What is ethnography?

eth·nog·ra·phy n. the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.
The New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd Edition.
Pronunciation: \eth-ˈnä-grə-fē\
Function: noun
Etymology: French ethnographie, from ethno- + -graphie -graphy
Date: 1834

: the study and systematic recording of human cultures ; also : a descriptive work produced from such research

Merriam-Webster Online
Photo of book: Argonauts of the Western Pacific
[Ethnography has a] goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose sight. This goal is, briefly, to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. We have to study man, and we must study what concerns him most intimately, that is, the hold life has on him. In each culture, the values are slightly different; people aspire after different aims, follow different impulses, yearn after a different form of happiness. In each culture, we find different institutions in which man pursues his life-interest, different customs by which he satisfies his aspirations, different codes of law and morality which reward his virtues or punish his defections. To study the institutions, customs, and codes or to study the behaviour and mentality without the subjective desire of feeling by what these people live, of realising the substance of their happiness—is, in my opinion, to miss the greatest reward which we can hope to obtain from the study of man.
Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) by Bronislaw Malinowski.
Ethnography consists of the observation and analysis of human groups considered as individual entities (the groups are often selected, for practical and theoretical reasons unrelated to the nature of the research involved, from those societies that differ most from our own). Ethnography thus aims at recording as accurately as possible the perspective modes of life of various groups.
Structural Anthropology (1963), by Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Photo of book: Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology
The word 'ethnography' has a double meaning in anthropology: ethnography as product (ethnographic writings—the articles and books written by anthropologists), and ethnography as process (participant observation or fieldwork). The product depends upon the process, but not in any simple A>B relationship. In constructing ethnographies, anthropologists do more than merely 'write up' the fieldnotes they record as part of the process of doing fieldwork. If ethnographies can be seen as the building blocks and testing grounds of anthropological theory, ethnographies and the ethnographic process from which they derive are also shaped and moulded by theory.


As a written account, an ethnography focuses on a particular population, place and time with the deliberate goal of describing it to others.

“Ethnography” by Roger Sanjek in Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (2002), Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer (eds.).
A research method located in the practice of both sociologists and anthropologists, and which should be regarded as the product of a cocktail of methodologies that share the assumption that personal engagement with the subject is the key to understanding a particular culture or social setting. Participant observation is the most common component of this cocktail, but interviews, conversational and discourse analysis, documentary analysis, film and photography, life histories all have their place in the ethnographer's repertoire. Description resides at the core of ethnography, and however that description is constructed it is the intense meaning of social life from the everyday perspective of groups members that is sought.
"Ethnography" by Dick Hobbs in The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods (2006), Victor Jupp (ed.).
Photo of book: The Interpretation of Cultures
From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures that define the enterprise. What defines it is what kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, “thick description.”


What the ethnographer is in fact faced with—except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more automatized routines of data collection—is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle field work levels of his activity; interviewing informants, observing rituals, eliciting kin terms, tracing property lines, censusing households ... writing his journal. Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.

The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz (1973).