capturing what people think and believe. As a result, an ethnographic researcher conducts interviews to follow up on what they saw in fieldwork with research participants.

A common type of interview in an ethnography is the stimulated recall interview. In a stimulated recall interview, research participants are asked questions about the events the researcher observed. These questions help research participants remember past experiences while providing the researcher with their way of thinking about those experiences.

A focus group involves interactions between the researcher and multiple research participants. Suppose the researcher is interested in the interpersonal dynamics between research participants. In that case, they might consider conducting focus groups to elicit interactions that are markedly different from one-on-one exchanges between a single research participant and the researcher. Interviews and focus groups also help uncover insights otherwise unfamiliar to the researcher, who can then use those insights to guide their theoretical understanding and further data collection .

Document collection

Documents often make up an essential aspect of cultural practices. Think about these examples:

  • student homework
  • medical records
  • newspaper articles
  • informational posters

The visual elements uncovered during an ethnography are potentially valuable to theoretical insights, and a researcher might find it important to incorporate documents in their project data.


In any ethnography, the researcher is the main instrument of data collection. Their thoughts and beliefs are consequential to the data analysis in that any theoretical insights are filtered by their interpretations . As a result, a researcher should take field notes during participant observation and reflection notes about any connections between what they saw and what it might mean for generating theory during data analysis.

As with taking field notes, a researcher might not remember all the different things that transpire during an ethnography without being able to refer to some sort of record later on. More importantly, reflecting on theory during participant observation may be challenging. A useful practice involves sitting down after observations or interviews and writing down potential theoretical insights that come to mind.

Reflections guide participant observations during an ethnography and theoretical analysis afterward. They point the researcher toward phenomena that are most relevant to theory and guide discussion of that theory when the time comes to write a description of their ethnographic study.

Organizing data

With a research approach as complex as ethnography, you will likely collect abundant data that require organization to make the analytical process more efficient. Researchers can use ATLAS.ti to store all their data in a single project. Document groups allow you to categorize data into different types (e.g., text, audio, video), different contexts (e.g., hospital room, doctor's office), or even different dates (e.g., February 17th observation, March 21st observation).

Moreover, researchers can integrate text with multimedia in ATLAS.ti, which is ideal for analyzing interviews, because you can look at transcripts and their video or audio recordings simultaneously. This is a valuable feature in ethnographic studies examining how people speak and what they say. Photos and other visual documents can also easily be incorporated and analyzed, adding further valuable dimensions to your research.

possible research topics for ethnography

Choose ATLAS.ti for analysis of all forms of data.

Download a free trial of ATLAS.ti to put your project data to work.

Now that we have established a foundational understanding of the various methods associated with ethnography, let's look at what an ethnographic approach to research might look like.

Defining your research questions

As with any research study, ethnographic studies begin when researchers want to know more about something unfamiliar. Do you want to understand how a particular group of people interact with their natural environment? What about how group members decide on a social structure? How is daily life affected by changing economic conditions over a long period of time?

Ethnographic research may also be appropriate for conducting a comparative study of multiple cultures. For example, consider the different groups of soccer fans in several parts of the world: fans in South America might act differently from fans in Europe or Asia. Teaching and learning in high school are bound to look different than teaching and learning in university settings. Emergency room medicine and hospice care have distinct purposes that affect the nature of interactions between doctors and patients.

Whatever the inquiry, the researcher benefits from defining a focus for their ethnography. A clear research question can help the researcher narrow their field of perception during participant observation . Suppose the research question has to do with doctor-patient interactions. In that case, the ethnographer can lend more focus to those conversations and less emphasis on ancillary developments within their research context. With a more specific view, they can examine how doctors speak to their patients while being less concerned about the hospital executives in earshot or the orderlies passing by unless and until they are relevant to the research inquiry.

Choosing theoretical perspectives

To further narrow the focus of the ethnography, a theoretical lens can direct the ethnographer toward aspects relevant to theory. Continuing with the example regarding doctor-patient interactions, let's imagine that the ethnographic study explores the role of reassuring language in situations regarding dire medical conditions. Are there relevant theories about what people can say to give peace of mind to others?

Typically, theories in qualitative research consist of a framework with discrete indicators you can use to organize knowledge. For example, let's suppose that there exists a concept of reassurance that can be broken down like this:

empathy - understanding and affirming other people's emotions evidence - providing examples of favorable results in similar situations responsiveness - actively listening to and validating others' concerns

With this sort of theory in mind, an ethnography can focus on listening for instances of these particular indicators during participant observation and recording these examples in field notes . Naturally, a theory is more credible if it's grounded in previous research.

Entering ethnographic fieldwork

The next step is to choose an appropriate and accessible context for your ethnography. Ethics are an important part of contemporary research in the social sciences, requiring permission from potential participants to observe and interact with them for research purposes.

Before any meaningful data collection, make sure to obtain informed consent from the research participants you are studying. Essentially, this involves receiving permission from your participants to document what they say and do after explaining the purpose of your study and the rights they have while participating in your ethnography.

possible research topics for ethnography

Ethnographic collection of data

With a context and theory in mind, it's now time to conduct your ethnography. In general terms, this means entering the field and capturing as much rich data relevant to your research question as possible.

Good ethnographic practice relies on pursuing multiple research methods to capture data. Participant observation can help you document what people say and do, but good ethnographies also capture what people believe about their everyday actions.

However, the research method most associated with ethnographic research is note-taking. Field notes capture the researcher's personal experience with the culture they observe, which is necessary to fully understand the captured data. With the ethnographer as the main instrument of data collection, readers of ethnographic studies can attain a sense of the possible ways they can view cultures through the researcher's eyes.

Moreover, ethnography relies on rapport with research participants. Ethnographers who want to conduct interviews later will benefit from establishing good relationships with their research participants. As a result, more involved interactions during fieldwork can generate deeper and richer data for your study.

Considerations during fieldwork

It's important to remember that the ethnographer's presence can affect how people behave. Especially in participant observation, your interactions with research participants will directly influence what they do in their daily lives. Even our natural environment is affected by what we do in it. When writing your reflections, qualifying your interactions in the field with a sufficient accounting of how your presence might change what others say and do is important.

There are also ethical questions about what to document and how to use the resulting data afterward. Within anthropology, there are issues of representing cultural groups with respect and ensuring you have their permission to use what you observe and collect from the field. Top scholarly journals and academic conferences also want to know how you observed research ethics during fieldwork, so it is necessary to use your reflection memos to document your ethics practices in addition to the data you collect.

Further development in ethnographic fieldwork

Unexpected issues in field research, especially long-term fieldwork, can help you refine your theoretical framework . Returning to the example of the concept of reassurance, you might observe a doctor's explanation of a medical procedure and find that it's similar to providing evidence. Still, it does not fully align with the established theory. In other words, studying real-world episodes of medical explanations may contribute novel insights about reassurance, helping you further develop your focus in subsequent observations.

As you continue your ethnography, refining the scope of your theoretical perspective helps you more easily gather observational data relevant to your research inquiry and thus provide a fully developed framework for your data.

Research is a challenge. We help you make sense of it.

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Anthropology Review

Breaking Down Barriers – Using Ethnography to Build Cultural Understanding

Ethnography is a research method used to study human cultures and societies. At its core, ethnography is the study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their day-to-day activities.

Table of Contents

Ethnographers aim to gain an in-depth understanding of the culture they are studying by immersing themselves in it and observing it from within. This approach allows them to gather rich qualitative data that can help explain how people think, behave, interact with one another, and make sense of their world.

This research method is widely used across various fields such as anthropology, sociology , education, business, and more to gain insights into different cultures and ways of life.

Ethnography – An Introduction

Ethnography is a research method that involves the systematic study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their daily activities. It typically requires immersion in the culture being studied, often for an extended period of time, to gain a deep understanding of its norms, values, beliefs, and practices.

The key components of ethnography include participant observation, fieldwork, and data analysis.

Participant observation involves the researcher taking an active role in the culture they are studying by participating in its activities and observing its members’ behaviour. Fieldwork refers to the process of collecting data through direct observation, interviews, and other methods while living among the people being studied. Data analysis involves interpreting the data collected during fieldwork to develop insights into the culture under study.

Ethnography differs from other research methods like surveys or interviews in several ways. Surveys typically involve collecting data from a large group of people using standardized questions or measurements. Interviews involve asking individuals about their experiences or opinions on a particular topic. In contrast, ethnography emphasizes direct observation of cultural practices and behaviors within their natural context rather than relying on self-reported information.

Overall, ethnography provides a unique perspective on human cultures and societies that cannot be obtained through other research methods. By immersing themselves in a culture and experiencing it first-hand, ethnographers can gain insights into how people think, behave, and interact with one another that would be difficult to obtain through any other means.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a research method used in ethnography and other social sciences that involves the researcher taking an active role in the culture or group being studied.

In participant observation, the researcher immerses themselves in the culture and participates in its activities while observing and recording their experiences. This approach allows the researcher to gain a deep understanding of the culture’s norms, values, beliefs, and practices from an insider’s perspective.

Participant observation typically involves several stages, including gaining entry into the culture or group being studied, establishing trust with its members, learning about its social structure and dynamics, participating in its activities while observing them, and collecting data through field notes or other methods.

The process is time-consuming and challenging, but it can provide rich qualitative data that would be difficult to obtain through other means.

Fieldwork is a research method used in ethnography and other social sciences that involves conducting research in the natural environment or “field” where the culture or group being studied is located. In the context of ethnography, fieldwork typically involves immersing oneself in the culture being studied to gain a deep understanding of its norms, values, beliefs, and practices.

During fieldwork, researchers may engage in participant observation by actively participating in the activities of the culture they are studying while observing and recording their experiences. They may also conduct interviews with members of the culture to gain additional insights into their perspectives and experiences.

Cultural Informant Interviews

Cultural informants are individuals who are knowledgeable about the culture being studied and can provide valuable information to researchers. The ethnographer interviews them to gain insights into their perspectives, experiences, and beliefs.

During cultural informant interviews, researchers ask open-ended questions to gather information about the society’s norms, values, beliefs, and practices. The goal is to gain a deep understanding of the culture from the perspective of its members. Informants may be chosen based on their expertise in specific areas or because they are representative of particular groups within the culture being studied.

Cultural informant interviews can be conducted individually or in groups and may take place in person or remotely. They typically involve building rapport with informants over time to establish trust and create an open dialogue.

Analysing and Describing Ethnographic Findings

Analyzing and describing ethnographic findings involves interpreting the data collected during fieldwork in order to draw conclusions about the culture being studied. The anthropologist begins by organizing their field notes, transcripts, and other data into categories or themes that emerge from the data itself. This involves identifying recurring patterns, themes, or ideas that arise during observation or interviews.

Once the anthropologist has organized their data into categories or themes, they identify the key cultural concepts that emerge from their analysis. These may include values, beliefs, practices, symbols, or social structures that are central to the culture being studied.

The anthropologist then uses their data to describe the norms and behaviors that are common within the culture being studied. This could involve discussing how people interact with each other in social settings or how they communicate with one another.

To understand cultural practices and beliefs fully, it’s important for the anthropologist to provide context for them. One of the ways anthropologists achieve this aim is by using a style known as thick description .

Thick description refers to the practice of providing detailed, contextualized accounts of cultural phenomena. When writing anthropological reports, ethnographers aim to provide readers with enough information to understand the cultural context in which events or activities took place. This type of detailed description is essential for understanding the complexities of human cultures and societies.

Based on their analysis of the data, the anthropologist draws conclusions about what they have learned about the culture being studied. This could involve making generalizations about cultural values or identifying unique features of a particular group within the culture.

Finally, the anthropologist presents their findings in a clear and concise manner using appropriate qualitative research methods such as narrative description, thematic analysis, or grounded theory.

Best Practices for Conducting Ethnographic Research

Develop a clear research question: Before beginning your research, it’s important to have a well-defined research question that will guide your study and help you stay focused on what you want to learn.

Build rapport with participants: Ethnography often involves spending extended periods of time in the field and building relationships with members of the community being studied. It’s essential to establish trust and create an open dialogue with participants.

Use multiple methods: Ethnographers use a variety of data collection methods, including observation, interviews, surveys, and document analysis. Using multiple methods can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the culture being studied.

Maintain detailed field notes: Accurate and detailed field notes are crucial for ethnographic research as they provide a record of observations, conversations, and experiences that can be analyzed later.

Practice reflexivity: Reflexivity is the process of reflecting on one’s own role in the research process and how this may impact data collection and analysis. Ethnographers should be aware of their own biases and assumptions and actively work to minimize their influence on the study.

Ensure confidentiality: Confidentiality is critical in ethnographic research as participants may share personal information or engage in behaviors that could put them at risk if made public. Researchers must take steps to protect participant privacy and ensure that any information shared is kept confidential.

Analyze data systematically: After collecting data, it’s essential to analyze it systematically using established qualitative research methods such as coding, thematic analysis, or grounded theory.

By following these best practices, ethnographers can conduct rigorous and ethical research that provides valuable insights into human cultures and societies while also respecting the rights and privacy of participants.

How Ethnography Differs from Other Qualitative Methods

Ethnography differs from other qualitative research methods, such as focus groups or interviews, in two key ways.

First, the main aim of ethnographic research is the interpretation of the shared norms and beliefs of the community under study. This means that ethnographers are more interested in understanding how a group interacts with each other and their cultural worlds than they are in individual perspectives.

Second, ethnography relies heavily on fieldwork. This means that ethnographers must immerse themselves in the daily lives of the people they are researching in order to understand their culture. This can be done through direct observation or participation in activities. This means that ethnographers often live with the people they are researching for extended periods of time in order to really understand their culture.

The Ethical Considerations of Ethnographic Research

When conducting ethnographic research, there are a number of ethical considerations that need to be taken into account in order to ensure that the research is conducted in a responsible and respectful manner. This is especially important when working with vulnerable populations.

The following are some of the challenges involved in conducting ethnographic research and the ethical considerations that need to be taken into account.

Informed Consent

Conducting anthropological research requires gaining the trust of those being studied. This can be a challenge, especially if the researcher is coming from a different culture.

It is important to build relationships of trust and mutual respect in order to conduct ethical research. This can be done by spending time getting to know the people you will be working with, learning about their culture and customs, and respecting their way of life. If people do not trust you, they will not participate in your research.

It is also important to obtain informed consent from those who will be participating in your research. This means that participants must be made aware of what the research entails, what their role in the research will be, and how their personal information will be used. Participants must also be given the opportunity to ask questions and withdraw from the study at any time.

Respecting Privacy and Confidentiality

Another ethical consideration is protecting the confidentiality of participants. This means keeping their information safe and ensuring that it will not be used for any purpose other than what was originally agreed upon.

In some cases, researchers may need to change the names of participants or use pseudonyms in order to protect their identity. Any recordings or notes that are made during the course of the research should also be kept confidential.

This can be a challenge in ethnographic research because the very nature of the methodology involves observing people in their natural environment. This means that researchers may inadvertently collect personal information about participants without their knowledge or consent. One way to overcome this challenge is to establish clear boundaries with participants at the beginning of the research process and make sure they are aware of what information will be collected and how it will be used.

Code of Ethics

All anthropologists are bound by a code of ethics which sets out principles for conducting responsible and ethical research. The code of ethics includes principles such as respect for human dignity, protecting participant welfare, minimizing harm, upholding confidentiality, and obtaining informed consent.

The Challenges of Conducting Ethnographic Research

The goal of ethnographic research is to understand how people interact with each other and the world around them. In order to do this, ethnographers immerse themselves in the lives of the people they are studying. This can be a challenge, both logistically and emotionally. Here are some of the challenges involved in conducting ethnographic research.

Gaining access to the people being studied

One of the biggest challenges in conducting ethnographic research is gaining access to the necessary people and places. This can be difficult for a number of reasons, including language barriers, unfamiliarity with local customs, and lack of personal connections.

One way to overcome this challenge is to partner with someone who is already familiar with the community you’re researching. This person can act as a guide and introduce you to key members of the community who can provide valuable insights into your research topic.

Another challenge faced by many ethnographers is gaining the cooperation of research subjects. This can be difficult because people are often reluctant to talk about sensitive topics or share personal information with strangers. One way to overcome this challenge is to build rapport with your research subjects by establishing trust and demonstrating your understanding of their culture and values. Only once you have gained their trust should you begin asking questions about your research topic.

Time Commitment

Another challenge is the time commitment required. In order to really understand a culture, an ethnographer needs to spend a significant amount of time observing and interacting with the people in that culture. This can be logistically difficult, especially if the society under study is located in a different country or region. It can also be emotionally challenging, as it requires an ethnographer to be open and vulnerable with the people they are studying.

Analysis and Interpretation

Once an ethnographer has collected their data, they then face the challenge of analysis and interpretation. This is difficult because ethnographers must not only understand the culture they are studying, but also their own culture and biases.

In addition, ethnographic data often takes the form of unstructured observations, interviews, and field notes, which can be challenging to organize and interpret. One way to overcome this challenge is to use data management software like NVivo or Atlas.ti to help you organize and analyse your data.

And finally, the ethnographer must find a way to communicate their findings to others who have not experienced the society first hand. This is where thick description is crucial.

Conclusion – Ethnography is a Powerful Tool

Ethnography is a powerful research method that allows anthropologists to study human cultures and societies in depth. Its strength lies in its ability to provide rich, detailed descriptions of cultural practices, beliefs, and values while also providing context for these phenomena.

Ethnography differs from other qualitative research methods in that it emphasizes the importance of long-term fieldwork and participant observation as a way of gaining deep insights into cultural phenomena. By immersing themselves in the culture being studied, ethnographers can gain a nuanced understanding of complex social processes and interactions.

As such, ethnography continues to be an important tool for anthropologists seeking to understand the diverse ways in which people live and interact with one another around the world.

Related Terminology:

Thick description: A type of ethnographic data that provides highly detailed, contextualized accounts of social phenomena.

Triangulation: A method used by ethnographers to corroborate their findings by collecting data from multiple sources.

Qualitative research : A type of research that uses inductive, observational methods to generate rich, detailed data about a particular phenomenon.

Quantitative research: A type of research that uses deductive, statistical methods to generate numerical data about a particular phenomenon.

Anthropology Glossary Terms starting with E






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Qualitative Research: Ethnography

  • Data Analysis
  • Ethnography
  • Interviewing & Focus Groups
  • Narrative Inquiry
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Journals on Ethnography

  • Common Ground: Archeology and Ethnography in the Public Interest
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Ethnography and Education
  • The Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography
  • Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
  • Journal of Museum Ethnography
  • Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Ethnography Methodology

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40 Most Interesting Ethnographic Research Topics

Ethnographic Research Topics

Finding A-grade examples of ethnographic research topics may not be a walk in the park for college students.

The way of writing an effective ethnographic paper depends on the points discussed below.

So, here is a ready solution.

What is an Ethnographic Research Paper?

Ethnography is a social science method of research that counts on personal experiences within a subject group or a culture. Different instructors may recommend several writing guidelines for such a paper, but it generally follows a standard format. Such an arrangement incorporates a proper analysis and evaluation of the problem. Before we embark on learning how to write an ethnography, let us have a look at an ethnographic essay outline.

Structure of an Ethnographic Essay

The paper should follow the outline below: Introduction It is where you introduce your thesis statement, which is the main idea of the whole project. A proper ethnographic research topic would form a strong foundation for this part. The reader should be able to see an overview of what to expect in the essay. Methodology In this part, you explain how you did your research. Mention all the tools used and why you settled on them. It should be detailed and even a couple of in such a way that the reader can verify the information you used. Presentation and Analysis of Collected Data The findings should be placed on the table first. They should be in a logical manner, beginning with the essential facts. After that, analyze and precisely interpret the data. Let your readers know your criteria for interpretation before you start. Conclusion Different ethnographic research paper topics have different endings. However, the standard procedure is that you reiterate the most important points. Ensure that they are presented in an original way to make your conclusion not to look like a reversed introduction. That is the first part; however, finding quality examples of ethnographic research topics is another battle. Yet, don’t panic, we’ve got a legion of professional soldiers to cover your back on this.

We are going to explore a list of ethnography topics in clusters of ten each to prompt you for more. Get that notebook as we embark on this exciting experience. The items strive to meet your high school and college ethnography topics requirements.

Let’s get right into it, gang.

We will start with the easiest ones as we slowly advance to the technical topics. There is something for everybody!

Easy Ethnography Topics for High School

  • A study of the incisor tooth
  • The best careers that people can settle on in 2023
  • A survey of the lifestyle of a teacher
  • A study of the health benefits of taking water daily
  • A look at the importance of the sun to children
  • How greetings are in Africa
  • A study of the eating habits of dogs and cats
  • A comparison of the red meat and white meat
  • How wealthy children compare to needy children in academic performance
  • A look at how children behave at home versus in school

Interesting Ethnography Topics for College

  • An ethnographic study of the Chinese diets
  • The inner perspective of the culture of skateboarders
  • Critical issues on the social, cultural experience of the dancing
  • How nurses make sense of their caring abilities on the job
  • A study of how second-hand merchants impact the bookselling industry
  • Evaluating the satisfaction of a patient with the quality of care in a hospital
  • What myths and misconceptions surround the global connection
  • A study on the effect of uniforms in schools
  • How language impacts culture
  • A survey of qualitative sampling in data collection

Great Mini Ethnography Topics

  • How have malls changed the shopping sector?
  • Racism and its effects on campus
  • Values promoted by media productions
  • How cultural productions interpret the history
  • A study of the communities in New York
  • Teamwork and its impact on football
  • Reasons for differences in families
  • How service staff view people
  • Lives and cultures of the hotel industry
  • How immigrants express their identity
  • The view of people on gays
  • Adjustments made by women to fit in societies
  • Homeschooling and low grades
  • Hunting as a rite of passage
  • Wrestling and men
  • Concerts and teens
  • Cultural differences between different ethnic groups
  • How political clubs are changing
  • A study of street children in Africa
  • Politics and the U.S

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  • What Is Ethnography? | Meaning, Guide & Examples

What Is Ethnography? | Meaning, Guide & Examples

Published on 6 May 2022 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on 6 April 2023.

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organisation to observe their behaviour and interactions up close. The word ‘ethnography’ also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

Table of contents

What is ethnography used for, different approaches to ethnographic research, gaining access to a community, working with informants, observing the group and taking field notes, writing up an ethnography.

Ethnographic research originated in the field of anthropology, and it often involved an anthropologist living with an isolated tribal community for an extended period of time in order to understand their culture.

This type of research could sometimes last for years. For example, Colin M. Turnbull lived with the Mbuti people for three years in order to write the classic ethnography The Forest People .

Today, ethnography is a common approach in various social science fields, not just anthropology. It is used not only to study distant or unfamiliar cultures, but also to study specific communities within the researcher’s own society.

For example, ethnographic research (sometimes called participant observation ) has been used to investigate football fans , call centre workers , and police officers .

Advantages of ethnography

The main advantage of ethnography is that it gives the researcher direct access to the culture and practices of a group. It is a useful approach for learning first-hand about the behavior and interactions of people within a particular context.

By becoming immersed in a social environment, you may have access to more authentic information and spontaneously observe dynamics that you could not have found out about simply by asking.

Ethnography is also an open and flexible method. Rather than aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis , it aims to offer a rich narrative account of a specific culture, allowing you to explore many different aspects of the group and setting.

Disadvantages of ethnography

Ethnography is a time-consuming method. In order to embed yourself in the setting and gather enough observations to build up a representative picture, you can expect to spend at least a few weeks, but more likely several months. This long-term immersion can be challenging, and requires careful planning.

Ethnographic research can run the risk of observer bias . Writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, and it can be difficult to maintain the necessary distance to analyse a group that you are embedded in.

There are often also ethical considerations to take into account: for example, about how your role is disclosed to members of the group, or about observing and reporting sensitive information.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

If you’re a student who wants to use ethnographic research in your thesis or dissertation , it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s the right approach:

  • Could the information you need be collected in another way (e.g., a survey , interviews)?
  • How difficult will it be to gain access to the community you want to study?
  • How exactly will you conduct your research, and over what timespan?
  • What ethical issues might arise?

If you do decide to do ethnography, it’s generally best to choose a relatively small and easily accessible group, to ensure that the research is feasible within a limited time frame.

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There are a few key distinctions in ethnography which help to inform the researcher’s approach: open vs closed settings, overt vs covert ethnography, and active vs passive observation. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Open vs closed settings

The setting of your ethnography – the environment in which you will observe your chosen community in action – may be open or closed.

An open or public setting is one with no formal barriers to entry. For example, you might consider a community of people living in a certain neighbourhood, or the fans of a particular football team.

  • Gaining initial access to open groups is not too difficult …
  • … but it may be harder to become immersed in a less clearly defined group.

A closed or private setting is harder to access. This may be for example a business, a school, or a cult.

  • A closed group’s boundaries are clearly defined and the ethnographer can become fully immersed in the setting …
  • … but gaining access is tougher; the ethnographer may have to negotiate their way in or acquire some role in the organisation.

Overt vs covert ethnography

Most ethnography is overt . In an overt approach, the ethnographer openly states their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the members of the group being studied.

  • Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent …
  • … but people may behave differently with the awareness that they are being studied.

Sometimes ethnography can be covert . This means that the researcher does not tell participants about their research, and comes up with some other pretence for being there.

  • Covert ethnography allows access to environments where the group would not welcome a researcher …
  • … but hiding the researcher’s role can be considered deceptive and thus unethical.

Active vs passive observation

Different levels of immersion in the community may be appropriate in different contexts. The ethnographer may be a more active or passive participant depending on the demands of their research and the nature of the setting.

An active role involves trying to fully integrate, carrying out tasks and participating in activities like any other member of the community.

  • Active participation may encourage the group to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence …
  • … but runs the risk of disrupting the regular functioning of the community.

A passive role is one in which the ethnographer stands back from the activities of others, behaving as a more distant observer and not involving themselves in the community’s activities.

  • Passive observation allows more space for careful observation and note-taking …
  • … but group members may behave unnaturally due to feeling they are being observed by an outsider.

While ethnographers usually have a preference, they also have to be flexible about their level of participation. For example, access to the community might depend upon engaging in certain activities, or there might be certain practices in which outsiders cannot participate.

An important consideration for ethnographers is the question of access. The difficulty of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To gain access to the fans of a particular sports team, you might start by simply attending the team’s games and speaking with the fans.
  • To access the employees of a particular business, you might contact the management and ask for permission to perform a study there.
  • Alternatively, you might perform a covert ethnography of a community or organisation you are already personally involved in or employed by.

Flexibility is important here too: where it’s impossible to access the desired setting, the ethnographer must consider alternatives that could provide comparable information.

For example, if you had the idea of observing the staff within a particular finance company but could not get permission, you might look into other companies of the same kind as alternatives. Ethnography is a sensitive research method, and it may take multiple attempts to find a feasible approach.

All ethnographies involve the use of informants . These are people involved in the group in question who function as the researcher’s primary points of contact, facilitating access and assisting their understanding of the group.

This might be someone in a high position at an organisation allowing you access to their employees, or a member of a community sponsoring your entry into that community and giving advice on how to fit in.

However,  i f you come to rely too much on a single informant, you may be influenced by their perspective on the community, which might be unrepresentative of the group as a whole.

In addition, an informant may not provide the kind of spontaneous information which is most useful to ethnographers, instead trying to show what they believe you want to see. For this reason, it’s good to have a variety of contacts within the group.

The core of ethnography is observation of the group from the inside. Field notes are taken to record these observations while immersed in the setting; they form the basis of the final written ethnography. They are usually written by hand, but other solutions such as voice recordings can be useful alternatives.

Field notes record any and all important data: phenomena observed, conversations had, preliminary analysis. For example, if you’re researching how service staff interact with customers, you should write down anything you notice about these interactions – body language, phrases used repeatedly, differences and similarities between staff, customer reactions.

Don’t be afraid to also note down things you notice that fall outside the pre-formulated scope of your research; anything may prove relevant, and it’s better to have extra notes you might discard later than to end up with missing data.

Field notes should be as detailed and clear as possible. It’s important to take time to go over your notes, expand on them with further detail, and keep them organised (including information such as dates and locations).

After observations are concluded, there’s still the task of writing them up into an ethnography. This entails going through the field notes and formulating a convincing account of the behaviours and dynamics observed.

The structure of an ethnography

An ethnography can take many different forms: It may be an article, a thesis, or an entire book, for example.

Ethnographies often do not follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, though like most academic texts, they should have an introduction and conclusion. For example, this paper begins by describing the historical background of the research, then focuses on various themes in turn before concluding.

An ethnography may still use a more traditional structure, however, especially when used in combination with other research methods. For example, this paper follows the standard structure for empirical research: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

The content of an ethnography

The goal of a written ethnography is to provide a rich, authoritative account of the social setting in which you were embedded – to convince the reader that your observations and interpretations are representative of reality.

Ethnography tends to take a less impersonal approach than other research methods. Due to the embedded nature of the work, an ethnography often necessarily involves discussion of your personal experiences and feelings during the research.

Ethnography is not limited to making observations; it also attempts to explain the phenomena observed in a structured, narrative way. For this, you may draw on theory, but also on your direct experience and intuitions, which may well contradict the assumptions that you brought into the research.

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Qualitative study design: Ethnography

  • Qualitative study design
  • Phenomenology
  • Grounded theory


  • Narrative inquiry
  • Action research
  • Case Studies
  • Field research
  • Focus groups
  • Observation
  • Surveys & questionnaires
  • Study Designs Home

To describe the characteristics of a particular culture/ethnographic group. 

Ethnography is the study of culture (Taylor & Francis, 2013) it is in many ways similar to anthropology; this being the study of human societies and cultures. 

Exploration and data collection can occur in either an emic or etic approach. Emic meaning that the observation happens from within the culture. Etic meaning the observation is external looking in (Taylor et al., 2006) 

Used to explore questions relating to the understanding of a certain group's beliefs, values, practices and how they adapt to change. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Ethnographic studies can be about identifying inequalities. For example exploring racial and cultural aspects of how a cultural group functions and the rules that guide behaviours. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

One form of ethnography is an auto-ethnography which involves exploration of the self as the topic being explored. 

The researcher places themselves as a ‘participant observer’ amidst the culture. 

The setting is a very important consideration within ethnographic studies as the exploration of the people and their behaviours must be within the context of that cultural situation. 

Methods used include, but are not limited to: observation, interviews, focus groups, review of documentary evidence and keeping field notes. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Steps involved include:  

Identify the culture to be studied  

Identify the significant variables within the culture 

Review existing literature 

Gain entrance 

Immerse within the culture or observe the culture 

Acquire the informants 

Gather data 

Describe the culture 

Develop theories. 

(Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Direct insight into the lives and experiences of the people and the group of interest. 

Allows for rich detailed data to be collected (Howitt, 2019). 

Provides an opportunity for researchers to uncover new unknown ways of thinking. Researchers may become aware of behaviors, trends and beliefs that are present within one culture although these may be previously unknown to other cultures. This enables new opportunities for improved ways of viewing and solving issues within other cultures.   


Biases can be apparent because a researcher will always bring with them their own culture and own perspective which may impact their interpretations of the experiences they observe within this different culture. 

Genuine co-operation and engagement from the people of interest may not always be forthcoming and rapport might be difficult to establish. 

There can be a greater cost involved for this study type than others. Due to the need for transport, accommodation and researcher time that is spent in the field among the participants. This can be greater than what would be spent in a different research methodology where the engagement may be limited to a laboratory or shorter duration. 

Certain logistics can pose challenges for this type of research approach, such as travelling and gaining access to communities depending on their unique cultural values, for example there are many indigenous societies that only permit people of certain genders to have access. 

As the setting may be very specific to a particular group or community of people it may not be possible to generalise and apply the findings very broadly. 

Researchers need to be aware of the impact that their presence can have on the behaviours of the population they are investigating. 

The “Hawthorne effect” can be a limitation to observing genuine behaviours within a group. This is a situation founded by Dickson and Roethlisberger in 1966 when they reviewed previous experiments conducted at the Hawthorne factory. These experiments observed the ways that different influences, such as the level of lighting, impacted on the efficiency of factory workers. Their re-examination demonstrated that participants can behave differently to what they usually would when they are aware that they are being studied or recorded. As such, the methods selected need to counteract this effect for all study types, but for ethnographic studies especially, as authenticity of the cultural experience is quite important to ethnographic methodology. 

Example questions

What expectations and beliefs do people within specific communities hold about their healthcare options? 

What practices are being undertaken by healthcare professionals in specific settings and are these consistent with best practice? 

What barriers are certain communities experiencing in relation to different healthcare access? 

Are people within a specific community receiving the appropriate information and communication about aspects of their health for them to then make informed educated decisions? 

Example studies

Coughlin, C. (n.d.). An ethnographic study of main events during hospitalisation: perceptions of nurses and patients . Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22(15–16), 2327–2337.  

Molloy, L., Walker, K., Lakeman, R., & Lees, D. (2019). Mental Health Nursing Practice and Indigenous Australians: A Multi-Sited Ethnography. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(1), 21–27. 

Rainsford, S., Phillips, C. B., Glasgow, N. J., MacLeod, R. D., & Wiles, R. B. (2018). The ‘safe death’: An ethnographic study exploring the perspectives of rural palliative care patients and family caregivers. Palliative Medicine, 32(10), 1575–1583. 

Newnham, E., McKellar, L., & Pincombe, J. (2017). ‘It’s your body, but…’ Mixed messages in childbirth education: Findings from a hospital ethnography. Midwifery, 55, 53–59 

King, P. (2019). The woven self: An auto-ethnography of cultural disruption and connectedness . International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, 8(3), 107–123.  

Howitt, D. (2019). Introduction to qualitative research methods in psychology: putting theory into practice. Pearson Education.

Taylor, B. J., & Francis, K. (2013). Qualitative research in the health sciences: methodologies, methods and processes: Routledge.

Taylor, B. J., Kermode, S., & Roberts, K. L. (2006). Research in nursing and health care: creating evidence for practice (Third edition. ed.): Thomson. 

O’Connor, S. J. (2011). Context is everything: The role of auto‐ethnography, reflexivity and self‐critique in establishing the credibility of qualitative research findings. European Journal of Cancer Care, 20(4), 421–423. 

Dickson, W. J & Roethlisberger, F. J., (1966) Counseling in an organization: a sequel to the Hawthorne researches. 1898-1974 & Western Electric Company (U.S.) Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, Boston 

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Ethics of Ethnography

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possible research topics for ethnography

  • Martyn Hammersley 2  

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The ethical issues relevant to social research take distinctive forms in the case of ethnography. One reason for this is that it involves entering the territories of others, rather than inviting them into that of the researcher (for the purposes of carrying out an experiment or an interview, or administering a questionnaire). Participant observation in “natural” settings is usually involved, taking place over weeks, months, or even years. Also significant is the flexible character of ethnographic research design, which means that only quite limited information can be provided at the start of data collection, when access is initially being negotiated, about exactly what the research will entail. A further distinctive feature is that relatively close relationships are established with some research participants, setting up obligations of one kind or another. Furthermore, these people and their activities are described in detail in ethnographic reports, with the result that they may be identifiable – at least by those who know the setting investigated. In this chapter, some of the central commitments of research ethics – minimizing harm, respecting autonomy, preserving privacy, and offering some reciprocity – are examined as they arise in ethnographic work. In particular, the issue of informed consent is considered. This is a common requirement in the context of ethical regulation, but there are difficulties involved in achieving it in ethnography, and its appropriateness is sometimes open to question.

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New research shows microevolution can be used to predict how evolution works on much longer timescales

by Nancy Bazilchuk, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Unlocking the secrets of evolution

Ever since Charles Darwin published his landmark theory of how species evolve, biologists have been fascinated with the intricate mechanisms that make evolution possible.

Can mechanisms responsible for the evolution of a species over a few generations, called microevolution, also explain how species evolve over periods of time extending to thousands or millions of generations, also called macroevolution?

A new paper, just published in Science , shows that the ability of populations to evolve and adapt over a few generations, called evolvability, effectively helps us understand how evolution works on much longer timescales.

By compiling and analyzing huge datasets from existing species as well as from fossils, the researchers were able to show that the evolvability responsible for microevolution of many different traits predicts the amount of change observed between populations and species separated by up to one million years.

"Darwin suggested that species gradually evolve, but what we found is that even though populations rapidly evolve over the short term, this (short-term) evolution doesn't accumulate over time. However, how divergent populations and species are, on average, over long periods of time still depends on their ability to evolve on the short term," said Christophe Pélabon, a professor at NTNU's Department of Biology and senior author of the paper.

Big datasets from living creatures and fossils

The ability to respond to selection and to adapt, the evolvability, depends on the amount of heritable (genetic) variation. The researchers conducted their analysis by first compiling a massive dataset with measures of evolvability for living populations and species from publicly available information. They then plotted evolvablity against population and species divergence for different traits such as [bird] beak size, number of offspring, [plant] flower size and more.

They also examined information from 150 different lineages of fossils, where other researchers had measured differences in morphological traits in the fossils over time periods as short as 10 years and as long as 7.6 million years.

What they saw was that traits with higher evolvability were more divergent among existing populations and species, and that traits with higher evolvability were more likely to be different from each other between two consecutive fossil samples.

Conversely, traits with little evolvability or little variability didn't change very much between populations or between successive fossil samples

Environmental fluctuation is the key

Traits with higher evolvability change rapidly because they are able to respond to environmental changes more quickly, Pélabon said.

The environment—things such as temperature, the type of food available, or any other characteristic important for the survival and the reproduction of the individual—is the driving force of evolutionary changes because populations try to adapt to their own environment. Typically, environments are changing from year to year or decade to decade, fluctuating around stable means. This generates fluctuation in the direction of selection.

Highly evolvable traits can rapidly respond to these fluctuations in selection and will fluctuate over time with high amplitude. Traits with little evolvability will also fluctuate but more slowly and thus with lower amplitude.

"Populations or species that are geographically distant from each other are exposed to environments whose fluctuations are not synchronized. Consequently, these populations will have different trait values, and the size of this difference will depend on the amplitude of the trait's fluctuation, and therefore on the evolvability of the trait," Pélabon said.

Consequences for biodiversity

The researchers' results suggest that selection and therefore the environment has been relatively stable in the past. With climate change , things are rapidly changing, and mostly in one direction. This may strongly affect patterns of selection and how species can adapt to environments that are still fluctuating but around optima that are no longer stable even over periods of time of a few decades.

"How much species will be able to track these optima and adapt is uncertain, but most likely this will have consequences for biodiversity, even on a short timescale," he said.

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Disruption in the space–time continuum: why digital ethnography matters

Jennifer cleland.

1 Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Singapore, 308232 Singapore

Anna MacLeod

2 Division of Medical Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada

There is increasing interest in the use of ethnography as a qualitative research approach to explore, in depth, issues of culture in health professions education (HPE). Our specific focus in this article is incorporating the digital into ethnography. Digital technologies are pervasively and increasingly shaping the way we interact, behave, think, and communicate as health professions educators and learners. Understanding the contemporary culture(s) of HPE thus means paying attention to what goes on in digital spaces. In this paper, we critically consider some of the potential issues when the field of ethnography exists outside the space time continuum, including the need to engage with theory in research about technology and digital spaces in HPE. After a very brief review of the few HPE studies that have used digital ethnography, we scrutinize what can be gained when ethnography encompasses the digital world, particularly in relation to untangling sociomaterial aspects of HPE. We chart the shifts inherent in conducting ethnographic research within the digital landscape, specifically those related to research field, the role of the researcher and ethical issues. We then use two examples to illustrate possible HPE research questions and potential strategies for using digital ethnography to answer those questions: using digital tools in the conduct of an ethnographic study and how to conduct an ethnography of a digital space. We conclude that acknowledging the pervasiveness of technologies in the design, delivery and experiences of HPE opens up new research questions which can be addressed by embracing the digital in ethnography.


“ All forms of interaction are ethnographically valid, not just the face to face ” (Hine, 2000 , p.65).

All of our lives, to some degree, take place in digital spaces. We tweet, we blog, we use Facebook, we text, we WhatsApp, we are “tagged” in something posted by a third party, we are part of online communities. At work, we use email, have remote meetings, upload tasks onto the digital learning management system, use online systems to share data, and so on. Health professions education is increasingly constituted through digitized practices where social interactions and cultural meaning-making processes occur in virtual and online spaces, or in a combination of online and face-to-face spaces (Hine, 2000 ; Boellstorff et al., 2012 ; Gatson, 2011).

Digital technology shapes the way we interact, behave, think, and communicate and, in doing so, it has changed the roles of space, place and time in human and material interactions. Space is no longer defined as the congregation of people in any specific place but rather is defined beyond the physical. In other words, space is digitally mediated as well as direct contact with other people (Murthy, 2008 ). Digital technologies have thus extended the nature of human interactions to encompass “distanced” and dispersed communication and different types of proximity in ways that no other technology has done to date (e.g., Murthy, 2008 ). Time is fluid and flexible, with asynchronous options for engaging online meaning people participate when it works for them, rather than during mandatory, prescribed periods (Burcks et al., 2019 ).

If social interactions are no longer solely co-located in time and space, we must extend ethnographic study to settings where interactions are technologically mediated, not just face-to-face (e.g., Bengtsson, 2014 ; Hine, 2015 ). Ethnographers who rely principally on face-to-face interviewing and in-person observation are now unlikely to obtain a sufficiently rich picture of their informants’ lives because it is increasingly difficult to separate the online from the embodied, and the digitally-mediated aspects of life now are not amenable to (traditional) observation (Beaulieu, 2010 ; Czarniawska, 2008 ).

This ontological shift necessitates thinking differently about ethnographic practices, including the questions that can be addressed, the methods that can be used, and the ethical challenges to consider. What remains the same and what is different when conducting an ethnography of a digital space, compared to “analogue”, or traditional ethnography (Boellstorff et al., 2012 ; Seligman & Estes, 2020 )?

Before discussing this further, it is useful to explain what we mean by digital ethnography. Different authors use different terms to describe their approaches to ethnographic research on digital culture and practices (e.g., ‘digital ethnography’ (Murthy, 2008 ), ‘virtual ethnography’ (Hine, 2000 ), ‘cyberethnography’ (Robinson & Schulz, 2009 ), ‘netnography’ (Kozinets, 2010 )) and even different definitions within each of these labels (for example, there are many subtly different definitions of digital ethnography (Hines, 2000 , 2008 , 2015 ; Murthy, 2008 ; Pink et al., 2015 )). Common to all these definitions, and the position we take in this paper, is that digital ethnography is research ‘on online practices and communications, and on offline practices shaped by digitalisation’ (Varis, 2016 , p.57), and involves human beings studying other human beings (rather than software collecting data: see Kozinets et al., 2018 ).

Our experience and knowledge of the literature suggests that broadly speaking, the aims of ethnography and digital ethnography are the same: to provide detailed, in-depth descriptions of everyday life and practices (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007 ; Hoey, 2014 ). The practicalities, use of theory and the need for reflexivity are also unchanged. However, the role of the researcher, the notions of field/place and data collection tools differ across traditional and digital ethnography (e.g., da Costa & Condie, 2018 ; Markham, 2005 ). Additionally, digital ethnography opens up both new ethical considerations and new opportunities, specifically to examine the complex ways in which culture—the everyday practices, experiences, and understandings of persons interacting digitally—shapes and is shaped by the technological platforms where it occurs (Hine, 2000 , 2008 ).

Despite the fact that bringing the digital into ethnography opens up new vistas of health professions education research (HPER) possibilities, our field has been slow to embrace digital ethnography. A focused search of two mainstream databases identified only six empirical studies which could be considered broadly related to medical education or training (not patient care, or the organisation of care) and which included analysis of some form of digital data (see Box ​ Box1). 1 ). In this era of physical distancing, in which so much of the work of HPE is accomplished online, it is time to foreground digital ethnography.

Example: Digital ethnography in medical education research

To address this gap and extend understanding of digital ethnography, therefore, we discuss each of three key areas—the use of theory, “new” ethical considerations and digital ethnography practices. We then suggest directions for the development of digital ethnographic studies and best practices in the field of HPE via two detailed examples and other suggestions of how this approach could extend knowledge and understanding in health professions education.

Theory in digital ethnography

Oversimplified, atheoretical perspectives on the role of technology in research on learning have long characterized the field. Several decades ago, Lave and Wenger noted, “in general, social scientists who concern themselves with learning treat technology as a given and are not analytic about its interrelations with other aspects of a community of practice” (1991, p. 101).

Sociomaterial theoretical perspectives, based on the related concepts of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991 ), distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995 ), and activity theory (Engeström, 1999 ), offer a robust theoretical starting point for making sense of online activities in the realm of HPE. Now recognized as an important perspective for understanding the active role of digital technologies (MacLeod et al., 2015 , 2019 ), sociomaterial perspectives allow for the theorizing of the entanglement of both social (human) and material (digital) elements—in other words, a sociomaterial assemblage. This, in turn, allows a researcher to explore the social complexities of a digital environment while acknowledging the foundational materiality shaping it.

Orlikowski and Scott ( 2008 ) note that the distinction between social and material, or human and technology, is “analytical only, and done with the recognition that these entities necessarily entail each other in practice” (p. 456). Given that technology, the digital environment, and contemporary learning and working practices are inextricably linked, any effort to theorize online HPE activities would be enriched by deliberately attuning to such intra-actions. Well-conceptualised digital ethnographic work should illuminate the ways in which technological elements derive meaning through social agency, and vice-versa. For example, Wesch ( 2012 , p. 101) states that different platforms “create different architectures for participation” and “every feature shapes the possibilities for sociality.” People engage with multiple social media platforms for different purposes, so one sees different content, interactions, and levels of impression management in work emails, WhatsApp, on public platforms like Twitter and more private platforms that may require “friending” someone to see their content (Facebook, Instagram). Different interactions may take place in relatively stable and bounded socio-technical contexts (e.g., discussion forums), compared to more “volatile environments” (Airoldi, 2018 p.662) such as Twitter’s trending topics. Indeed, “specific practices and ways of being human are as likely to differ between online and off, between one form of online activity and another, as between physically located cultures” (Wilson & Peterson, 2002 , p 450).

Ethical considerations

As the amount of human activity on digital media has increased, so too have ethical concerns about doing research within digital spaces. How can a researcher obtain informed consent in digital spaces given the flow of information and flow of users, not all of whom read all messages (Barbosa & Milan, 2019 )? What issues need to be negotiated when it comes to friending participants for the purposes of participant observation (Robards, 2013 )? These and many other questions have led authors to propose that embracing digital spaces for research purposes challenges “existing conventions of ethics” and requires new ways of approaching such concerns (Markham, 2005 ; Thompson et al., 2020 ).

For example, there are different schools of thought about what is public and what is private in the digital sphere (West, 2017 ). Some researchers posit that messages posted in blogs, chat rooms and any other accessible online forums should be treated as in the public domain and thus do not require informed consent to access. Others argue that just because information is accessible online does not mean participants do not consider it as private or available only to a restricted audience, and therefore informed consent should be required. The concept of contextual integrity (Nissenbaum, 2004 ) helps here. Briefly, contextual integrity assumes that privacy is related to, and modulated by, the flow of information based on norms that are context-dependant. What context is remains fuzzy, but contextual integrity is based on the notion that individual platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, a workplace) constitute cultural spaces with different practices around privacy and anonymity (Ozkula, 2020 ).

Second, online practices bring privacy risks (Buglass et al., 2017 ; Politou et al., 2018 ). Incidences of “zoom bombings” (e.g., Ling et al., 2021 ) where people find their way into digital spaces that were intended to be private, including classrooms and PhD defences, are a significant challenge. The increasing sophistication of web search engines mean that quotes that might appear in ethnographic texts can be traced back to the original postings in the public forums, increasing the potential of identification. Researchers may need to paraphrase the participants’ quotations, paying careful attention to changing details of the data, and the social media platform, to assure confidentiality and privacy (e.g., Thompson et al., 2020 ).

On the other hand, digital communication increases the potential to access, recruit, and engage individuals in one’s research (Caliandro, 2018 ). Where engagement is purely digital, there are no geographic or social barriers to participation—so hard-to-reach groups may be more accessible (e.g., Morison et al., 2015 ). Participants may also be more likely to allow a researcher access to sensitive topics where they are already engaging in these discussions online (e.g., the content of a trauma support forum’s online discussion) rather than recalling difficult experiences in a traditional interview. Moreover, social media, messaging apps, and digital tools allow researchers to engage informants/participants in the research process and allow for collaborative ethnography to emerge more easily (Collins & Durington, 2014 ). Finally, when a data collection period is over, people may keep in touch, providing the researcher with updates via, for example, WhatsApp. These updates can enable follow-up and longitudinal data collection that might not have been possible using more traditional ethnography methods. For example, Robards and Lincoln ( 2017 ) in a study of Facebook timelines, or traces, remained friends with their informants after the main data collection period. This allowed them to go back into profiles, revisit particular posts, and clarify events during data analysis.

We also direct readers to Christensen, Larsen and Wind’s ( 2018 ) comprehensive guide to the literature on ethical challenges when working with different types of digital data (e.g., social media, online communities, Twitter).

The practices of digital ethnography

The similarities and differences between analogue and digital ethnography are summarised in Table ​ Table1. 1 . (Those wishing a deeper dive into the basic tenets of ethnography will find these references helpful [Reeves et al., 2013 ; MacLeod, 2016 ; Bressers et al., 2020 ]). We discuss the field site and the role of the researcher in more detail here.

Similarities and differences between traditional and digital ethnography

The field site

The concepts of space and a field site are reconceptualised in digital ethnography. The field site is not a single, discrete geographical place but is a “stage on which the social processes under study take place” (Burrell, 2009 ). This stage may be digital, or it may be part of broader configurations, straddling digital and face-to-face interactions (see Box ​ Box2). 2 ). Examining the entanglement of online and “offline” interactions by “following the thing” (Marcus, 1995 ) allows fieldworkers to shed new light on the nuanced ways that people engage with different media, how people combine different modes of communication, and the potentially conflicting information that each may yield.

Communication may be digital or may combine digital and face-to-face interactions

As always in ethnography, digital ethnographers must determine how to apply boundaries in virtual and other spaces in which they will do their work, but these boundaries are not determined by a physical space. Researchers may decide in advance only to engage with certain content and/or groups, limit their sample size or research question, and provide practical and theoretical reasons for such decisions (Hine, 2015 ; Markham, 2005 ). They may also decide to apply boundaries by focusing only on a particular digital platform (see earlier).

The role of the researcher

Like “traditional” fieldwork, digital ethnographic methods draw on the researcher’s experience as an observer to gain understanding of (digital) culture and communicate the meaning system and practices of its members (Kozinets, 2010 ). In digital ethnography participation can vary from being identified as a researcher and actively engaging with the participant(s) to covert presence—that is, remaining invisible to the people whose activities are being observed (e.g., Barbosa & Milan, 2019 ). This lack of visibility—impossible in traditional embodied ethnography where the research is present in space and time—may be an artifact of the challenges of maintaining presence in digital spaces. What we mean by this is that the researcher may disclose their presence, inform participants about the research, and consistently and overtly interact with informants (Murthy, 2008 ). However, the speed and volume of online activity can mean the researcher fades into the background—participants are often only aware of the people with whom they are directly and actively interacting. On the other hand, “invisibility” may be a conscious decision on the part of the digital ethnographer. This raises the notion of ‘lurking’ (Hine, 2000 )—mining for data without interaction, or acting as a participant without researcher transparency. Views on the legitimacy of lurking as a digital ethnographic endeavour vary, from the positive (an opportunity to collect data on unfiltered behaviour), to the wary (can lurking be regarded as ethnographic observation given it is not participatory?) (Varis, 2016 ), to caution that purely observing interaction increases the risk of misunderstanding the observed (Gold, 1958 ; Hines, 2000 ), to considering this unethical research behaviour (e.g., (Doring, 2002 ). There are also nuances to consider. For example, is it acceptable for a researcher to use covert approaches for a brief period during the planning and early stages of a project, to orient themselves with the digital presence of communities, forms of practice, language, and so on (Hine, 2008 )? We cannot offer definitive guidance but raise these issues for consideration.

Researchers need to consider what they bring to the field, and to analysis, in terms of formal, reflexive practices including their personal and social assumptions but also their digital and media persona, and how these may shape the relationship between researcher and participants (Gershon, 2010 ; Tagg et al., 2017 ; see also Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992 ). Hine ( 2000 ) cautions that even the screen name one chooses is an important consideration because it might affect participant engagement. It is also important for researchers to consider their own digital footprint (i.e.,—what information is findable with a Google search), as this may lead to stereotypisation of the researcher, initial distrust or suspicion (Numerato, 2016 ).

Applications and opportunities

Given the pervasiveness of digital technologies in the design, delivery and experiences of health professions education, it follows logically that attuning to the digital as an artefact of, and a substrate for, culture will open up new research inquiries and extend knowledge in the field. To illustrate this, we provide two in-depth examples of possible research questions and potential strategies for using digital ethnography to answer those questions. One example looks at how to conduct an ethnography of a digital space and draws on sociomaterial theory. The second example looks at using digital tools in the conduct of an ethnographic study and draws on a theory of social interaction which has been used previously in both traditional and digital ethnographic studies (Kerrigan & Hart, 2016 ; Leigh et al., 2021 ) (Boxes ​ (Boxes3 3 and ​ and4 4 ).

Ethnography of a digital space

Using digital tools to conduct an ethnographic study

These examples are illustrative. Those wishing to find out more about different approaches to digital ethnography may wish to delve into the empirical references identified in our search and reported in Box ​ Box2 2 (Chretien et al., 2015 ; Henninger, 2020 ; Macleod & Fournier, 2017 ; Meeuwissen et al., 2021 ; Pérez-Escoda et al., 2020; Wieringa et al., 2018 ). We also suggest some outstanding research questions and topics which could be explored using various different digital ethnographic practices in Table ​ Table2. 2 . These suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Rather they reflect our own interests and observations and should be regarded as a springboard to help readers consider diverse ways in which digital ethnography may add knowledge and richness in our field. They also illustrate how the many different approaches encompassed within the broad heading of digital ethnography allow researchers to tailor a methodology according to the research problem.

A typology of some mainstream digital ethnographic approaches and their actual or potential application to HPER

Digital ethnography has much to offer in untangling the social and material complexities of health professions education. Bringing the digital into ethnography opens up new research vistas, and allows us to identify and answer questions which are emerge as our practices and interactions become increasingly digitalized. As Hallett and Barber ( 2014 ) state, ‘it is no longer imaginable to conduct ethnography without considering online spaces’ (p.307).


Our thanks to the anonymous reviewers and Editors whose comments on earlier drafts much improved the focus of the paper.

Authors’ contributions

JC had the original idea for this paper. Both authors contributed equally to the development of the content and revising the paper.

This work was unfunded.


Ethical permission was not required for this paper, which is a synopsis of publicly-available literature.

The authors declare no competing interests.

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Researchers wrestle with accuracy of AI technology used to create new drug candidates

Artificial intelligence (AI) has numerous applications in healthcare, from analyzing medical imaging to optimizing the execution of clinical trials, and even facilitating drug discovery.

AlphaFold2, an artificial intelligence system that predicts protein structures, has made it possible for scientists to identify and conjure an almost infinite number of drug candidates for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders. However recent studies have sown doubt about the accuracy of AlphaFold2 in modeling ligand binding sites, the areas on proteins where drugs attach and begin signaling inside cells to cause a therapeutic effect, as well as possible side effects.

In a new paper, Bryan Roth, MD, PhD, the Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and director of the NIMH Psychoactive Drug Screening Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and colleagues at UCSF, Stanford and Harvard determined that AlphaFold2 can yield accurate results for ligand binding structures, even when the technology has nothing to go off of. Their results were published in Science .

"Our results suggest that AF2 structures can be useful for drug discovery," said Roth, senior author who holds a joint appointment at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. "With a nearly infinite number of possibilities to create drugs that hit their intended target to treat a disease, this sort of AI tool can be invaluable."

AlphaFold2 and Prospective Modeling

Much like weather forecasting or stock market prediction, AlphaFold2 works by pulling from a massive database of known proteins to create models of protein structures. Then, it can simulate how different molecular compounds (like drug candidates) fit into the protein's binding sites and produce wanted effects. Researchers can use the resulting combinations to better understand protein interactions and create new drug candidates.

To determine the accuracy of AlphaFold2, researchers had to compare the results of a retrospective study against that of a prospective study. A retrospective study involves researchers feeding the prediction software compounds they already know bind to the receptor. Whereas, a prospective study requires researchers to use the technology as a fresh slate, and then feed the AI platform information about compounds that may or may not interact with the receptor.

Researchers used two proteins, sigma-2 and 5-HT2A, for the study. These proteins, which belong to two different protein families, are important in cell communication and have been implicated in neuropsychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. The 5-HT2A serotonin receptor is also the main target for psychedelic drugs which show promise for treating a large number of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Roth and colleagues selected these proteins because AlphaFold2 had no prior information about sigma-2 and 5-HT2A or the compounds that might bind to them. Essentially, the technology was given two proteins for which it wasn't trained on -- essentially giving the researchers a "blank slate."

First, researchers fed the AlphaFold system the protein structures for sigma-2 and 5-HT2A, creating a prediction model. Researchers then accessed physical models of the two proteins that were produced using complex microscopy and x-ray crystallography techniques. With a press of a button, as many as 1.6 billion potential drugs were targeted to the experimental models and AlphaFold2 models. Interestingly, every model had a different drug candidate outcome.

Successful Hit Rates

Despite the models having differing results, they show great promise for drug discovery. Researchers determined that the proportion of compounds that actually altered protein activity for each of the models were around 50% and 20% for the sigma-2 receptor and 5-HT2A receptors, respectively. A result greater than 5% is exceptional.

Out of the hundreds of millions of potential combinations, 54% of the drug-protein interactions using the sigma-2 AlphaFold2 protein models were successfully activated through a bound drug candidate. The experimental model for sigma-2 produced similar results with a success rate of 51%.

"This work would be impossible without collaborations among several leading experts at UCSF, Stanford, Harvard, and UNC-Chapel Hill," Roth said. "Going forward we will test whether these results might be applicable to other therapeutic targets and target classes."

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Diseases and Conditions
  • Computer Modeling
  • Mathematical Modeling
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Math Puzzles
  • Bioinformatics
  • Computer simulation
  • Soy protein
  • Drug discovery
  • Protein structure
  • Protein microarray
  • Scientific method
  • COX-2 inhibitor

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of North Carolina Health Care . Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Jiankun Lyu, Nicholas Kapolka, Ryan Gumpper, Assaf Alon, Liang Wang, Manish K. Jain, Ximena Barros-Álvarez, Kensuke Sakamoto, Yoojoong Kim, Jeffrey DiBerto, Kuglae Kim, Isabella S. Glenn, Tia A. Tummino, Sijie Huang, John J. Irwin, Olga O. Tarkhanova, Yurii Moroz, Georgios Skiniotis, Andrew C. Kruse, Brian K. Shoichet, Bryan L. Roth. AlphaFold2 structures guide prospective ligand discovery . Science , 2024; DOI: 10.1126/science.adn6354

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  • Outbreak Investigations
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  • Help CDC Solve Foodborne Outbreaks
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Summary of Possible Multistate Enteric (Intestinal) Disease Outbreaks in 2016

At a glance.

This is the annual summary of CDC's investigations of possible multistate outbreaks caused by Salmonella , Shiga toxin-producing E. coli , and Listeria monocytogenes in 2016.

Read the MMWR or PDF report to learn about:

  • Our investigation process
  • Results of our investigations, including who became sick and the foods and animals that were identified as sources of outbreaks
  • Our public health communication efforts and reach

Going forward, we will post summaries of multistate outbreak investigations linked to food or animal contact on this page as they become available.

  • In 2016, CDC investigated 118 possible multistate outbreaks, of which 50 were determined to be outbreaks. Of these, outbreak investigators identified a suspected source for 11 outbreaks and confirmed a source for 28 outbreaks.
  • Multistate outbreaks linked to animal contact (1,077 illnesses) caused more known illnesses than multistate outbreaks linked to contaminated food (656 illnesses).
  • Among multistate foodborne outbreaks, chicken was the source of the most illnesses while sprouts were the most frequent source of outbreaks. Among animal contact outbreaks, backyard poultry was the source of most illnesses and outbreaks.
  • CDC notified the public about 11 multistate foodborne outbreaks and 9 multistate animal contact outbreaks. Outbreaks linked to new food sources drew the most attention on CDC's website and social media: E. coli in flour , Listeria in frozen vegetables , and Listeria in packaged salad .
  • Though challenging and resource intensive, multistate outbreak investigations are frequently needed and critical in identifying outbreak sources and gaps in the food safety system.

Read the MMWR and see this report to learn more.

Notable 2016 outbreaks

E.coli o121/o26 in flour.


Why was the outbreak important?

This was the first time an E. coli outbreak was definitively linked to flour. Although investigators suspected that contaminated flour was the source of a 2009 outbreak linked to cookie dough and a 2016 outbreak linked to pizza dough, they did not have enough evidence to confirm it.

What happened as a result of this outbreak?

This outbreak helped raise awareness that raw dough, raw batter, and other foods made with raw flour should not be eaten before cooking – even if just tasting. Flour producers are researching ways to reduce risk of contamination.

Listeria in frozen vegetables

frozen vegetables

This was the first time a Listeria outbreak was linked to frozen produce. Frozen produce was not considered to be ready-to-eat, meaning that consumers are expected to cook them to kill any germs that might be present, including Listeria . However, many people do not know this.

A very large amount of food was recalled – 456 frozen fruit and vegetable products sold under 42 brand names and another 47 million pounds of meat and chicken products containing frozen produce. In addition, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded a study to learn more about how people handle and prepare frozen vegetables.

Listeria in packaged salad

packaged salad

This was the first Listeria outbreak linked to packaged salads, which have typically been linked to other foodborne pathogens, such as E. coli and Salmonella .

The packaged salad producer recalled all products made at the facility where the outbreak strain was identified. This recall cost the company $25.5 million, plus another $85 million in lost revenue. Industry and academic partners are funding research on preventing Listeria contamination in facilities that process leafy greens.

Salmonella in sprouts


Sprouts caused the most foodborne outbreaks and the second-highest number of outbreak-related illnesses in 2016. These outbreaks emphasized the importance of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory measures to improve sprout safety. FDA’s Produce Safety Rule took effect in January 2016 and requires sprout producers to treat seeds to reduce germs and test the water used to sprout seeds.

CDC is working to analyze data on outbreaks linked to sprouts and is evaluating what more can be done to prevent illnesses. FDA issued draft guidance to help sprout operations comply with the new regulations in 2017.

Salmonella and backyard poultry

backyard poultry

More illnesses were linked to contact with live poultry in 2016 than in any previous year. Poultry came from multiple hatcheries, suggesting opportunities for prevention within the backyard poultry industry.

CDC continued to strengthen partnerships with the backyard poultry industry to reduce Salmonella in poultry and to encourage sharing information with backyard flock owners on how to stay safe around their birds. Several businesses and hatcheries use CDC flyers on poultry shipping boxes and distribute them with every poultry purchase.

Salmonella and tiny turtles

Tiny turtle

The sale of tiny turtles (shells less than 4 inches in length) for pets was banned in the United States in the 1970s because they were linked to Salmonella illnesses. However, outbreaks linked to the reptiles continue. This outbreak highlighted the risk of small pet turtles spreading Salmonella and the need for reptile owners to take steps to stay safe around their pets.

CDC alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak and the risk of Salmonella infection from pet turtles exported from the United States to other countries. WHO posted a Disease Outbreak News notice to inform the international health community about the investigation, risks associated with small pet turtles, and the need for education.

What CDC is doing

Cdc's role in multistate enteric disease outbreak investigations.

CDC helps enable rapid and coordinated responses to multistate outbreaks and works closely with state and local health officials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)

CDC's multistate outbreak investigation process

CDC typically coordinates between 17 and 36 investigations of possible multistate foodborne and animal contact illness outbreaks each week. These outbreaks are usually detected by PulseNet , CDC's national laboratory network for detecting enteric (intestinal) disease outbreaks. PulseNet compares the DNA fingerprints of bacteria from sick people.

When multiple people get sick around the same time from bacteria with the same fingerprint, that indicates a possible outbreak. Local and state health officials interview sick people and share that information with CDC. A possible outbreak is determined to be an outbreak if public health officials find something in common linking the illnesses to each other, such as eating the same food, eating at the same restaurant, shopping at the same grocery store, or attending the same event.

CDC's enteric disease surveillance and reports

CDC uses several surveillance systems to track and monitor reports of enteric diseases in the United States. These systems help us detect and prevent disease and outbreaks.

CDC's public communication process

CDC follows a consistent process for communicating with the public about ongoing multistate enteric disease outbreaks.

For foodborne outbreaks, CDC is most likely to warn the public when the investigation identifies a specific food linked to illness, and there is a continuing risk to the public because the food is still in stores, restaurants, or homes. CDC announces the outbreak using either a Food Safety Alert (the food has been identified) or an Investigation Notice (specific food information not available) to tell people what they can do to protect their health.

For outbreaks linked to animal contact, CDC is most likely to warn the public when the investigation identifies a specific animal. CDC announces the outbreak using an Investigation Notice to provide advice to pet owners, retailers, and breeders on steps they can take to prevent getting sick around the animals.

Foodborne outbreaks

Learn how CDC works with partners to investigate, respond to, and prevent foodborne outbreaks.

For Everyone

Public health.


  1. Ethnographic research

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  2. 'ethnographic research' on SlideShare

    possible research topics for ethnography

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    possible research topics for ethnography


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  6. (PDF) History of ethnography: Straitening the records

    possible research topics for ethnography


  1. Practices of Ethnographic Research: Introduction to the Special Issue

    Methods and practices of ethnographic research are closely connected: practices inform methods, and methods inform practices. In a recent study on the history of qualitative research, Ploder (2018) found that methods are typically developed by researchers conducting pioneering studies that deal with an unknown phenomenon or field (a study of Andreas Franzmann 2016 points in a similar direction).

  2. » Top 101 Ethnographic Research Topics

    Arguable: Your research topic should be not only factual but also debatable. Your research should also use examples to back up your points. Focused: Your research topic should be narrow enough to answer it concisely and thoroughly. Top 100 ethnography research topics. The number of research topics for ethnography is unlimited.

  3. 255 Original Ethnographic Essay Topics & Ethnography Project Ideas

    255 Original Ethnographic Essay Topics & Ethnography Project Ideas for College Students. by OvernightEssay. Feb 1, 2024. 9 min. Ethnography is a qualitative study field that investigates socio-cultural relations in a specific human community. The research methods involve fieldwork and participant observation.

  4. Ethnography: A Comprehensive Guide for Qualitative Research

    Ethnography Uncovered: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding People and Cultures. Ethnography is a qualitative research method that focuses on the systematic study of people and cultures. It involves observing subjects in their natural environments to better understand their cultural phenomena, beliefs, social interactions, and behaviors within a specific community or group.

  5. 55 Ethnographic Essay Topics and Ideas

    Top Ethnographic Essay Topics: Exploring professional and ethical differences in gender indicators. Delving into Egyptian funeral rites and their cultural significance. The role and significance of traditional calendar rituals. Migration patterns and ethnocultural adaptation in the Jewish Autonomous Region in recent decades.

  6. 89 Ethnographic Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

    Ethnographic essays are an excellent way to show your understanding of the science and the relationships that form a particular development or situation. You have to display your knowledge of anthropology and how it influences a particular population group based on a variety of circumstances. We will write.

  7. Ethnography

    Focusing on ethnography as a research methodology, the chapter outlines several key attributes that distinguish it from other forms of participant observation-oriented research; provides a general overview of the central paradigms that ethnographers claim and/or move between; and spotlights three principal research methods that most ...

  8. Topic: How to do Anthropological Research

    Ethnographies are in-depth studies of cultural, organizational, national, ethnic or racial groups about their life, customs and relationship with the broader world (at the national or global level). They are useful for you because they give a more detailed look at groups than research articles can offer.

  9. What Is Ethnography?

    Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word "ethnography" also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards. Ethnography is a flexible research method that ...

  10. Ethnography

    Embracing the trope of ethnography as narrative, this chapter uses the mythic story of Bronislaw Malinowski's early career and fieldwork as a vehicle through which to explore key aspects of ethnography's history and development into a distinct form of qualitative research. The reputed "founding father" of the ethnographic approach ...

  11. Ethnographic Research

    Ethnographic research aims to reach a deep understanding of various socially-constructed topics, including: Rituals and other cultural practices in everyday life. Social interaction among people of different cultures. People's interactions with their natural environment.

  12. Practices of Ethnographic Research: Introduction to the Special Issue

    Ethnographic research is the product of multiple practices. It is an assem-blage of seeing and looking, hearing and listening, handling objects, describ-ing, interviewing, recording, reading, documenting, and working with data—transcribing, storing, transforming, sharing, labelling, coding, sequenc-ing, comparing, interpreting, visualizing ...

  13. Ethnography Essentials: Designing, Conducting, and Presenting Your Research

    A comprehensive and practical guide to ethnographic research, this book guides you through the process, starting with the fundamentals of choosing and proposing a topic and selecting a research design. ... 2 Choosing an Ethnographic Topic 19. Where to Look for Possible Topics 22. Ethnographic Topics: Studying Places, People, or Events 23. The ...

  14. Breaking Down Barriers

    Breaking Down Barriers - Using Ethnography to Build Cultural Understanding. March 2, 2023 by Claudine Cassar. Ethnography is a research method used to study human cultures and societies. At its core, ethnography is the study of human cultures and societies through observation and participation in their day-to-day activities.

  15. GALILEO@UGA Subject Guides: Qualitative Research: Ethnography

    Being Ethnographic is an essential introductory guidebook to the methods and applications of doing fieldwork in real-world settings. It discusses the future of ethnography, explores how we understand identity, and sets out the role of technology in a global, networked society. Driven by classic and anecdotal case studies, Being Ethnographic ...

  16. A scoping review of the use of ethnographic approaches in

    An additional possible contribution of ethnography to implementation is increased ... Notably, sociology and anthropology journals, where ethnographic research has traditionally been published, have word limits in the range of 9,000-15,000, rather than 2,000-4,000 that is typical of health journals, and do not dictate the article structure ...

  17. Ethnographic Research Topics: Writing Tips And Best Examples

    Easy Ethnography Topics for High School. A study of the incisor tooth. The best careers that people can settle on in 2023. A survey of the lifestyle of a teacher. A study of the health benefits of taking water daily. A look at the importance of the sun to children. How greetings are in Africa.

  18. Ethnographic research as an evolving method for supporting healthcare

    Ethnography is currently a popular research method in a wide range of healthcare topics, particularly in psychiatry, e.g. mental health, dementia and experiential concerns such as quality of life. Focused ethnography is a significant sub-group in healthcare, suggesting that messages about the importance of research timeliness have taken hold ...

  19. An overview of ethnography in healthcare and medical education research

    However, qualitative research can provide rich information otherwise not discovered through quantitative approaches. Ethnography is one qualitative approach that involves relative submersion into the setting to be studied, and is an appropriate methodology for a wide variety of research topics within healthcare and medical education.

  20. What Is Ethnography?

    The word 'ethnography' also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards. Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group's shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

  21. Ethnography

    Ethnographic studies can be about identifying inequalities. For example exploring racial and cultural aspects of how a cultural group functions and the rules that guide behaviours. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) One form of ethnography is an auto-ethnography which involves exploration of the self as the topic being explored.

  22. Ethics of Ethnography

    Generally speaking, the term "ethnography" is taken to refer to an exploratory form of social research in which the researcher visits one or more social settings relevant to the research topic; participates there in some role (even if only as a visitor or onlooker) for weeks, months, or years; observes and records what happens (using field notes but possibly also photos, audio- or video ...

  23. New research shows microevolution can be used to predict how evolution

    New research shows microevolution can be used to predict how evolution works on much longer timescales. by Nancy Bazilchuk, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

  24. Full article: Which Ethnography? Whose Ethnography? Medical

    Comparing ethnographic sensibilities. This article is informed by two threads: first, the results of a critical comparative review of health ethnographies, and secondly, autoethnographic conversations about the epistemological and methodological sensibilities we have encountered in medical anthropology research and in health science collaborations.

  25. An ecosystem of accepting life with chronic © The Author(s) 2024 pain

    ontological positions of our research team with regard to our research approach and topic, lie between a degree of relativism and critical realism37; typical positions for meta-ethnography.38,40 Taking this approach, enabled us to work with the epistemological tensions and imbalances in our field, particularly regarding differing perspectives and

  26. Graduate Profile: Hannah Eliason, MTS '24

    I also want to thank Dr. Healan Gaston for providing me with academic spaces to research more unconventional topics like the Salem Witch Trials, the Lavender Scare, and Trump's 2017 Muslim Ban. I would also like to thank Shaul Magid for supporting my research and vocational path in Holocaust and genocide public education and research.

  27. Disruption in the space-time continuum: why digital ethnography matters

    There is increasing interest in the use of ethnography as a qualitative research approach to explore, in depth, issues of culture in health professions education (HPE). Our specific focus in this article is incorporating the digital into ethnography. Digital technologies are pervasively and increasingly shaping the way we interact, behave ...

  28. Researchers wrestle with accuracy of AI technology used to create new

    Researchers used two proteins, sigma-2 and 5-HT2A, for the study. These proteins, which belong to two different protein families, are important in cell communication and have been implicated in ...

  29. Facts About TBI

    Populations TBIs may be missed in older adults. Older adults are more likely to be hospitalized and die from a TBI compared to all other age groups. 9 Still, TBIs may be missed or misdiagnosed in older adults because symptoms of TBI overlap with other medical conditions that are more common among older adults, such as dementia. Healthcare providers should check for signs and symptoms of TBI if ...

  30. Summary of Possible Multistate Enteric (Intestinal) Disease Outbreaks

    Highlights. In 2016, CDC investigated 118 possible multistate outbreaks, of which 50 were determined to be outbreaks. Of these, outbreak investigators identified a suspected source for 11 outbreaks and confirmed a source for 28 outbreaks.. Multistate outbreaks linked to animal contact (1,077 illnesses) caused more known illnesses than multistate outbreaks linked to contaminated food (656 ...