Ethnographic fieldwork is an in-depth localized research process aimed at the description and analysis of cultural systems. Both scientific and artistic in perspective and approach, ethnographic fieldwork is characteristic of the work of cultural anthropologists who seek explanation and/or interpretation of human behavior, practices, ideas, and values. Conducted in the naturalistic setting of everyday life, ethnographic fieldwork lasts from months to years as ethnographers immerse themselves in the social interaction and cultural scenes of a social group.
Ethnographic fieldwork involves either applied or basic research goals. For the latter, a researcher investigates a group, a previously unexplored topic, or one that has changed significantly, writing publications that describe, for example, the Nuer of the Sudan and their love for cattle, or the San of southern Africa and their traditional foraging subsistence pattern. In applied ethnographic fieldwork, researchers address problems and offer possible solutions to a limited set of issues. For example, if a team is hired to investigate the consequences of a flood, they may use available statistical data on land and households and survey research in addition to ethnographic fieldwork, and then make recommendations for policy decisions to a government agency.
Ethnographic fieldwork includes quantitative and qualitative data collection techniques based on participant observation and ethnographic interviews with key informants. Together, these form methodological checks and balances so that data gained through observation are checked as the researcher participates in the culture and conversations with informants proceed to greater intimacy. Similarly, interview data are evaluated and compared with those gained in participant observation and also are compared from informant to informant. Ethnographic fieldwork has been described as a series of stages, from the excitement and culture shock of the initial period through the development of rapport and reciprocity with informants to the final sadness of departure. Some cultural anthropologists continue ethnographic fieldwork on repeated visits over lengthy periods and establish long-term relationships with those they study.
In the 19th century, social (or cultural) anthropologists usually did not directly collect data in the field. They relied on the accounts of explorers, travelers, and missionaries, compiling them into comparative frameworks for “scientific” purposes. An exception to this pattern was Lewis Henry Morgan, who visited the Iroquois and collected information about kinship. The change to firsthand direct data collection by anthropologists in the field is generally attributed to Franz Boas for the Americanist tradition and Bronislaw Malinowski for the British. Even before emigrating to the United States, Boas fulfilled his dream of living among the Inuit and studying their understanding of landscape and geography. From his position at Columbia University, Boas trained many anthropologists to do ethnographic fieldwork as he did among the Kwakiutl. His initial emphasis was on “salvage” ethnography in order to preserve cultural traditions before they disappeared. On the other hand, Malinowski’s interest was in observing the society as it then worked, using the Trobrianders’ language in order to understand their point of view. By the second quarter of the 20th century, ethnographic fieldwork was the defining standard and practice for sociocultural anthropology.
- Fetterman, D. M. (1989). Ethnography step by step. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Lawless, R., Sutlive, V., & Zamora, M. (Eds.). (1983). Fieldwork: The human experience. New York: Gordon & Breach.
- Wolcott, H. (1995). The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.