An ethnographer, most typically a cultural anthropologist, sometimes a sociologist, or another type of social scientist, educator, or humanist, is a person who writes a description of a cultural group or situation using participant observation and informant interviews. The product of the research is the ethnography, or written account of that particular culture. Using all senses, but especially observational skills, the ethnographer spends weeks to months to years in the field collecting data, eventually compiling descriptions of events, people, and activities through what can be a lengthy writing process into publications for student, general, or scholarly audiences. Although they may use laptop computers, tape recorders, and cameras, ethnographers themselves are the primary research instruments in their work.
As part of the fieldwork process, ethnographers establish important relationships with the people they interview. The ethnographer/informant bond is crucial for successful collaborative work. Known as “building rapport,” the ethnographer seeks to establish trust and cooperation with individuals from the culture who are interested and knowledgeable about the research topic.
While qualitative and quantitative research methods are taught in many university courses today, ethnographers frequently still develop their own ways of taking and organizing the notes, which contain their field data. There are at least four kinds of notes maintained in the field. Brief or preliminary jottings are quick reminders of what is currently happening, which then can be used as the basis for a fuller account written up later. This full or complete daily account depends on the trained memory of the researcher as well as the preliminary notes. In addition, ethnographers keep a field diary or journal in which they reflect on personal and emotional experiences that may impact their research. Finally, many ethnographers develop interpretive notes, in which they attempt to synthesize and integrate patterns in behavior or ideas that have emerged from their data collection.
As ethnographic fieldwork developed in the first quarter of the 20th century, European ethnographers frequently conducted research in African or Asian colonies of their home countries, while Euro-American researchers visited American Indian reservations. However, social science research including ethnographic fieldwork increasingly attracted native participants in the latter half of the 20th century. Countries such as India have produced many eminent ethnographers. European and American ethnographers also frequently study their own societies today—whether these are unique subcultural studies, such as “tramp” culture or studies of “mainstream” culture, like waitress-customer interaction in bars. The feminist movement of the last quarter of the 20th century not only increased the number of women ethnographers but also produced a variety of ethnographies on women’s experiences cross-culturally, ranging from the lives of Bedouin women to Japanese geishas.
Ethnographers influenced by postmodernism and postcolonial criticism often include personal, political, and reflexive writing in their publications. Neutrality and objectivity are no longer the only positions considered legitimate by ethnographers. Balancing the goals of cultural description with political concern and self-awareness is the goal of many. Ethnographers today experiment with many forms of writing and struggle to represent the cultures they study sensitively as well as accurately.
- Golde, P. (1970). Women in the field. Chicago: Aldine.
- Rose, D. (1990). Living the ethnographic life (Qualitative Research Methods Series, 23). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Van Maanen, J. (1995). Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.